Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

L I T E R A R Y   A N A L Y S I S
Fracturing the Zionist Narrative

BY DR. ALAN MINTZ for Judaism

TO THINK about the future of Israeli literature, one first has to understand the achievements of the past twenty-five years, which has been a period of extraordinary creativity. The innovations of Israeli literature during this period can described from three different, at times overlapping, angles: minority discourse, or writing by or about ethnic groups that had not previously been the subject of literary representation; women's writing and the reexamination of gender codes; and magical realism, the fantastic and postmodernist narrative techniques in fiction writing.

The whole notion of minorities in Israeli society is at odds with the official Zionist ideal of "ingathering." Rather than being seen as ethnic groups or minorities, the Jews who came to Israel from many countries were meant to be absorbed into a new society that represented a departure from life in the various Diasporas. In actuality, however, the culture of the Yishuv, and later the State, largely was based upon the norms of a single society: the socialist Zionism that had emerged in Eastern Europe was usually into that culture that Jews from other lands were, willingly or unwillingly, gathered in. Over time, Israeli Jews, whose families had settled in Israel for ideological reasons themselves, became a minority; yet the state’s institutions and its literary culture continued to bear an East European socialist stamp.

Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who, together loosely are called Sephardim, have long been present in the Old and New Yishuv, but not until the upheavals occasioned by the War of Independence in 1948 did very significant numbers arrive in Israel. They were extremely diverse in their backgrounds: some came from the secularized, urban professional classes of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad; others were shopkeepers with a traditional religious outlook; still others came from small towns and villages that had hardly been touched by industrial life. Only a small number were Zionists, in the term’s modern ideological sense. For the great majority, their sudden arrival in Israel was experienced as an enormous and unanticipated upheaval.

While the Zionist leadership took a romantic and ethnographic interest in the varied and distinct folkways of this exotic population, Eastern Jews were urged to integrate themselves into the new state’s dominant civic culture. After the hardships and indignities of the transit camps that were hastily set up to absorb this mass immigration, some did succeed in assimilating into Israeli society, but others, who had been settled in outlying "development towns" that never really developed, slipped into a chronic underclass.

Creating a voice and projecting it within the literary world of the newly adopted country required taking on the challenge of Hebrew. Most writers from Ashkenazic backgrounds had either been born into Hebrew-speaking families or been educated in Hebrew-oriented schools before coming to Palestine. In contrast, intellectuals from Eastern lands were at home in Arabic and, sometimes, French, Berber or Turkish. Being suddenly transplanted into a Hebrew-speaking culture presented aspiring writers with the enormous challenge of learning to create in an adopted language. Some clung to Arabic and were marginalized; others went through a difficult gestation period and began to write in Hebrew.

The first works produced by Sephardic writers dealt with the humiliations of transit camps and were written in the tradition of social outrage. By the period covered in this volume, Sephardic writing had evolved into a nuanced examination of the complexities of acculturation into Israeli society. The most recent fictional efforts have reached beyond Israel’s temporal and spatial boundaries to evoke, in highly imaginative terms, Jewish life in Baghdad and Damascus before the state’s establishment and the "ingathering" of Eastern Jewry. The works of Sammy Michael, Shimon Balas, Eli Amir and Amnon Shamosh moved the Eastern voice toward the center of Israeli literature.

Though not an ethnic minority, Holocaust survivors and other Jews who came to Israel as displaced persons also constitute an identifiable group whose voice gained literary expression only belatedly. The specter of political passivity—the contemporary perception of European Jews going to their death "like sheep to the slaughter"—clashed sharply with the heroic myth at the core of Zionism.

During the first twenty years after the Holocaust, the survivor often was represented in Israeli literature as morally tainted, in contrast to the brave and hard-working sabra. Until the Eichman trial in 1961 provided a showcase for Holocaust testimonies, survivors weren’t encouraged to tell their stories to themselves or to others.

Aharon Appelfeld, who began to publish short stories in the 1960s, has been the most imaginatively powerful writer to focus on the Holocaust. Apart from Appelfeld's fiction, the single most important work in this genre is David Grossman's See Under: Love, an ambitious postmodernist novel that employs a variety of story-telling techniques to explore the persistence of the tragic past. Although the novel's central character is a son of survivors, Grossman himself is not, and thus he joins an increasing number of younger Israeli writers who have approached the subject of the Holocaust despite having no direct experience of it.

