The Self-Actualizing Zionism of A.D. Gordon

How a philosopher who had never before engaged in hard physical work moved to Palestine, became an ascetic day laborer, and inspired a movement.

A farm in Palestine in the 1930s. Israeli Government Press Office.

A farm in Palestine in the 1930s. Israeli Government Press Office.

Observation
Feb. 15 2018
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 


This, the eighth essay by Hillel Halkin in his series on seminal Hebrew writers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, is devoted to two figures: the novelist Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner (1881-1921) and the philosopher A.D. Gordon (1856-1922): “friends, mutual admirers, and public disputants.” 

We present this essay in two consecutive parts: the first, yesterday, focuses mainly on Brenner, and the second, today, mainly on Gordon and on the pair’s disagreements.

The preceding seven essays in Halkin’s series have dealt one by one with the novelists Joseph PerlAvraham Mapu, and Peretz Smolenskin, the poets Yehudah Leib Gordon and Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, the essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, and the writer, journalist, and intellectual Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

 

V.

 

A.D. or Alef-Daled Gordon settled in Palestine in 1904, five years before Brenner did. He was forty-eight years old at the time, a part-time Hebrew educator and a rural administrator in the business empire of the wealthy Russian Jewish banker, landowner, and patron of the arts Baron David Ginzburg, and the most remarkable thing about his decision was its commitment to starting life over again in Palestine as a simple agricultural laborer. He had never before engaged in hard physical work, and as Yosef Aharonovitz, the editor of Hapo’el Hats’air, observed in a biographical memoir of him, he was suited to it neither by his constitution, his training, nor his mode of life.

The decision did not come out of the blue. Gordon had lived his life in the Russian countryside. He felt close to nature and to the agrarian romanticism of Tolstoy, and as a Zionist he was part of something larger. The year he left for Palestine marked the start of the Labor Zionist movement in the form of the Second Aliyah, set in motion by the pogroms of 1903-7 and the call of such different and even opposed Hebrew writers as Ahad Ha’am and Berdichevsky for a Zionism of self-actualization instead of waiting for the fulfillment of Herzlian promises. Gordon’s conviction that this meant a life of physical labor had been germinating in him for some time. “Deep down,” wrote Aharonovitz,

the perception had formed in him that bodily work was the vocation not only of the Jew in Palestine but of human beings everywhere; he judged it materially and spiritually beneficial, and he thought the difficulty lay not with it but with the failure to grasp its profound nature, with the absence of conditions conducive to its practice, and with the prejudices of the generations. . . . National and personal regeneration had to begin with it, especially with agriculture, and since they did, he had to be in the forefront.

It was not easy for someone of his age and frail physique to find such work in Palestine. Yet when offered a desk job there, Gordon refused to hear of it, and he finally obtained employment in the vineyards and orange groves of Petaḥ Tikvah. “Can you imagine your father a day laborer?” he wrote to his two grown children and wife, who had remained behind in Russia. “I feel like a newborn babe. The work is physically exhausting, but it gives so much, so much to the soul!”

The Palestinian landscape, Gordon wrote in a “Letter from the Land of Israel” published soon after his arrival, filled him with a sense of strangeness and awe. He was unused to the “transparency of its air” that lent everything “a powerful clarity painful to the unaccustomed eye,” to its “single tonality, the unchangingness of its beauty, that never loses its sharp edge,” and to “its eternally undisrupted silence.” In it he felt “like a guest—a welcome one, and if you will, even a dear next of kin who has been eagerly awaited, but a guest nonetheless.” Nature in Palestine did not have the “simple innocence” that it had in Russia. It was “deeper and infinitely more exalted in its spiritual grandeur. It bears the impress of an idea on its brow and an unspoken sorrow in its glance.” And yet the country’s Jews, even those living in the First Aliyah colonies, had little appreciation of it. They lived a “half-alive” existence that testified to “how little they have risen to nature’s heights in this land.”

Man and Nature, written during Gordon’s years in Palestine, is a philosophical formulation of his ideas on the “half-aliveness” of life lived apart from nature and the need to return to “nature’s heights.” Gordon worked on the book at night, since, first at En-Ganim, a workers’ settlement on the outskirts of Petaḥ Tikvah where he was joined in 1909 by his wife and daughter, and later elsewhere (from 1915 until his death in 1922, he lived in Degania on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee), he put in long days in the fields so long as his health permitted. Some of its sixteen chapters were published, as were his many articles, in Hapo’el Hatsa’ir. One of two socialist parties to grow out of the Second Aliyah, Hapo’el Hatsa’ir was less doctrinairely Marxist than its rival, Po’alei Tsiyon or “The Workers of Zion.” It was also more respectful of Jewish tradition, and Gordon, though he eventually lapsed in the ritual observance that he had adhered to while in Russia, never wavered in his positive attitude toward Judaism, just as he never warmed to Marxism. Socialism was for him a doctrine of human solidarity, not class warfare.

His home in En-Ganim, a wooden shack, became a Second Aliyah gathering place. Far older than his fellow ḥalutsim, who sometimes had to help him finish a day’s quota of work, he was their spiritual elder as well. Yet his struggle to live a life that taxed his strength to the utmost was accompanied by a struggle with his own doubts—about himself, about the future of Zionism, about his right to impose hardship on the wife and daughter who had followed him to Palestine. Aharonovitz relates:

He was highly introverted and led an intellectually intense life; there was in his eyes and expression a terrible, world-suffering sorrow. And yet at the same time, at least for the first half of his years in Palestine, he was a joyous—or perhaps I should I say “joyizing” —man. . . . He would [at communal get-togethers] dance himself into an ecstasy to the point of collapse, at which the physical side of him seemed to fall away. Yet there was more religious worship than joy in this; or if joy, it was, to use ḥasidic terminology, a “joy of the upper spheres.” Not only did the sorrow in his face not abate at such times, it grew greater with each movement. He was fond of the word freylikh [Yiddish for “joyful”], which he would utter with a snap of his fingers or a clap of his hands while dancing with every part of himself as though to the verse [in Psalms] “All my bones say, O Lord, who is like Thee?” Coming from him, though, the word seemed bathed in seven seas of despair.

