CULTURE: Literature
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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 CULTURE: Literature

 
Hebrew Book Week in Tel Aviv, June 2003 (Photo: GPO)

Revival of the Hebrew Language

Hebrew is the language of Israel. Although it virtually ceased to be spoken around 200 CE, it continued to be used by Jews throughout the ages as the 'sacred tongue' in liturgy, philosophy and literature. In the late 19th century, it emerged as a modern cultural medium, becoming a vital factor in the national revival movement which culminated in political Zionism. The British Mandate administration recognized Hebrew as an official language, together with English and Arabic, and its use was adopted by Jewish institutions and their educational networks. Hebrew press and literature flourished with new generations of authors and readers, and today it is a rich, vibrant, living tongue. From some 8,000 words in biblical times, Hebrew vocabulary has expanded to more than 120,000 words. Its formal linguistic development is guided by the Academy of the Hebrew Language (est. 1953).

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) spearheaded the momentum for the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.

After immigrating to the Land of Israel in 1881, he pioneered Hebrew usage in home and school, coined thousands of new words, established two Hebrew language periodicals, co-initiated the Hebrew Language Committee (1890) and compiled several volumes of a 17-volume Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, which was begun in 1910 and completed by his second wife and son in 1959.

The Hebrew alphabet

Prose

Modern Hebrew prose in the Land of Israel was first written by immigrant authors. Although their roots were anchored in the world and traditions of East European Jewry, their works dealt primarily with the creative achievements in the Land of Israel to which they had come, in the words of the Zionist motto, "to build and be built by it."

Note: All links to author information are to the website of the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921) and Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), who propelled Hebrew prose into the 20th century, are considered by many to be the fathers of modern Hebrew literature.

In his endeavor to capture reality, Brenner favored the rabbinical and medieval forms of spoken Hebrew, creating new idioms and employing dramatic syntax to give the effect of living speech. Central to Brenner's works is his identification with both the physical struggle of the pioneers for a toehold in an arid, harsh land, very different from the European countries where they were born, and the struggle, no less difficult, to shape the identity of the Jew in the Land of Israel.

Agnon chose to use more modern forms of the Hebrew language in his works. His familiarity with Jewish tradition, together with the influence of 19th and early 20th century European literature, gave rise to a body of fiction dealing with major contemporary spiritual concerns, the disintegration of traditional ways of life, the loss of faith, and the subsequent loss of identity. An Orthodox Jew and a writer of intuition and psychological insight, Agnon expressed an affinity for the shadowy and irrational sides of the human psyche and an identification with the inner uncertainties of the believing and non-believing Jew. Reality, as depicted by Agnon, exudes a tragic, at times grotesque  ambience, with war and the Holocaust influencing much of his work, and the world of pious Jews revealed with all its passions and tensions. In 1966, Agnon was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (together with Nelly Sachs).

Native-born writers, who began publishing in the 1940s and 1950s, and are often referred to as 'the War of Independence Generation,' brought to their work a different mentality and cultural background from that of their predecessors, primarily because Hebrew was their mother tongue and their life experience was fully rooted in the Land of Israel. Authors such as S. Yizhar, Moshe Shamir, Hanoch Bartov, Haim Gouri and Benjamin Tammuz vacillated dramatically between individualism and commitment to society and state, and presented a model of social realism, often in the heroic mode, featuring a blend of local and international influences.

In the early 1960s, new approaches in Hebrew prose writing were explored by a group of younger and very influential writers, including A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Yaakov Shabtai, marking a break from ideological patterns and focusing on the world of the individual.

During the next two decades, experimentation with narrative forms and various prose writing styles, including psychological realism, allegory and symbolism, as well as speculation and skepticism regarding Israel's political and social conventions,  featured prominently in contemporary writing.

Photo courtesy Studio Rami & Jacky

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a burst of intense literary activity in which the number of books published increased dramatically. Concurrently, several Israeli writers achieved international recognition, notably Oz, Yehoshua, Kaniuk, Aharon Appelfeld, David Shahar, David Grossman and Meir Shalev. A belief in literature as a means of enabling readers to understand themselves as individuals and as part of their environment characterizes the prose of this period, written by three generations of contemporary authors. Many of these writers also address the political and moral dilemmas of contemporary life in Israel, notably Oz, Grossman, and Shalev.

Renewed efforts to cope with the tragedy of the European Holocaust have brought about the formulation of fresh modes of expression to treat fundamental questions which can be discussed only within the perspective of time and place, integrating distance with involvement (Appelfeld, Grossman, Yehoshua Kenaz, Alexander and Yonat Sened, Nava Semel, and others). Grossman's "See Under: Love", related partially from the perspective of a young boy, Momik, who  sees the aftermath of the Holocaust unfold within his immigrant family, is perhaps the best known example.