The minority that, by nature, stands most apart from the national consensus is comprised of Israeli Arabs. Their language of literary expression is, of course, Arabic, not Hebrew, although there is the distinguished exception of Anton Shamas, who has written a beautiful novel, Arabesques, in Hebrew. Given the intensity of political differences, it’s unlikely that there will be a major contribution to Hebrew literature by Arab writers, although that possibility always remains open.

As a subject for Jewish writers in Hebrew, the representation of Arabs has played a significant, though not central, role in Hebrew literature. The image of the Arab most often served as a screen upon which were projected the hopes and the fears and the moral dilemmas of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. For example, in Yitzhak Shamir's novella from the 1920s, Revenge of the Fathers, the Arab is portrayed as the instinctual native son of the land; this was an ideal that the Zionist student pioneers from Eastern Europe could aspire to, but not immediately embody. In S. Yizhar's story "The Prisoner," which was written during the 1948 War of Independence, the forlorn, anonymous Arab prisoner serves as a touchstone for the Jewish narrator's struggles with his conscience. In Amos Oz's 1968 novel My Michael, Arab twins from the female narrator's childhood occupy her adult fantasy life and mirror her erotic and aggressive obsessions.

The publication of A. B. Yehoshua's first novel, The Lover, in 1977 marked a turning point in the representation of the Arab. Naim is a teenage boy from an Israeli Arab village in the Galilee who works in a garage owned by an Israeli Jew named Adam, and who, in the course of the story, becomes entangled with his family. The novel is composed entirely of monologues, and Naim has his monologues along with the other characters. But when he first speaks about a third of the way through the novel, his monologue has the force of a stunning debut, for it marks the first time in Hebrew literature that an Arab character is given his or her own voice and allowed to articulate an inner life that isn’t largely a projection of a Jewish fantasy or dilemma.

Although Yehoshua's novel was indeed a breakthrough, it hardly opened a floodgate of efforts in this direction. There are exceptions, such as Itamar Levy's Letters of the Sun, Letters of the Moon (1991), a novel told entirely through the consciousness of an Arab boy in a village in the occupied territories. In the end, however, he remains very much an other, a flickering presence in Israeli literature.

Women have played an equivocal role in modern Hebrew literature. While there have been a number of important women poets in the first half of the century (Rachel, Elisheva, Yocheved Bat-Miriam, Esther Raab, Lea Goldberg). Fiction, however, has witnessed the lone example of Devora Baron, whose short stories are only now receiving wide critical attention.

Like other revolutionary ideologies, Zionism's proclamations concerning the equality of women were truer in theory than in practice. In the core myth of Zionism, the figure of the male soldier-farmer occupied center stage. Women generally were assigned supporting roles as participants in this new historical endeavor, but rarely as leaders.

In the gendered language of Zionism, the partners in this new grand passion are, on the one side, the Land, as both mother and virgin bride, and on the other, the heroic Hebrew (male) pioneer, who returned to possess the Land or was received back into its bosom. Although flesh-and-blood women were essential to the settlement of the country, they were often marginalized by the prerogatives of the Great Mother, the land itself.

Tellingly, by the 1980s, women writers are among the most visible and creative voices in Israeli fiction, including Savyon Liebrecht, Ruth Almog, Michal Govrin, Dorit Peleg, Yehudit Katzir, Orly Castel-Bloom and Ronit Matalon. What prepared the way for this belated explosion? The key precursor in women's writing is Amalia Kahana-Carmon (born in 1930), whose first collection of stories, Under One Roof, was published in 1966.

Together with Oz, Yehoshua and Appelfeld, Kahana-Carmon belongs to the new wave in Hebrew fiction that used modernist techniques to interrogate the ideologically laden social realism of their predecessors. Yet, whereas Oz and Yehoshua directly engage the Zionist narrative by writing about the kibbutz, war and peace, Kahana-Carmon, like Appelfeld in his own way, writes more subversively by sidestepping the Zionist narrative altogether. Just as Appelfeld portrays Holocaust survivors to whom the heroic posture of the Jewish State is irrelevant, so Kahana-Carmon focuses on the inner lives of women as a zone removed from the passions of the national story. Influenced by the style of the Hebrew Chekovian writer Uri Nissan Gnessin from the early years of the twentieth century, Kahana-Carmon features an inner subjective space where language, fantasy and desire come together.

