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Hebrew Literature in the Post-Imperial Age: The Future of Jewish Identity at the Millennium

By David Aberbach, Dept. of Jewish Studies, McGill University

My talk has two parts. In the first part, I will discuss a few things that are new in Hebrew literature in comparison with the recent past. In the second part, I will consider what I feel to be the cutting edge of Hebrew literature in a global perspective - the biblical prophets.

1. Hebrew Now and 100 Years Ago

Hebrew literature is the outstanding development in Jewish creativity over the past century. It has faithfully reflected and in some cases actually contributed to the greatest upheavals in modern Jewish history, and perhaps in the history of any people. Hebrew was a witness to crisis in Tsarist Russia, crisis which ultimately brought an end to this empire - where nearly five million Jews lived, the largest Jewish community in the world at that time. The rising militancy of young Jews and the emergence from powerlessness is expressed in Bialik's poems of wrath, particularly In the City of Slaughter - the most famous modern Hebrew poem, written after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903. At this point, Jews began for the first time in 2000 years to organize themselves and take up arms to defend themselves against anti-Jewish violence.

Hebrew was witness and participant in this momentous change and the demographic shift of nearly two million east European Jews, mostly to America, between 1881 and 1914. In the chaos of upheaval important Hebrew literature was created in places such as Berlin, Heidelberg, Lausanne, Vienna, London, New York, Paris, the south of France, and the villages in the Austrian Alps. This scattered, fragmented, deeply diverse literature, written mostly by a dozen or so writers for a relatively small readership is not just a literary curiosity. It is an important contribution to 20th century literature. Although most of this literature was not political or ideological, it was nevertheless - whether the writers liked it or not - part of the Zionist movement after the creation of the World Zionist Organization by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Zionism was as much a cultural revolution as a political one. By the mid-1920s the centre of Hebrew literature shifted from Russia and Poland to Tel Aviv. Most of the major Hebrew writers now moved from Europe to Palestine: Bialik, Agnon, Hazaz, Tchernichowsky, Greenberg, Shoffman. By the late 1930s the first major sabra writer, S. Yizhar, born in Rechovot in 1916, began to publish stories. The Holocaust put an end to the great European centres of Hebrew literature. Hebrew in America and other centres untouched by the Holocaust did not put down roots and died. Hebrew literature since 1948, when the State of Israel was born, is Israeli literature, and every stage in Israeli history - especially the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 the Intifada from 1987 onward, the Gulf war of 1991, and the peace process - is marked by a fairly distinct body of literature. At this point, since 1948, for the first time after the age of Isaiah, Hebrew literature is no longer written under the rule of a dominant non-Jewish state or empire.

What is new in post-imperial Hebrew? It would be easier to ask: what is not new? The economist Milton Friedman once said that all characteristics associated with Jews in the past were reversed in the 20th century. This is true of Hebrew writers and literature. Hebrew writers a hundred years ago came mostly from religious homes in small towns. Their families were mostly working class and poor. Their native language was Yiddish. They had little formal secular education. Most of them did not even have a high school diploma. Their early education was mostly religious, and they were thoroughly learned in the sacred Jewish texts; for the rest, they were self-taught. They belonged to the rabbinic elite but, as Alan Mintz has shown in a brilliant and deeply moving critical study, they broke with the Judaism of their fathers and were banished at times literally from their father's table. Their writings represent a ceaseless dialectic with Judaism. They had much difficulty writing modern Hebrew - the language was still undeveloped. They were obsessed with the burden of Jewish existence, of being a defenceless minority among a hostile majority. Their writings reflect the transition from a patriarchal religious way of life to the modern secular world. In some ways, their writings anticipate the Holocaust. They wrote almost entirely for a Jewish readership.

Theirs was the literature of the underdog. Elaborate descriptions of food and meals often appear in it, perhaps a reflection of the fact that many of the writers and their readers had known hunger. Bialik writes of poverty and hunger as a driving force in his poetry. Peretz's Yiddish and Hebrew story of Bontshe the Silent reflects east European life, not just Jewish life, at the turn of the 20th century. Bontshe's idea of heaven is a cup of coffee and a roll. The memory of child conscripts into the Tsar's army was still painful. Exploited children and women, including the white slave trade, figure in late-Tsarist Hebrew fiction, notably Mendele's novel Be-Emek ha-Bakha (in the Valley of Tear). The Jews had a lot going against them. Their cultural advantage - a profound religious and educational tradition - could often appear to be a disadvantage as it held them back from the secular education that could change their lives. Their main social advantage in retrospect was that they had little to gain by staying in eastern Europe and much to gain by emigrating. Despair has its uses.

