Uri-Nisn Gnesin : between the worlds, belonging to both



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This dissertation examines the life and work of the Jewish writer Uri-Nisn Gnesin (1879-1913). Living in Russia, using Yiddish in his daily life, and writing prose in Hebrew, Gnesin was part of a multicultural and multilingual generation, which was too assimilated to live the traditional life of its fathers, and yet, not able to break with it completely. For many Russian Jews, this dual identity, rarely recognized in modern scholarly discourse on Hebrew literature, resulted in psychological discomfort, feelings of guilt, and other traumas. Addressing this identity crisis, I show how the worldview of an assimilated Russian Jew is reflected in Gnesin’s Hebrew fiction. I offer an alternative view of Gnesin as a Jewish-Russian writer whose dual identity played a more complex role in his literary work and whose influence transcended a simple knowledge of languages or classic texts. It was not merely a language or a book, but the unique Jewish-Slavic atmosphere of small Eastern European towns that provided Gnesin with all the models necessary for thinking, feeling, and writing.

In my study, I consider theories of canonization to demonstrate the reason why Gnesin has first and foremost been categorized as a Hebrew writer. Contemporary scholars of modern Hebrew fiction generally agree that Gnesin’s fiction is secular due to the non-Jewish associative infrastructure of his work. By exploring the historical and spiritual conditions of Gnesin’s generation, I attempt to overcome the limitations of such a view, which overemphasizes the role of language in his development as a writer. A functional analysis of Gnesin’s literary language maintains that although he found his best form of expression in literary Hebrew, it appeared mostly in the final stages of his writing. I propose that Gnesin and that whole generation of modern Hebrew writers used a special “hyper-language” consisting of three integral parts: a natively spoken language, a commonly spoken non-Jewish national language, and a written literary language. Ultimately, Gnesin appears to be a fin de siècle writer who used Hebrew language as a sophisticated tool to propagate his troubled Jewish-Russian experience.