A long and varied tradition that includes innovative techniques and more conventional approaches, a focus on the individual as well as on nationalist concerns.
Modern Hebrew literature began in late eighteenth-century Prussia, surrounded by Yiddish and German. It developed and came of age in central and eastern Europe, centuries after Hebrew ceased being a spoken language. Only after World War I and the destruction of many Jewish cultural centers in Europe did Palestine and later Israel become the focus for Hebrew belles lettres, this time in a Hebrew-speaking milieu.
The year 1784, when Ha-Meʾasef, the first Hebrew periodical, appeared, serves as a period marker for the beginning of modern Hebrew literature. Its founder, Moses Mendelssohn, a German Enlightenment philosopher, was the leader of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which advocated the modernization of Jewish religious and social life. The writers of the Haskalah chose to write in Hebrew not only because it was known to many readers, but also because Hebrew was the only remnant of Jewish independence.
For almost a century, Hebrew literature was committed to the Haskalah movement. From Germany, it spread to Polish Galicia and later to Russia. Poetry was the dominant genre until the mid-nineteenth century. While romanticism was raging in Europe, Hebrew poetry was neoclassical, universalistic, and mimetic. It didactically reinterpreted biblical stories, failing to develop a genuinely poetic idiom. Nevertheless, Haskalah literature revolutionized culture by extracting the literary creation from its religious and communal framework and revived, despite its limitations, the poetic language and universal themes of the Hebrew Bible.
This poetry's most powerful voice was Judah Leib Gordon, who retold biblical and historical stories with dramatic intensity, satirized Jewish life with wit, and empathized with the plight of Jewish women. Micah Joseph Lebensohn's highly charged romantic poems were more individualistic.
The first popular novel was Ahabat Zion (Love of Zion; 1853) by Abraham Mapu. Its pastoral view of nature and biblical theme and language reflect Haskalash taste. In 1865, Mapu attempted to depict contemporary life, but not until the work of Mendele Mokher Sefarim later in the century did the form mature and acquire new literary and linguistic models. Mendele stands at the crossroads between Haskalah and the period of nationalism and social realism. He manipulated postbiblical materials—Mishnah, the Talmud, and prayer—to create an innovative prose style.
Hibbat Zion Era
The year 1881, with its wave of pogroms in Russia, marks the shift from Haskalah assimilationism to the Zionist credo of auto-emancipation. The newly established school of Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion) produced national poetry, replete with sentimental and hyperbolical avowals of love for mother Zion and her miserable children, the Jewish people, as well as romantic poetry.
The philosopher of the new nationalist movement and the editor of its periodical, Ha-Shiloach, was Ahad Ha-Am, who saw Zion as the future spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish people. He believed that the nonspoken Hebrew of his time could articulate concepts, not emotions, and that the literature should concentrate on Jewish issues exclusively. The challenge to both Ahad Ha-Am's stifling prescription and Mendele's realism and style came from Isaac Leib Peretz, David Frischmann, and the neoromantic Micah Joseph Berdyczewski who all maintained that Hebrew literature was like all others. The individual's subterranean energies motivate Berdyczewski's works of lyrical prose and his style. He believed that national renaissance and vitality would come only with releasing the irrational creative spark and rejecting the restraint of traditional Judaism's intellectualism.
Bialik, Agnon, and the Modernist Era
Modern consciousness burst into Hebrew literature in the 1890s through Berdyczewski's fiction and Hayyim Nahman Bialik's verse. Writers began experimenting with modernist techniques. With Bialik, for the first time in Hebrew literature, the "I" of the individual became the central entity, and poetry became the arena of the self. Bialik's verse, like that of the Bible, is both a powerful lyrical expression and a rich essence of the Jewish culture that produced it. From 1892 to 1917, Bialik was dedicated to the idea of national revival. He searched for a meaningful Jewish identity while anguished by a loss of faith.
Saul Tchernichovsky expanded the horizons of Hebrew poetry through his admiration of Hellenic beauty and mastery of classical form. Like Berdyczewski, he broke the constricting bounds of Hebrew literature and the Jewish framework and aspired to express the totality of existence.