There was indeed something of the saintly rebbe in the white-bearded, ascetic figure bearing the world’s suffering on his shoulders while urging his “Ḥasidim” to rejoice in their threadbare lot. More than the settlers of the First Aliyah, who remained largely loyal to Jewish practice, the pioneers of the Second, who did not, demonstrated the hidden power of religion. Nearly all had grown up in observant homes, and there was a secularized messianism in the goal of national redemption that they believed themselves to be the heralds of, just as there was a secularized devoutness in their fervor for the physical work that alone, so they held, in part under Gordon’s influence, could bring this redemption about. Although it goes back to the Bible, the Hebrew word avodah’s double meaning of “work” and “worship” informed their consciousness as it had no other generation’s in Jewish history. Kibbush ha-avodah, “the conquest of labor,” their term for the forging of a Jewish working class in Palestine, echoed the rabbinic term for the biblical conquest of the Land of Israel, kibbush ha-aretz, and the word kibbutz, too, had religious origins and referred in Eastern Europe to a commune of young men banded together for the purpose of Torah study. The templates of Judaism, though often unacknowledged, were never far from their minds.

Man and Nature is constructed on such a template. Although there is little explicit mention of Judaism in its pages, there is hardly one of them on which Judaism does not make itself felt. Behind Gordon’s account of man’s separation from nature and his call to heal the breach lies the Bible’s great myth of Creation, primeval harmony, rupture, and repair as reinterpreted by Ḥasidism via the mediation of Kabbalah.

“Nature” for Gordon is all that exists apart from man and whatever is man-made—is but not was, for once man was part of nature, too. Or rather, he was part of it before he was man, since the dawning of human consciousness was the beginning of a wedge driven between man and nature that, a mere crack at first, widened as consciousness—and with it, civilization—grew in the form of an ever-greater awareness of the internality of the self as opposed to the externality of the world. In the human race, as in every infant born to it, the sense of self evolves through a rift with nature. The more deeply the self is experienced, the greater this rift becomes.

For Gordon, therefore, man’s dividedness from nature began long before the urbanization of human society. Urbanization, with its loss of daily contact with nature and its surrounding of man by his own handiwork, simply aggravates a prior condition. This condition is one of duality and conflict. On the one hand, human consciousness, aware of “its absolute singularity and concentration in itself,” strives to live its uniqueness to the maximum. On the other hand, yearning to reunite with the world from which it has been torn, it feels imprisoned in its isolation.

The same consciousness that raised man from the lowliness of his animal state; that granted him, as it were, free will (at least when compared to the wills of other living beings); that illuminated all of life for him and opened up entirely new worlds—this same consciousness has enslaved him far more than any other creature: first and foremost, to his own drives (including the drive to rule others), but also to his fellow man, to human society, and even to the nature he aspires to dominate—and most of all, to the petty, diminished nature of his own self. And thus we see that human life, when judged by a higher, cosmic standard, is more limited, more difficult, more lived in darkness, and above all, uglier and more polluted than all other life because it is confined to a diminished self that, hidden and obscure to all else, is detached from all else.

The Hebrew words translated as “concentration in itself” and “diminished,” the noun tsimtsum and the adjective m’tsumtsam, derive from ḥasidic thought. In the theosophy of Lurianic Kabbalah, tsimtsum designates God’s withdrawal into Himself at the time of Creation to allow space for the world to come into existence; in Ḥasidism, in which this is known as the “first tsimtsum,” the term also refers to the human soul’s “contraction” to form an ego delimited from the world. This second tsimstsum, like the first, is necessary for individuation to take place; yet like the first, which results in a world apart from God, it has tragic consequences, since it is the source of all human selfishness and self-centeredness. And while God remains apprehensible in the world of Creation, in which He exists, as it were, behind a veil, the ego-bound individual is severed from Him, just as Gordon’s “diminished self” is from nature.

The opposite of tsimtsum in Ḥasidism is hitpashtut, expansion, the soul’s venturing beyond its self-made walls to apprehend God, whether through the veil of the world or in its own divinely-created depths. Hitpashtut is a key concept in Man and Nature, too, where its meaning is similar. In a reversal of contraction, the self can expand either outward toward nature by perceiving that it is a part of it, or inward toward the unconsciousness or pre-consciousness on which consciousness rests. This pre-consciousness is called by Gordon, using another kabbalistic term, ha-sekhel ha-ne’elam, “the Unknowable Mind”; although consciousness can grasp it but dimly, it is the universal intelligence dwelling in nature of which consciousness is a manifestation, so that by being open to its influx—its tsinorot shefa or “channels of abundance” in the kabbalistic language adopted by Gordon—consciousness is brought into contact with a greater reality. Tsimtsum and hitpashtut, though opposites, are aspects of a single process. There must be a contraction for an expansion to take place, and every expansion flows back into a contraction.

