Joseph Hayyim Brenner

Published 22 Dec 2016

Although pre-modern Judaism idealized the “Land of Israel” and Jewish messianism promised restoration of the ancient homeland, over the centuries the trickle of Jews who actually immigrated to Palestine had no notion of a state-building project. Modern Jewish nationalism, in the form of Zionism (from the Hebrew Tziyon, a synonym for Jerusalem), emerged only in the last third of the nineteenth century, mainly among the Jewish masses of eastern Europe, for whom it was one of several responses to socioeconomic crisis and virulent anti-Semitism. The actual term ‘Zionism’ was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1891 to denote the political efforts to achieve this aim, (Noveck, 311) although the settlement of Jews in Palestine had begun earlier and was represented by the Hovevey Tzion (‘Lovers of Zion’).

Zion had been a synonym for Jerusalem from biblical times. In the Middle Ages, Judah Halevi wrote his ‘Songs of Zion’ in yearning for the resettlement of Jews in Palestine, of which Zion had become the supreme symbol. Theodor Herzl’s Zionism was thus only new in that the opportunity was seized of attempting the settlement of Jews by political means. The full Zionist story has been told in numerous books and pamphlets. This paper focuses on the life story of one of the most passionate proponent of a Hebrew identity, writer Joseph Hayyim Brenner, the author of numerous articles, plays and novels.

Modern Jewish nationalism, in the form of Zionism gave Hebrew literature fresh impetus, and Palestine became again the center of publication in Hebrew. Joseph H. Brenner describes in his works Jewish life in Eastern Europe and pioneer life in Palestine. Brenner’s First Novel, Ba-Horef (In the Winter) ends with a symbolic scene in which his autobiographical hero, Feierman, is put off a train because he has no ticket; he is left stranded beside a snow-covered road in the middle of nowhere. By other names Feierman (i.e., Brenner) is the protagonist of every one of his succeeding novels and his destiny is always the same: abortive beginnings, unrealized strivings, and bitterness against himself and the world. Only once did Brenner permit himself a more hopeful conclusion, in his first novel of Palestine, Mi-Kaan Umi-Kaan (From Here and There) contains a counter-hero, Aryeh Lapidot, who was drawn in the image of A. D. Gordon, the interpreter of Jewish nationalism who “symbolized the social idealism of the new Palestinian community.” (Noveck, 45)

Both his art and in personal life were tinted by the blackest colors of pessimism. His childhood and youth were conventional. He was born in the Ukraine in Novi Mlyny to a poor family and grew up in poverty. Brenner was educated in the usual orthodoxy, which included studies at a yeshiva. His early years were full of poverty and personal suffering. He grew to maturity in the 1890’s; during a particularly hopeless period in the life of Russia and Russian Jewry when officially sponsored pogroms in tsarist Russia were often. All thought of accommodation with the tsarist regime was ended by then; there were only three alternatives – to labor for a revolution, to migrate westward, or to turn Zionist and go to Palestine.

In this period millions of Jews sought to escape their plight by emigrating not to Palestine but to western Europe and the Americas, and above all to the United States. While most of those who did not emigrate westward clung to traditional ways, sought assimilation, or turned to socialism, which promised the eradication of anti-Semitism, the example of other European peoples’ turn toward nationalism and a mid-century Hebrew-language cultural revival paved the way for the emergence of a small “Love of Zion” movement, promoting emigration to Palestine and Jewish national-cultural revival there.

In turn, Brenner attempted each of the above mentioned solutions. Brenner was first attracted in his late teens by the Bund, the newly formed group of revolutionary socialists which was Jewish in membership but violently opposed to Jewish nationalism (it believed in a future world order in which the workers of all peoples would unite). He did illegal work for the party, but he drifted out of that movement after three years to reaffirm his specific Jewish loyalties through Zionism. In 1902-1903 Brenner served in the Russian army – he depicted this period of his life in a novella, Shanah Ahat (One Year) – and then escaped to London.