Photo: J. Malcolm


Previously unprobed themes have also been introduced, including the milieu of the Arab village (Anton Shammas, an Arab-Christian writer, and Sayed Kashua, an Israeli-Arab journalist and writer) the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews who deliberately segregate themselves from modern society (Yossl Birstein), the way of life in Jerusalem's Hassidic courts (Haim Be'er) and attempts to deal with the existence of the unbeliever in a period when secular ideologies are collapsing and religious fundamentalism is gaining strength (Yitzhak Orpaz-Auerbach).

Another important topic which some Israeli authors, themselves of Sephardic background, are addressing is the place in society of alienated new immigrants from Arab countries (Sami Michael, Albert Suissa, Dan Benaya Seri). Others explore universal themes such as democracy and righteousness as seen in the context of a society which is subject to constant challenges in most areas of its national life (Yitzhak Ben-Ner, Kaniuk, Grossman, Oz).

A number of major women authors have come to the fore, writing not only on general topics but also dealing with the world of women aware of their place in Jewish tradition and their role in the  Zionist enterprise (Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Chana Bat-Shahar, Shulamit Hareven, Shulamit Lapid, Ruth Almog, Savion Liebrecht, Batya Gur). Lapid and Gur have also entered the genre of detective fiction to critical acclaim, both in Israel and in translation abroad.

Recently a younger generation of writers, who reject much of the centrality of the Israeli experience and reflect a more universalistic trend - often of an alienated, deeply surreal and idiosyncratic nature - has emerged. Some of these writers (Yehudit Katzir, Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Blum, Gadi Taub, Irit Linor, Mira Magen) enjoy almost cult followings, and their new books are assured a place at the top of the bestseller lists both here and, in some cases, abroad. In recent years, Keret has been a firm favorite among European readers, with a number of his short story collections, among them "Missing Kissinger", winning prestigious literary awards.

In addition to the prolific body of Hebrew literature, a significant amount of writing, both prose and poetry, appears in other languages, including Arabic, English, and French. Since the immigration of over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union, Israel has become the largest center of literary creativity in the Russian language outside Russia itself.

During the last few years, Israeli publishers have entered the field of electronic publishing in a massive way. Covering a wide range of topics, Israeli programs are being marketed worldwide.


Poetry

Written without interruption from biblical times to the present, Hebrew poetry embodies external influences and internal traditions. The poetry of the past, which incorporates religious and national themes, also contains motifs of personal experience which are predominant in the poetry of today.

A break with traditional poetic expression developed during the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe (1781-1881), when full citizenship for Jews and secularization of Jewish life were advocated, and from the late 19th century when Zionism, the movement calling for the restoration of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel, began to gain momentum. The major poets to emerge from this period, who themselves immigrated to Palestine early in the 20th century, were Haim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) and Saul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943).

Bialik's works, which reflect his commitment to the Jewish national renaissance and reject the viability of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, include both long epic poems recapitulating chapters in Jewish history as well as pure lyrical poetry dealing with love and nature. Bialik, often referred to as the 'national poet' or 'the poet of the Hebrew Renaissance,' forged a new poetic idiom, free of the overwhelming biblical influence of his predecessors, while maintaining classical structure and clarity of expression through rich, learned but contemporary phrasing. His poems, some of which were written specifically for very young children, are memorized by generations of Israeli pupils.

Tchernichovsky, who wrote lyric poetry, dramatic epics, ballads, and allegories, sought to rectify the world of the Jew by injecting a spirit of personal pride and dignity as well as a heightened awareness of nature and beauty. His sense of language, which embodied an affinity for rabbinical Hebrew, was different from Bialik's idiom which integrated the biblical influence with the emerging conversational mode. Both Bialik and Tchernichovsky represent the transition from ancient Jewish poetry to the modern genre.

Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Lea Goldberg, and Uri Zvi Greenberg headed the next generation of poets, who wrote in the years which preceded the establishment of the state and during the early years of statehood.

Shlonsky utilized a flood of images along with linguistic inventions in his poetry as well as in his prolific translations of classical poetry, especially from Russian. Alterman's works, many of which are noted for their political commentary, accompanied every stage of the development of the Jewish community and are characterized by richness of language and a variety of  poetic forms, tone and rhyme, imagery and metaphor.

Goldberg expanded the spectrum of lyricism in poems which speak of the city, nature and the human being in search of love, contact and attention. Greenberg, who wrote a poetry of despair and rage using fierce imagery and stylistic power, dealt mainly with nationalistic themes and the impact of the Holocaust. This group of poets was the first to introduce the rhythms of everyday speech into Hebrew poetry. They revived old idioms and coined new ones, giving the ancient language a new flexibility and richness.

The poetry of this period, which was greatly influenced by Russian futurism and symbolism as well as by German expressionism, tended towards the classical structure and melodicism of ordered rhyming. It reflected images and landscapes of the poets' country of birth and fresh visions of their new country in a heroic mode, as well as memories from 'there' and the desire to sink roots 'here,' expressing, as Lea Goldberg wrote, "the pain of two homelands." Many of the poems were set to music and became an integral part of the country's national lore.