Although it is never quite clear whether Man and Nature is written by a pantheist for whom nature and God are one, or by a deist for whom nature proceeds from God, it is the insistence on a life lived in conjunction with nature and having no substitute in religious practice, prayer, or meditation that keeps Gordon’s book from being a mere restatement of ḥasidic or general mystical themes. Yet its author is neither a “nature lover” nor a primitivist. He has no interest in the naturalist’s study of nature or in the vacationer’s appreciation of it, both of which treat it as an object of consciousness, thus perpetuating the rift with it; nor does he wish to roll back civilization in its name. “When you return to nature,” he writes “return not to your starting point or empty-handed. Be like the traveler who has circled the globe and comes home again wiser, more experienced, and purged of the superfluous, but also wealthier and enriched by all he has seen and felt, by his material no less than his spiritual acquisitions.” Living with nature does not demand the abandonment of railroads and electricity. It demands participation rather than exploitation.

And this, says Gordon, means physical work. Nature itself is continually at work. It is always creating, always producing; the only way to join it is to work alongside it. “In all your ways, in all your life,” states Man and Nature, rising to a prophetic tone, “learn to be a partner in the labor of Creation.”

On that day, O Man, you shall be given a new spirit. New, too, will be your emotions and your hunger—not for bread, nor for wealth, but for work. You shall joy in all the work that you perform, in all that you do . . . and you shall do it in nature, sharing the world’s exertion, its life, and its expanse. Thus shall you work in the field, and thus shall you work in your home, and thus shall you build your home. And as you work you shall think of the world as your workshop and of nature and you as its workmen. On that day you shall say: “Beautiful is nature in its form, but more beautiful yet in the spirit of its striving.” When you pause to stretch your limbs and take a deep breath, you will be breathing more than air. . . . You will know the bliss of being in the Infinite.

Although the “you” of this passage is grammatically singular, it is not addressed to the isolated individual. Man and Nature stresses not only the social but also the national dimension in which the relationship to nature must be revised. Gordon subscribed to the belief in the nation as a natural, organic form of association, the highest rung on a ladder rising from the family, the clan, and the tribe, and he held attacks on it in the name of internationalist ideals to be psychologically and sociologically naive. “The role played by collectivities in the formation of individuals is far greater and deeper than is generally recognized,” he wrote. No individual, no matter how unique, is imaginable apart from the national life he partakes in. “All of his specialness, all of his independence of personality, emotional and intellectual makeup, verbal expression, opinion, and art are variations on collective themes.” It was wrong to think of nations as accidental or mechanical constructions that interposed themselves between the individual and humanity. Humanity was an abstraction that could not serve as a social framework for individual development. “In reality, there are only nations.”

It is the Jewish nation, then, and specifically, Zionism, that Man and Nature summons to a life of labor in nature. The Jews were the least and the most likely of peoples to respond to such a summons—the least because they were the world’s most de-naturalized, the most because the new life they were starting in Palestine gave them an unprecedented opportunity to remake themselves. And they had an additional advantage: a religion that sanctified both life and the nation and forbade turning away from either. Gordon understood well the affinities not only between his own thought and Ḥasidism but between Ḥasidism and other mystical traditions. Man and Nature concludes:

I don’t know if anyone has ever grasped as profoundly as Buddha the inner longing of the human soul to be freed from the private straitjacket that bars it from a higher life. But he misconstrued the matter, wrongly assuming that this longing was to transcend life when in fact it was for life itself. The nirvana he sought is in life—life that is greater than consciousness, that is one with Creation. . . .

Back to nature, then, back to life! Back, that is, to the nation! The life of man begins with the nation and the life of the nation begins with nature.

 

VI.

 

The reader of Brenner’s novel From All Sides first encounters the A.D. Gordon stand-in Aryeh Lapidot (Lapidot is a Sephardi, Palestinianized form of the Ashkenazi name Lapidus) through the eyes of his wife Hinde, a “small, thin, quiet, meek-tempered woman who had gained nothing in stature from this, the most recent period of her life.” Hinde has just returned from her daily routine of carrying two heavy cans of milk bought from local Bedouin to the marketplace in Petaḥ Tikvah, where she ladles them out to customers to supplement her husband’s meager income. For a moment she stands dreamily thinking of the comfortable life the two of them led in Russia, only to be brought back to reality by her surroundings.

What had happened to them? What?

Well, it had. This was their life now. Every evening he came home with his straw lunch basket, at the bottom of which might be an orange or dry piece of bread. Sometimes, especially if there was a visitor in the house, he would break into a little jig, a kind of dance. It wasn’t to warm himself from the cold; he was simply grateful for a day that hadn’t gone by without work. She would give him his supper—bread, olives, tea with milk—it was his main meal of the day – and he would remember to ask as a matter of course, “And you, have you eaten too?” A heart of gold! . . . He would say his evening prayers (lately, he wasn’t so strict about them), finish his food in two minutes, and go outside to find someone to chat with.

There is a tenderness in this description of a man of such simple needs that he hasn’t finished the bread and oranges that were his whole lunch—and a teasing of the hidden vanity that makes him dance with gratitude mostly when he has an audience and of the concern for his wife that can’t keep him by her side for more than two minutes before he has to look for someone else to talk to. A heart of gold! No doubt, but an ego, too.

Aryeh Lapidot’s life, or what we know of it, differs more from that of the real A.D. Gordon than does Oved Etsot’s from that of the real Brenner. In Russia Lapidot was a “crown rabbi,” a graduate of an officially recognized seminary filling a government post, and he has come to Palestine as an ordinary Zionist hoping to find a job commensurate with his background, turning to farm work when nothing else was available. His family is larger than Gordon’s was, too. It includes, besides his wife, two sons, one of them married, a daughter-in-law, and two grandsons—of whom, by the novel’s end, one son and one grandson are dead. The older grandson, Herzl, a sweet, lovable child, succumbs to an illness. His father, a helpless hunchback attacked by an Arab, dies from his wounds in the hospital bed opposite Oved Etsot’s as the latter begins writing his notebooks. The unmarried son resides in Jaffa, where he works as a functionary in a Zionist office, while living with the Lapidots in En-Ganim are the murdered man’s widow and her son Amram, a boy of nine or ten.

