The Case of Y.h. Brenner

Depressive but prolific, a writer of Hebrew who loved Yiddish, and a Zionist who criticized Zionism - Yosef Haim Brenner became a symbol even before his murder. In her new biography, historian Anita Shapira tries to unravel the mysteries of a 'holy fool' with an enormous soul.

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

The door opened, without a knock on it first, and a man entered. Without uttering a sound, he prostrated himself on the floor, flogged his body, got up and left in a hurry.

"Brenner?" asked my wife incredulously.

"Brenner!" I said.

- From "Brenner belondon" ("Brenner in London"; Hakibutz Hameuchad) by Asher Beylin

This anecdote, which shines a disturbing light on the writer who, after his 1921 murder, became a much-admired symbol shrouded in mystery, opens the new biography by Anita Shapira, "Brenner: Sippur hayim" ("Yosef Haim Brenner: A Biography"; Am Oved). Throughout the book, Prof. Shapira, head of Tel Aviv University's Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel, chips away at the halo over Brenner's head as she tells the tales of his life, his loves and his hates - all the while cognizant that she will not be able to totally sweep away the mystic aura that surrounded him in death and in life.

This is the third biography that Shapira has written. After producing two thick volumes chronicling the life of Berl Katznelson, she published "Aviv haldo" ("Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography"), in which she had difficulty hiding her relative lack of affection for Allon, the esteemed commander of the Palmach (the elite strike force of the pre-state Haganah), as compared to Berl and Brenner, the ideological pillars of the Labor movement. Perhaps because Allon was so Israeli, while the other two bore on their shoulders a heavy burden of the Diaspora, and both had such obvious, prominent and well-known flaws.

Of the two, Brenner appears to be her favorite, precisely because, contrary to the image that is typically ascribed to her, Shapira's attitude toward Zionism, in all of her books, is complex and uncertain. Brenner enabled her to boldly take on literary materials and also to delve deep into the heart and mind of her subject via the literary text. He fascinated her, too, because his personality still remains a riddle.

During a seminar she took part in years ago, the late professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz said, "Berl [Katznelson] was a politician." "Brenner," she declares, "was not a politician, he was a different type of person. Although the two overlapped a lot intellectually."

Without question, "Brenner" is a companion volume to Shapira's "Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist," which was first published (also by Am Oved) 28 years ago. Berl is the head and body of the Labor movement; Brenner is its soul. And it's almost ironic, and certainly surprising, that this soul is in such conflict with the world, and moreover, with itself, to such a degree that the text is left open to just about any interpretation: from passionate Zionism to complete disagreement with it.

About the literary value of the texts, however, there is no disagreement: Although Brenner does not star on the best-seller lists, no other Hebrew author seems to have been the subject of so many books, studies and essays; no other author is as widely quoted by other writers both old and young.

Shapira: "Brenner is seen as an icon by groups that are utterly different from one another. It's always been that way. Sometimes more openly and sometimes less. There was a time when he was only read in the youth movements, and not necessarily the literature but his articles, some of which he wrote when he was 18! 'Hu amar la' [the short story 'He Told Her'] was almost a cult text. He returned to the Israeli consciousness as a writer in the generation of Dan Miron and Gershon Shaked, and continued to blossom from then on. In recent years, Brenner has had a new revival in other spheres. The spiritual tendency that he actually did have invites existential and spiritual interpretation."

It appears that every elite, Zionist or anti-Zionist, religious-but-tending-toward-secular or vice versa, can find its "own" Brenner. Is that right?

Shapira: "Definitely. Everybody can find in his literature and philosophy evidence to back up his worldview. Brenner was a person with fraying ends. On a number of occasions, he completely contradicted himself, and with equal passion each time. As I was writing, I tried to juxtapose what he wrote or said with what he projected in reality. To his last day he said lofty things in praise of the Zionist project and at the same time contended that he didn't believe in it, that the Land of Israel is another diaspora and that there was no difference between it and the other diasporas.

