Yizhar, S.

views updated


YIZHAR, S. (originally Yizhar Smilansky ; 1916–2006), Hebrew author who belongs to the first generation of native Israel writers. Born in Reḥovot into a family of writers (see *Smilansky), Yizhar taught at the Ben Shemen youth village and at a Reḥovot secondary school, fought in the 1948 War of Independence, and was a member of the Knesset (Mapai-Rafi) from its inauguration until 1967, when he gave up his seat because of an extended sojourn abroad. Holding a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, he taught literature and education and was professor at Tel Aviv University.

Yizhar was the first prose writer born in Ereẓ Israel to render into aesthetic experience his profound awareness of the local landscape and scene, and his stories evolve entirely against a Palestinian background. These qualities can already be detected in his first story, Efrayim Ḥozer la-Aspeset (published in Gilyonot 6, 1938). His characters, imbued with his own deep attachment to the land, are steeped in their immediate surroundings.

His early writings were influenced by the internalized reflective prose rhythms of Uri Nissan *Gnessin and his later works by Joseph Ḥayyim *Brenner's quest for moral truth beyond the pretense of daily convention. Yizhar's distinctive prose style won him his place in Israel literature and is primarily responsible for his influence on the younger Hebrew writers. His lyrical sentences, characteristic of the internal monologue, dominate his early stories, while in later works, particularly in the novel Yemei Ẓiklag (1958), he displays a flexibility of language which blends the internal monologue with dialogue, and long descriptions of nature with short rapid passages of action. Yizhar's thorough command of literary Hebrew, his proclivity for linguistic precision, and his ability to draw on contemporary Hebrew without being ensnared by the slang of the moment won him general acclaim. He has, however, been criticized for sacrificing the narrative and plot development to a display of linguistic dexterity and versatility.

Yizhar's characters, mainly youths born in Ereẓ Israel, are involved in a dynamic situation in which they are torn between conflicting moral values. They are faced with the dilemma of whether to follow the dictates of their immediate society (the kibbutz, a group of fighters) or those of their conscience and at the same time strive to preserve their individuality. The tension between these two polar values is sharply delineated in Sippur Ḥirbet Ḥizah (1949) and Ha-Shavui (1949), two short stories written after the War of Independence, in which Yizhar describes the moral dilemma of the protagonist, a young Israel soldier, who does not dare to revolt against the military authority whose amoralism he rejects. Spurred on by his sensitivity to the suffering of others and his own strong sense of justice, he wants to protest but is paralyzed because he does not wish to lose the esteem of his companions. The inner revolt of the hero (or anti-hero) of Sippur Ḥirbet Ḥizah against the expulsion of Arab farmers from their home village is particularly poignant because he sees an injustice perpetrated by Jews, sons of a people that has long suffered from exile and persecution. In Ha-Shavui, the anti-hero realizes only too well that he and his friends are sinning against the simple village shepherd whom they hold prisoner for no particular military reason, but merely to relieve their boredom and the humdrum life in a dugout. The protagonists of both stories are unable to adduce enough counterarguments against the collective action, and neither dares to disobey an order or to depart from the accepted framework.

These stories aroused a storm of protest when they appeared. Yizhar was the first writer sharply to reveal the other face of the War of Independence which, though just in itself, inevitably led to moral corruption of victor and vanquished alike. The author, however, was not so much concerned with presenting the clash of two opposing moral systems as with the portrayal of the tragic dilemma reflected in the struggle within the soul of the hero, a character who recurs in all his stories. While fully aware of the moral problems he was posing, Yizhar seemed to be incapable of investing his protagonists with decisive and permanent force of action.

Yemei Ẓiklag, a panoramic war novel, presents a wider scope of the problems and moral contradictions with which the heroes contend. The narrative is a description of the combat experiences of a group of soldiers stationed in a dugout in the south, near the Negev, during a seven-day period of the War of Independence. The theme, the spontaneous reaction of the young fighters to war and its inherent fear of death, also nurtures a strong protest against the ideological and moral values bequeathed to them (the first generation of native-born sons) by the "pioneer generation." The heroes, and apparently the writer himself, see the secular socialist credo as empty of meaning and incapable of forming a moral bulwark on which to lean during their grave internal conflict, born out of war and the simple fear of death. This protest, however, even when expressed most sharply and daringly, is not a philosophy out of which they can formulate their true attitude to war or can understand why they continue to fight and do not flee. Yizhar explains their protest against war and the fear of death and their compulsion to continue fighting as the results of immediate reflexes, and not actions rooted in moral truth or ideal. The narrator fully realizes the weakness of his answer to the moral dilemma and hints at some possible solution lying beyond the scope of knowledge of the protagonists. In the final analysis, however, he admits that there is no answer and that the only way out lies in the renewal of man's rapport with the universe that surrounds him.

