Brenner, Joseph Ḥayyim

views updated


BRENNER, JOSEPH ḤAYYIM (1881–1921), Hebrew writer. A disciple of the "psychology" approach to literature and a writer of the "uprooted" generation, Brenner became a key figure of the school in modern Hebrew literature; he focused and ruthlessly exposed the anxieties, self-probing, and despair of intellectual anti-heroes overwhelmed by life in a society that had lost meaning and direction. His fiction, bleak and fiercely honest, nourishes, however, a belief in artistic truth where faith in all else has failed. A contemporary and friend of G. *Schoffmann and U.N. *Gnessin, Brenner, like them, was also influenced by M.J. *Berdyczewski. In style, he considered himself a follower of Berdyczewski, and in social outlook, a disciple of Mendele Mokher Seforim. Like many Hebrew writers of the early decades of the 20th century, he was mainly influenced by Russian literature, specifically by writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevski (he frequently mentions the latter in his letters), and by such European writers as Nietzsche and Hauptmann. Brenner, a novelist, critic, philosopher, translator, editor, and publisher, wrote in Hebrew and in Yiddish. He exercised a powerful personal influence, often exceeding his impact as a writer and a critic, on his generation, and on the following one. His colleagues and friends saw in him "a secular saint caught in a world that was not worthy of him" (H. Zeitlin), and he became their moral, social, and artistic yardstick. Brenner's approach to literature demanded a close link between the creative process, the artistic work, and real life.

Born in Novi Mlini (Ukraine), he studied in yeshivot, including that at Pochep where he befriended U.N. Gnessin, the son of the principal of the yeshivah. From there he went to Gomel where he joined the *Bund and published his first story "Pat Leḥem" ("A Loaf of Bread") in Ha-Meliẓ (1900). His collection of short stories Me-Emek Akhor ("From the Valley of Trouble"), which was similar both in spirit and style to the "social" stories of the *Ḥibbat Zion period, was published in 1901. In "Ba-Ḥoref" ("In Winter," written in 1902 and published in Ha-Shilo'aḥ, Jan–Dec. 1903), a short novel, his independent literary personality emerges for the first time.

Brenner lived in Bialystok and Warsaw after 1900 and served in the Russian army from the end of 1901 to the beginning of 1904. At the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, with the help of some friends, he escaped to London, where he was active in the *Po'alei Zion movement. He worked in a printing shop and founded the periodical Ha-Me'orer (1906). In 1908, he moved to Lemberg where he was editor of the periodical Revivim (1908–09) and wrote a Yiddish monograph on the life of Abraham *Mapu. In 1909, he migrated to Ereẓ Israel where he worked in Ḥaderah and later moved to Jerusalem. During World War i, Brenner became an Ottoman citizen so that he would not have to leave the country. He moved to Jaffa in 1915 and taught Hebrew grammar and literature in the *Herzliah high school. When the Jews of Jaffa and Tel Aviv were driven out by the Turkish authorities he moved to Gan Shemu'el and Ḥaderah, returning to Jaffa after the British conquest of Ereẓ Israel. Brenner contributed to two important periodicals of the Second Aliyah: Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir and Ha-Aḥdut, and also to the weekly Kunteres. He continued publishing Revivim (1913–14), was the editor of the monthly Ha-Adamah (1920), and one of the founders of the *Histadrut (1920). In 1921, he returned to Jaffa from Galilee and was murdered in the Abu Kabbir district during the Arab riots on May 2, 1921.

