LANGUAGE and LITERATURE in ISRAEL
Israel is a source of inspiration and a powerful motivating force for writers and poets. A new society built on an ancient heritage, it exists in a tangle of problems and relationships. Changes occur swiftly and sharply: the pioneering period, the struggle for independence, the building of the country, the wars and the mass immigrations from all over the world. Every new era, every social change brings new moral challenges and creates an atmosphere of constant restlessness.
Each of these alone and all of them combined provide material for creative writing. Prose and poetry both draw motifs, images and a wealth of expression from the Bible, various Jewish sources (Mishna, Talmud and Kabbala) and the creative traditions of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, as well as from the language of daily speech.
Revival of the Hebrew Language
Hebrew is the language of Israel. Although it ceased to be a spoken tongue around 200 CE, it has been used by Jews throughout the ages
as the language of liturgy, philosophy and literature, and even in community management and legal dealings. It began to emerge as a modern cultural vehicle in the late 18th century, creating a prolific secular literature throughout the 19th century. This made it a vital tool for the national revival movement which culminated in political Zionism. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Land of Israel developed as the center of Hebrew letters. The British Mandate administration recognized Hebrew as an official language along with English and Arabic in 1921, and it became the language of the Jewish institutions and their educational network. The Hebrew press and belles-lettres flourished with new generations of writers and readers. The vocabulary of Hebrew has grown from some 8,000 words in biblical times to more than 120,000. Today it is a rich, living language, and its linguistic development is guided by the Academy of the Hebrew Language (est. 1953).
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) spearheaded momentum for the revival of Hebrew as a living, spoken language. After immigrating to the Land of Israel (1881), he pioneered Hebrew usage in home and school, promoted the coining of new words, established a Hebrew language periodical (1884), co-initiated the Hebrew Language Committee (1890) and compiled several volumes of the 17-volume Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, which was begun in 1910 and finished by his widow and son in 1959.
Hebrew prose in the Land of Israel was first written by immigrant authors, whose roots were anchored in the world and traditions of European Jewry, although their works dealt primarily with the creative achievements in the Land to which they had come "to build and be built by it." Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921) and Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), who propelled Hebrew prose writing into the 20th century, are considered by many to be the fathers of modern Hebrew literature, although they acted neither alone nor out of historical context.
Brenner, torn between hope and despair, struggled with his doubts concerning the difficulties of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel and the low spiritual quality of certain sectors within the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel prior to the 1948 establishment of the state). He saw flaws in everything and feared future developments with regard to the encounter between the Jewish and Arab populations of the area. Brenner's works are characterized by a choppy style, strict authenticity, clear psychological insight and an integration of symbolic and satirical elements. In his endeavor to capture reality, he favored the rabbinical and medieval forms of spoken Hebrew, creating new idioms and employing dramatic syntax to give the effect of live speech. Central to Brenner's works is his identification with both the physical struggle of the pioneers for a toehold in an arid, harsh land, very different from the European countries where they were born, and the struggle, no less difficult, to shape the identity of the Jew in the Land of Israel.
Agnon, Brenner's contemporary, chose the more modern forms of the Hebrew language in his works. His familiarity with the Jewish heritage, together with the influence of 19th and early 20th century European literature, gave rise to a body of fiction dealing with major contemporary spiritual concerns, the disintegration of traditional ways of life, the loss of faith and the subsequent loss of identity. A writer of intuition, psychological insight and detailed description, Agnon expressed an avid affinity for the shadowy and irrational sides of the human psyche and an identification with the inner uncertainties of the believing and non-believing Jew. Reality, as depicted by Agnon, exudes a tragic, at times grotesque ambience, with war and Holocaust atrocities filling many of his works, and the world of the pious Jews of recent times revealed with all its passions and tensions. In 1966, Agnon was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first granted to a Hebrew writer.