Life in Palestine has not gone as Aryeh Lapidot hoped it would. He has reason to feel both guilt and shame. Herzl might not have died had there been better medical care in the country, and the fatal attack on Herzl’s father takes places when, after despairing of a future in Palestine, he is on his way back from Jaffa, where he has gone to arrange his emigration papers; near Petaḥ Tikvah he and his brother Tsvi are waylaid by a lone, unarmed  robber—and when Tsvi, who brags about the pistol he always carries, tries to use it, he fumbles with the safety catch, lets the weapon be snatched from him, runs off leaving his brother in the lurch, and lies afterward to cover up his cowardice. Like Oved Etsot’s encounter with the three set-upon workers while journeying from Haifa to Petaḥ Tikvah, the incident is a mocking comment on Zionism’s ambition of transforming the Jewish character in Palestine. Tsvi’s office job, the opposite of the kind of work Aryeh Lapidot has practiced and preached, is a disappointment to Lapidot too, and the dead man’s widow is no help, either. Confused and unhappy, she has no idea of what she is doing in Palestine (much less in a leaky shack with her in-laws), to which she never wanted to come in the first place. How much gratitude can Lapidot really feel?

His one comfort is his grandson Amram. An irrepressible, mischief-loving boy, Amram has all of the courage his father and uncle failed to show. When an Arab shepherd grazes his flock on En-Ganim’s land, Amram hurls himself on him and drives him off. When yelled at for tossing a stone through the window of the Petaḥ Tikvah town council, he retorts: “But it was a perfect shot! Bull’s-eye! Rothschild can buy a new window.” “The rascal will grow up to be a man!” Hinde exults and Oved Etsot comments:

No one knew where the little tyke, who grew up under the ḥasidic tutelage of his grandfather, had learned to be so fearless. He came and went as freely as an Arab in the desert, a few raw vegetables were a meal for him, and he liked nothing better than to go around with a cattle prod, poking at cows or anything else attached to the ground, whether belonging to him or not. At night, especially if it was moonless and dark, he sometimes sat at the high point of the village, challenging in Arabic whoever approached, “Min hadda? Who goes there?”

“If all of Zionism had existed only for the sake of bringing this one creature into the world,” Oved Etsot muses, “it would have been worth it.” Amram is indeed the promise of the new Jew that Zionism has dreamed of. But is he a harbinger or an anomaly, the first of a new race or a chance mutation that will not be passed on? This question hovers over From All Sides. It is present on a Saturday afternoon before sunset in En-Ganim when Aryeh Lapidot and Oved Etsot clash. Oved Etsot has just remarked sarcastically that most of the ḥalutsim he knows would rather be in Europe looking at Rembrandts in a museum, and Lapidot replies:

“Is that so? You want Rembrandt? Then look above you. Look at that bluer than blue up there. What can I tell you? Do you see those clouds? Those colors in the corner of the sky? There’s your Rembrandt!”

Lying propped on an elbow with his legs tucked up, he launched expansively into his usual talk about nature, the prophets, the Hebrew spirit. Gradually, a small group assembled around him: full-time workers, part-time workers, non-working workers supported by their families in Russia, even a few homeowners. . . . One by one they came, said “Shabbat shalom,” and found a place on the straw mats the old man had put out. The conversation went on into the night, long after the Sabbath was over.

Mostly, Lapidot talks and the group listens. The listener he cares about most is Oved Etsot:

“Even from your point of view,” he said, speaking mainly to me, “even from your point of view that the yishuv won’t develop, that there’s no hope of its developing, that there’s no more land to buy . . . what can I tell you? I hardly need say I don’t agree. I believe the Bible was right: from the fields, from the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed, all will grow! And as far as our history is concerned—here, too, my good man, it’s not as you say. Our people’s history—what can I tell you?—I’m proud of it! But why talk about our whole people? We in this land are the people! If you ask me, the only Zionists are the ones who are here. The thousands of them here are enough. If we had one hundred thousand Jews—but the right kind of Jews—Jews who worked—we’d have all we needed. . . . What can I tell you? You can’t deny that life here is special. Things are happening, there’s a struggle. And I have to ask you—you! —isn’t this struggle—isn’t our life here with all its suffering—especially with its suffering, that’s our greatest asset—isn’t it material . . .”

“For a Zionist novel with Zionist heroes?” I asked.

The old man blanched. That was my answer?

Such passages, or at least the conversations on which they were based, must have been in Gordon’s mind when he wrote Brenner an open letter in Hapo’el Hatsa’ir a year after the publication of From All Sides. Its subject was an article of Brenner’s that had appeared there a month earlier in support of Yosef Aharonovitz. Aharonovitz had attacked, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary celebrations, the First Aliyah village of Rishon l’Tsiyon for continuing to embody the vices of the Rothschild colonies, and he had been accused in return of besmirching the colonists and belittling their central role in Jewish history. Aharonovitz, Brenner wrote, was right but had not gone far enough. He should also have said that Zionism itself was not central to Jewish history. It was time to stop thinking that Jewish hopes and attention all over the world should focus on Palestine. Zionism could solve none of the problems of the world’s Jews, who would have to fight for their dignity and well-being where they were. The Jews of Palestine mattered no less, but also no more, than Jews anywhere else did.

Gordon’s letter took issue with Brenner’s pessimism. He and Brenner, he stated, did not fundamentally disagree about Zionism’s present state, even if Brenner overlooked some of its achievements. (The most remarkable being the revival of spoken Hebrew, in which many Jews in Palestine now conducted their daily lives.) They disagreed about the future, about what was possible. He, Gordon, hoped Brenner might understand him.

