Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 38

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The originality o f his writing is matched by a force o f persona l­
ity so striking tha t the impact which he exerted on his con tem ­
poraries is immediately understandab le. For tha t reason it seems
strange tha t the first English translation o f any o f B ren n e r ’s
major works should have appeared only ha lf a century af te r his
d ea th .1T he reason may lie, perhaps in the fact tha t he was clearly
so uncom fortable a person.
Clearsightedness is a rare and adm irable quality, bu t the ability
to see too clearly can be a disquieting gift. In B renne r’s case, an
insight bo rdering on the prophetic tu rn ed him into the con­
science o f his generation . His writings perfo rm ed the function o f
a surgeon’s knife, prob ing and incising his people’s spiritual
wounds, and ruthlessly gouging ou t the dead and ro tting flesh.
Unable by tem peram en t to see the world th rough rose-colored
spectacles and incapable o f self-delusion, he portrayed life as he
saw it — and what he saw was rarely attractive.
Yet the sheer starkness o f portrayal proved therapeu tic. I n ­
deed, B renner was an embodiment o f the paradox tha t hope
springs from despair, tha t optimism is bo rn o f pessimism, tha t all
too frequently it is necessary to be cruel to be kind. His s treng th
lay in an ascetic unders tand ing tha t suffering and mortification
cleanse and purify the spirit, tha t at times only the lash can restore
the body to life, tha t an ice-cold shock may stimulate a nervous
system which a creep ing paralysis has rend e red ineffective.
Short though it was, B renne r’s lifetime spanned an age o f
agonizing transition for the Jewish people. His forty years were
lived among a generation o f the wilderness, for whom one epoch
had inevitably closed bu t whose prom ise o f salvation still awaited
fulfillment. T he pogroms which swept across B renn e r ’s native
Russia in the very year o f his birth pu t an end once and fo r all to
the hopes for equality and enfranch isem en t which had sustained
Russian Jewry th rough the vicissitudes o f its stormy history in the
n ine teen th century. B renne r grew up at a time when the lofty
ideals o f the movement o f en ligh tenmen t, which had envisaged
Russian Jewry splendidly in tegrated into wider Russian society,
Breakdown and Bereavement,
translated by Hillel Halkin, Cornell University
Press, 1971.