Although his life ended nearly a century ago, Hebrew writer Y. H. Brenner (1881−1921) remains a hero to generations of young Israelis. Perhaps there’s a sort of timelessness to any great writer’s anguish, which only grows more intense as the mythologies multiply. This might present difficulties for many biographers; after a certain point, the facts of the actual life can begin to seem meager next to the legends. Fortunately, Shapira avoids the larger-than-life Brenner and immerses readers in the details of the life of this “radical pessimist,” from his boyhood and military service in Russia, to his years as a Hebrew writer and publisher in London, to his sojourn in Galicia, to his life in the Yishuv, in Palestine, before his tragic death. Along the way, readers learn about the struggles between the Yiddishists and the champions of the Hebrew language, arguments over where to locate the Jewish homeland, tensions of young Jews over the appeal of assimilation, debates over how to live as a secular Jew, and other issues of Brenner’s days…and our own. Indeed, although the author refrains from reminding the reader of how modern Brenner’s struggles were, it’s certainly an element of his unending allure. This biography is dense and well-documented — not a light read, but a valuable addition to any collection focusing on the birth of Hebrew belles lettres. Illustrations, index, notes.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.