Yehudit Handel and Shulamite Hareven are among other women writers of Kahana-Carmon's generation (though they began to publish later than she) whose fiction directly engages the Zionist narrative. Their work features heroines whose spirit and pluck might have carried them in feminist directions had their lives not been overtaken by the claims of historical exigency.

Also relatively new in Israeli fiction is the interrogation of gender that has been conducted in fiction written by men. The Zionist revolution was as much about a new construction of masculinity as about anything else. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Hebrew writers undertook an unsparing critique of the East European Jewish male, viewing the archetypal denizen of the shtetl as ineffectual, overintellectualized, effeminate, passively sensual and wife-ridden. Zionist theorists presented the new movement as a kind of therapy for these sickly diaspora bodies and minds. The new "muscle Jew" would remake the Jewish male both inside and out. How successful this therapeutic regimen was in practice is difficult to assess, but it’s clear that as a masculine ideal it is very much the model for the young men who populate works by writers such as S. Yizhar, who came of age during the War of Independence in 1948.

When Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua began publishing in the 1960s, their work was addressed to the issue of ideology itself and the role it played in suppressing or ignoring the exigencies of human needs. From the 1970s onwards, it’s possible to detect a shift of focus from a preoccupation with ideology to an exploration of masculinity. This can be seen most clearly in Yehoshua's novels Five Seasons (1987) and Mr. Mani (1990), which concern male characters who have either taken on feminine characteristics or who seek access to the female mysteries of reproduction.

The most conspicuous exploration of these issues takes place in the work of Yaakov Shabtai, who burst upon the literary scene in the 1970s and died shortly after the publication of his major work, the epic novel, Past Continuous (1977). In tracing the daily movements of three men through a series of futile experiences culminating in one’s suicide, the novel evokes the vacuum of despair that came after the ideological passions of the generation of the State’s founders. Integral to this entropic slide toward death is a clutching for the remnants of machismo and the muscular myth of Zionist settlers. Shabtai's and Yehoshua's works have initiated among younger writers of both sexes an intense exploration of the constructed and deconstructed nature of gender in Israel.

The third broad category of innovation in Israeli writing between 1973 and 1993 lies in the rethinking of fiction itself. As a modern secular literature, Israeli writing has always been influenced by European and American currents.

The so-called Palmah Generation writers from the 1950s were deeply influenced by the canons of socialist realism. The new wave writers of the 1960s and 1970s were influenced by the high modernism of Faulkner and Kafka. Many Israeli writers discussed here were influenced in part by the techniques of magic realism and postmodernism.

Yet, whereas in the first two instances there is a considerable lag between the time of the European influences and their eventual adoption in Israel, in the more recent case the gap is much shorter. Rather than being a belated enactment of European development, the radically innovative novel, See Under: Love by David Grossman, is already a participant in an emerging international postmodernist style. The new Israeli literature poses the question of how these "borrowings" are naturalized within the internal traditions and concerns of Israeli culture.

One can demarcate five distinctive areas of fictional experimentation. The first involves the use of the fantastic or magic realism, which involves suspension of one or more of the laws of nature within an otherwise realistically conceived fictional world. Grossman's See Under: Love is the chief, but not lone, example. It’s noteworthy that these nonrealistic procedures have been mobilized to deal with the event that tampers with received categories of meaning: the Holocaust. In his novel, The Blue Mountain (1988), which deals with pioneers who settled the Galilee, Meir Shalev makes limited but effective use of magic realism to convey, and simultaneously to deflate, the enormous energy and willfulness of these mythic settlers.

A second feature is deliberate derivativeness expressed in the borrowing and recycling of previous literature and other cultural materials. In See Under: Love, for example, Grossman quotes extensively from Bruno Schulz's writings and returns repeatedly to the juvenile literature of Jules Verne, Karl May and to different historical styles. The practice of ventriloquizing discourse from different historical periods is the very principle around which Yehoshua's Mr. Mani is constructed.

In earlier Hebrew literature, the relationship to the past centered on the use of allusion, a phrase or a metaphor embedded in the work's contemporary fictional discourse that activated associations from earlier, usually classical, Jewish literature. In the postmodernist practice, however, the unit of reference is often much larger. Rather than a point of concentrated meaning in which past and present texts momentarily engage one another, a postmodernist text may itself be made up of large swatches of earlier works or of playful imitations of them. Moreover, the materials borrowed are likely to come not from the classical tradition, but rather from popular genres of writing and from the materials of everyday life and popular culture.