"But there's also the hidden dimension: He calls on his brothers and sisters to live here, and when his wife, Chaya, takes their son Uri to Europe, he is upset about it. He writes her in a letter, and is evidently in a deep depression when he does so: 'Why shouldn't Uri be here playing in Nahalat Binyamin like all the other children?' Brenner is conscious of all the contradictions and perils inherent in Zionism; he never stopped saying that this people was completely incapable of living a normal, independent life, detached from all dependence on others, and unlike others, he never stopped seeing the difficulty involved in the encounter with the Arabs. But in the other dimension, deep in the soul, he was attached to this confused, momentous and dangerous reality. He finds the center of life in it."

And this polarity, you argue, is part of an illness.

"I refrained from calling it bipolar disorder, but it was certainly depression. When I began writing the book, I asked myself what would have happened if Prozac existed at the time: Would Brenner have been Brenner? This circularity, which is part of his psychological make-up, intrigued me tremendously. I didn't find an answer to the question of the connection between depressiveness and creativity. It was explained to me that a person who is in the throes of depression is incapable of writing, but with Brenner there was something strange: He was undoubtedly having an attack of depression, and he sat and wrote 18 hours a day! Either this was his way of fighting the depression, or it was something else. I don't really know."

According to what you describe in the book, it wasn't only depression. There's a pessimism that runs like a black thread through his life and his outlook, and paranoia, too: the fears that plagued him in regard to little Uri, from the day he was born, for example.

"People in such a psychological state often see the child as an extension of themselves. There was a wonderful bond between the two, but Brenner had terrible anxieties. The most minor childhood illnesses turned into absolutely dreadful crises for him. He constantly feared for the boy's life. But a tremendously powerful love can be glimpsed there, amid all the anxieties. I really loved the description of how he and little Uri traveled to Jerusalem, after the British conquest, for a malaria test. Why malaria? It was clear that he didn't have it, which is what they ended up finding out, but Brenner was searching for an explanation for the child's bouts of fever, and he took him up to Jerusalem. At the time, this was not an obvious thing to do."

His love for Uri was also the only connection he had left with Chaya. Their relationship, as you describe, was difficult and indecipherable, like all of his relationships with women, as a matter of fact. You say quite explicitly that all the women he was attracted to were the type with whom there was no possibility of forming a lasting relationship; Chaya, too, allowed him to preserve his solitariness. There's always an underlying hint that he sought the closeness of men.

"I kept tracking this option, both in his work and in his life. The difficulties in relationships with women could derive from an unclear sexual identity, from a bipolarity, as in all the other areas. I wouldn't call it homosexuality, but yes, certainly, there are very clear homoerotic allusions. On this issue, too, it's possible today to read Brenner in a completely different way than he was read by his contemporaries. Some have already shown how the text may be deciphered in a queer, open reading that does not delineate the person's sexuality and male preferences."

Anita Shapira, whose winning of the Israel Prize only confirmed the esteemed place she has earned in the study of Zionist history, comes across as belonging to Israel's creme de la creme. Perhaps because she has never hidden the fact that her economic situation is excellent, and even said in one interview (in response to a question about women in academia) that if she weren't married to an affluent businessman, she might never have attained the rank of university professor. Her critics often latch onto this image, and confuse it with her ideas.

"Yosef Haim Brenner: A Biography" completes another stage in what appears to be the lifework of Shapira, a historian who is capable of writing a lively and gripping story that also stands on firm scholarly ground and vast academic knowledge. Her writing, however, is characterized by restraint. The chapter on Brenner's murder, which presents an unsolved mystery (Why did he leave the house despite the known danger?) precludes the chance to stir up a scandal. Even when Shapira discusses Brenner's sexual tendencies and his depression, she doesn't sound like someone who's hit upon a juicy, gossip-worthy discovery.

She exercises even greater restraint when it comes to her own private life. "We came to the country in 1947," she says, explaining the starting point of her story, "when they hanged the two sergeants. There were kalaniyot [slang for British soldiers with red berets] everywhere, and my mother said, 'Gevald! What sort of place have we come to?' I had a big doll and a British policeman suspected that we were hiding something in it and he ripped the whole thing open."

