The Ambiguous Sexual Identity and Brutal Murder of a Hebrew Cultural Icon

A new documentary sheds light on the life and death of Yosef Haim Brenner, one of Hebrew literature's greatest icons.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Giant of Hebrew literature Yosef Haim Brenner. (Illustration by Eran Wolkowski)
Giant of Hebrew literature Yosef Haim Brenner. (Illustration by Eran Wolkowski)
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

The Yishuv – the Jewish community in Palestine – was grief-stricken. “Profound mourning in the Land of Israel,” cried out one headline. “Death strikes down Y.H. Brenner.” Yosef Haim Brenner, writer and critic, essayist and publisher, was murdered on May 2, 1921. He was 40. Four days of mourning were declared in the traumatized Yishuv, which was appalled by the accounts of the circumstances of his death.

The horrific murder was a final crescendo to Brenner’s life and work, which, 94 years later, continues to resonate in Hebrew culture, on both the creative side and in literary research. Already in his lifetime, Brenner acquired the status of a sui generis writer, reviver of Hebrew literary creativity and guardian of the embers of the language, as well as a reputation for being the fiercest critic of Zionism in the Yishuv. He was a subject of adulation, and flocks of admirers attended his every step.

Now he is also the subject of a new documentary, “The Awakener: The Story of Y.H. Brenner,” by Yair Qedar. The film – its title is that of the seminal literary journal that Brenner founded, edited and published – is part of Qedar’s project entitled “The Hebrews,” a series of documentaries that are being produced about Israel’s great writers and poets.

The hour-long film, which premiered last month at the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, known as Docaviv, offers an interpretation of Brenner’s complex life and new information about his murder, in the form of a previously unknown report. Still, the essence of his being, his singular character, is likely to remain an indecipherable mystery – and perhaps that’s the very reason that Brenner continues, almost a century after his death, to generate such intense interest.

“There was no way I could not do a film about Brenner,” says Qedar. “My project ‘The Hebrews’ consists of films about the first rank of writers in Hebrew, and Brenner is a necessary figure in the first five. Beyond his prodigious talent and his contribution to literature, I feel a certain inner connection to him, as I’m sure others do as well. He has the ability to describe mental states and a repertoire of psychological conditions. He is perpetually dissatisfied, sexually problematic and agonizes over questions of ‘who am I, what am I and what do I want.’”

Qedar’s film unfolds almost like a detective story, revolving around the murder investigation, and dwelling on turning points in Brenner’s life. The stylized film, which is punctuated by black-and-white animation, old stills and fragments of texts, is rather austere in character, much like its subject.

Jaffa’s Red House, where Brenner and his house mates were murdered. (Screenshot from the documentary)

Brenner was murdered on May 2 in the so-called Red House (a reference to the color of its upper floor), which belonged to the Yitzkar family and was situated in the Abu Kabir neighborhood outside Jaffa (now Kibbutz Galuyot Road in Tel Aviv-Jaffa). Some of the rooms in the house were rented out. Brenner shared a room with a young writer, Yosef Louisdor, and the writers Zvi Schatz and Zvi Gugig also lived in the house.

On the previous day, May 1, violence had broken out between the Arabs and Jews in Jaffa. But despite the danger that lurked for those living in isolated houses on the periphery of Tel Aviv, Brenner refused to leave in a car that was sent to evacuate the occupants, insisting that those with families go first. He remained in the house, with five others: Louisdor, Gugig, Schatz and Yehuda Yitzkar and his son, Avraham.

On May 2, however, when the violence resumed, the six decided to flee. Just then, the funeral procession of a 13-year-old Arab boy, who had been shot and killed the previous day by a Jewish policeman, passed by. A few participants in the funeral, including an armed Arab policeman, decided to avenge his death. By the time a rescue vehicle arrived for the residents, it was too late: Five bodies were found in the house, which had also been ransacked and looted – Louisdor’s body was found only months later, dismembered, in a nearby well.

Something of a cult sprang up around the murder. The bodies of Brenner and the others were brought to the Gymnasia Herzliya building in Tel Aviv and photographed. The images, revealing that the victims had been shot and beaten, shocked the Jewish world. One newspaper reported that “all the bodies were naked.”

The reports said that Brenner had been shot in the stomach and died from intestinal bleeding; all six were buried in a common grave in the then-newly created Tel Aviv cemetery (on present-day Trumpeldor Street). Immediately after the murders, Arabs rampaged throughout Jewish communities around the country. Brenner’s murder turned him into an unparalleled symbol for his generation.

