10 Things You Need to Know About… Josef Haim Brenner

Pioneer of modern Hebrew literature

1. Born in the Ukraine in the Russian empire in September 1881, Josef Haim Brenner had a yeshiva education and went on to teach Hebrew as a young man in Bialystok and Warsaw. In 1900, his first story was published, in the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz. The following year he published a volume of stories.

2. Then he was drafted into the Imperial Russian Army (1902). Two years later, when war with Japan broke out, Brenner deserted and escaped to London.

3. In London, working as a typesetter, he was active in Poalei Zion. He edited and published a Hebrew periodical. He married and the couple had a son.

4. He made aliyah in 1909, working first as a farmer. He wanted to build the land, but the strain of manual labor proved too much. He began teaching at the Gymnasium Herzliya in Tel Aviv.

5. He kept writing. Modern Hebrew was in its infancy, and he experimented in both form and language. He sought to capture the sound of spoken Hebrew, and he used not only Hebrew vocabulary, but Aramaic, Yiddish, Arabic and English.

6. It was his aim to portray truth without any authorial intervention – an impossibility, of course, but a useful fiction. The subjects of his novels include moving from religious to secular life; military service; the life of Jewish workers in London; the life of the settlements in Palestine – in other words, he wrote from his own experiences. His characters wander, hoping to improve their destiny and failing. A deep sense of pessimism permeates his work.

“The old man and the youth were both crowned by thorns, as they stood the watch of life together. The sun was shining, life was full of thorns. The account was still open.”

7. His articles, plays and novels are firm in their advocacy of a secular Hebrew identity and in their concern for social justice.  His characters are plagued by economic insecurity; they are left stranded, their goals unrealized, their lives bitter. They are savaged by poverty, disappointment and humiliation. Even life in Palestine is discouraging.

8.  He wrote essays for Poalei Zion and was one of the founders of Histradut, the federation of Israel’s trade unions. And he translated Crime and Punishment and works by Tolstoy into Hebrew.

9. Today, his works are studied in academia and admired for their existentialist elements, but they are no longer well known to the general public.

10. Brenner died on May 2, 1921, killed in anti-Jewish riots in Jaffa. Brenner House stands at the site of his murder, a center for the Histradut youth organization. Kibbutz Givat Brenner, near Rehovot, is named for him, as is Israel’s Brenner Prize, a prestigious literary award.

In Tel Aviv, Brenner Street runs east from Allenby between Sheinkin and Balfour.


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