I say “might” because I’m not sure. Not that I consider myself that profound and you that superficial, but we inhabit two different worlds. A “dreamer,” a “true believer,” a “fantasizer,” etc.—that’s what many people think of me and that’s what they must think if they wish to be honest. But you, though not compelled to think of me that way by the nature of your soul, are compelled, too, by the workings of your mind. You’re too much of a “realist” not to be—or at least so you regard yourself.

Brenner indeed thought, when it came to Zionism, that Gordon was whistling in the dark. But his esteem for Gordon’s character, its foibles notwithstanding, was great. In another scene in From All Sides, Oved Etsot and Diasporin (who, always on the move, has now turned up in Palestine) are discussing Lapidot’s religious beliefs; Oved Etsot observes that Lapidot never goes to synagogue and prays only when he is alone. “What do you make of that?” asks Diasporin. Oved Etsot answers:

“I . . . what I mean is . . . as far as prayer is concerned . . . do you follow me?” (I must say that I wasn’t following myself very well at this point.) “His religiosity comes, on the one hand, from his being unable to believe in nothing, and on the other—and this is the main thing—from that special vitality of his. I mean . . . of course, you have to take into account his age, his education, his habits, . . . although to tell the truth . . . do you know what? The man, in his quiet way, is a hero—a hero every hour of the day. The entire regiment has taken to its heels and he goes on storming the enemy all by himself while holding the flag high: I tell you, it’s grand! . . . And say what you will about his prayer, I think the world of it. Prayer like that could make me get down on my knees and pray, too.

Gordon, for his part, thought highly of Brenner. Brenner’s problem with Zionism, he wrote in his letter in Hapo’el Hatsa’ir, was not that he despaired of it but that his despair was not great enough. The “great despair” was the despair of “a great idea, a great belief, a great wanting, a great devotion.” He who possessed it, “even if he has rejected the possibility of his own private redemption, has no choice but to go on seeking the redemption of all else—to go on seeking it to the point of madness, as only the greatest despairer can do.”

 

VII.

 

And Aryeh Lapidot is close to despair. On top of everything, he is out of work. Whether because he has grown older and weaker, or because there is simply no demand, no one will hire him anymore. His son Tsvi has left Palestine for greener pastures, his widowed daughter-in-law is bedridden with malaria, and his wife Hinde has been driven out of the milk business by a competitor. A collection has been taken up in En-Ganim to keep hunger from the Lapidots’ door. The money is used to buy flour, which is given to Hinde to bake bread with. Aryeh, it is agreed, mustn’t know about it.

The secret is kept, at least for a while. But at En-Ganim’s annual party, no one is fooled by Lapidot’s show of high spirits or pays attention to the speech he has been prevailed upon to give. “There was nothing worth listening to,” we are told. “It wasn’t the same Lapidot of four or five years ago. What had happened to all his songs, his ḥasidic melodies, his jokes? Those times were gone.”

Oved Etsot isn’t at the party. As in the scene in front of the public library in Jerusalem, a more omniscient narrator now steps in.

“Have you heard about Oved Etsot?”

“No. What?”

“Nothing. But there were some workers here yesterday from Jaffa. The word there is . . .”

“Is what?”

“He’s taken to drink. He knocks down two glasses of brandy and one of red wine, and then the other way around. . . .”

“You don’t say! A drunk?”

“He hasn’t been seen at The Plow for ages. He’s not working there anymore.”

Oved Etsot may be drinking, but he has also been thinking. He has been thinking, a bit tipsily, about Aryeh Lapidot, with whom his depression has something to do. The man reminds him of Job.

“There was a man in a land in Arabia,” I chanted to myself. “And the man was innocent and upright and feared God and eschewed evil.” He truly did. Truly, he did some good. And it came to pass that a hunchbacked son was born to him, and so on and so forth. And in all this the man did not sin with his lips or cast aspersion upon his God. Who did not answer him out of the whirlwind. Who did not answer. Who . . .

Oved Etsot is not grieving for a world without God. He got over that long ago. He is grieving for Aryeh Lapidot, who has lost his God and will not, like Job, get Him back. And in grieving, he realizes how much Lapidot means to him, not just as the “hero” of a Zionism that stands no chance of success but as the one person he loves.

But no, there is another—and Oved Etsot now has a perfectly mad idea: he will adopt Amram! He knows it is mad, not only because Amram is happy where he is (like most children his age, he is not particularly aware of, or troubled by, his family’s financial worries), but because he, Oved Etsot, is the last person anyone would entrust a child to. Still, the thought makes him happy and helps pull him out of his depression, and he sits down one morning to write Aryeh Lapidot a letter proposing that Amram be put in his charge. In the middle of it, he stops.

The pen dropped from my hands. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Was I taking on too much? Mightn’t it be better to leave things as they were? But a minute later, I thought:

No, I’m not deluding myself. I’m not a self-deluder. Amram must come live with me. There’s no delusion in that. And if there is, I’m aware of it. I know that my telling myself, “Don’t worry, life will be good now”—that all the positive thoughts I’m about to express in my letter to Lapidot—that it’s all necessarily self-deluding, that it comes from the irresistible desire to live and fill one’s life with meaning. But since I know it’s a delusion, I’ve overcome it—unless the belief that I’ve overcome it is a delusion, too. . . . And how do I know I can devote my life to Amram? Am I capable of devoting it to anyone? And even if I devote myself to devoting it, how many Amrams are there? Can I take care of them all? Still, I’m ready. Amram will come and life will be good, better than it’s ever been.