Brenner's life and experiences are reflected in his work. In "Ba-Ḥoref," a young village boy goes to a yeshivah in a larger town, then to a big city where he becomes "enlightened" and participates in the life of the Jewish intelligentsia. These phases are reminiscent of Brenner's life at Pochep and Gomel. The story "Shanah Aḥat" ("One Year," Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 1908) reflects Brenner's own army service and the story "Min ha-Mear" ("Out of the Straits," Ha-Olam, 1908–09) and the play Me-Ever la-Gevulin ("Over the Borders," Ha-Me'orer, 1907) deal with the life of Jewish workers in London. "Aggav Orḥa" (Safrut, 1909) and "Aabbim" (Shallekhet, 1911) describe the Second Aliyah to Ereẓ Israel; "Bein Mayim le-Mayim" ("Between Water and Water," 1910) and "Mi-Kan u-mi-Kan" ("From Here and There," 1911) depict life in the Ereẓ Israel settlements. In this last work, the main hero is the editor of a Hebrew newspaper, as Brenner had been. Brenner was attacked because of the obvious similarity of his characters to actual people and situations; his critics found parallels between the periodical described in "Mi-Kan u-mi-Kan" and Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir and its editor Joseph *Aharonovitz. Shekhol ve-Khishalon (1920; "Bereavement and Failure," complete edition 1920; Breakdown and Bereavement, 1971) describes the transition of a pioneer, who did not succeed on the land, from an agricultural settlement to Jerusalem. His stories "Ha-Moẓa" ("The Solution") and "Avlah" ("Injustice," 1920) are set in Ereẓ Israel during World War i. "Me-Hatḥalah" ("From the Beginning," Ha-Tekufah, 1922) describes life in the Herzliah Hebrew high school. Brenner's writings are directly related to real events; a similar approach is also evident in his attitude to social problems. The societies which he describes are treated in a negative light, whether they be Russian Jewry at the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish workers in England, or Jewish Jerusalem that lived on *ḥalukkah. His fiction is always concerned with contemporary society and its immediate social problems. The atmosphere of strict authenticity, which is a principal characteristic of Brenner's fiction, is reinforced by the narrative "I" often found in his work. As a consequence, he developed four main literary techniques: (a) The autobiography, in which the narrator recounts his experiences after a lapse of time ("Ba-Ḥoref"); (b) The "fragmentary" documentary technique, in which the narrator fragmentarily relates a recent event, without observing chronological sequence ("Min ha-Meẓar," "Mi-Kan u-mi-Kan"); here the effect of verisimilitude and authenticity is stressed by the use of a narrator editor; (c) "Edited memoirs." The editor transfers memoirs written in the first person into the third person and acts as a sort of mediator between the authentic document (in the first person) and the fictitious work (in the third person; Shekhol ve-Khishalon); (d) The narrator is a reliable witness to the events, but is not the main character, e.g., the testimony of the narrator who hears the account of Ḥanina Mintz in "Shanah Aḥat" or the narrator who recounts the story of the hero in "Aẓabbim" as told to him by the latter.

The two novels Mi-Saviv la-Nekuddah and Bein Mayim le-Mayim, though written in the style of the "omniscient narrator," have an intimate, personal, and confessional tone. The narratives give the impression of being rooted in personal experiences. The authentic technique answers Brenner's demand for "engagé writing." His characters indulge in confessions and in the exposure of their psyche, revealing their unmediated relation to their fate. Brenner's writings are mostly tales of wandering, in which his characters constantly change their abode, deluding themselves that their destiny will also change. The wanderings are in random directions: from town to city ("Ba-Ḥoref" and Mi-Saviv la-Nekuddah); from Eastern to Western Europe ("Min ha-Meẓar"); from the *Diaspora to Ereẓ Israel ("Aggav Orḥa," "Aẓabbim," "Mi-Kan u-mi-Kan"); and finally in Ereẓ Israel itself, from the village to Jerusalem (Shekhol ve-Khishalon). The hero learns that the change of domicile does not necessarily mean a change of life. He comes to understand that external circumstances are less important than internal factors.

