REUVEN BRAININ (RUVN BREYNIN) (March 16, 1862-November 30, 1939)
He was born in Lyady, Mohilev (Mogilev) region. He was a journalist, critic, fiction writer, biographer, and translator. He was one of the founders of modern Hebrew literature, and he also wrote a great deal in Yiddish and edited Yiddish-language newspapers. His father Mortkhe was a poor, religious craftsman, an educated man with a rich imagination and an aptitude for inventivemess (Brainin portrays him in his novella Migibore yisrael (Among the heroes of Israel). He put Reuven in religious elementary school at age four, and at age five he was studying the Pentateuch; at age six, the Talmud. When he was fifteen, he became acquainted with a yeshiva student who had become infected with the Jewish Enlightenment, and he gave Brainin such works as More nevukhim (Guide of the perplexed) and Kuzari (Kuzari) to read. Brainin later got to know Tsvi-Hersh Rabinovitsh’s and Khayim Zelik Slonimski’s scholarly works and other texts of Enlightenment literature. He then set out to educate himself and thus learned Russian. In the town of his birth, Lyady, he opened a library for youth. Together with friends—the later writers Aleksandr-Ziskind Rabinovitsh, Yekhiel-Yoysef Levantin, and Khayim-Dov Hurvits and his brother (later to become well-known) Z. Livin—he founded a group of followers of the Enlightenment. Under the influence of Yitzḥak Ber Levinzon and Mapu’s Ayit tzavua (Hypocrite eagle), he wanted to become a farmer and at age seventeen he left for Horki to study agronomy in the school there. At that time he published in Hamelits (The advocate) his first article, a correspondence piece from Smolensk. In 1888 in the same journal, he published an article in which he regretted the difficult condition of talented, though poor, youngsters whose abilities go for naught. He offered a proof of his own. Because of the severe material restrictions he faced, he was unable to enroll in university. In that same year of 1888, he published in Hamelits a sketch entitled “Gesisat hasofer” (Agony of the author), in which he lyrically portrayed Peretz Smolenskin’s last minutes of life. With this piece Brainin’s literary career commenced. Yehuda-Lib Gordon, the actual editor of Hamelits, warmly received Brainin. With his “Hegiyonot sofer ivri” (Thoughts of a Hebrew writer) and other articles, he made a strong impression on the young. He became the speaker for a new direction in Hebrew literature. In Moscow, where he lived from 1887, he was active in the student Zionist association “Bnei tsiyon” (Children of Zion) and in the “Safa brura” (Clear language) movement. He supported himself by giving Hebrew “hours,” and for a certain amount of time he was secretary for Kalman Zev Visotski.
At the beginning of 1889, Aleksandr Tsederboym, editor of Hamelits, summoned Brainin to St. Petersburg to serve as an internal contributor to his publication. Late in 1892 he left Russia and settled in Vienna, where he attended lectures in the university and studied at the same time at Ayzik-Hirsch Weiss’s rabbinical seminary. In 1894 he began to publish a monthly journal called Mimizraḥ umimaarav (From the east and from the west)—in accordance with a broad literary scholarly program. He wanted Hebrew literature not to be absorbed solely in national issues but to embrace all spiritual interests. Only four issues appeared in print. He then moved to Berlin where he would live until 1911. All these years, he was a regular correspondent and contributor to Hebrew daily and weekly newspapers—Hamelits, Hatsfira (The siren), Hatsofe (The spectator), Hazman (The time), Haboker (This morning), Hador (The generation), Hamagid (The preacher), and Haolam (The world)—and in 1905 he wrote for Der fraynd (The friend), Der veg (The way), and Unzer lebn (Our life). He published hundreds of articles, feature pieces, trip impressions, sketches, biographies, critical treatises on literary trends in Hebrew and world literature, on writers, artists, and politicians; he was an intermediary between the Hebrew reader in Eastern Europe and spiritual, artistic, and political life in Western Europe. He spoke on behalf of the Hebrew renaissance with a European taste, he sharply criticized the older Hebrew writers, and he did not spare Y. L. Gordon or Dovid Frishman. He encouraged younger writers. His biography of Peretz Smolenskin (Warsaw: Tushiyah, 1896), written on the model of European biographies, made an especially strong impression. In 1900 the same publisher, Tushiyah, brought out his book on Avraham Mapu. Brainin also published Ḥaye hertsl (The life of Herzl) (New York: Asaf, 1919). Elements of biography can be found as well in many of his stories, in which he described student life in European universities and the life of a writer and scholar: for example, Ayzik-Hirsch Weiss and Meir Ish-Shalom Fridman, in “Mispar hazikhronot” (A number of memories), published in Mimizraḥ umimaarav. A few of his sketches and stories have folkloric value. Among his books: Migibore yisrael (Warsaw: Ben-Avigdor, 1892); and Ketavim nivḥarim (Selected writings) (New York: Asaf, 1917). In 1902 he edited the ten-year anniversary volume of Luaḥ aḥiasef and published therein a long article “Rayonot al davar yesod hasanhedrin” (Ideas concerning the basis of the Sanhedrin), emphasizing the necessity of reviving the Sanhedrin in a modern form.