Anita Shapira was born in 1940 in Warsaw and speaks fluent Yiddish and Polish. She declines to speak about the seven years that preceded the day when she stood at the Haifa port and quietly watched the British policeman tear open her doll. "I was born at 5 Orla Street in Warsaw. I remember. A little. I don't want to talk about what came afterward. I promised my children that I would write down the whole story sometime. They asked me to. Until I do so, I won't talk about it. All I can say is that I've always been impressed by children's ability to adapt in times of crisis. I look at my grandchildren and I'm happy they won't have to contend with such situations. I have a very good life. I'm lucky."

The historian is happy to talk about her first years in Israel. "We lived on Yavneh Street in Tel Aviv in one room with a balcony, a kitchen we shared with two other families and a bathroom we shared with three. I once saw a three-room apartment with a piano and to me it seemed like the symbol of the aristocracy. Later on we moved to Yad Eliahu, to a one-room apartment with a kitchen and small balcony. My first-grade teacher changed my name to Chana, but in second grade I changed it back."

Shapira is not fazed anymore by the attacks from post-Zionists aimed at her. "How many times can the same mantra be repeated?" she asks. "And really, they're obsolete already. Today there are young people who've returned to taking a critical, complex and sane view."

Perhaps this is why she dedicated her newest work to her grandchildren, "in the hope that they will read the book when they grow up."

In an uncharacteristically emotional analysis of one of the loveliest pieces of Brenner's work, and of Hebrew literature in general - the closing chapter of "Mikan umikan" ("From Here and There") - Shapira elaborates on the traits of the protagonist, Oved Etzot, whom she takes as representing Brenner. Within this analysis is found the crux of her attempt to decipher Brenner: "In this character there are many autobiographical elements: the male element that fails to find satisfaction, the inherent, existential despair, the love for children, the fantasy of becoming a father, the fear of the Arabs, and much more."

In the past, Brenner's readers, she emphasizes, fell in love with his writings for different, maybe even contradictory, reasons than those of contemporary readers. The romance, the liberation from the burden of one's parents, and the hint of the hidden mystery of the Eretz Israel experience is what drew them.

"'From Here and There' exposes with cruel candidness all the shortcomings and weaknesses of the Second Aliyah [wave of immigration]," said Shapira in a thank-you speech for the Herzliya Prize, which she was awarded recently. "Nevertheless, Berl Katznelson, the great leader of the Second Aliyah, called it the ultimate book of the time. Another pioneer, Eliezer Slutzkin, who died in Ein Harod at age 100, was asked when he was already an old man: When you immigrated, weren't you disappointed by the reality you found here? And he answered: No, because I read Brenner and I knew from the start about all the problems here. This is the importance of the writer or the historian, who is supposed to tell the whole truth, without reluctance or fear.

"This has always been the tradition of Zionist criticism: to expose every pain, wound and bruise - but on condition that the criticism comes from within, from what one calls a 'lover's wounds.' After all the critical descriptions, Brenner concludes his book with a sentence, which is also relevant to the Zionist project and to the historian's work: 'The existence was an existence of thorns. The account had yet to be settled.'"

When asked why you write biographies and don't stick solely to academic work, you always say you love biographies because they deal with human beings. But still, here, your focus is largely on the spirit of the time. It seems that the fifth chapter of "From Here and There," which sparked a huge uproar and a deep conflict between Brenner and the people of Hapoel Hatzair, interested you even more than all the literary descriptions.

"The context is always there. It's impossible to understand Brenner's status as an icon without considering the backdrop of the period. At the time there was fierce interaction between politicians and intellectuals and writers, but I never forgot that I was first of all writing a biography of a writer (and now I'm also feeling nervous about what the literary people will say about my reading of his literature), and so I didn't trace the politics of the time as expressed in his writings, but rather the development of the Hebrew culture in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel."

And in this area, too, Brenner tore apart the consensus of the Hebrew Zionist ethos, as was ingrained in us in school.

