Israeli Literature

A survey of Israeli literature, from Ottoman-era Palestine to today.

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Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, Israeli literature written in the Hebrew language is extraordinarily rich and varied, although Israel is a small country and Hebrew is spoken by relatively few people. Some contemporary Israeli writers, such as the poet Yehudah Amichai (1924-2000) and the novelists Amos Oz (b.1930), A. B. Yehoshua (b. 1936), David Grossman (b.1954), and Aharon Appelfeld (b.1932) are well known and highly respected internationally. Women writers such as Savyon Liebrecht (b.1948), Orly Castel-Blum (b.1960), and Ronit Matalon (b.1959) have also been recognized abroad. 

However, the few writers whose works are widely known in translation provide just a small indication of the intense literary activity that characterizes Israel.

Origins of Modern Israeli Literature

The origins of modern Israeli literature lie in the Hebrew literature written in Eastern Europe during the 19th century. Interestingly, poetry, and not prose, was the dominant medium in Hebrew literature until the mid-20th century. Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) published his first volume of poetry in 1901 and came to be recognized as the preeminent voice in Hebrew poetry. Bialik was raised in Czarist Russia and received a traditional Jewish education. He wrote personal lyrical poetry as well as poetry on Jewish national themes. He also founded an influential Hebrew publishing house and was active in Zionist affairs. He moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1924 and his presence there was influential in moving the center of Hebrew literature from Europe.

Saul Tchernikhowsky (1875-1943) was the second major Hebrew poet during Bialik’s lifetime. A physician with a wide range of cultural influences, he not only wrote personal poetry with Jewish and Zionist themes, he also translated literature from other cultures—including classical Greek poetry and Finnish epics—into Hebrew.pile of books

Rahel The Poetess

Rahel Bluwstein (1890-1931), a poet known simply as Rahel, was born in Russia and came to Palestine in 1909 as a pioneer.  She left to study agriculture in 1913, but when she returned with tuberculosis, after World War I, she was unable to resume the difficult pioneer life. Her lyric poetry, strongly influenced by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, reflects the melancholy sensitivity of a doomed young woman, yearning for the life she was unable to lead. Direct and accessible, it has been very popular, and many of her poems have been set to music.

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Jeffrey Green is a writer and translator living in Israel. He has a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and has translated several books by Aharon Appelfeld. He has also published a book of poetry and a book about translation.