Many of the writers of this period started in Europe and continued in Ottoman-ruled Eretz Yisrael, or Palestine. Works of this second Aliyah period (1904–1914) were often dominated by questions of identity and by the pendulum of despair and hope reflecting the crisis of immigration. Yosef Hayyim Brenner's seemingly fragmented, unre-fined prose reflects the tortured inner worlds of his intellectual, uprooted, antiheroes and their existential struggles. In his quest for truth and realism, he improvised a semblance of spoken Hebrew and slang. Uri Nissan Gnessin's novellas of alienation and uprootedness, written in a lyrical, figurative prose, are among the first stream-of-consciousness narratives in world literature.
But the towering figure of Hebrew fiction was Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the 1966 Nobel laureate. Zionist philosophy was only one component of Agnon's complex artistic and spiritual oeuvre, which merges Jewish sources with European traditions. Agnon tells the story of the Jews in the modern age: faith and heresy, exile and redemption, Holocaust, uprootedness and belonging. But the Jewish condition is also a reflection of the human condition: tragic fate; nightmarish, at times surrealistic existence; social disintegration; and loss of identity. Like Agnon, Hayyim Hazaz, the expressionist, wrote in a style different from the spoken language about Jewish life in Europe and Eretz Yisrael.
At the heart of Hebrew literary activity at the time of the British mandate was poetry. With Bialik's
hegemony challenged in the 1920s, minor, deviant voices were heard: Rachel, whose lean, intimate diction, musical lyricism, and unfulfilled pioneer and personal dreams won her the public's unmatched love; Esther Raab, the poetically untamed individualist; David Vogel, the lyrical minimalist; and Avraham Ben Yizhak.
The most vocal revolutionary was Avraham Shlonsky, the editor of Ktubim and later Turim. Classicist style, layered language, and nationalist preoccupations were overthrown by Russian and French symbolism and postsymbolism, futurism, and German neoromanticism and expressionism as modernism swept through Hebrew verse. Shlonsky's symbolist poetics, subconsciously motivated images and melos (tune) abound with intellectual insight. With linguistic virtuosity, he articulated his war-weary generation's despair, exposing urban alienation or describing, like his fellow pioneers Isaac Lamdan, Rachel, and Uri Zvi Greenberg, the struggle and infatuation with a new landscape.
In Shlonsky's close leftist circle were Natan Alterman and Leah Goldberg. Alterman's maiden collection, Stars Outside (1938), nourished more than a generation of poets with its captivating rhythms, carnivalesque imagist world, and oxymoronic metaphors. He later wrote engaged poetry but strictly separated his lyrical and public verse. An unofficial national spokesman, Alterman wrote a column in the labor daily Davar in which he took active part in the struggle for independence and for Jewish immigration against British rule. Goldberg refused to write ideological poetry. Well versed in world literature, she often used complex traditional forms to create her own modernist verse.
In his poetics of form, Yonatan Ratosh favored Shlonsky's school, but ideologically he belonged to Vladimir Zeʾev Jabotinsky's nationalist camp. Believing in a shared cultural heritage for the entire Middle East, Ratosh founded the Canaanite movement and created idiosyncratic verse suffused with prebiblical mythology and vocabulary.
Expressionism shone through the poetry of Greenberg, the ultranationalist who prophesied the Holocaust and Jewish sovereignty. Drawing from personal and national landscapes and vocabularies, his Whitman-like verse captures raw feeling and pain, messianic and historical visions.
While European Jewry was approaching its demise, the first generation of native Hebrew speakers was coming of age in Eretz Yisrael. Its writers, nicknamed Dor Ba-Arez (A Generation in the Land), made their debut in 1938 with a story by S. Yizhar. They were associated with Zionist socialism and its aspirations, and their realist-positivist works reflect the collective experiences of the new Jew: kibbutz, youth movement, Haganah, and the War of Independence in 1948. The individual character and inner turmoil and the shadow side of society are often neglected or suppressed in short stories and novels by Nathan Shaham, Aharon Meged, Moshe Shamin, and Yigal Mossinsohn. But their readers, awed with heroism and struck by the idea of national redemption, received them warmly. Yizhar's introspective, lyrical prose is distinguished in its depiction of mood and contemplation, its renditions of sensory impressions and landscape, and its narrator's wartime ethics and empathy for the Arabs.