During the decline of the Hebrew press in Russia over the years 1905-1906, Brainin became active as a Yiddish writer. He began writing in Yiddish in the early 1890s. In 1890 he published an article, “A Serious Word about Ḥoveve-tsiyon” in the anthology Dos heylige land (The holy land), published by Yisroel Goroditski and Berte Fleksner (Zhitomir, 1891). He also contributed to the third volume of Peretz’s Yudishe biblyotek (Yiddish library), to Gershom Bader’s Yudishe folks-kalendar (Jewish people’s calendar), and to Yud (Jew). His stance toward Yiddish was for a long time negative. He changed this opinion when he visited the United States in 1910, and he came into contact with the broad masses of the people. He then became acquainted with the Yiddish press and its impact on the Jewish life. In 1911 he settled in New York and began publishing a weekly newspaper, Hadror (Freedom) (fifteen issues). He then moved from New York to Montreal, Canada, where he edited Keneder odler (Canadian eagle) and was also active in the community, contributing to the founding of various institutions, among them the Jewish People’s Library, to which (according to his will) was given after his death his library and archive. In 1915 he published in Montreal Der veg (The way). Following the failure of this newspaper in 1916, he once again settled in New York where he was a regular contributor to Hatoren (The mast), Haivri (The Jew), Yidishes tageblat (Jewish daily newspaper), and Dos idishe folk (The Jewish people). In the early 1920s he began to write for Tog (Day) and also edited Hatoren which in 1921 he began to bring out monthly and continued publishing until 1925.
A Zionist dreamer and a campaigner for a national renaissance, for many years a member of the executive of the Zionist Organization in America, founder of the American “Histadrut ivrit” (Hebrew organization) and one of its first presidents—Brainin became in his old age, after a trip to Russia, of a leftist persuasion, and he enthusiastically agitated for Jewish colonization in Birobidzhan; he appeared on behalf of “IKOR” (Yidishe kolonizatsye organizatsye in rusland [Jewish colonization organization in Russia]) in various cities in the United States, and he made a trip to South Africa on its behalf. His intercession for Soviet Russia—ignoring its persecution of Zionists and the Hebrew language—brought about a storm of dissatisfaction among Zionist, Hebrew, and other Jewish circles. His old buddies washed their hands of him. Bialik called him to a public court in Berlin. Hebrew and Zionist newspapers contested and repudiated him. He was left forlorn. He was paralyzed the final years of his life. While sickness pursued him, he continued his literary work and prepared for publication a third volume of his Hebrew writings, which appeared thanks to a friend (his patron Yisrael Mets) after his death. Brainin died in New York and was buried in Montreal, Canada. During his life, efforts were made to publish his writings. In 1908 Ben-Avigdor issued a prospectus for an edition of all of his works in twenty volumes. Nothing came of this plan. On his sixtieth birthday, his admirers created a committee to publish “all the writings of Reuven ben Mordekhai Brainin, old and new.” One volume appeared in 1923 and a second in 1936, thanks to the same Yisrael Mets, who financed the publication of the third volume. Aside from these three volumes, from his works the following appeared: Migibore yisrael (Warsaw, 1892); Perets ben moshe smolenskin (Perets ben Moshe Smolenskin) (Warsaw, 1896); Smolenski vetoldotav (Smolenski and his history) (Vilna, 1901); Zikhronot (Memoirs), about Aleksandr Tsederboym (Cracow, 1899); Avraham mapu (Avraham Mapu), two parts (Piotrków, 1900); Ḥamisha hakongresim hatsiyonim (Five Zionist Congresses) (Berlin: M. Rivka’s, 1903); Ketavim nivḥarim (New York, 1917); Ḥaye hertsl (New York, 1919). He also translated: Herzl’s Das Neue Ghetto as Hageto heḥahash (Warsaw: Aḥiasef, 1896); Moritz Lazarus’s Der Prophet Jeremias as Yirmiya hanavi (Warsaw: Aḥiasef, 1897); and Max Nordau’s Paradoksen as Paradoksim (Piotrków: Tushiyah, 1900). He edited Smolenskin’s Meah mikhtavim (100 letters) (Vilna: Mordekhai Katsenelebogen, 1901); Snunit (Swallow), a poetry collection of young Hebrew poets in America (Jerusalem, 1911); and Zamlbukh lekoved ben-yehudas zekhtsikstn geboyrnyor (Anthology in honor of seventieth year of Ben-Yehuda’s birth) (New York: Histadrut ivrit beamerika, 1917). From his Yiddish writing, we have the following in book form: Gezamlte shriftn (Collected writings) (Warsaw: Hashakhar, 1909); and Fun mayn lebns-bukh (From my book of life) (New York: IKUF, 1946).
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 425-28; Micha Josef Ben Gorion (Berdyczewski), “Reuven ben mordekhai breynin,” Bisede sefer, part 2: Dor vesoferav (1920); E. R. Malachi, in Gilyonot 31: 8-10 (1953), pp. 139-50; Yankev Fikhman, in Hatekufa 12, pp. 483-86; R. Benyamin, in Moznaim 10.1, pp. 90-94; Avigdor Hameiri, in Moznaim 10.1, pp. 94-97; Bal-Makhshoves, in Naytsayt 3 (1908); Megilat zikaron (Remembrance scroll) (New York, 1922), a special issue of Hatoren commemorating his sixtieth birthday, edited by Nahum Slouschz, with appreciations from David Naymark, A. Goldberg, Naḥman Syrkin, B. Halper, P. Vyernik, Max Nordau, Nahum Sokolov, and Zvi Hirsh Maslianski.
E. R. Malachi