In contrast, most Israeli writers are native speakers from secular middle-class backgrounds. For the first time in Hebrew, there are many women writers. Hebrew writers work in an increasingly flexible language for the largest Hebrew readership in history as well as for a large readership, both Jews and non-Jews, who read them in translation. They represent a majority culture in an independent liberal democracy in which literature is one of many modes of expression. They are part of a consumer society in which the importance of ideology has shrunk; and often they write unabashedly for the market, including the market in translation. They are usually university-educated and often teach at universities. I think few of them would deny that they lack the profound Jewish scholarship of the classic modern Hebrew writers such as Mendele, Bialik and Agnon. They tend to know world literature better than the traditional Jewish texts. Few of them know the Talmud in any depth. Symptomatic of the split between religious and secular Jews in Israel, mainstream Hebrew writers since 1948 have rarely described orthodox Judaism from within. They tend to be indifferent or ignorant, if not hostile to orthodox Judaism. A.B. Yehoshua in the novel The Lover, published in 1976, has an empathetic psychological portrait of an Arab teenager, but when he depicts Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, the orthodox Jews are all alike. The shadow of the Holocaust looms large over Israeli literature, though Israeli writers appear to be less concerned with Jewish existence and identity than with specifically Israeli or universal issues. In particular, each of the wars with the Arabs has left its imprint on Hebrew literature. Most Hebrew writers are soldiers. Some of them - and this is new - are not Jewish.

More Hebrew literature is published each year than ever before, but by and large does not represent a new, revolutionary departure. The revolution occurred a hundred years ago. Modern Hebrew literature has grown out of the writings of Brenner and Berdichevsky, Shoffman and Gnessin. It is interesting that the greatest Hebrew writers in the empire of the Tsars, Mendele and Bialik, represented an artistic dead end for most later Hebrew writers, precisely because they depicted faithfully the rich world of traditional east European Jews, and Zionism sought a new life detached from the old.

In some ways, the pressure of diaspora existence, of being a religious minority under an often-hostile dominant power, had a creative impact greater than that of political independence. When this pressure was lifted, one result after 1948 was a body of Hebrew literature that was in its very absorption with narrow state interests, limited and timebound in comparison with the extraordinary diversity and cosmopolitanism of the scattered literature prior to 1948. It would be hard to find two Israeli writers more different than Mendele and Gnessin at the turn of the century or Agnon and Fogel in the 1920s and 1930s, though these writers wrote for a far smaller readership. Also, the status of pre-1948 Hebrew literature was higher than after 1948 as it was written for and by an elite and was perceived as an essential part of the process of state-building. Once the state of Israel was created, the functional nationalist value of Hebrew literature was largely lost. Never has the contingent nature of Jewish identity and culture been more blatant than in the post-imperial era. It is as though Jewish identity has gone into flotation. Hebrew writers 100 years ago could speak with conviction of a collective Jewish identity. Today, this is no longer certain. The great themes of faith and exile, poverty and persecution have faded. The need for an independent literary world is no longer a condition for Jewish survival.

It is ironic that Mendele, perhaps the most original modern Jewish writer, is largely unread today. For he is the most relevant, not to Jews but to large numbers of people in developing countries. His works, all set in Tsarist Russia, give insight into the conditions of poverty, malnutrition, disease and backwardness which no longer affect Jews but are found in much of the developing world today. Consider this passage in his allegorical novel The Mare which attacks the would-be reformers of the east European Jews. "You tell a poor creature: Get an education... what do eating and basic needs have to do with education? What right do you have to prevent someone from eating, from breathing freely, until he masters some trick or other? Every creature that is born is a living thing. Nature has provided it with all the senses, all the organs, for its own use, to get everything it needs to live. It has a mouth to eat with, a nose to breathe with, legs to walk with, not for dancing and prancing and capering. All that fancy rubbish was invented afterwards and given a name: Education." Insofar as the Jews are concerned this picture of hunger, backwardness and frustration is a thing of the past, and most Hebrew writers are naturally not in touch with it. But it is a reality in much of the world today. The current UNESCO report gives statistics on malnutrition and infant mortality rates mostly from starvation and curable sickness: the estimated statistics are that 30,000 children are dying every day. Yet what is the theme of this report? EDUCATION.