The native-born writers who began publishing in the 1940s and 1950s, often referred to as "the War of Independence generation," brought to their work a different mentality and cultural background from that of their predecessors, primarily because Hebrew was their mother tongue and their life experience was fully rooted in the Land of Israel. Feeling themselves to be "on duty" physically and psychologically, authors such as S. Yizhar, Moshe Shamir, Hanoch Bartov and Benjamin Tammuz vacillated dramatically between individualism and commitment to society and state, and chose a model of social realism featuring a blend of
English/American and Soviet influences.
In the early 1960s, new approaches in Hebrew prose writing were explored by A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Yaakov Shabtai, marking a break from ideological patterns and focusing on the world of the individual. During the next two decades, experimentation with narrative forms and various prose writing styles (psychological realism, allegory and symbolism), as well as speculation and skepticism regarding Israel's political and social conventions, featured prominently in contemporary writing.
The 1980s and early 1990s have been a time of intensive literary activity in which the number of books written increased, many works were translated and several Israeli writers achieved international recognition. A belief in literature as a means of enabling readers to understand themselves as individuals and as part of their environment characterizes the prose of this period, written by three generations of authors, including new writers, many of whom have received critical acclaim for their first books.
Renewed efforts to cope with the tragedy which befell European Jewry during the Holocaust has brought about the formulation of fresh modes of expression to treat fundamental questions which can be discussed only within the perspective of time and place, integrating distance with involvement (Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman). Analysis of kibbutz society in view of the experience of Holocaust survivors to reintegrate into normal life (Alexander and Yonat Sened) is yet another attempt to deal with the most devastating trauma sustained by the Jewish people in recent history. Other subject areas reexplored in contemporary fiction include the changes in Israel's conservative society (David Shahar), the fate of the Hebrew writer in the Diaspora and the essence of Israeli identity (Hanoch Bartov).
Previously unprobed themes also have been introduced, including the milieu of the Arab village (Anton Shammas, an Arab author), the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews who deliberately segregate themselves from modern society (Yossl Birstein), the way of life practiced in Hassidic courts (Haim Be'er) and attempts to cope with the existence of the unbeliever in a period when secular ideologies are collapsing and religious fundamentalism is gaining strength (Yitzhak Auerbach-Orpaz).
Some writers, including Yitzhak Ben Ner, Yoram Kaniuk, David Grossman and Amos Oz, explore universal themes such as democracy and righteousness, as seen in the context of a society which is subject to constant challenges in most areas of its national life. The world of women who are aware of their place in Jewish tradition and their role in the Zionist enterprise has been impressively dealt with by a number of female authors, including Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Hannah Bat Shachar, Shulamit Hareven, Shulamit Lapid and Ruth Almog.
Written without interruption from biblical times to the present, Hebrew poetry embodies external influences and internal traditions.
The poetry of the past, which incorporates religious and national themes, also contains the motifs of personal experience which are predominant in the poetry of today. A break with traditional poetic expression developed during the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe (1781-1881), when full citizenship for Jews and secularization of Jewish life were advocated, and Zionism, the movement calling for the restoration of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel, began to gain momentum. The major poets to emerge from this period, who themselves immigrated to the Land of Israel early in the 20th century, were Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) and Saul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943).
Bialik's works, reflecting his total commitment to the Jewish national renaissance and rejecting the viability of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, include both long epic poems recapitulating chapters in Jewish history as well as pure lyrical poetry dealing with love and nature. He forged a new Hebrew poetic idiom, free of the overwhelming biblical influence of his predecessors, while maintaining classical structure and clarity of expression through well-rounded, learned phrasing.
Tchernichovsky, who wrote lyric poetry as well as dramatic epics, ballads and allegories, sought to rectify the world of the Jew by injecting a spirit of personal pride and dignity as well as a heightened awareness of nature and beauty. His sense of language, embodying an affinity for rabbinical Hebrew, was different from Bialik's idiom which integrated the biblical influence with the emerging conversational mode. Both Bialik and Tchernichovsky represent the transition from ancient Jewish poetry to the modern genre.
Abraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg, and Uri Zvi Greenberg headed the next generation of poets, who wrote in the years which preceded the establishment of the state and during the first years of statehood.
