Yosef Haim Brenner, “Nerves” – pardon my ramblings…

In what ways is the portrayal of the Yishuv in Brenner’s “Nerves” similar to the representations of the shtetl we have read in the course?

The Yishuv in Brenner’s story is presented as decaying, a placed of “self-imposed poverty. A village barely twenty-five years old.. and lived in by whom?,[…], just today your innkeeper said to me: ‘I should let my son grow old in this hole like myself? I’d rather see him dead’.” (Brenner 37).

pitiful jewish village versus tall foreign cities…  (37)

Sense of dislocation: Hebrew is still somewhat unfamiliar: “A bird whose Hebrew name neither of us knew flew briliantly, flashing green against the blue sky, and disappeared.” (Brenner 37)

Interesting quote: “my heart goes out to anything that is forced to put forth branches before it has time to strike root…” (37), this could be a metaphor for Jewish people in the land of Palestine at the time, in pre-state times.

Outcasts in a yishuv in comparison to beggars in old villages in Egypt.

Tree tops are doomed. (37) – same wretched jews on the run… what misery! (37)

Landing in Palestine is “why new arrivals in this place are always so depressed… it’s like waking form a dream…. so this is what our promised land is like!” (37) – why the disappointment? I wonder. Perhaps because of the desert-like description of the environment that surrounds them.

What does Brenner suggest are the challenges facing the Jewish national project in the Yishuv?

Unindustrialized Palestine was a challenge? umm. It seems to me that the challenge was to know what to do next upon arrival. After having idealized what it the promised land was going to be… a home aways from home, no longer in Diasphora… the rightful place to be, you had to land in the harsh reality that what you found was not even closer to what you thought it would be. What a paralyzing moment. And what next??? what do you do when you have arrived??? How do you make sense of that eternal voyage that many didn’t survive? I can understand what it means not to have a home. I know what is to be from nowhere.

The Void of Fear – what an interesting name (40) – “I couldn’t, didn’t want to free myself of the seemingly irrational desire for something else, for different possibilities, other places…” – The grass is always greener somewhere else… but home is where your hear is.

Interesting: “traveling in fourth class”  (41) – I only knew first, second and third… I think this might be sarcasm.

Sense of endless death: “I spent hours at a time in a state of total apathy, without a single feeling or thought,an apathy that could only belong to a life already over…” (42, after the stowaway killed himself in a London boarding house). Narrator thought the family he encountered in Germany was the family of the stowaway who took his life.

What about jewish “nerves”? “what a people… and yet it can get used to anything. In fact it’s happiest in the ghetto. I don’t mean that literally… although in a certain sense… outside of the ghetto it simply isn’t at home” (44) Am I detecting some Stockholm syndrome here?

Ummm – Yishuv – “if only we were capable… I mean really capable of making something of this place. Because all places anywhere belong to those who put their lives into them.” – this alone can fuel a zionist? Well, even the crappiest place in the universe is better than no place at all!

What is the incarnation of the Wandering Jew? (46)

What is a predatory Jew (49) – Cocky, energetic, wolfish one with oily black hair and a sharp little mustache that curl up at the edges. Pickpocket and a shark who deal with human flesh.

56- woman with her five children who was the symbol of Jewish homelessness and misfortune.

56 – “good and evil, and al that they imply, in themselves… Good and evil as two different worlds, two essences… with an infinite abyss between them. ”

Why might it be surprising, after reading “Nerves,” to learn that Brenner is considered a major Zionist culture hero?  Is the story at all inspirational from a Zionist perspective?


(1881–1921), Hebrew writer from Ukraine Ukraine, and murdered near Tel Aviv on 2 May 1921.

1894 to 1897  Studied at a yeshiva.

He continued to study Hebrew literature. This period of his life is reflected in his first novel, Ba-Ḥoref (In Winter; 1904).

Rejecting the Zionism advocated by Ahad Ha-Am,

Brenner affiliated with the Bund.

