Orthodox Israeli Women Novelists

Over the past two decades, new authors take on the tension between tradition and autonomy.

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Reprinted with permission from JOFA,The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Until the mid-1980s, modern Hebrew literature was dominated by men. There were some fine women novelists in Israel, but their works were generally considered minor. Veteran author, Amalia Kahana- Carmon, once said, “Just as Jewish women were exiled to the balcony of the synagogue, Israeli women novelists were relegated to the peripheries of Israeli literature."
Butterflies in the Rain by Mira Magen
But in the last two decades, a revolution has been taking place, which has affected Orthodox women writers. Female writers have come into their own. In fact, they might even be perceived as dominating Israeli literature today. Their artistic outpouring is a consequence of socio psychological changes within the country.

Shifting Tides

From its beginnings in the 19th century, Hebrew literature struggled with collective issues, revolving around the fate of the Jewish people. Indeed, literature was a primary force in crystallizing the Zionist agenda. During the pioneering period and in the early days of the State of Israel, Hebrew literature projected a new image of the Jew as farmer and soldier.

Writers of the sixties, like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, attempted to retreat from the collective and focus on the individual. But they could not disengage themselves from national issues, and the individual was often used to symbolize the larger nation.

During this time, women writers were perceived as sensitive observers of domestic psychological situations, not relevant to the debates in the public realm, and they remained on the sidelines. However, in the 1980's a change took place in Israel. People began to thirst for works about the private realm. Young Israelis became weary of the constant involvement with nation-building.

They wanted to concentrate on personal interactions, rather than collective ones. Women's literature, with its traditional emphasis on emotional relationships, was celebrated in this new milieu.

It emphasized female autonomy. Much of this striving for autonomy and self-knowledge is evident in the writing of observant or traditional-minded Israeli women novelists, such as Esther Ettinger, Hannah Bat-Shahar, Michal Govrin and Mira Magen.

In the works of each of these writers, the search for autonomy is played out against the background of an Orthodox family, community, or ideology. There are writers like Shira Horn and Yehudit Rotem who came out of haredi lifestyles, and write critically about this world, or use their backgrounds to create sensationalistic novels. But this is quite different from the approach of the writers under consideration in this essay, whose fiction grapples with the tensions between tradition and autonomy with depth and honesty.

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Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.