Shenhar (Shenberg), Yitzhak

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SHENHAR (Shenberg), YITZHAK (1902–1957), Hebrew author. He was born in Voltshisk, a small town on the border of Galicia and the Ukraine. During World War i his family moved to Proskurov. An active member of the He-Ḥalutz movement, he started agricultural training before completing his studies. On his arrival in Ereẓ Israel in 1921 he joined the pioneers of the Third *Aliyah and worked as a building laborer, wagoner, railman, and farmer. From his youth he had written Hebrew poetry, and his literary activity, mainly in verse and drama, gained impetus on his arrival in Ereẓ Israel, where he published his first poem in 1924. Shenhar studied European literatures and languages for many years becoming well versed in some of them. From 1931 he devoted himself exclusively to literary activities, becoming a professional writer, a literary adviser to publishing firms, an editor, and a translator. As personal secretary to Salman *Schocken during the 1930s, he accompanied him on his travels in Europe and established connections with the Schocken Publishing House, which from the beginning of the mid-1940s published most of his books and translations. Shenhar worked for the United Jewish Appeal in South America in the early 1950s.

While Shenhar's creativity embraced a wide variety of works including fiction, poetry, plays, travel notes, and children's literature, his position in Hebrew literature and Israel cultural life was established mainly through his fiction and translations. Most of Shenhar's fictional writing comprises short stories and novelettes. It was only toward the end of his life that he ventured on a novel, which he did not complete. He was a master of the lyrical short story characterized by atmosphere and psychological nuances rather than by dramatic tension and plot development. Shenhar's works are within well-defined literary traditions, especially the late 19th-century tradition of the Russian psychological school, as exemplified by the short stories of Chekhov, and the Hebrew psychological novelette of the early 20th century. His style aspired toward an artistic balance and harmony, carefully striving for an equipoise between descriptions of social situations and landscape on the one hand and individual psychological portrayals on the other. He sought to give his subtle descriptions of atmosphere the firm base of a classic Hebrew style, drawing liberally on the ancient sources, especially the Mishnah and Midrash. Shenhar thus evolved a synthesis of style which is in the spirit of the Hebrew literature written by the followers of S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim). He may be described as a writer who tried to combine the descriptive "plastic" style of Mendele with the lyrical-psychological novella tradition of M.J. *Berdyczewski and U.N. *Gnessin.

Shenhar's stories may be classified according to their socio-historical background: stories about the Ukrainian small town and village against the backdrop of revolution and civil war (mainly in his first collection of stories, Basar va-Dam, 1941) to which also belongs the uncompleted novel published posthumously; stories about the tribulations of ḥalutzim and the trials of their acclimatization (mainly in Me-Ereẓ el Ereẓ 1943); stories on village and city life under the British mandate (in Yamim Yedabberu, 1945) and after Israel's independence. In the latter, Shenhar does not confine himself only to the mentality and problems of Russian Jewry and especially of the Russian-born ḥalutzim (as he did in his earlier collections). His canvas extends from the German immigrant to the Oriental Jew, and to different parts of the country, in an attempt to give a panoramic view of the multi-faceted new Jewish society. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Shenhar was among the first to turn to the new immigrants from Arab countries as a literary subject. He also wrote several biblical stories (Me-Az u-mi-Kedem, 1947) and symbolistic-surrealistic stories which have no socio-historical setting but are suspended in time and place.