Wandering life

Brenner was born in 1881 into abject poverty in a part of the Russian Empire that is now Ukraine. In his childhood and adolescence he drifted from town to town and from one yeshiva to another. At age 12, when he was attending the yeshiva in the town of Pochep, he met Uri Nissan Gnessin, the son of the yeshiva’s head and himself a future pioneer of modern Hebrew literature. Both were drawn to the field, and to the idea of writing in Hebrew. Their relationship would turn out to be a complex one and become a subject of research interest and interpretation.

Brenner, right, with Schoffman. Photo from 'The Awakener'

In 1901, Brenner was drafted into the Russian army but fled its rigors a year and a half later. He lived a wandering life until his arrival in London in 1905. Earlier, in 1903, he had achieved some fame in the Jewish world, when his first novel, “In Winter,” was serialized in the journal Hashiloah. Though Brenner was only 21, the journal’s editor, Haim Nahman Bialik (later dubbed the “national poet” of the Jewish people), said of him, “At the moment, I do not see another writer like him among the Jewish people.” A year later, he published a second novel, “Around the Point.”

In London, Brenner decided to publish a new literary journal in Hebrew, Hame’orer (The Awakener), which encapsulated the complexity and the contradictions that marked every facet of Brenner’s life. Although it had a circulation of only a few hundred, Hame’orer, whose first issue came out in 1906, carried the banner of modern Hebrew as the only publication at the time that defied the perception that the language was holy and not fit to be used in contemporary, creative contexts.

At the same time, Brenner antagonized the supporters of his journal by taking stands opposite to theirs on the question of the Land of Israel. He refused to describe the journal as “Zionist,” but explained that he would publish critiques of Zionism provided the writer “feels the pain of Judaism.”

Brenner did not sanctify Zion. He assailed the glorification of the Land of Israel and the Yishuv, and excoriated Jewish institutions in general, but above all feared the looming confrontation with the Arabs. He warned that the Arabs of Palestine possessed a national consciousness and a powerful attachment to the land, and that bloodshed was inevitable.

The journal ceased publication in 1908, and Brenner decided to move to Lvov. He lived there for a year, renting an apartment with his friend, the writer Gershon Schoffman, but left after the two quarreled, apparently over a 16-year-old schoolgirl. Brenner decided to immigrate to Palestine – under an assumed name – and realize the Zionist vision as a laborer. He worked as a ditch digger in Hadera, but his career as a manual laborer was an unmitigated failure and lasted just one week.

Brenner went back to writing and publishing journals. He befriended the Zionist ideologue A.D. Gordon and Berl Katznelson, one of the intellectual fathers of Labor Zionism. The latter, seven years Brenner’s junior, later wrote about how his heart went out to the lonely, gloomy writer and how their meeting made him feel protective of Brenner. After Brenner’s murder, Katznelson wrote that “he bore our sins.” Many who met Brenner experienced similar feelings, even if he himself was almost unfailingly abusive toward his benefactors.

From Left: Brenner, Rabinowitz, David Shimoni and S.Y. Agnon. Photo from 'The Awakener'

Thus, in his first novel set in the Yishuv, “From Here and There” (1911), he casts a trenchantly critical, not to say despairing eye, on the Yishuv and its members from his generation, whose origins lay in the Eastern European shtetl, and who were called upon to decide whether to stay or leave and how to live in the place of their choosing.

Contemporary readers easily recognized A.D. Gordon in the character of Aryeh Lapidot, and Brenner himself as the narrator, described as being “at his wits’ end.” The work’s message, about the future of the Jews – evoking a Talmudic legend about a man who was married to two women, one young and one older; the older one plucked out his white hairs so he would look younger, and the younger one plucked out his dark hairs to make him look older, with the result that he remained hairless “from here and from there” – was also well understood.

“From Here and There” offended Brenner’s friends. He moved to Jerusalem to work for the newspaper of the Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) party, and there, in Jerusalem, his life was transformed again.

Short-lived marriage

A merry social group gathered around Brenner, who apparently for the first time – though he was in his thirties – had a genuine relationship with a woman. With two, in fact: Hassia Feinsod (who later married the archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik), and her good friend Chaya Broide, whom he married.

The marriage did not last. They were divorced after the birth of their son, Uri Nissan (named for Brenner’s boyhood friend, he was later deputy commander of the Palmach, the elite pre-state strike force). Broide took Uri and went to Berlin to attend a kindergarten teachers’ college; Brenner sank into the depths, into a life of grinding poverty and wandering, ending up in a rented room in the Red House and his galling fate.

