Sunday 26 April 2015


YOSEF ḤAIM BRENNER (September 11, 1881-May 1, 1921)
            He was born in the tiny town of Novo-Mliny, Chernihiv region, to poor, simple, laboring parents.  He lived at his parents’ home until age ten.  He moved through a number of different yeshivas, though he spent a longer period of time in the town of Pochep, where he studied in the yeshiva of R. Heshl-Note Gnesin.  Together with the son of the head of the yeshiva, the subsequently well-known Hebrew storyteller Uri-Nisn Gnesin, he threw himself into the study of modern Hebrew literature.  Together they brought out a handwritten daily newspaper, entitled Hakol (The voice), and a monthly journal, Hapera (The flower), in which he published his first compositions.  From Pochep he moved to Bialystok and studied with his uncle to be a scribe of scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot.  In 1897 he settled in Homel (Hamel, Gomel), where he met Z. Y. Anokhi and Hillel Zeitlin.  For a short time, he worked as secretary for Mordekhai ben Hillel Hacohen.  Zeitlin had a great influence on him, as both men got along well.  In Homel, he grew close to the Bund and became editor (together with B. Kohen-Virgili) of its local organ, Der kamf (The struggle).  After a short period of time being settled in Bialystok, he moved to Warsaw, where he came to know Y. L. Peretz, Avrom Reyzen, and H. D. Nomberg.  He returned to Homel, where he gave Hebrew lessons and campaigned on behalf of Zionism and socialism.  In 1902 he once again moved to Bialystok, and there he worked with Avrom Reyzen in Avrom Kotik’s publishing house of Bildung (Education).  In 1903 he was called to military service, and he served for one year in Oryol.  When war broke out between Russia and Japan in 1904, he deserted from the army; he was caught and for a long time he was stuck in a number of different prisons, until a group of Bundists beat off the guards while they were conveying him from one prison to another.  Brenner then made his escape to London.  There he worked in the Poale-Tsiyon movement, wrote for the Jewish Chronicle articles about Hebrew literature, and while working as a typesetter in Y. Naroditski’s publishing house, he published the journal Hameorer (The awakening).  In 1908 he left London and came to Lemberg, visiting other cities in Galicia as well.  He published articles in Tageblat (Daily newspaper) in Lemberg and brought out the collection Revivim (Showers).
            In 1909 Brenner made aliya to Israel.  He settled, as a simple laborer, in the colony of Ḥadera.  From there he moved to Jerusalem where he became one of the editors of Hapoel hatsair (The young worker).  However, to realize his ideal of being a farmer, he settled in Ein Ganim.  There he became acquainted with Aharon-David Gordon, the founder of the idea of “religion of labor,” and later he immortalized him in his story Mikan umikan (From here and there).  From Ein Ganim he moved on to Yafo (Jaffa), where he was active in the association Ḥoveve Habima Haivrit (Fans of the Hebrew stage).  A storm arose against him when he published an article about Christianity.  He was suspected of helping the missionaries.  His published answer and the intercession on his behalf of well-known Hebrew writers put much of this suspicion to rest.  On the eve of WWI, Brenner married.  When the war broke out, he took Turkish citizenship.  For a short time he worked as a teacher at the Herzliya High school in Tel Aviv, though later he completely devoted himself to helping war refugees.  In 1920 when Palestine was under British occupation, he became a member of the Migdal camp of Gedud Haavoda (The Labor Legion), assisted the highway workers by editing their serial publication Hasolel (The paved road), and was one of the participants at the founding conference of the Histadrut Haovdim (Federation of Labor)—Hanukkah, 1920—in Haifa.