Shlonsky utilized a flood of images along with linguistic inventions in his poetry to praise the pioneers who paved roads, drained swamps, built houses and established new settlements, as well as in his translations of classical poetry, especially from Russian. Alterman's works, many of which are noted for their political commentary, accompanied every stage of the development of the Jewish community and are characterized by richness of language and a variety of poetic forms, tone and rhyme, imagery and metaphor. Goldberg, whose conservative poetic preferences resulted from her familiarity with the cultures of Western Europe, expanded the spectrum of lyricism in poems which speak of the city, nature and the human being in search of love, contact and attention. Greenberg, who wrote a poetry of despair and rage using fierce imagery and stylistic power, dealt mainly with nationalistic themes and the impact of the Holocaust. This group of poets was the first to introduce the rhythms of speech into Hebrew poetry; they revived old idioms and coined new ones, giving the ancient language a new flexibility and richness.
The poetry of this period, which was greatly influenced by Russian futurism and symbolism as well as by German expressionism, tended towards the classical structure and melodicism of ordered rhyming. It reflected images and landscapes of the poets' country of birth and fresh visions of their new country, as well as memories from "there" and the desire to sink roots "here," expressing, as Lea Goldberg wrote, "the pain of two homelands." Many of the poems were set to music and became an integral part of the country's national lore.
In the mid-1950s, a new group of poets emerged, mainly native-born and with Hebrew as their mother tongue, headed by Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach and David Avidan. This group tended towards understatement, a general retreat from collective experiences, free observation of reality and a colloquial style, and shifted the main poetic influences from Pushkin and Schiller to modern English and American poetry. The works of Amichai, the group's dominant figure, are marked by his use of daily speech, irony and metaphysical metaphors, which became the hallmarks of much of the poetry written by his younger contemporaries, who proclaimed the end of ideological poetry and broke completely with the Alterman-Shlonsky tradition of classical structures and ordered rhyming. Zach's works elicit innovative near-liturgical and musical qualities from everyday spoken Hebrew, and Avidan's poetry dealing with the problems of modern human existence is characterized by linguistic sensitivity and a tendency to the absurd.
The field of Hebrew poetry today is a polyphony comprised of several generations, placing writers in their twenties together with poets of middle age.
Representative of the latter group are Meir Wieselthier, whose prosaic, slangy and direct diction repudiates all romanticism and elevates the image of Tel Aviv as the symbol of reality; Yair Hurvitz, whose restrained verses express the gentle sadness of one aware of his own mortality; and Yona Wallach, who presents herself in colloquial, sarcastic tones, using archetypal motifs, Freudian symbolism, rhythmic repetitions and long strings of associations.
The poetry of the most recent generation is dominated by individualism and perplexity, and tends towards short poems written in colloquial diction, free rhythm and unrhymed line endings. It is not widely read, and only when these poems are set to music do they reach a broader public. However, poetry retains a loyal readership and some volumes of poems, of all periods, are sold in editions as large as those published in much more populous Western countries.
Hebrew poetry by women was pioneered by Rachel Blaustein, who wrote during the pre-state period and was known simply as "Rachel". Her works established the normative foundation of women's Hebrew poetry as well as the public's expectations of this poetry. Its feminine, lyrical, short, emotional, intellectually unpretentious and personal style has prevailed, as seen in most of the works of her contemporaries and of later women poets such as Dalia Ravikovitch, Zelda and Leah Goldberg.
The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature was set up (1962) to acquaint foreign readers and publishers with contemporary Hebrew writing. Hundreds of titles have appeared under the Institute's auspices, including anthologies, novels, poetry and plays. The Institute also extends support to writers who undertake to have a certain work translated and published on their own initiative.
While the major effort is directed at translation into English, translations into other languages, including Arabic, French, Spanish, German, Danish, Dutch, Romanian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Hungarian, Hindi, Welsh and Russian, are encouraged.
The Institute's biannual English language publication, Modern Hebrew Literature, is geared to the interests of foreign publishers, and teachers and students of Hebrew literature, as well as of the general public of non-Hebrew readers.