Oved Etsot lies down for an afternoon nap. When he rises from it, his state of infinitely self-regressing consciousness is gone.

I was awake. I hadn’t died in my sleep. That was good. I took a few steps around the room. I coughed. I spat. I took a bracing sip of the cold, sweet tea on the table (I’d given up liquor earlier that winter), stood there for a minute or two, and then went to the window and opened it. Children were playing noisily outside. I went to the other window; it was open. There was a stormy sea in the distance. The Mediterranean. Walking on the beach that morning, I had come across the antlered corpse of a deer vomited up by the waves and had thought: “How not nice it is to be dead vomit! And how nice is everything else! How nice it is to be alive!”

Alive. Yes, to live. And a man must live—well, no, not must, but it’s good if he does—in one place. Let him stay there and strike roots. . . . It may be—it may very well be—that it’s impossible to live in this place, but one must live here anyway. One must die here. There’s nowhere else.

The letter proposing to adopt Amram never gets written, because later that day Oved Etsot suffers a relapse of his illness that causes him to be hospitalized again. His thoughts on living and dying in Palestine, in any case, have not made him a Zionist. Rather, as he explains in a letter that he does send to Aryeh Lapidot, which reads like a first draft of Brenner’s 1912 article in Hapo’el Hatsa’ir, “in one place” could just as well be Argentina or America: “Our Palestinian exile (yes, exile, because there will never be a Jewish majority here) may in some ways surpass other Jewish communities and in others fall short of them. Not everything, my dear Lapidot, is up to us. We have to do all we can where we are.” His own “all we can,” so Oved Etsot has decided, will be in Palestine. That is as far as he is willing to go.

It is still the wet Palestinian winter. “It rained and rained and on the fourth day it stopped,” the last page of From All Sides relates. At dawn Hinde, who has regained her milk route by outbidding her outbidders, sets out for the Bedouin encampment. Amram’s mother drags herself from bed to knead dough for the day’s baking. Aryeh Lapidot looks on and says nothing; there are things it is best not to know. Hinde comes home exhausted, drops the empty cans, rests for a second, and spells the sick woman. Aryeh Lapidot and Amram go to look for firewood to bake the pitas that Hinde prepares.

The boy gathered armful after armful of thorny, woody-stemmed weeds left from the summer and loaded them onto his grandfather’s back. Then he collected what had fallen, down to the last stem, and they brought it all to the yard.

Amram went to sit by his grandfather—who, momentarily lost in thought, had already put down his load—and laid his little head in his lap. There was a premonition of bread in the rain-rinsed air and, more subduedly, inside the shack. The sick woman was asleep. The rain had stopped drumming on the windows and in her ears, though its last drops still dripped from the wooden planks of the walls. A single drop broke away from a wet patch and hung on the edge of a void.

On the void’s edge.

Tongues of flame rose in the oven. Hinde carried out the pitas like an Arab peasant woman, a tin sheet of them balanced on her head. The folds of the tin suggested hopeful rows of sown sesame. And there was hope that the bread, enough to last for a week, would come out well, too. Amram’s head still rested in Aryeh Lapidot’s lap. There was something simple and sad in how they clung to each other, something worthy of compassion but also mysterious and infinitely precious. Thorny burrs stuck to their hair and loose clothes. When the old woman asked for help with the baking, they rose together. There was in how they stood a great mystery, too. At their posts. The old man and the boy, crowned with thorns, at the posts where life had placed them. The sun was out as before the rain. The world was full of thorns. The final reckoning was yet to come.

 

VIII.

 

In his desire to end From All Sides on a poetically resonant note, Brenner underlined the symbolism of the thorns and of the “void” and its pendant drop. He may have done so more heavily than he need have, but the thorns’ Christ-like crown must be seen against the background of what came to be known as the “Brenner Affair” —a dispute set off in the Hebrew literary world by a 1910 article in which, while making the case for a secular Jewish identity independent of Judaism, Brenner dismissed the Jewish “fear” of the New Testament. Its story of Jesus, he said, could legitimately “strike a religious chord” in a Jew just as it could, say, in a post-Christian artist of the Renaissance like Leonardo da Vinci.

In the furor that followed, in which he was accused of erasing a line between Judaism and Christianity that even a freethinking Jew like himself should have respected, Brenner had his detractors and supporters (of whom Gordon, who stood up for him on the grounds of freedom of expression, was one); now, in bringing his novel to a close with a provocatively Christian image, he was having, as it were, the last word. Still, the point was not to portray Lapidot and Amram with Christian haloes but to cast their human steadfastness in a universally sacral light. The entire scene is indeed posed like a painting. Reading it, one easily imagines a shaft of radiance from above, illuminating, in the darkness of the world, the man and the boy at their posts.

Aryeh Lapidot emerges in From All Sides as an indomitable figure. And yet despite Oved Etsot’s mention of Lapidot’s “usual talk about nature, the prophets, [and] the Hebrew spirit,” a reader knowing that Lapidot was modeled on A.D. Gordon would never have guessed from the novel that Gordon was one of three original thinkers of his age to grapple with the relationship of secular Zionism to Judaism. The other two were Ahad Ha’am and Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1920s and early ’30s, and each man took a different tack. For Ahad Ha’am, secular Zionism was a natural evolution of Jewish tradition, which was fated to shed its religious character in a modern age. For Kook, it was a historically necessary but temporary break with tradition, of which it was a sublimated expression and to which it would return. For Gordon, it was a potential bridge from Judaism to a new form of religiosity unlike any that had come before.