A third tendency is a movement away from ideology towards storytelling. In some of the key texts of this period, e.g. Grossman's See Under: Love and the novels of Meir Shalev, such momentous developments as the settlement of the Land of Israel and the Holocaust are used as the stuff of storytelling and mythmaking rather than being viewed as events of moral-historical meaning. The shift from history to story is a supremely self-conscious move that becomes thematized within the novels themselves.

The subject of Grossman's novel is the gravest of our century, yet its engagement with the Holocaust itself is minor relative to the immense preoccupation with the difficulties of writing about it, and the extravagant fictions spun from its thread. For many writers, Yaakov Shabtai especially, the failure of ideology and the weakness of the spirit allow for a margin of hope or resolution only on the plane of art rather than within the mire of human affairs. But this isn’t the sacred art of high modernism with its priestly aspirations.

The commitment to art among these Israeli postmodernists is simultaneously as serious and less solemn than previously. The playful and manipulable aspects of the artifice of their art are expressions of a commitment to experiment with the possibilities of narrative, and a willingness to lay bare the mechanics and devices of these efforts. The boundary between low hijinks and serious experiment is one which is not infrequently crisscrossed by many writers.

A fourth aspect is the great interest evinced in recent Israeli writing in taking the novel apart and putting it back together differently and variously. These experiments take place at three different levels. The first is the actual discursive fabric of the novel as it presents itself to the reader reading the words on the page. At one extreme is Yaakov Shabtai’s extraordinary—and, for most critics, remarkably successful— effort in Past Continuous to make the novel into a single paragraph composed of a minimum of sentences. Shabtai's narrative loops back and forth in time and connects the fates of several extended families, creating a sense of continuous duration at the level of reading that is missing from the character’s experiences.

At the opposite extreme are the works of Yoel Hoffman (Bernhardt and Christ of the Fish), which neutralize the novel’s epic aspiration by chopping it up into tiny pieces. A diminutive paragraph may appear alone on a page, representing a bubble of consciousness; on some pages, there may be nothing at all. Some of the most successful experimentation manipulates the materials that compose the novel.

We may not realize how conventionalized are our expectations as readers of novels until we come across an example of the genre, as is the case with Grossmnan's See Under: Love, in which each of the novel's four sections is written in an entirely different literary style and based on a different genre model. In A. B. Yeshoshua's Mr. Mani, each of the five chapters features the speech of one person in an extended dramatic dialogue with another. The questions and answers of the other person are unvoiced but inferred; also, the whole of each "half dialogue" is introduced and followed by several pages of biographical and historical background, which are supplied with a tone of factual discursive detachment.

Finally, Israeli writers have also been fascinated by what can be done with and to point of view. The recent work of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, a writer who is identified with an earlier literary generation, has a distinctively postmodern temper. The narrator in her Above in Montifer (1984), a women who has subjugated herself to a man, tells her story from the vantage point of extreme abasement and obsession. The narrator in Itamar Levy's Letters of the Sun, Letters of the Moon (1991) is a probably retarded Arab growing up in a village on the West Bank under Israeli occupation; his radically limited view of the world around him serves as a technique for undoing stereotypes and making strange the ostensibly familiar and threatening. Dorit Peleg's Una (1988) and Yoav Shimoni's Flight of the Dove both split the narrative point of view in two and develop each line of sight in different ways.

As in any era of intense experimentation, time will determine which works endure, for there is a potential in postmodernist practice for narcissism and trivialization. Often, the will and the gifts of the individual writer determine whether a work transcends the effects of technique and creates the aura of a work of art. Meanwhile, Israeli fiction continues to thrive, providing us all the while with challenging writing and an incomparably insightful glimpse into the experience of Israeli society.

