As Israel prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Glenda Abramson considers how its literature has evolved from nation-building social realism to something more post-modernby Glenda Abramson / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
What do we expect from a modern literature written in the language of the Old Testament? To traditional Jewish culture, the text is all-important. Israeli writers are as attentive to the text as their forebears ever were, but in a manner that proclaims modernism: they manipulate its sacred voice in such a way that it speaks for their secular selves.
Amos Oz commented recently that Israeli readers do not enjoy their literature. They often complain, he added, that their writers are dangerous to the national morale and damaging to Israel’s reputation in the outside world.
The blurring of the boundaries between art and life in Israel, the fact that Oz is both a politician and a novelist and was once a soldier, underlines the Israeli literary ethos: a mixture of fantasy and hard experience, realpolitik and messianism. Some time ago, speaking in Oxford, the equally celebrated novelist AB Yehoshua also defined the Israeli writer as one who is always expected to expound on current events, always expected to know. Yehoshua claimed that he and his fellow artists wished to be “left alone,” to pursue their vocations without being called on to serve as a public voice. But the ancient prophetic tradition dies hard.
Hebrew literature in pre-Israel Palestine and during Israel’s infancy shared many of the assumptions of Soviet literature. It was an element in the making of the nation. It gained a sense of social commitment which it has never lost, despite the give-and-take of literary themes and styles across the generations.
After the Israeli war of independence in 1948, there was a gradual loss of concern for Jewish culture, as literature began to establish an Israeli culture which reflected present-day circumstances. It was S Yizhar (pseudonym of Yizhar Smilansky, born in1916) who signified this mutation in his enormous The Days of Ziklag (1958). Similar evocations of change have been offered by writers of a later generation, such as Oz and Yehoshua, Yaakov Shabtai and David Grossman.
There is still one signal difference between Israeli literature and most other western literatures: the writers’ unique use of language. However hard they try, Israeli authors cannot deny their history. They may not refer directly to the ancient Judaic discourse, but it survives in their language. The negotiation with Hebrew is one of Israeli literature’s greatest achievements. Writers have become adept at taking passages of canonic literature and modifying them. In…