Poets of the time, such as Haim Guri, Ayin Hillel, and Nathan Yonathan, expressed an intimate, physical attachment to their local space. They adopted Alterman's poetics, and the values landed in his poems—loyalty, friendship, and the eternal bond between the dead and the living—helped them integrate the traumas of the 1948 battles. Poems from Guri's Flowers of Fire became sacred texts, read alongside Alterman's in memorials for the fallen in war. Somewhat different from this generation's unified voice were Abba Kovner and Amir Gilboa who lamented their destroyed European homes.
With the establishment of the state and the waves of immigrants changing the land's character, some writers wrestled with their disillusion through historical novels with reference to present discontent. Others, like Benyamin Tammuz and David Schachar, nostalgically depicted childhood and bygone days.
Generation of the State poets of the 1950s and 1960s unbridled the nationalist agenda's long hold on Hebrew literature. Free, ironic poetics, influenced by modernist English, American, and German works usurped symbolist poetics and nationalist norms. This group believed that poetry ought to focus on the individual's experience not the collective; it rejected pathos and transcendentalism in favor of the concrete and existential and lowered the diction in favor of everyday discourse and freer form. Natan Zach, the spokesman of this school, attacked Alterman and his disciples and foregrounded previously marginalized poets like Vogel and the American Hebrew imagist Gabriel Preil. With poetic genius and originality, Zach's critically acclaimed free verse realized the new principles. Yet, his friend Yehuda Amichai's poetry was more easily accepted, due in part to Amichai's ability to merge poetic and linguistic traditions. Amichai's antiwar lines such as "I want to die in my bed" expressed this generation's yearnings, while his conceitlike metaphors and whimsical combinations of colloquial and classical Hebrew revolutionized Hebrew verse. David Avidan's linguistic inventiveness was at the forefront of this school. Dan Pagis, who survived a concentration camp, conveyed a sense of horror in his enigmatic verse. Dahlia Ravikovitch delved into the psyche's depths. Her intense, at times desperate, verse elegantly reintroduced archaisms and myths to the poetry without surrendering spoken language and syntax.
Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s followed poetry's lead in its challenge to Zionist prescriptions. It focused on the individual's psychological world or on universal, existential themes. The confessional, erotic novel Life as a Fable (1958) by Pinhas Sadeh reflected the turn inward and away from realism. Early stories by Amos Oz and Avraham B. Yehoshua are metaphorical and allegorical. Amichai's surrealist novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place, uncovers suppressed wishes for an alternative existence. Amalia Kahana-Carmon's works explore life's mysteries and delve into intense, personal analysis reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Aharon Appelfeld's characters wander through inner and outer nightmares of the Holocaust.
After the Arab–Israel War of 1973, the myth of the new Jew was shattered. Hebrew literature's role as the arena for examining the national state of affairs was partly reinstated: Collective tensions were again realized through individual destinies. Post-1973 literature depicts the Israeli condition in relation to changes in social values, the Arabs, immigration and absorption, Jewish roots, the Diaspora, and the Holocaust. Questions of Jewish and Israeli existence occupy late works of veteran 1948 authors, but also others. The Generation of the State abandoned its abstract, schematic universalism and returned to concrete Israeli life, understanding symbolic layers of its texts. Yehoshua's late family novels, for example, are rich with realistic detail and make original and unpopular political, national, and historical philosophical statements. Oz lowered his diction and substituted fantasy with realistic, semiautobio-graphical works. The renewed interest in the tangible brought late blooming to Yizhak Ben Ner, Yeshayahu Koren, Yehudit Hendel, Shulamit Hareven, Yaacov Shabtai, and Yehoshua Kenaz. Shabtai painstakingly forges the decline of his pioneer parents' Tel Aviv milieu. His Past Continuous follows the protagonist's stream of associations in a style unprecedented in Hebrew literature. Kenaz's
patient, almost painful realism depicts social and psychological states with authenticity and linguistic mastery. Longing for a declining Eretz Yisrael translates into a bittersweet return to childhood for Ben Ner, Shabtai, and Meir Shalev. Others, like Kenaz, Ruth Almog, and David Grossman, look back with anger. In many of their works, however, the pained personal story is loaded with social and national meaning.