Concerning the future of Israeli writing, only two things can be said with certainty: It will continue to be a provocative and engaging enterprise, and it will continue to become more inclusive. One of the major developments in Israeli literature over the past twenty-five years has been the explosion of writing by and about women, Sephardim, and Holocaust survivors and their children. The literature of the next decades is likely to include voices from groups that are now becoming part of society. Among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there will surely be those who seek out the prism of art to reflect on the extraordinary transplantation of a people from one milieu to a radically different one. From among the community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, there will be writers who will tell of an even more stunning transformation. The circle will be widened, with illuminating results.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Israeli writing will be less visible, for the most dramatic cleavage within Israeli society is between secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. This is a profound conflict that goes far beyond issues of pluralism and "life style preference" to the very center of crisis of Judaism in modern times and the rise of Zionism. As the cultural imagination of Zionism, Hebrew literature, with the complex exception of S. Y. Agnon, has been a literature of secularity. In its early stages, it represented the world of observant Jews, only to submit it to withering satire.

What was true at the end of the nineteenth century is true again today at the end of the twentieth. The earlocked and gabardine-wearing shtetl Jew represented something more to the Hebrew writers then the impotent spiritual corruption inherent in Diaspora existence. The same iconographic image is in the minds of contemporary secular Israelis as they view ultra-Orthodox Jews, although the perception of impotence has changed to a sense of intimidation and resentment. Yet there is much curiosity on the part of the secular, whose lives are openly visible, about what takes place behind the cordon of privacy among the ultra-Orthodox. This desire for a kind of literary voyeurism has been satisfied by a mini-trend of books written by formerly Orthodox authors who purport to reveal the secrets, mostly about male-female relations, of Bnai Brak and Jerusalem.

When viewed through American Jewish eyes, an enormous sadness born of missed chances is evoked by this conflict. Because of the politicization of religion in Israel, secular Israeli Jews have come to equate Judaism with the current formation of militant Orthodoxy and ultranationalism. The awareness that Judaism is a religious-cultural civilization that has existed over millennia, through many golden ages of poetry, narrative, and philosophy as well as legal codes and commentaries, seems to lie beyond imagination in the presence of historical confrontation. American Jews who observe Israel from a distance realize, perhaps as their meager compensation for living outside the thick texture of Israeli life, that to confuse the present array of Orthodoxy with the religious Jews’ civilization is a dire mistake with tragic consequences. The direness of the mistake lies not so much in the trodden rights of non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel, a serious matter in its own right, as in the price paid by the secular culture. Because of widespread disdain for the state rabbinate and for ultra-Orthodoxy, Israeli secular culture often views the spiritual achievements and imaginative creations of Jewish civilization over the ages as so much poisoned fruit. What is unattractive in the present moment is confused with what was glorious in its classical manifestations.

A significant price is paid for this confusion. The Jewish past’s imaginative reservoir is composed of myths, symbols, stories, motifs, images, tropes, commentaries and supercommentaries, and other linguistic and cultural materials. For Israeli culture to deny itself access to this body of resources because of a quarrel with its latter-day custodians means giving up a great deal. It involves only living off the resources of the past hundred years, and in many cases of the past fifty, if that much. While there’s much in Israel’s recent history to be proud of and to make meaning from, no culture, however substantial, can forgo its long and mysterious past without risking desultory shallowness.

Israeli literature, particularly the most innovative work, remains vigorous. Yet around the margins, there are signs of cultural insufficiency that may signal more serious problems, if a deeper connection to the past isn’t made.

For American, especially American Jewish, readers, the issue becomes one of shared relevance and interest. As Israeli literature becomes less Jewish and more Israeli, it finds itself more limited to time and place. Clearly, there always will be great works of art that transcend national origins to become universal. But, American readers have many places they can look for universality. The attraction Israeli literature will exert because of its Israeliness will be a factor in the attentiveness of American readers who seek a deeper, more truth-telling encounter with Israel. Of course, this isn’t the “fault” of Israeli literature, but rather a symptom of the growing divergence between the lives and fate of Israeli and American Jews.

Yet that divergence is itself the result of a shared distancing from the common core of Jewish civilization. In the late twentieth century, American Jews drifted away from the core out of indifference and an eagerness to become Americans, while Israelis undertook a more complex ideological negation of much of classical Jewish culture while appropriating and amplifying the national idea. One of the dialectical surprises of modern Jewish history is that it’s now American Jews who, in their own heterodox ways, are reconnecting with that core.

Whether in the future American readers will discover in Israeli literature reflections of a parallel but exotic universe or something “of the (Jewish) essence,” it’s too soon to say.

Dr. Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and Chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Widely published, he is author of several books, including Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (University of Washington Press, 2001) and Translating Israel: The Reception of Hebrew Literature in America (Syracuse University Press, 2001).

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