Mendele's social conscience and activism owed much to 19th century Russian literature, which aimed to bring about social change. But the deepest sources of Mendele's passion for social justice are found in the prophets. In fact, I would like to suggest to you that the cutting edge of Hebrew literature in the global context today is in the biblical prophets.

2. The Biblical Prophets

The prophets are our contemporaries in the sense that they address the outstanding global problem which the world faces today: the champagne glass phenomenon, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is estimated that nearly half the world's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 225 individuals. Average annual income in Luxembourg is over $45,000; in Mozambique it is $80. Concern for the poor, for society's unfortunates, for the widow and the orphan, is central in classical Hebrew literature. According to the Torah it is illegal to ignore injustice - lo tuchal lehitalem. What the prophets say is essentially no different from the Torah but they say it with immense moral passion and dramatic force on a universal scale. They are the first in recorded history to attack the rich for neglecting the needs of the poor. What made Judaism, and the prophets, unique - and dangerous - in the ancient world was the union of religion and morality. Morality is sacred - it is God's will - and takes precedence over political and military power. The prophets were the first cultural dissidents in history. They made it possible to think in terms of social change and progress, not just a social order. To the extent that modern states have been influenced by this conception of social responsibility they have tried to eliminate as far as possible poverty, sickness, backwardness, and social inequity.

The prophets envisaged an ideal world in which poverty and injustice would be wiped out. Some of their ideals can be realized. This was never the case before. When Isaiah calls for universal justice, for the poor to be fed, clothed and sheltered, he knows that on a global scale this is impossible. Until World War II and the economic and technological boom which followed, this remained true. Today, poverty, hunger and much illness are conquerable. Much has been done in the last two decades - notably the establishment of immunization programs in developing countries - but the problems have not been solved. Organized religions have the ideology to face these problems but not the will to solve them. Governments have the power but lack the mandate. Charities have the will but lack the power. According to a United Nations study published in 1998:

"World agriculture produces enough food calories to meet the energy needs of all the nearly 6 billion people who are alive today. Increased production based on advances in seed, water, and environmental technologies especially in developing countries, have removed insufficient production as a cause of food shortage for the world as a whole" (p. 54).

It is estimated by UNICEF that 12 million children die each year of hunger or curable disease. In many countries infant mortality is twenty or thirty times higher than in Canada.

There is a serious moral dilemma here: Modern improvements in food technology, medicine, transport, communications and the media, logistics, and management have eliminated excuses. Children who died in the millions of dysentery a hundred years ago in a remote part of Africa or Asia were unfortunate. But that today an estimated two million children continue to die of dysentery - is a crime. Many doctors in developed countries have never seen a case of measles. After over ten years of practice as a family doctor, my wife recently saw a case of measles for the first time. Yet, according to UNICEF, 800,000 children die of measles each year in developing countries. In view of these statistics, the memorialization of the Holocaust seems at times a form of necrophilia. What is the point of the slogan 'never again'? It is happening again - approximately twice each year. The Torah says that life is precious - not specifically Jewish life - and that justice justice must be pursued. With the attenuation and fragmentation of Jewish identity, Judaism seems at times to have lost its activist direction and universalist spirit. Was the Jewish concern with injustice and inequity, with the widow and orphan, pure self-interest? When the Jews were defeated and persecuted and hungry, they cared about justice. Now that they are middle class and comfortable, are the universal ideals of Judaism irrelevant? Or are these ideals going to survive in Judaism lishma, for their own sake, out of pure faith, principle and altruism, from which Jews cannot benefit. Now that rabbinic Judaism is no longer predominant, perhaps the Hebrew prophets can be rediscovered as visionaries for a better world at the millennium. Who knows: maybe this is will be the salvation of Judaism?

Please send us your comments and questions!


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