“Brenner wasn’t cut out for married life,” says the writer and literary scholar Haim Be’er, who wrote a book (in Hebrew) about the relationship between S.Y. Agnon, Bialik and Brenner. “He could not exist within an institution. We have a description of their home in Jerusalem, written by a guest from Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. They ate lunch with silver spoons and sat together at the table – that didn’t suit him.

“Chaya Broide asked for a divorce, he didn’t stand in her way, and she became the punching bag of the Second Aliya [wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, 1904-1914]. It was only after her death [in 1977, aged 90] that their son, Uri, published a collection of his parents’ correspondence, in which it emerged that Chaya preferred to be a punching bag and the ‘bad guy’ so that Brenner’s image would not be tarnished.”

Brenner’s letters to his young son are also deeply touching – Brenner was murdered before they were able to meet again. Uri Brenner (1914-1993) subsequently married Nesya, his boyhood love, and they had four children.

Qedar, the film’s director, says that his interest in Brenner was piqued as a student of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, when he was doing research about Yosef Louisdor. That led him to Brenner and to a report about the murder investigation compiled by Bechor Sheetrit, later Israel’s first minister of police.

In an uncatalogued box at the Yad Tabenkin archive, Qedar found a handwritten document. “It relates that a few days before the murder in the Red House, with tension already in the air, Louisdor was walking through the local orchards and neighborhoods,” he says.

“Near the Red House, he was stopped by some ‘Nablusim,’ referring to Arab gays, who taunted or humiliated him sexually. Back in the Red House, he was comforted by Brenner. There are questions about Brenner’s sexuality and hints about it through Louisdor.”

In fact, this issue, the linchpin of Qedar’s film, has been a source of heated academic controversy for years. Brenner’s fictional protagonists display sexual awkwardness, frustration, rejection and homoerotic tendencies. There is, for example, Yehezkel Hefetz, the protagonist of “Breakdown and Bereavement” (most recent English translation by Hillel Halkin, The Toby Press, 2003), who has a bad smell and has never kissed a woman.

Fraught protagonists

The relations of the protagonists in “From Here and There” are similarly fraught. But the question of whether Brenner possessed and possibly fulfilled homosexual desires, or whether this is a far-reaching present-day interpretation of the messages he wanted to convey, is a matter that continues to make literary scholars lose their cool.

In any event, there is a paradox here. On the one hand, Brenner was out to speak the absolute truth, painful and cruel though it be, including radical critiques of himself, as the representative of a generation. In contrast, because of the nature of the period in which he lived, he would have to conceal the seething depths of his psyche.

“I don’t cotton to that, and it’s groundless,” Nurit Guvrin, who has written about Brenner and the generations of writers and poets who were influenced by him, says in Qedar’s film. “Haim Be’er floated that notion, which is titillating and provocative, something to talk about, but which has no basis in fact. There are many testimonies in his letters and his writings that he longed for a woman. He lived with Gershon Schoffman in Galicia and they parted over a woman. If it were true [that he was gay], it would not sully his name, but it has no basis. The young men who clung to him felt that he was an extraordinary person and wanted to be with him.”

It does seem clear, however, that Brenner loved Uri Nissan Gnessin. After Gnessin died of an illness, in 1913, Brenner wrote a eulogy in which he described a scene that had taken place between them. It was 1900, and the two – the strikingly handsome Gnessin and his plain-looking plump friend – had just received a copy of Bialik’s newest poem, “On a Summer’s Day, Hot Day.” An atmosphere of intimacy lingered in the room as they recited the poem to one another. Brenner related that Gnessin held him close, hugging and warming him. And then he abruptly aborted the description of physical closeness. “On the table,” he wrote, “the candle.”

The relationship was renewed in London. Gnessin, who suffered from an apparently undiagnosed heart ailment, wrote to his friend about his distress, and Brenner sent funds to pay for the trip to Lvov. But something went awry. Perhaps, as Anita Shapira says in her biography of Brenner (English translation published 2015), they had both simply matured. Gnessin was suffering from a physical ailment, Brenner was deeply depressed, and neither of them understood what the other was going through. Perhaps, as other scholars maintain, there was a different reason.

“Gnessin lived with Brenner in London and slept with him on the narrow iron bed in that small room for eight weeks at least,” says the literary scholar and publisher Menakhem Perry. “After that he moved in with his dentist in London, and Brenner staged horrible scenes of jealousy.”

You don’t leave much room for argument.