His experiences there made him no happier than those that had gone before. The new east European immigrants were then packed tight in its Whitechapel section, London’s “East Side,” living in indescribable misery and eking out an existence in sweatshops. Brenner himself made the barest of livings as a typesetter. His four years in London confirmed him in the certainty that emigration from Russia meant merely that Jews were exchanging new pain for the old. In the sight of the sweatshops, he became even more of a proletarian writer, a despiser of the bosses and the respectable bourgeoisie.

After a short period back in Eastern Europe, this time in Lemberg, Austrian Poland (today Lviv, Ukraine), Brenner took the final journey of his odyssey. In 1909 he went to Palestine. There Brenner was a leader in the circles of the then small labor and pioneer groups, taught during the war years in Tel Aviv’s first high school, and continued to edit and write. Brenner became one of the prominent literary voices of the Second Aliyah – a few hundred secular idealists, mostly Socialist Zionists from Russia, who came to the Land of Israel between 1904 and 1914 to till the soil, revive “Hebrew labor” and the Hebrew language, and became the founding generation of Israeli society. (Agnon, x)

His writings of that period were characterized by the deep pessimism and despair. His criticism particularly concerned Jewish life in the Diaspora. During the early period of the Third Aliyah (1919 – 1923) he enrolled the Gedud Ha’avodah (Labor Battalions) and worked in the Galilee in road construction. He also took part in organization of conference of the Histadrut (Labor Federation). ( Brenner was found murdered near Tel Aviv during the Arab riot against the Jews in May 1921.

When Brenner began to write in the 1890’s, Russian literature was under the influence of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Brenner certainly did not assimilate the metaphysics of the first or the historical vision of the second. What he did learn from these Russian masters was their uncompromising criticism of society, the attitude they shared, for different reasons, that convention is a sham. The other source of Brenner’s vision was in the writings of Mendele Moher Sefarim (Shalom Jacob Abramovitz). Mendele, the greatest of nineteenth-century novelists in both Hebrew and Yiddish, had made the disintegrating Russian ghetto his subject and had found it bad. (Chertok, 162-163, 169) Brenner, from a conscious proletarian perspective, repeated this social criticism with far greater passion.

In one of his works, a lengthy review essay entitled Haarahat Azmenu be-Sheloshet Ha-Krahim (The Estimate of Ourselves in Three Volumes) Brenner wrote about his hatred of the Jewish past, both its culture and its society, and his despairing hope that a new, sound, healthy Jew could be made to arise if he were to begin over again in Zion. As a member of Zionist movement Brenner still was trying to eradicate from the public consciousness the idea of Jewish being a “chosen people.” In his opinion such elements of Judaism prevented Israel’s acceptance by the world nations and he wrote:

I would, with the most delicious and fierce pleasure, erase from the Hebrew prayer book of our generation any mention of “You have chosen us from among the nations.” I would do it today: Scratch clean all those counterfeit nationalist verses, until no trace would remain. Because this empty national pride, this groundless Jewish preening, will not repair the breach, nor will the aphorisms of a counterfeit nationalism amount to anything.

Brenner was extremely pessimistic and very sad about the Jewish people, though he was sustained by the desperate hope for a Jewish nation which would be outstanding in its proletarian dignity; the very fire of his denunciations of the past implied that mere respectable dullness was not enough for the future. Brenner’s prose written in Palestine under the aegis of the Zionist enterprise was imbued with loneliness, despondency and alienation. The attitude of desperation – so characteristic of Y. H. Brenner – was the soil out of which grew the writer’s commitment to the pioneering effort in Palestine, a commitment that generates about it a new set of values: self-sacrifice, physical labor which were to motivate human action and set a new pace for Zionism.

Works Cited List

  • Agnon, S. Y. Only Yesterday. Transltr. Barbara Harshav. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2000
  • Chertok, Haim We Are All Close: Conversations with Israeli Writers. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989
  • Noveck, Simon. Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: Edited with Introductory Essays. Washington, DC: B’nai B’rith, Dept. of Adult Jewish Education, 1963
  • Jewish Virtual Library. Joseph Hayyim Brenner. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2006 from
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