When considered today, all three men strike one as having grasped something essential while missing as much if not more. If the Gordon of Man and Nature still has something to say to us, this is not what he had to say to the generation of Second Aliyah youth who found their inspiration in him. Rather, it is to remind us of how, in the century since his death, the rift between man and nature has grown exponentially, far beyond anything he could have imagined; what is most striking about his thinking is how anachronistic it now seems. He was not a forerunner of the environmentalism that is our contemporary reaction to nature’s destruction; that is about man’s saving nature, whereas Man and Nature is about nature’s saving man. His creed of physical labor, too, strikes one as antiquated in an age of robotics; its greatest relevance is the shock of how irrelevant it has become. In the end, one is left with Gordon’s mysticism. Without its social and Zionist dimensions, however, this comes across as labored and derivative.

None of this would have caused Brenner, who took little interest in Gordon’s philosophy and accorded it no intrinsic value, to admire Gordon any less. A declared atheist with a stated aversion to mysticism of any kind, Brenner thought Man and Nature simply another rationalization, as Oved Etsot puts it to Diasporin, “of the inability to believe in nothing.” But he also thought it—to quote from the same passage—a sign of “special vitality,” of a powerful life-force in search of a justification. Although the will to live needs no reasons, the willer to live, the person or people in whom the will to live resides, demands to experience the will to live as rational. As far back as In Winter, Yirmiyah Feierman ponders the suicide he would commit if he were to listen to the “inner reason” that finds life senseless, and in all of Brenner’s fiction the possibility of suicide, personal and national, keeps coming back to haunt its characters. Aryeh Lapidot—not the philosopher of “nature, the prophets, and the Hebrew spirit” but the man who rises on a cold, rainy morning to bake the bread of life with his wife and grandson—is the answer to “Why live?” that Brenner has to give, and this answer, stripped to its essentials, is: because. Or, to add a subject and a predicate: because the will to live wills to live.

The Jewish will to live, for Brenner, meant the Jewish will to work, to create life—and his thinking about this, which linked him to Gordon, can sound as dated as Gordon’s. The concluding lines of his “A Self-Critique in Three Volumes” are surely the oddest of any major essay of literary criticism ever written:

Ever since Mendele [who, according to Brenner, was the first Hebrew author to give an honest account of the pathology of East European Jewish life], our literature of self-criticism has outlined our mission: to acknowledge the historic ignobility of our existence, our essentially flawed character—and to go beyond it and start all over. . . .

And at the same time, our literature—our poor, bewildered Hebrew literature!—asks: by what logic can a “we” become a not-we?

But let logic asks what it asks. Our will to live, which is above all logic, tells us otherwise. It tells us that everything is possible. It whispers to us the hope: workers’ communes, workers’ communes.

Workers’ communes: this is our revolution! The only one.

By what logic can a we become a not-we? This was the conundrum posed by Otto Weininger when wondering how Jewish identity could be perpetuated by the negation of Judaism and that Berdichevsky was raising when he wrote “we will be either the last Jews or the first Hebrews”; it is one that secular Zionism struggled with practically from its inception and that Israeli culture struggles with to this day. To suggest resolving it by means of “workers’ communes”—the kibbutzim and moshavim of Jewish agriculture in Palestine that barely existed when Brenner wrote these words—strikes one as the equivalent of trying to lift a ton weight with a feather duster.

But Brenner was not alone in this belief. The conviction that the future of Zionism depended on new forms of social and economic organization in Palestine was the essence of Labor Zionist ideology. Brenner, who insisted on a life of monastic simplicity (this was one reason that his marriage in 1913 to a Jerusalem schoolteacher, with whom he had a son, broke up after a few years), was close to Labor Zionism in his views. He wrote for its publications, took part in its educational activities, and even, not long before his death, lived for several months in a tent in the Galilee, where he taught Hebrew to a “Workers Brigade” engaged in road construction.

His death was one of several dozen resulting from the Arab disturbances of May 1921, the first massive outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in the period of the British Mandate. Brenner was living at the time with a Jewish family in an isolated farmstead near Jaffa; though warned to move to a safer place, they chose to remain to protect the property and were murdered by an Arab mob. He had as if predicted such an end for himself in a eulogy for eight ḥalutsim who were killed in a gun battle with superior Arab forces in April 1920 while defending the isolated commune of Tel Hai in Palestine’s far north. Led by the ex-Russian army officer Yosef Trumpeldor, the outnumbered group had refused to evacuate the settlement it could have left in time. Brenner wrote of it:

A cold calculation would have left no room for doubt [that Tel Hai should have been evacuated]. But the heart, the selfless heart, believed in miracles; it believed the normal laws would be suspended; that devotion was everything; that love for a piece of earth could move mountains. Besides, if we left every place in which there was danger, there would be no place we would not have to leave, no position we would not have to retreat from—but to where? . . . And what now? Danger is everywhere. And when, tomorrow or the day after, it overtakes us in this or that form, will we know, every one of us, that we have no choice? Will we realize the necessity of rising to the occasion? Will each one of us stand his ground, with the name of Trumpeldor and Trumpeldor’s comrades on his lips, in the place chosen for him by destiny?

Brenner’s death crowned his conversion into a Zionist legend that was already in the making in his lifetime. It elevated him to a symbol of the ethos of af-al-pi-khen, “Nevertheless”: nevertheless we will stand firm, nevertheless we will endure, even if the situation seems hopeless. His decision to remain committedly in Palestine despite his conviction that Zionism would fail was, paradoxically, held to be the ultimate Zionist act. He had become, in the eyes of many, the Great Despairer that A.D. Gordon had urged him to be.

 

IX.

 

And so is From All Sides Brenner’s non-Zionist affirmation of Zionism as, in modern times, the Jewish people’s will to live at its most intense?