Perry: “That’s because there is no argument. They tried to consummate [their love] and Gnessin became very frightened. Shapira says that Gnessin couldn’t tolerate various traits of Brenner’s, but those traits existed before London. The story that’s told about their relationship is incorrect; it’s far more complicated and there is no other way to understand it. Two weeks after Gnessin arrived in London, Brenner wrote a letter to the writer Micha Josef Berdichevsky in which he said, ‘I am sick in my soul.’”

So Gnessin’s presence was not beneficial to him?

“It was a terrible disappointment! He wrote in the eulogy, ‘What can people know about the scale of the torments of this relationship between me and Uri Nissan, between my Uri Nissan’ I’d like Nurit Guvrin to explain to me how it can be understood in any other way.”

According to Yair Qedar, “Brenner’s sexuality is one of the most interesting things about him. It’s clear that he is not completely heterosexual. There are homoerotic hints and statements, he had problems with women, he was married for a very short time only, and there were enthusiastic relationships with men – with Louisdor and with Gnessin. Those are the known facts.”

Still, it’s a thesis that arouses strong opposition.

“The reactions generated by this issue are unrelated to the question of whether he was gay, but to what some people think about gays and to the question of whether sexual proclivity is a private matter. We can’t know, but the signs do point to that. Why say it’s nonsense? Why try to hetero-sexualize him? It reflects a generation gap, referring to the generation in which the private and the sexual were considered unimportant – private and secret.

“I believe that sexual identity is not external to personality, and that is precisely the paradox of the truth about Brenner. The truest person of his period was perhaps less than truthful about his sexuality. Sexuality was not important in his time; the show window was different.

Yair Qedar, director of 'The Awakener: The Story of Y.H. Brenner.' (Photo by Tomer Appelbaum)

“Brenner continues to pique our curiosity,” Qedar continues, “he remains an enigma, one of the most significant individuals in Hebrew culture. Doesn’t that oblige a very interesting rereading of his work? A hundred years after his death, there are still questions about him, and he can still be read in this way or that. His work and the circumstances of his murder can be treated as a turbulent, open story.”

‘Life is bad’

Brenner, as the emotional writing in the contemporary press attests, became a mythic figure who was always surrounded by young admirers. He was known for investing his meager funds in literary initiatives – thus, he published S.Y. Agnon’s first book. It was said of him that he would give his shoes to someone who was barefoot. For example, Qedar relates, he took Louisdor in after learning that the young writer was living in a cave. And as such, Brenner became the heart and soul of the Labor Movement, a devoted mentor and model for a public that sacrificed itself for the common good.

Still, there is more than a shadow of contradiction here: between love of humanity and the tendency to be vicious in criticism; between devotion to the other and to the public, and a fierce pessimism and self-hatred. Brenner, the researchers agree, suffered from depression. Shapira says he had a bipolar personality. Was there an unknown episode in his past of hospitalization in an institution for the mentally ill?

There are allusions to depression in his letters and in his fiction. His friend Asher Beilin, who met him in London and elsewhere, later described him as having a psychotic fit, raging, prostrating himself on the floor. The protagonist of “Breakdown and Bereavement” is confined in a hospital for the mentally ill in Jerusalem, and its description is in itself a cause for dispute among Brenner scholars.

“The hospital for the mentally ill in ‘Breakdown’ is described from the inside,” says Haim Be’er says. “S.Y. Agnon said of Brenner that he lacked imagination, was unable to invent things and described only what he saw. It’s clear to me that he was in treatment there.”

Brenner’s texts maintain their vitality and relevance because his Hebrew plunges into the depths of the psyche and the abysses of the human experience. Even today, the deliberately fragmented method in which he shapes the text is considered unconventional, postmodern.

“In my view, Brenner is the most important Hebrew writer to this day,” Be’er says. “Agnon is a giant, a master at design and at filling things in, easy to digest, accessible and reader-friendly. Brenner is not reader-friendly, but he is deeper, complex, rife with contradictions. He says, ‘Life is bad but always secretive.’ Simultaneously, life is a lost cause but also beautiful, full of promise and meant to be lived.”

Even after devoting a documentary movie to him, Qedar says it’s hard to explain logically how Brenner continues to burst out of his texts. “There is no rational explanation for it,” the filmmaker explains. “The language he writes in is no longer spoken, yet it remains alive and precise. He concocts words and descriptions and he has no boundaries. In his writing he is uninhibited, daring, cruel, sometimes horrifying. I am staggered by his Hebrew, by his descriptive powers, and I am fond of his conflicts.”

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