Israeli Literature

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

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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.

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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.