Not quite. Brenner remained in Palestine. His character Oved Etsot, let us recall, did not. Wherever he was when his notebooks passed on to their future editor, it was as “a suffering wanderer in the far-flung Jewish world.” The man who wrote of Palestine “It’s impossible to live in this place, but one must live here anyway. One must die here. There’s nowhere else,” went somewhere else.

This act of outright desertion—in the context of the novel, it is no less—is not stressed. On the contrary: although mentioned on the first page of From All Sides, in fact in the first sentence, it is never referred to again, so that by the time we have reached the last page, we are more than likely to have forgotten it. It is a detail that is disclosed to us when we cannot appreciate its significance and then buried beneath everything that follows.

There is a literary slyness in this that is not characteristic of Brenner. Why did he do it? There was no compelling fictional reason, after all, why Oved Etsot’s notebooks could not have been found in Palestine or in some unspecified place. It wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Nothing, that is, except the perspective in which the entire novel needs to be read. It is as if, having worked our way through a 150-page contract that we are satisfied we have understood, we are now told by our lawyer, “You had better take another look at Clause 1a.”

But what does this new perspective reveal? That the “nevertheless” of From All Sides is not really nevertheless? That it is nullified by Oved Etsot’s re-emigration? That a people of suffering wanderers will always be a people of suffering wanderers?

Or does it tell us to heed the warning not to confuse Brenner with his characters? Perhaps he and Oved Etsot, having kept company since Lvov, have finally parted ways, one sticking to his post while the other jumps ship, so that the authorial “nevertheless” is nevertheless “nevertheless.”

Or is it both of these things? Brenner’s attitude toward Zionism, as toward the Jewish people, was deeply ambivalent. How better express this than by having the character who was his alter-ego abandon Palestine while he himself refused to?

But why, then, so slyly?

There is no answer to these questions in From All Sides. There is one, however, in a letter that Brenner wrote in September 1911, scant months after finishing the novel, to the Yiddish author Avrom Reyzen, who had just emigrated from Warsaw to New York. The letter was written in Yiddish:

To my good friend, A. Reyzen,

You must remember asking me in a letter a while ago whether you should come to Palestine. I answered what I did, and now the shoe is on the other foot. I have to get away from Palestine. In the first place, I’m fed up with it. And secondly, even if I could live with that—after all, where would I not be fed up? —I quite simply have no way of making a living here, especially now that I have a brother and sister with me. [Brenner’s younger brother Meir and younger sister Lyuba had arrived from Russia earlier that year.] But where should I go? I have no desire to return to England or Galicia. That leaves America.

Brenner went on to ask for a favor. He wasn’t planning to take his brother and sister with him and would manage to scrape up the money for passage, but he was worried about being turned back by the immigration authorities in New York if he arrived with no means of support and no family to vouch for him. Could Reyzen obtain a written job offer for him from one of the city’s Yiddish newspapers that he could produce if questioned? The promised job could be a proofreader’s, translator’s, headline writer’s, or anything else; he wouldn’t expect the paper actually to hire him. “Don’t put off doing it,” he urged Reyzen, “because I want to start out before the cold weather sets in.”

And so the “far-flung” place Oved Etsot’s notebooks were found in was New York—and Brenner was hoping to join him there.

There are two ways of thinking about this. One is to assume that Brenner knew while writing From All Sides that he was planning to leave Palestine without his brother and sister; that this is why he had Oved Etsot leave Palestine, too; and that all of the latter’s brave words about making a stand there while adopting Amram are intended to be pathetically hollow. Like the failed Zionism of which he is an embodiment, Oved Etsot is a bluff. Had we, the novel’s readers, kept its first sentence in mind, we would have realized as much all along.

This makes From All Sides a frightfully cynical work.

But it is also possible that Brenner had no thought of re-emigrating while writing the novel. We have seen in his letters from Lvov how mercurial were his moods regarding Palestine. Suppose he wrote From All Sides intending Oved Etsot’s commitment to life there—a commitment that he, Brenner, felt, too, at that point—to be genuine. Yet after reaching the novel’s end, he changed his mind. He has had enough of Palestine. He wants to leave. And yet if he does, he gives the lie to the story he has written. What does he do? He writes a preface, or returns to an earlier draft of one, and inserts the fact that Oved Etsot has left Palestine before him. If he, Brenner, follows suit, he and Oved Etsot remain true to each other. The novel’s readers can blame only themselves for not having realized they were tipped off.

This is probably the best way to think of it. But it would be a mistake to let one’s reading of From All Sides depend solely on such an interpretation. Oved Etsot is not the hero of the novel. That is, as Oved Etsot himself says, Aryeh Lapidot. From All Sides, though it has always been considered the Brenner legend’s most important literary text, does nothing to enhance that legend. Read in the light of Brenner’s letter to Avrom Reyzen, it only deliberately helps tear it down.

Though Brenner never left for New York, his prognosis for Zionism remained grim. In mid-1919, two years after the Balfour Declaration, he wrote to the Labor Zionist intellectual Berl Katznelson:

From all I know about what’s called the Jewish people, I don’t believe it will ever build a thing in Palestine. It will continue to live off the dole (its Zionists as well as its old-time Orthodox); every year a few Zionist big shots will settle here along with several hundred more ordinary Jews. Sixty or seventy percent of them will re-emigrate. Fifty percent of the young people who are here would leave at the first opportunity.

It was Gordon, not Brenner, who proved to be the realist. This was not because Gordon was politically more astute but because he believed more in the Jewish people and thought it capable of more. Brenner’s love-hate relationship with his Jewishness could take him only so far. It could make him desperately want the Jews to be cured but not persuade him that they could be. In the end, Gordon would have said, his despair was still not great enough.

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More about: A.D. Gordon, Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Yosef Hayyim Brenner