Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Yosef Haim Brenner (September 11, 1881)

In anticipation of the birthdate of Yosef Haim Brenner, I read his novel Breakdown and Bereavement. Brenner was an early pioneer to Israel, where he first settled in 1909. He attempted to work in agriculture, but most of his life there was in Jerusalem where he was a typesetter, a translator, and a novelist. My knowledge of Brenner prior to this project was one fact: he died in an anti-Jewish riot in Jaffa in 1921.

According to a biography: "In addition to his original works in Hebrew and Yiddish, Brenner translated Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, as well as works by Tolstoy and works in German, Brenner was the most prominent literary figure in Eretz Israel in his day, and was responsible for moving the center of Hebrew literary activities away from Europe." ("Joseph Haim Brenner: 1881-1921")

The novel especially appeals to me because of its first-hand descriptions of the life of Jews in Ottoman Palestine. Their lives are difficult and disappointing. They face poverty and discouragement, humiliation at having to accept charity from abroad, and an erosion of their self-respect for many reasons.

The first character described in the book, Yehezkel Hefetz, tries to work in a Jewish agricultural colony (prior to the invention of the kibbutz according to p. 7 -- the word kibbutz doesn't appear in the book). Hefetz is immediately injured while working, also contracts malaria, and is sent to Jerusalem for medical help. He then has a nervous breakdown -- a "psychic disturbance."

During his breakdown Hefetz is hounded by fear, especially fear of the Arabs: "He spoke of their national awakening and of their hatred for the Jew he was obsessed ... by the possibility of a pogrom, over which he wracked his brain, soliciting advice and making endless plans for rescue and relief." (p. 14) I assume this means that underlying fears of the Arabs were in everyone's mind, and that Brenner was both in touch with the fear and terribly unlucky.

After a stay in a hospital, Hefetz returns to life in Jerusalem; the major part of the book treats his relationship with a family who are eking out a living, barely, relying on charity. I found the plot less interesting than the details about the characters' daily lives -- their fear of being evicted for not paying their rent; their reaction to the few Jews who were somehow becoming rich; their relationships with the dispensers of charity from abroad ("the dole"); the attempts by older men among them to continue with the exact sort of scholarly Jewish lives they had led in Russia; their reactions to the development of Hebrew as a spoken language (they believed in the new choice of Sephardic pronunciation but couldn't do it well; in fact were not polished at speaking it at all). The characters in this book had a relatively conventional religious life like the one they had left behind in Russia, though they are aware of the secular and idealistic pioneers with a completely different attitude.

Each character in Hefetz's life offers the reader of 100 years later a variety of hard facts about life in Jerusalem before World War I. One for example, Reb Yosef, spent much of his time in studying, but most of his valuable books had been lost during his immigration because he couldn't find the money for the customs duties.

As we first encounter Reb Yosef, "He munched on a piece of bread, chewing his cud and looking at his book, whispering the words out loud and chewing on them too." (p. 37) Later, "Reb Yosef popped a pickled green olive and about half an oliveweight of soft bread into his mouth. As he talked he cut away the crust, which was too hard for his worn teeth to bite into, and left it on the table. For a moment his face lit up ... " and he discusses a wide-ranging set of philosophical topics, beginning with Spinoza's Ethics. (p. 43)

Reb Yosef's daughter Miriam longs for learning, but we see her cooking soup while speaking to the young man who tutors her and worrying about her responsibilities to provide a meal to various people as well as for cleaning the house. (p. 52-54) She was disillusioned because men thought "that a woman was good only for cooking ... and cook was all she did: the life wasn't fit for a dog! Forty mouths to feed, and each with its own pretensions and demands: one wanted sour cream, another four eggs in his omelet, another stewed fruit, another pudding every day." Her thoughts run on and on about the wrongs she feels and the way the men treat her. Cooking becomes a metaphor for what's wrong with both Miriam and with Hefetz, I think. (p. 65)

Her father ignores her; she doesn't get along with her sister; eventually both of them become involved in some way with Hefetz or at least in his slightly mad thoughts or anticipations. She takes on his care as he goes through another bout of illness (malaria?). He has dreams, seemingly in response to Miriam's hard-to-digest spinach cakes and refuses to drink water -- "Toadstools and spinach cakes!" he cries out, hoping in his feverish state for "a miracle." (p. 81-82) He also has weird dreams later including thoughts of tomato stew and a horse that is fed halvah. (p. 116)

As Dara Horn says in a review of the book (published by the Yiddish Book Center): "Hefetz finds that his Diaspora-fed neuroses are not so easily left behind." The characters become more and more depressed as the book continues. Horn points out how the readers at the time reacted: "Brenner’s novel astonished its Jewish readers in the Diaspora – even those whom one would least expect to take offense at its despairing tone. Franz Kafka, one of its eager readers, expressed his consternation with the novel in a letter to a friend with a single phrase: 'Sadness in Palestine?' But the sadness in Brenner’s Palestine goes beyond shattering myths."