The many writers active in the 1970s and 1980s belong, then, to a number of literary generations. But despite the supposed centrality of male-authored works wrestling with the Zionist undertaking and all its reverberations, subversive narratives crystallized. Although only a few novels and short stories by women had been published previously, in the 1980s there was a proliferation of woman authors. Kahana-Carmon argued that mainstream Hebrew literature, an offspring of synagogue culture, indoctrinated Jewish readers to expect a male national spokesman, while intimate matters of the soul were relegated to the women's gallery of the synagogue, or rather the margins of literature. Dvora Baron was the only woman whose prose won critical acclaim before the 1950s. Hendel, Hareven, Naomi Frenkel, Rachel Eytan, Kahana-Carmon, and later Almog broke through in the interim. But the female voice, often undermining conventional conceptions of women and family institutions, conquered a well-deserved place only in the 1980s.
Prose fiction of the late 1980s and early 1990s was characterized by postmodernist pluralism. Opposing styles coexisted: conventional artistic measures; buds of religious or mystical writing; self-referential experiments with genre, language, theme, and typography. Orli Castel-Bloom's stories and novels shatter myth, reality, and text with lean language as she undermines any existence of truth. Yuval Shimoni internalized fiction and the connections between signifier and signified, while Yoel Hoffman's unpaged works in numbered paragraphs, surrounded by empty spaces or miniature pictures, are dotted with German, translated in the margins. He blends Far Eastern with Western philosophy and blurs the boundaries between languages, sexes, the self, and the universe.
Unlike prose, poetry opened itself to a wide prism of possibilities in the 1970s, but its public role was diminished. In the spirit of poststructuralism, this generation of poets had no use for common poetics. Yair Hurvitz wrote romantic symbolist verse, with high diction, and strove to unite opposites. Meir Wieseltier's modernist poetry is biting, almost vulgar, with social, political, and existential emphases. Yona Wallach smashed all borders of psyche and language, theme and form. Her poetry "unravels the unconscious like a fan" and allows words to flow without social, cultural, or literary inhibitions or taboos. Older poets who became central were Zelda and Avoth Yeshurun, whose poetry dismembers reality. Aharon Shabtai created a personal mythology drawn from Greek classics. In her "Data Processing" series, Maya Bejerano drowns chaos in a psychic, rhythmical associative stream.
The war in Lebanon and the Intifada in the late 1980s led to a reawakened interest in political and protest poems. Various contemporary issues—including erotic and homosexual themes, and imagery drawn from the modern media—came to prominence in the 1990s.
see also agnon, shmuel yosef; ahad haam; alterman, natan; amichai, yehuda; appelfeld, aharon; baron, dvora; bejerano, maya; bialik, hayyim nahman; brenner, yosef hayyim; frischmann, david; goldberg, leah; greenberg, uri zvi; guri, chaim; hareven, shulamit; haskalah; hazaz, hayyim; hoffman, yoel; jabotinsky, vladimir zeʾev; kenaz, yehoshua; kovner, abba; meged, aharon; oz, amos; pagis, dan; raab, esther; ratosh, yonatan; shlonsky, avraham; tammuz, benyamin; tchernichovsky, saul; wallach, yona; yehoshua, avraham b.; yizhar, s.; zach, natan.
Alter, Robert. Hebrew and Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Fuchs, Esther. Encounters with Israeli Authors. Marblehead, MA: Micah, 1982.
On Jerusalem: Selections in Prose and Verse. Jerusalem, 1979.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. What Is Jewish Literature? Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
Yudkin, Leon I. Escape into Siege: A Survey of Israeli Literature Today. London and Boston: Routledge and K. Paul, 1974.