Brenner's protagonists are "anti-heroes" who openly profess their "anti-heroism" ("Ba-Ḥoref"); some constantly search for a meaning in life, for their identity, and hope to attain these through change (these are roving characters like Feierman, Abrahamson, Mintz, and Oved-Eẓot); others are in despair from the very outset and helplessly submit to their fate (Davidovsky, Menuḥin, and Ḥanokh Hefeẓ). The satirical antagonist is the self-satisfied hero who succeeds in his social life and in his sex life (Bursif, Hamilin, and others), in contrast to the protagonists who are failures and forever outsiders.

Brenner in his endeavor to capture reality used in his fiction the "spoken language" (Hebrew) which at the time hardly existed. He improvised by adapting Yiddish, Russian, and German words and phrases; used Yiddish idioms in Hebrew translation, and created local idioms by introducing words from the language where the story is set (Anglicisms in Me-Ever la-Gevulin, and Arabisms in "Aẓẓabim"). He thus broadened the scope of Hebrew. His syntax is also dramatic, close to the spoken word, using parentheses, repetitions, incomplete sentences, and emotive punctuation, e.g., dots, exclamation marks, and hyphens to give the effect of live speech. His language sometimes becomes pathetic through the use of all types of rhetoric repetition. Poetic images come only at climactic points in the narrative where they tend to epitomize the entire work.

In his many articles and essays, he took issue with the views of *Aḥad Ha-Am. The basic point of contention between them was the interpretation of the galut (diaspora) concept which to Brenner was a life based on idleness as opposed to a life based on work. He felt that the Jew in the Diaspora was idle and that his salvation was in labor. Productive work for the Jewish people was a question of life. Judaism was not an ideology but an experience of individuals which could only become a collective experience through a change in the social and economic pattern. As a critic, Brenner wrote about major writers of modern Hebrew literature, including Peretz *Smolenskin (1910), J.L. *Gordon (1913), M.J. *Berdyczewski (1913), *Mendele Mokher Seforim (1907 and 1914), Ḥ.N. *Bialik (1916), S. *Tchernichowsky (1912–13), I.L. *Peretz (1915), U.N. Gnessin (1913), *Shalom Aleichem (1916), and others. He also published criticism on Hebrew literature in general: Ha-Genre ha-Ereẓ Yisre'eli va-Avizeraihu ("The Genre of Ereẓ Israel and Its Paraphernalia," 1911), Bavu'atam shel Olei Ẓiyyon ba-Sifrut ("The Image of the Immigrant in our Literature," 1913–19), and wrote about contemporary Hebrew writers, European writers whose works were translated into Hebrew, and on Yiddish Literature. In his literary critiques, Brenner insists on "engagé writing" as opposed to art for art's sake. He nevertheless rejected ideological tendentiousness whether it was socialist or Zionist and advocated the kind of literature that educates by revealing truth. He therefore examined the creative writer on his sincerity and on his ability to harmonize experience and expression. He opposed florid phraseology and verbiage, and also the attempts of the writers in Ereẓ Israel to glorify their actual situation.

Brenner translated into Hebrew: G. Hauptmann's Die Weber (1910), Michael Kramer (1911), Einsame Menschen (1912), Fuhrmann Henschel (1913); Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment (1924); Tolstoy's The Landlord and his Work (1919); A. Ruppin's The Jews in Modern Times (1914); and Trumpeldor's diary. He also wrote and translated into Yiddish. In his translations as in his original writings, Brenner used a simple style, avoiding the "elevated" manner of Mendele and Bialik. Contemporary critics received Brenner the writer with mixed feelings. Some condemned his style and his failure to establish aesthetic distance between the author and the aesthetic object (J. Klausner, Lubetzki). Others praised his courageous sincerity and his impact upon society, despite his artistic shortcomings (S. Zemach). Bialik found him to be an important author who wrote rather carelessly, while Berdyczewski stressed the great sincerity of his writings which compensated for his shortcomings as a novelist. Critics of a later generation (D. Sadan) emphasized his complex inner world and his heroes' attitudes to life; others tried to interpret Brenner from a purely sociological point of view. Modern Israel critics tend to refer back to Brenner, some stressing the existentialist aspects of his works (M. Meged, N. Zach), while others praise the structural and stylistic aspects (D. Miron, N. Zach, G. Shaked), pointing out the simplicity, directness, and authenticity of the style. Brenner became the prototype for many young writers who tried to break away from the patriotic literature written in the wake of Israel's War of Independence. Through his writings they found a link with European existentialist literature. A comprehensive study, "The Literary Creation of Joseph Ḥayyim Brenner" (Hebr., 1972), has been published by A. Cohen.

