One Great Hebrew Writer Memorializes Another

July 20, 2021 | S.Y. Agnon
About the author:

One of the most gifted Hebrew novelists of the beginning of the last century—and perhaps the most unsettling—Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner brought new life to the literary scene in the Land of Israel when he settled there in 1909. His murder during the 1921 Arab riots in Jaffa brought an abrupt end to his career. Forty years later, his friend and one of his few peers, the novelist S.Y. Agnon, saw fit to eulogize him in an Israeli journal. Jeffrey Saks offers a translation of Agnon’s reminiscence, which concludes with a talmudic citation:

I will say no more of Brenner, except that when they found his body he was clutching a bundle of pages from the book he had just written, with pages strewn around his body drenched in his blood. Blood is the soul of man. He wrote his books with his soul; his blood sanctified his writing. It is said of [the 2nd-century sage] Rabbi Ḥaninah ben Tradyon that he expounded upon the Torah with his pupils gathered about him while clutching a scroll of the law to his bosom, [despite the Roman decree against Torah study]. They caught him and asked why he had taught Torah. He replied, “It is the command of the Lord my God.”

They brought him to be sentenced, and wrapped him in his Torah scroll, and encircled him with bundles of branches, and they set fire to it. And they brought tufts of wool and soaked them in water, and placed them on his heart, so that his soul should not quickly depart his body, but that he would die slowly and painfully. His daughter said to him: “Father, must I see you like this?” He said to her: “If I alone were being burned, it would be difficult for me, but now that I am aflame along with a Torah scroll, He who will seek retribution for the disgrace accorded to the Torah will also seek retribution for the disgrace accorded to me.”

Heaven forfend that I compare our modern Hebrew literature to the Torah itself. Yet, a man sanctified his life through his death and his death through his life, and was slaughtered in the Land of Israel for being a Jew among the Jews of the Land. It is fitting to say of him, “He who will seek retribution for the disgrace accorded to us will also seek retribution for the disgrace accorded to him.”

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