The continuing plot of the book involves several instances of the characters attempting to run away from life in Jerusalem by moving to Jaffa and Tiberias. As I said, I found the character development less interesting than the details of daily life and of the exhausting and inadequate means of travel by horse-drawn carriage on terrible roads, with stops at Arab inns. But as Horn puts it: "The ending is stylistically awkward, and its disjointed nature is part of a larger artistic flaw in the novel – one best described as an authorial sense of urgency, in which what Brenner needs to say often overwhelms his eloquence in saying it."

Brenner wrote the book in 1914. It was first published in 1920. The translation I read dates from 1971. According to the introduction, "World War I radically changed the landscape of Palestine and opened up to Zionist settlement possibilities, previously only dreamt of, that were not long in being exploited." Thus the portrayal of pre-war life was already historically interesting by the time the novel was published, and all the more now!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Trieste Reading

My last two blog posts, Trieste and How Trieste Became Secular, have been about the Jews of Trieste, Italy. I was especially seeking information about the secular nature of this community and how it got that way. For this project, I have read several books and articles, such as the beautiful large-format book illustrated at right.

To obtain background material on Trieste at the beginning of the twentieth century, I read the pre-war-written article in my incredible old Brittanica:
Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Trieste” (1921 edition, Volume 17, pp 267-268)

Because Trieste’s Jewish community had such a strong influence on James Joyce, I tried to see what Joyce would have found during his stay there. This question is of interest to Joyce scholars because Joyce transferred much of what he learned about and from the Trieste Jews to his portrayal of the character Leopold Bloom (who of course in the novel Ulysses spends the entire time in Dublin).

Besides Joyce’s most famous friends novelist Italo Svevo and newspaper owner Teodoro Mayer, he encountered a variety of other Jews who were there. I learned for example, that during the early years of his time there, Joyce even rented rooms for a time from a Jewish landlady, who helped out when Nora Barnacle was having her first child (Years of Bloom p. 39). I learned that among many concerts he attended, Joyce once heard a performance of a Mahler symphony conducted by the composer (Years of Bloom p. 124).

Works on this subject:
Maura Hametz, "Zionism, Emigration, and Antisemitism in Trieste: Central Europe's 'Gateway to Zion,' 1896-1943," Jewish  Social Studies, New Series, Society, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 2007), pp.103-134
Gur Alroey, "Journey to Early-Twentieth-Century Palestine as a Jewish Immigrant Experience" Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter, 2003), pp. 28-64
John McCourt, The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
John McCourt, James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. Orion Media, 2000.
Peter Hartshorn, James Joyce and Trieste. Greenwood Press, 1997.

For my second post, How Trieste Became Secular, as noted there, I read:
Lois C. Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Trieste Became Secular

The book The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste by Lois C. Dubin (Stanford University Press, 1999) presents the history of the small Jewish community of 18th century Trieste. This history seems to offer a lesson in how Enlightenment ideas formed a new idea of a Jewish community -- a much more secular one than previous communities. 

Dubin documents how some Jews resisted the development of a more flexible way of life. They saw positive factors in the confinement of a self-governing Jewish body, and were not enthusiastic about introduction of more individual freedoms. Other members of the Jewish community welcomed the changes and the promise of more independent decisions regarding religious practice. Ultimately the result of the changes was a more assimilated group with more individual self-determination.

In around 1719  the Austrians invited capable Jews from their own lands, from Italy, from the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to participate in developing an economic miracle in the Habsburg’s principal Mediterranean port, joining a small community that had been there for centuries. In this newly free port, Jewish communal privileges were greater than those in cities of the Austrian Empire such as Vienna and Prague. Further, the Jews were not to be the only religious minority: Protestants, Greek Catholics, and members of other Eastern Christian groups were also welcomed if they brought economic contributions to the growing city.

Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs were attracted by a number of favorable conditions in the new free port. As elsewhere, all the Jews in the city had to belong to a self-governing community (sometimes called a Nation). Jewish authorities, designated or approved by the Habsburg rulers, controlled all aspects of life inside the community, religious and otherwise. Rabbis and other communal leaders enforced Jewish laws for marriage, divorce (legal for Jews not the Catholic majority), religious observance, education, personal relationships, economic contracts between Jews, and crime of Jew against Jew (theft, bodily harm, etc). Jewish courts tended to Jewish affairs. Jews became subject to civil law only when it concerned their external economic affairs, their relationships with Christians, or crimes committed outside the Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Trieste received a number of special privileges, mainly economic, distinguishing them from other Habsburg Jewish communities and most communities elsewhere in Europe. Trieste’s Jews were exempt from certain extra taxes paid by Jews elsewhere in the empire, from payment for civil cases in court, and from restrictions on travel.

The number of Jews in Trieste was small but growing. In 1735, there were 103 Jews in a total population of 3865. By 1802 it was 1247 out of more than 20,000; by 1820 it reached around 2400 out of 33,000. (Dubin, p. 21) For this community, the enforcement of a Ghetto where Jews were required to live was very casual, and over time, Jews began to live in other quarters, sometimes even sharing residences with non-Jews. Living outside of the enforced Jewish neighborhood occurred mainly for material reasons; the religious practice of the in- and out-dwellers appears not to have been particularly different. Until the end of the 18th century, the Jews in Italy, where most of those in Trieste came from, were strictly confined to Ghettos, most famously that of nearby Venice; strict residence requirements and prohibitions existed in most other countries as well.

The Jewish residents of Trieste soon challenged Jewish authorities by ignoring certain religious traditions, as Dubin documents in interesting detail. Authorities or neighbors accused their peers of openly eating non-kosher food in non-Jewish establishments, or of violating the prohibitions of work, reading or travel on sabbath and holidays. The Jewish communal authorities in some cases declared long-patronized bakeries and taverns off-limits. Ordinary people didn’t necessarily comply with the tighter rules – or any rules. One couldn’t call it freedom, but people seem to have been making choices that weren’t available in more restricted environments.

Meanwhile, in the course of the 18th century, Austria was modernizing under the influence of the Enlightenment. The Haskalah, Jewish version of the Enlightenment led by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, influenced the Jewish response to these laws. As the century progressed, the Habsburgs made new laws covering civil regulation of all residents with wide reprecussions for the Jews of Trieste.

One change arose from a new decree that all communities in the empire should educate their children in secular subjects and languages. Elsewhere in the empire and in Germany, Jewish communities saw secular education as a threat to their way of life, and resisted or insisted that the children’s education be in two separate schools. Jewish scholars for and against the Haskalah debated about such a change. Italian Jews had been allowed to attend the University of Padua and other Christian schools to become physicians and obtain other education, and thus were likely to value secular education.

After discussing all these influences, the Jews of Trieste were among the first to have a Jewish school that also taught state-mandated subjects like history, Italian and German languages, and literature outside the traditional Jewish curriculum.

A bigger conflict of interests emerged when the Habsburgs created a body of civil law regarding marriage, specifying that the religious authorities comply with the civil law while still performing the marriages. The government’s laws set the age of consent to marriage: parental consent for the new civil marriage was 24 but in was and always had been 13 for Jewish law. Civil law required advance public announcement (bans) for legal marriage; Jewish law respected private ceremonies with a small number of witnesses. Jewish laws about which relatives could marry and restrictions on a Kohen marrying a divorced women conflicted with civil law. Several high-profile cases testing these issues – which Dubin presents with much evidence from the archives --  ultimately undermined the strength of the religious authorities.

Similar conflicts engulfed the Jewish communities of France under the revolution. However, in Trieste, there was no sudden change, meaning that a variety of individuals participated in the process of resolving the conflicts. Debate as well as court cases engaged those supporting traditional religious practice, those fearing conflict with the authorities (and thus threat to their  extraordiary well-being and prosperity), and those who had embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Haskala.

Trieste was never all that important in the general scheme of things. Much more important historically were the French Revolution – applying the “rights of Man” to Jews -- and the dramatic acts of Napoleon in destroying the gates of the ghettos in Mantua and Venice. But the debates and changes that Dubin describes seem to illuminate many ideas that still affect the relationship of established religion and secular government, and the continuing conflicts in modern times that emerge from the dictates of religion and long Jewish traditions.