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.

Esther Raab (1899-1981), the daughter of Judah Raab (1858-1948), one of the founders of Petah Tiqvah, was one of the first Hebrew poets to grow up speaking Hebrew.  Like Rahel, she spent several years as an agricultural pioneer. However, after living in Cairo and Paris, she moved to Tel Aviv, where she played an active part in literary and artistic life, publishing both poetry and prose.

Leading Figures in Israeli Poetry

Following Bialik’s death, Abraham Shlonsky (1900-1973) and Nathan Alterman (1910-1970) were the leading figures in Israeli poetry. Shlonsky introduced modernist themes and techniques and became the leader of a new school of Israeli poetry, in self-conscious revolt against the previous generation. Both he and Alterman were active and influential as poets, editors, translators, and political commentators.

Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894-1981) was the third great poet of that generation. His poetry is rhapsodical and voluminous, ranging in theme from the personal to the national and mythical. Unlike Shlonsky and Alterman, who were associated with Labor Zionism, Greenberg was an extreme nationalist.

The first major prose writer in Palestine was Joseph Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921), whose biography resembles that of many Eastern European Hebraists. Brenner had a yeshiva education, broke with traditional Judaism, left Russia, and made himself into a modern writer—critical of the society from which he sprang, extremely sensitive, and deeply tormented. Brenner’s fiction is closely connected to his personal experiences as a pioneer of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914). His style creates the effect of a spoken Hebrew language struggling to be born—just like the struggling Palestinian Jewish community that Brenner wrote about.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1966, is undoubtedly the most brilliant and profound Hebrew author of the 20th century—some might say since biblical times. Born in Galicia, he emigrated to Ottoman Palestine, left the country before World War I, and then returned in 1924. Much of his work is dedicated to recreating the lost world of traditional Jewish Galicia, and it is imbued with religious lore and learning. However, he also wrote about modern Jews in Palestine and Germany. The tone of his writing ranges from elegiac nostalgia through pitiless realism and surrealistic fantasy. Even when he appears to be writing in traditional style about traditional, religious characters, there is an ironic undertone to his writing. His mastery of the Hebrew language was unparalleled, and, perhaps, he will never be fully appreciated in translation.

S. Yizhar, the pseudonym of Yizhar Smilansky (b.1916) was the first major Hebrew prose author born in Palestine. In the 1950s he published fiction about the War of Independence, often raising morally challenging issues such as the fate of the Palestinians. After decades of silence, he published a series of memoirs, vividly evoking his early childhood and youth among the orange groves of Rehovot. His prose style is flowing and lyrical, an attempt to recreate the immediacy of sensory experience.

From National to Personal

In the 1960s, Israeli fiction began to focus on personal stories rather than the epic of national rebirth, placing marginal figures in center stage. Among authors whose works have been translated into English, one could mention the novelists Yakov Shabtai (1934-1981), Aharon Megged (b.1920), David Shachar (1926-1997), Dan Tsalka (b.1936), and Shulamit Hareven (b.1930).

Although it has ceded preeminence to prose fiction, Israel poetry still thrives.

Two important Israeli poets, in addition to the world famous Yehudah Amichai, are Yonah Wallach (1944-1985) and Nathan Sach (b.1930). Alongside fiction and poetry, Israeli theater has also been very active. Nissim Aloni (1926-1998), who was influenced by contemporary European drama, and Hanoch Levin (1943-1999), whose plays are known for their bitter social satire, were two of Israel’s most important playwrights.

Just about every aspect of Israeli society, every ethnic group, and every social problem confronting the country is represented in the literature. Authors such as Sami Michael (b.1926) have written about Oriental Jews and about the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Yehoshua Kenaz (b.1937) writes bleak and compelling fiction about alienated, urban characters.

The Jewishness of Israeli writing is a subject of critical debate. Aharon Appelfeld, for example, has taken upon himself the task of recreating the Jewish society of Central Europe before the Holocaust and of probing the wound left in the national psyche by the Holocaust. Michal Govrin (b.1950) has written on specifically religious themes, and Haim Beer (b.1945) has written about the religious community of Jerusalem, where he grew up.

However, most other contemporary writers, such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, tend to depict secular, modern, rootless Israelis whose Jewishness is not, apparently, of major concern either to themselves or to the authors. The question remains as to whether the Jewishness of Israeli literature, as of the rest of contemporary Israeli culture, must be explicitly articulated and examined or whether it is simply and naturally present, the matrix upon which everything else lies.

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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.