The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Literature

Modern Hebrew literature got an ideological start in Germany, then found artistic maturity in the East.

Print this page Print this page

It took some historical shock waves impacting directly on European Jewry to change this whole orientation. By 1881 anti‑Semitism in the West was established as a supposedly scientific doctrine and was already being translated into official edicts of restriction and banishment in Bismarck's new Germany. Shalom Yakov Abramowitz's story, "Shem and Japheth on the Train," vividly reflects this situation. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated; the succession to the throne of Alexander III led to a new order of repressive reaction in Russia, with Jews among the principal victims. Jews were forced out of the smaller towns in the Pale of Settlement; with transparent government collusion, they were exposed to waves of murderous pogroms. "A third will die," as Pobedonostsev, one of Alexander's most infamous ministers, grimly put it, "a third will convert, and a third will leave."

In these harsh circumstances, the cosmopolitan assumptions of the Haskalah were obviously no longer tenable, and they were replaced by a new quest for connection with the Jewish people by Hebrew writers. For some, this took the form of an incipient political nationalism, a sort of proto‑Zionism. (Zionism as a political movement did not begin until the very last years of the century.) For some, it meant a return to the folk, an interest in its ways and traditions, a sympathy for its plight which did not, however, exclude satire. Now, this bond with the people, which some Hebrew literary historians regard as a form of late Romanticism, was obviously no guarantee of artistic quality; but at least writers were freed from the internal contradiction of the Haskalah, where men of literary bent wrote in the classical language of a people from whom they were often profoundly alienated, a people many of them were seeking, perhaps unwittingly, to transcend.

© Behrman House Inc.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Robert Alter

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.