The first major woman poet in Hebrew was Rahel Bluwstein (1890-1931), who is known simply as "Rahel." Her works established the normative foundation of women's Hebrew poetry as well as the public's expectations of this poetry. Its lyrical, short, emotional, intellectually unpretentious, and personal style  has prevailed, as seen in most of the works of her contemporaries and of later poets such as Dalia Ravikovitch and Maya Bejerano.

In the mid-1950s, a new group of younger poets emerged, with Hebrew as their mother tongue, headed by Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, Dan Pagis, T. Carmi and David Avidan. This group, tending towards understatement, a general retreat from collective experiences, free observation of reality and a colloquial style, shifted the main poetic influences from Pushkin and Schiller to modern English and American poetry. The works of Amichai, who has been extensively translated, are marked by his use of daily speech, irony and metaphysical metaphors. These became the hallmarks of much of the poetry written by his younger contemporaries, who proclaimed the end of ideological poetry and broke completely with the Alterman-Shlonsky tradition of classical structures and ordered rhyming. Zach's works elicit innovative near-liturgical and musical qualities from everyday spoken Hebrew.

International Poets' Festival Jerusalem, Mishkenot Sha'ananim -
Poster by Raphie Etgar (With permission of the artist)


The field of Hebrew poetry today is a polyphony comprised of several generations, placing writers in their twenties together with poets of middle age. Representative of the latter group are Meir Wieseltier, whose prosaic, slangy and direct diction repudiates all romanticism and elevates the image of Tel Aviv as the symbol of reality; Yair Horowitz, whose restrained verses express the gentle sadness of one aware of his own mortality; and Yona Wallach, who presents herself in colloquial, sarcastic tones, using archetypal and religious motifs, Freudian symbolism, sometimes brutal sensuality, rhythmic repetitions, and long strings of associations. Other major contemporary poets include Asher Reich, Arieh Sivan, Ronny Someck and Moshe Dor.

The poetry of the most recent generation is dominated by individualism and perplexity, and tends towards short poems written in colloquial diction, non-rhymed free rhythm. Examples of this kind of work can be found in the poems of Transylvanian-born poet Agi Mishol. Poetry in Israel has a large and loyal readership and some volumes of poems, of all periods, are sold in editions as large as those published in much more populous Western countries.

 
"When the eyes open"

Snow on the mountains
Above the High Places
and above Jerusalem.
Come down O Jerusalem
and return my child to me.
Come O Bethlehem
and return my child to me.
Come high mountains
come winds
come floods in the harbors
and return my child to me.
And even you, O bent bulrush,
Thin stalk in the stream,
Stringy desert bushes,
return my child to me
as the soul returns to the body
when the eyes open.
Dalia Ravikovitch
Translated by: Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature was set up in 1962 to acquaint foreign readers and publishers with the best of contemporary Hebrew literature. Under its auspices, hundreds of works of fiction, poetry, drama and books for children have been published in some 40 languagues - from German and Welsh to Hindi and Chinese. Institute projects range from putting together anthologies to organizing translators' conferences and participating in international book fairs. The Institute's computerized database and annual bibliographies of Hebrew literature in translation provide information to researchers worldwide. The Institute also publishes Modern Hebrew Literature, a biannual English-language journal.
 

Children's Literature

Children's literature, which includes original texts as well as translations of classics from many languages, integrates a wide variety of topics and prose styles, reflecting a world trend towards a more direct and sophisticated approach to language and intellectual content in writing sensitivity as well as by an expressive and picturesque use of language, enabling the young reader to identify with the substance of the writing in a dynamic way.

Courtesy Studio Rami & Jacky

Motivating open inquiry and encouraging independent thinking have become basic elements in contemporary writing for children. While themes of social and national significance are still important, they are now treated with greater sincerity and openness. Some current books aim at negating stereotypes in the country's diversified society and deal with the immigration of Jews from many parts of the world, while others feature historical works and biographies which focus primarily on prominent figures who contributed to the development of the country over the last century, beginning with the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

Since the late 1960s, children's literature has largely portrayed the world of the children themselves, dealing with topics such as death, divorce, single-parent families, handicaps, adolescence, and the struggle for one's place in the family and society. At the same time, many imaginative children's books and stories were also written, providing young readers with pure fantasy, entertainment, and escapism.

Israel is also unusual in the number of prize-winning authors who have written for children as well as for adults. Among them are David Grossman ("The Zig Zag Kid," "Itamar Walks on Walls") and Etgar Keret ("Dad Runs Away With The Circus"). Many of these works also blur the line between adult and children's novels. Israeli books for children are now also being published in translation around the world, in a wide variety of languages.

Courtesy of Israel Volunteer Association
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