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Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life

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Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life

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Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life
By Anita Shapira
Translated into English by Anthony Berris
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Stanford University Press, (2015)
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8527-3

Reviewed by Boris Segel - February 17, 2015

I'm not sure how many English readers are familiar with Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921), but for readers of Hebrew he has long been one of the preeminent writers of the Second Aliyah period. He was born in Ukraine, Russia in 1881, and immigrated to Israel in 1909. His life ended tragically in 1921 when he was murdered, along with a group of friends, by a band of Arabs who were rioting in Jaffa.

Anita Shapira has done a fantastic job of documenting Brenner's life in her biography, Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life. In many regards, Brenner's life reads like a work of fiction. He was born on the Pale of Settlement and when his draft notice came, compelling him to join the Russian Army, his father said, "Go!" This was a very unusual command and most Jews would bend over backwards to keep their sons out the Russian Army where the boys would be thrust into the gentile community and where they would be forced to do manual labor that they were unaccustomed to. Perhaps worse of all, they would be confronted with the unbridled Russian anti-Semitism that permeated the region in the period, without the benefit of the support and protection of the great Jewish community. As well, there was always the possibility that the boys were also be forced to fight!

At the time that Brenner was called up, the days of the cantonists where gone, and now only one son from each family was liable for military service. So if Brenner went into the Army, his younger brother, who was a brilliant Torah scholar, would be free of that burden. Although traditionally trained, Brenner was not overly religious and had already joined the Jewish Labor Bund (a socialist group). Of the two boys, it was obvious that Brenner would be less harmed by the experience, so off to the army he went, and there he began to receive a rough education into the ways of the world. Shortly after the Russo-Japanese war began, Brenner deserted and made his way to England. From England he eventually immigrated to Israel.

In this riveting biography, Shapira chronicles Brenner's life from its beginning to its tragic end. In the process, she places Brenner's story within the context of Jewish and world history. Along the way she also provides an astute overview of Brenner's literary works and his political leanings. She also examines the people and experiences that influenced his writing.

Throughout his literary career, Brenner not only wrote novels and stories, but he also ventured into literary criticism, teaching, typesetting, and agricultural work. Brenner was one of the founding fathers and mothers of Modern Hebrew literature, along with the likes of S. Y. Agnon, Nahman Bialik, Rachel Bluwstein, Shlomo Zemach, Aharon Avraham Kabak, Aharon Reuveni, and many other writers who were not only friends but who also influenced each others works. Many of his works have been translated into English and Yiddish, and he was noted for rending life as it really was - making his writing great fodder to anyone seeking to gain an understanding of what life really was like to members of the Second Aliyah, rather than the romanticized versions that are the norm.

Shapira is Professor Emerita at Tel Aviv University, and she has written the defining biography of Brenner. Throughout, like Brenner, she does not pull her punches. She tackles Brenner's mental health issues and personal difficulties, as well as his triumphs, and his legacy. Although Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life does not include a bibliography, it does include copious endnotes. These notes ensure that researchers seeking to delve deeper into the life and times of Brenner will have good foundation from which to start. Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life is a fascinating book that is sure to enthrall both general readers and academics. Anthony Berris has done an excellent job of translating this book into English, thereby enabling English readers to meet this enigmatic man . . .

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