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!

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