Yosef Haim Bren­ner: A Life

Ani­ta Shapi­ra; Antho­ny Berris, trans.
  • Review
By – March 12, 2015

Although his life end­ed near­ly a cen­tu­ry ago, Hebrew writer Y. H. Bren­ner (18811921) 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.

Relat­ed content:

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.

Discussion Questions