He was inspired by Russian literature and for some time followed Tolstoy’s principles; these influences are seen in his novel Mi-Saviv la-nekudah (Around the Point; 1904).

In 1900 his stories appeared in Hebrew and Yiddish simultaneously, and his first book, Me-‘Emek ‘akhor (From the Murky Depths), a collection of stories, was published in Warsaw.

That same year he traveled frequently to Warsaw, where he became friendly with Avrom Reyzen; was imprisoned for three months for carrying out illegal activities for the Bund; and was appointed to the editorial board of the Białystok Yiddish newspaper, Folksbildung.

From 1901 to 1904 Brenner served in the Russian army, stationed in the city of Oryol (Orel), where despite hardships he broadened his knowledge of Russian literature, social science, and philosophy, and published several stories in 1903. His “Shanah aḥat” (One Year; 1908) recalls his four-month period of basic training. In 1903 he left the Bund to join up with the Social Revolutionaries, and in January 1904 he deserted the army, illegally crossed the border, and made his way to London, where he lived until 1908. There he published Yiddish articles (often anonymously), essays, journalistic and critical pieces, and his book Mi-Saviv la-nekudah. His achievements in London were crowned with the success of the journal he founded and edited called Ha-Me‘orer (January 1906–September 1907), a prominent sounding board for young writers. In 1908 he moved to Lwów, where he stayed with Gershom Shofman and edited two of the Revivim anthologies, collections of new Hebrew literature.

Brenner settled in Palestine in 1909, living alternately in Haifa, Ḥaderah, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Shemen. He served on the editorial board of the weeklies Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir and Ha-Aḥdut, and published two additional anthologies in the Revivim series. His stories profoundly articulated the realities of pre-state Israel, and his critical analyses and journalistic pieces faithfully reflected the condition of literature both there and in the Diaspora; of particular note are his critical reviews ofMendele Moykher-SforimYehudah Leib Gordon, and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski.

In Palestine, Brenner was respected as a leading authority for the community of Zionistintellectuals. He taught at the Herzliya gymnasium and was forced north in 1917 when the school relocated after the Turks deported the residents of Tel Aviv. After World War I he returned to Tel Aviv where he edited the magazine Ha-Adamah, taught, and played a central role in public affairs. In 1920 he was a Hebrew instructor at the Gedud ha-‘Avodah (labor corps) in Migdal near the Sea of Galilee. In March 1921 he moved to the Abu Kabir neighborhood near Tel Aviv, planning to devote his time to writing. However, together with three members of his host family and two young writers, he was murdered by an Arab mob on 2 May 1921. As he had refused to be rescued without the others, his tragic death only reinforced the “Brenner myth” that had made him so admired during his lifetime. Collections of his writings were issued in eight volumes by the StybelPress (1924–1930), in three volumes (1956–1967) including his letters, and in four volumes (1985). Several collections of his writings have been issued.

Brenner was one of the most influential and admired of modern Hebrew writers. Those who knew him were spellbound by his creativity as an artist and his sense of morality that led him to feel personally responsible for the fate of his people. Yet his life and labors were characterized by a personal, existential, and literary paradox. Though skeptical about the idea of a Jewish renaissance in the Land of Israel, he nonetheless lived in the Land, devoting his whole being to the establishment of a cultural center and invoking the policy of “nevertheless” and “despite everything,” an approach that was to be regarded as his last will and testament. His poetics, variously described as “nonfabricated” or “nonfictional art” (Gershon Shaked) and as exhibiting “the rhetoric of sincerity” (Menaḥem Brinker), articulate the relationship between an actual shattered reality and the described reality. His style, which Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik once termed “reckless,” has in the last decades been considered sensitive and self-conscious, aimed at avoiding flowery language and at restraining pathos. His stories, which amalgamate autobiographical material with characters and events copied from reality, convey the distress of humanity in general, and of the Diaspora and (pre-state) Israeli Jew in particular.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s