The rhythms of his rich prose infuse his minutely detailed recording of natural, technical, or psychological data with a rare lyricism. Yet his love of descriptive writing slows up his narrative flow and weakens the structure of his plot. B. Kurzweil has pointed out this inherent weakness in Yemei Ẓiklag, which essentially remains a short story extended into a novel by long and repetitious passages of lyrical prose. He has also suggested that Yizhar's catalog of characters is drawn from the rather narrow world of his contemporaries whose experience – at least as Yizhar has described it – is too limited to afford a background for a full-scale novel.

After 30 years of self-enforced silence, Yizhar published several prose works in the 1990s, many of them autobiographical stories of recollection, reflecting on pre-state Israel. Mikdamot (Foretellings, 2005), depicts a boy growing up in a Jewish farming community in Palestine and in the growing city of Tel Aviv. The boy's sensual experiences coalesce with the adult's conscious reflection on past experiences. Ẓalhavim (1993), a novel, describes an afternoon spent by three teenagers, the author being one of them, in a tangerine grove during the 1930s and focuses on adolescence, the erotic appeal of the earth and the complex relations between fathers and sons. Followed by a collection of stories, Ẓedadi'im (Asides, 1996), Yizhar published in 1996 the collection Eẓel ha-Yam, three novellas in which the sea becomes a metaphor for the ambigious relationship between man and the universe. The novel Malkomiyyah Yefeifiyyah ("Lovely Malcomiah," 1998) is yet another story of adolescence amidst the sights and smells of nature. A shy Ereẓ Israeli youth falls in love with the beautiful, much admired Shula. It is not the plot, but the precise, fine observation of nature, the sensual and lyrical description and the many-layered poetic idiom which typify Yizhar's later prose. Among his other works are Be-Fa'atei Negev (1945); Ha-Ḥorshah Asher ba-Givah (1947); Shishah Sippurei Kayiẓ (1950), two volumes of stories for youth; Be-Raglayim Yeḥefot (1959), and Gilui Eliyahu (1999). Yizhar also wrote articles and essays on political and public affairs. The Collected Works appeared in 1996. Yizhar was awarded the Brenner Prize, the Agnon Prize, as well as the prestigious Israel Prize for literature (1959). Midnight Convoy and Other Stories appeared in 1969. Stories were translated into various languages and are included in anthologies, as for example "Habakuk" in: G. Abramson (ed.), The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories (1996). For information concerning translations, see the ithl website at www.ithl.org.il.


A. Ukhmani, Le-Ever ha-Adam (1953), 327–72; Y. Halpern, Ha-Mahpekhah ha-Yehudit, 2 (1961), 633–93; D. Kena'ani, Beinam le-Vein Zemannam (1955), 94–136; D. Meron, Arba Panim ba-Sifrut ha-Ivrit Bat Yameinu (1962), 175–340, incl. bibl.; S. Zemach, Massah u-Vikkoret (1954), 241–52; B. Kurzweil, Bein Ḥazon le-Vein ha-Absurdi (1966), 376–403; A. Kariv, Iyyunim (1950), 190–7; Y. Keshet, Maskiyyot (1953), 240–60; E. Schweid, Shalosh Ashmorot (1964), 185–201; R. Wallenrod, The Literature of Modern Israel (1956), index. add. bibliography: G. Shaked, in: Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 4 (1993), 189–229; N. Shani, Yiẓẓug ha-Toda'ah ha-Mesapperet bi-Yẓirat Yizhar (2000); N. Essing, Lashon Figurativit be-Sipporet shel S. Yizhar (2001); A. Negev, Close Encounters with Twenty Israeli Writers (2003); R. Feldhai-Brenner, "Yizhar's Ḥirbet Ḥizah," in: Inextricably Bonded: Israeli Arab and Jewish Writers Re-Visioning Culture (2004). G. Nevo: Shive'a Yamim ba-Negev: Al Yemey Ziklag (2005).

[Matti Megged /

Anat Feinberg (2nd ed.)]