A list of Brenner's works in English translation appears in Goell, Bibliography, 64–87. Excerpts from Breakdown and Bereavement are available in E. Ben Ezer (ed.), Sleepwalkers and Other Stories: The Arab in Hebrew Fiction (1999); "Nerves" is included in A. Lelchuk and G. Shaked (eds.), Eight Great Short Hebrew Novels (1983).


1923 Kitvei Y.Ḥ. Brenner, 3 vols. (1955, 1960, 1967); J. Yaari-Poleskin, Me-Ḥayyei Yosef-Ḥayyim Brenner (1922), bibliography 177–200; A.D. Friedman, Y. Ḥ. Brenner: Ishiyyuto vi-Yẓirato (1923); I. Lubetzki, in: Haolam, 8 (1908), 118; J. Klausner, in: Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 7 (1901), 171–5; H. Zeitlin, in: Ha-Tekufah (1922), 14–15, 617–45; J. Rabinowitz, in: Hedim, 2 (1923) no. 10, 51–56; Y. Kaufmann, Golah ve-Nekhar (1930), 405–17; F. Lachower, Rishonim ve-Aḥaronim, 2 (1935), 106–32; J. Fichmann, Benei Dor (1951), 9–121; D. Sadan, Bein Din le-Ḥeshbon (1963), 137–54; B. Kurzweil, Bein Ḥazon le-Vein ha-Absurdi (1966), 261–91; D. Meron, in: Gazit, 19 (1961–62) no. 9–12, p. 50–54; N. Zach, in: Ammot, 1 (1962), 40–46; G. Shaked, in: Moznayim, 13, nos. 3–4 (1961), 242–6; Shunami, Bibl., 3311–3313; Waxman, Literature 4 (19602), 92–105. add. bibliography: Y. Lichtenbaum, Y.H. Brenner: Ḥayyav vi-Yeẓirato (1967); G. Ramrasz-Rauch, Ḥipus ve-Kiyumiyut bi-Yeẓirat Brenner (1975); G. Shaked, Ha-Sipport ha-Ivrit, 1 (1977), 365–84; J. Fleck, Character and Context: Studies in the Fiction of Abramovitch, Brenner and Agnon (1984); Y. Bakon, Brenner ve-Gnessin ke-Soferim du Leshoniyim (1986); M. Brinker, Yeḥudiyuto shel Brenner (1986); Y. Bakon, Brenner be-London: Tekufat "Hame'orer" (1989); Y. Kafkafi, Al Y.H. Brenner: Od Zikhronot (1991); N. Govrin, Oved Eẓot u-Moreh Derekh (1991); B. Arpali, Ha-Ikkar ha-Shelishi: Ideologiyah u-Poetikah be-"Mikan u-Mikan" u-ve-"Aẓabim" (1992); H. Be'er, Gam Ahavatam, Gam Sinatam: Bialik, Brenner, Agnon (1992); S. Schneider, Olam ha-Masoret ha-Yehudit be-Kitvei Brenner (1994); D. Sadan, Midrash Psikhoanaliti: Perakim ba-Psikhologiyah shel Y.H. Brenner (1996); H. Bar-Yosef, Ma'agalim shel Dekadans: Bialik, Berdyczewski, Brenner (1997); E. Ben Ezer, Brenner ve-ha-Aravim (2001). website:

[Gershon Shaked]

About this article

Brenner, Joseph Ḥayyim

Updated About content Print Article