Despite the variegated social background of Shenhar's stories he created one world, whose unifying element is a basic paradox: a world of frenzied and at times volatile activity and movement, revolutions, destruction, pioneering efforts and the struggle for national revival which is viewed through the eyes of the outsider who is alienated, passive, and static. The most typical characters of Shenhar's panorama are the pioneers whose fervor has cooled and who now live on the periphery of society. His anti-heroes, out of touch with their milieu, are in the literary trend of the "detached" or alienated heroes of M.J. Berdyczewski, Ḥ. J. *Brenner, U.N. Gnessin, G. *Schofman, and Y.D. *Berkowitz. Central to this trend is the theme of the young intellectual at odds with the traditional Jewish society of Eastern Europe which some of these writers (mainly Brenner) transposed to the ḥalutzic background of Ereẓ Israel. Shenhar's vivid, poignant and penetrating portrayal of the schism between the sensitive individual and the pioneering society makes him one of the main exponents of this trend. Nevertheless he departed from the traditional patterns: (1) his characters' alienation is not rooted in an exaggerated intellectualism (on the contrary, they are mostly non-intellectuals, some of whom are unable to express themselves articulately); (2) his stories are not mainly psychological portrayals of the heroes but fuse the psychological with broad social landscapes; (3) the rootlessness of most of his heroes is not as extreme as that of Gnessin's heroes. Though Shenhar's protagonists are incapable of identifying with the rhythm and intensity of the reality that surrounds them, their relation to it is not negative, even when they openly reject its coarseness and cruelty, or are skeptical about its blatant self-assurance. The hope for compromise or fusion is never absent from his stories. Thus Shenhar's works form one of the main links between the great fiction writers of the beginning of the century, such as Brenner and Gnessin, and some younger Israel-born writers, like S. Yizhar, who also describe the alienated, sensitive hero in the new pioneering society in a more optimistic vein than Brenner for instance.

Aside from his surrealistic writings and some biblical stories, few of Shenhar's narratives ring of despair; yet in most of his works there is a note of melancholy mingled with gentle irony. In this lies the very essence of Shenhar's importance as an Israel writer, i.e., his importance as an artist and intellectual simultaneously involved in the tempo and drive of Zionism yet sufficiently detached to see it objectively. Shenhar's work reflects all of Israel life from an original and individual point of view, throwing light not only on the successes in the revival of the Jewish nation in Israel but also on those who became its victims, on its weaknesses, and on the destruction that it sometimes wrought upon the beautiful, the noble, and the sensitive. While Shenhar always tended toward artistic descriptions, he helped to develop an independent consciousness among the intelligentsia of Ereẓ Israel and consequently to extend its capacity for self-criticism.

Shenhar was the foremost Hebrew translator of belletristic prose in his generation. He also translated poetry – Rilke, François Villon, and Chinese verse – but was most successful in his translations of great Russian literary works of the 19th century (Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; Dead Souls and other works by Gogol; works by N. Leskov and A. Chekhov, etc.). His translations were in the classic Hebrew style of his original writings which he used with skill, especially in those works that required linguistic virtuosity and an adherence to stylized archaisms. Shenhar was among those who set the principal norms for the translation of belletristic prose (he translated over 30 books). Be-Shivah Derakhim (1954) is a compilation of his travel notes; his collected stories were published posthumously (3 vols., 1960). His sister, Rivka Rochel-Shenhar, recorded her memories in Beit Yiẓḥak Shenhar (1986).


A. Ukhmani, in: Le-Ever ha-Adam (1953), 176–83; Z. Luz, Meẓi'ut ve-Adam ba-Sifrut ha-Ereẓ-Yisre'elit (1970), 12–28; A. Lifschitz, in: Me'assef Aggudat ha-Soferim, 1 (1960), 497–506; D. Sadan, Bein Din le-Ḥeshbon (1963), 255–67; B. Kurzweil, Bein Ḥazon le-Vein ha-Absurdi (1966), 319–39; Y. Keshet, Havdalot (1962), 348–64; M. Gil, Ketavim Nivḥarim (1970), 174–86. add. bibliography: H. Weiss (ed.), Yiẓḥak Shenhar, Mivḥar Ma'amrei Bikoret (1976); R. Friedman, "Mekomo u-Mashma'uto shel ha-Parodi be-Omanut ha-Sippur shel Y. Shenhar," in: Biẓaron, 2:7–8 (1981), 16–24; G. Shaked, "Ẓabarim, Olim, Pelitim, Al Yeẓirato shel Y. Shenhar," in: Meḥkarei Yerushalayim ba-Sifrut, 3 (1983), 7–27; D. Nir, "Tefisat ha-Midbar ba-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥadashah (Agnon, Shenhar ve-Yizhar)," in: Lashon ve-Ivrit, 6 (1990), 15–20; A. Holtzman, "Bein Shamayim ve-Areẓ," in: Sifrut ve-Ḥevrah ba-Tarbut ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥadashah (2000), 228–42; N. Govrin, "Galut be-Ereẓ YisraelOlei Germanyah bi-Yẓirato shel Y. Shenhar," in: Moznayim, 78:5 (2004), 13–18.

[David Maisel]