"Certainly. Yes, I say some things that have been said before, but I stress: Brenner's attitude toward Yiddish, for example, was very affectionate and sensitive and favorable. Despite his strong 'Hebra-ism'" - Brenner started writing Hebrew at a young age, when he was still a yeshiva student. "He wasn't one of those militant anti-Yiddishists, compared to Ahad Ha'am [Asher Ginsberg], who wouldn't allow his work to be translated into Yiddish, or [Joseph] Klausner, who sneeringly referred to Yiddish as 'jargon.' He [also] didn't identify with the so-called 'brigade of defenders of the language.' To him, both [languages] were akin to the words of the living God.

"Furthermore, until very late in the game, he didn't believe at all in Hebrew as a spoken language. He came from a society that did not speak Hebrew and he only encountered Hebrew speakers for the first time when he immigrated, in 1909. And this is interesting, because when Brenner is sitting in London and writing the play 'Me'ever lagvulim' ('Beyond the Borders'), he has to write dialogues in Hebrew. How do you write dialogues in a language you don't speak? You translate from Yiddish!"

But when he came to Eretz Israel, he didn't talk about immigration. In the chapter that describes his arrival here there's this feeling of traveling back and forth, of open possibilities.

"In the days of the Second Aliyah, the journey to Eretz Israel is a possibility. Not something binding. I cite a 'list of tourists,' such as [Haim Nahman] Bialik, because the Zionist project wasn't yet thought to be for real. The new Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] numbered 12,000 people, and the entire Jewish population in Palestine at the time did not exceed 25,000. Any large Jewish town in the Diaspora had more people. And Brenner, when he traveled here, hid the fact of his arrival, because it wasn't sure that he would stay. Like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The tradition of Eretz Israel as a land of tourists, not of permanent settlers, was legitimate. It wasn't until the Mandate period that whoever 'came on aliyah' was necessarily committed to it, and whoever left was considered a yored [literally, 'one who goes down,' the opposite of one who 'goes up' - i.e., comes on aliyah]."

That's not at all what we were taught in school about "From Here and There."

"But that's how it is. The character that travels back and forth in 'From Here and There' is treated with a drop of nostalgia and pain; Brenner is not critical of him. The son, who abandons the country as an ideological Marxist, he doesn't like, but not because it's 'forbidden to leave the country,' but just because he doesn't like him. The mistake we've made is to project back onto our predecessors the values to which we adhere."

You said earlier that you're nervous about the reactions of the literary world, yet you've dissected the protagonist of your biography on a clearly literary basis, rather than writing a political chronology.

"I'm selective, of course, when I choose what seems to me to be of central importance in his writing. There is, however, a limit to the amount of literary discussion that one can load onto a biography, but I certainly enjoyed abandoning the historical narrative to do an analysis of a literary composition when this seemed to me the right thing to do. But at the same time I was aware of the historical developments - for example, I included the responses to 'Shkhol vekishalon' ('Breakdown and Bereavement') from 1920, and not from 1913 when it was written, because only in 1920 were the responses significant. I'm not a literary critic, but it's clear to me that compared to his other writings, at least some of which is outdated, Brenner's literature is truly great."

You also disagree with the prevalent view that Brenner was primarily moving away from religion, and that his roots were planted deep in Judaism and halakha (Jewish law).

"I think that for years we made a detour, in reading Brenner, from his deep Russian roots to his Jewish roots. I found in his works, like 'Behoref' ('In Winter'), 'Mesaviv lanekuda' ('Around the Point'), 'From Here and There' and 'Breakdown and Bereavement' - and also in some of his short stories - psychological gems and a real grasp of the depths of the human soul. And so it is clear to me, and this is supported by facts, too, that at age 18 he was thoroughly and deeply exposed to writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I don't know how polished his Russian was, we know he was an autodidact and didn't study Russian in an orderly way, but the Russian he studied when he was still a yeshiva student enabled him to open a window to world culture. And he also served for two years in the czar's army, which no other Hebrew writer ever did, and perhaps no Russian writer, either. There's no doubt that he drew his strength from late 19th-century Russian literature.