            Brenner began publishing in Hamelits (The advocate) and later in: Hashiloa (The shiloah), Haolam (The world), Hazman (The time), Luaḥ aḥiasef (Calendar of aḥiasef), Hatsofe (The spectator), Hapoel hatsair, and Haaḥdut (Unity), among others.  In Yiddish he published in: Di yidishe velt (The Jewish world) in London; Nayer veg (New path) in Vilna; Kunst un lebn (Art and life), Tsukunft (Future), and Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter) in New York; Yidisher arbeter (Jewish laborer), Haynt (Today), and Lemberger tageblat (Lemberg daily newspaper), among others.  He translated Herzl’s Das Neue Ghetto into Yiddish as Dos naye geto, a drama in four acts; Vladimir Zhabotinsky’s Far vos viln mir davke erets-yisroel (Why we want the Land of Israel), under the pen name Y. Mekhaber; and from Yiddish into Hebrew he translated a few scenes from Avrom Reyzen and Y. L. Peretz’s Vi heist (What’s it called).  He also produced in Yiddish a pamphlet entitled Avrom mapu, zayn lebn un literarishe tetikeyt (Avraham Mapu, his life and literary activities) (Lemberg: Asher Bukhbinder, 1908), 24 pp.  Among his Hebrew-language books: Meemek akhor (From a gloomy valley [Out of the Depths]) (Warsaw, 1900), 79 pp.; Baḥoref (In the winter) (1904); Meever legivulin (Beyond the limits) (London, 1907), 84 pp.; Lo klum (Nothing); Shekhol vekhishalon (Breakdown and bereavement) (New York, 1920), 282 pp.; Ben mayim lemayim (Between water and water) (Warsaw, 1910), 84 pp.; Mikan umikan (Warsaw, 1910), 192 pp.; Kol kitve y. ḥ brener (Collected writings of Y. . Brenner), eight volumes in numerous editions; Kovets sippurim (Collection of stories).  After his death, there appeared in print: Pirke keria mimikhtavin leyom hazikaron bemaalat 25 shana lemoto (Reading from the writings on the day of remembrance a full twenty-five years after the his death) and Igrot y. ḥ brener (Letters of Y. . Brenner), prepared for publication by Menaḥem Poznanski, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1940), 466 pp., vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1940), 185 pp. (Poznanski prepared a new edition of Brenner’s correspondence with the addition of new Hebrew and Yiddish letters).  In Yiddish: Arum a pinteke (Around the point), a novel translated from Hebrew by B. Slutski (Berlin, 1923), 204 pp.; Vinter (Winter), translated by D. Malkin (Warsaw, 1936), 278 pp.; Haketavim hayidiyim, di yidishe shriftn (The Yiddish writings), ed. Yitzḥak Bakon (Beersheba: Chair in Yiddish, Ben-Gurion University, 1985), 302 pp.  There were works in which Brenner figures as a hero, among them the drama by Arn Tsaytlin’s Brener.  He translated into Hebrew Tolstoy’s Khoziain i rabotnik (Landlord and worker) as Baal habayit ufoalo (Jaffa, 1919), 89 pp. and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as Haḥet veonsho, among others.  Aside from those mentioned above, Brenner used the following pseudonyms: Yiḥb”r, Ḥ. B. Tsalal, Yosef Ḥaver, Ben Shlomo, Bar-Yoḥai, Y. Ḥ. B., R. Ḥaim, B. Zeira, Y. M., and Yosef Shlomos.
            An immense personality, packed with contradictions—Brenner was the most tragic writer in our bilingual literature.  In 1921 when he returned to Jaffa, he was murdered by Arabs during the pogroms and buried in a joint grave with the pogrom victims at the old cemetery in Tel Aviv.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; D. Tidhar, in Entsiklopedyah lealutse hayishuv uvonav (Encyclopedia of the founders and builders of Israel) (Tel Aviv, 1947-1971), vol. 3m pp. 1117-20; Z. Zilbertsvayg, Teater-leksikon, vol. 1; Brener-bukh (Brenner volume), on his life and work, edited by Shloyme Gradzenski (New York, 1941), 376 pp.; Shmuel Niger, Shmuesn vegn bikher (Conversations about books) (New York, 1922), pp. 74-97; Y. Tsineman, Di geshikhte fun tsienizm (The history of Zionism), vol. 1 (Paris, 1947); Geshikhte fun der tsienistisher arbeter-bavegung in tsofn-amerike (History of the Zionist workers’ movement in North America), vols. 1 and 2, see index; Dr. Y. Tenenboym, Galitsye, mayn alte heym (Galicia, my old country) (Buenos Aires, 1952), see index; H. Tsaytlin, in Tsukunft (June, July, September, October 1938, and February 1940); Avrom Reyzen, Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), vols. 2 and 3 (Vilna, 1929-1935); A. Reyzen, in Tsukunft (June 1921); B. Rivkin, in Idisher kemfer (May 18, 1945); R. Shazar-Katsenelson, in Yisrael 14 (Tel Aviv).
Yekhezkil Keytelman

[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 540.]

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