"This isn't to say, of course, that he didn't have Jewish roots, but compared to Bialik and all the other modernists, there is a deep influence here that also fits well with his personality. There is one place where this is particularly striking: [Gershon] Shofman's visit to the murder scene. Shofman stands there and sees the mosque and the palm trees on one side, and the Russian church on the other, and says: 'Wherever Brenner went, his distant past went with him.' This is not by chance. Anyone who was close to Brenner knew what a deep attachment he had to Russian culture.

"The two years in the czar's army were a formative period. Unlike other Jewish and non-Jewish writers, he was exposed not to the intelligentsia, but to the ordinary people, people for whom going to the army was a step up - they were fed regularly and received a salary for the first time in their lives. For his part, he never lost the view of a Jew observing the Russians and the way they see Jews: getting drunk and running to town to catch a chaike, a generic term for a Jew. But he also got into their soul, understood them, and since this was a literary work, and not reporting, he is also distanced from this soul and can describe it. With this kind of in-depth psychology, which didn't interest his contemporaries in the least, he was definitely way ahead of his time."

From this culture you also derive the definition for this psychological state that Beylin describes in his book, and essentially for Brenner's so terrifically conflicted personality. You use the term yurodivy. What is that - a synonym for a certified lunatic?

"The yurodivy is a Russian archetype - what you might call a 'holy fool.' The 'great Russian soul' is what invented the captivation with the yurodivy. The yurodivy is someone who's allowed to do everything that is forbidden to others because he has such an enormous soul, even if he's totally loony. Pierre in 'War and Peace' is like that, even Raskolnikov, who has been described as 'childlike and pure.'"

Shapira cites several incidents that illustrate Brenner's "yurodivy-ness." The boy Henich Pasilov (Brenner lived in Pasilov's mother's home in Ein Ganim; he was also the inspiration for the character of Amram in "From Here to There") took ill with yellow fever and died in the hospital in Jaffa.

"Brenner," writes Shapira, "visited him there the day before his death and saw him in all his agony ... Ya'ari-Polski writes that he saw Brenner standing and watching while the dead body was cleansed in preparation for burial, and that afterward he burst into hysterical crying and passed out, and it was hard to revive him."

To Shapira, this yurodivy quality is the key to the ascetic, holy image that adhered to Brenner even while he was still alive. "The more his image became identified with the yurodivy image," she writes, "Brenner became a moral guide to the evolving community in Eretz Israel. He did not deliberately don the holy cloak. It spontaneously fell on his shoulders ... It wasn't so much that Brenner sought the holy image, but rather that his contemporaries saw a need to wrap him in it. There was a clear Russian influence here. In Russia, the writer was considered the nation's voice of conscience ... The aliyah pioneers were searching for a moral authority. His persona, which challenged the bourgeois ways of life and thinking, which was skeptical of the rules of polite behavior, which demanded that the truth, no matter how bitter, be proclaimed ... is what made him a symbol."

Brenner admired the Russian soul, the historian continues: "His whole outlook came from there. He was a fascinating mixture of 'Nietzschean-ism' and 'Tolstoyan-ism.' His socialism had a moral-humane basis. He wanted every person to have something to eat. And this is what attracts me to Brenner. There's a spiritual and moral basis here that we've forgotten. With all the ambivalence, or maybe just because of it, with the stubborn refusal to ignore the Arabs and the Jews' other options, there's this beauty of creating something out of nothing, out of an almost mystic faith that a society can arise here.

"Brenner talked about a different type of society - moral, modernist and humane - that would prove that the Jews are capable of being a society-building nation. He detested the expression 'a light unto the nations,' because it was so far removed from the reality. He didn't talk about a state. Berl did, even then he had big dreams, but Brenner found his absolute Zionist optimism threatening and off-putting. Yes, he was fearful, and didn't want to be responsible, but this was all because he really was not a 'politician.' He was a writer."

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