Young Writers and Middle-Aged Critics
THE Israeli intelligentsia are so special and peculiar as to puzzle and disconcert anyone approaching them with preconceptions. A generally knowledgeable foreigner, expecting to find either the freely speculating mind he knows in the West, or-if he knows his Middle East -the impecunious journalist, professional man, or bureaucrat for whom nationalist fervor compensates for any lack of free speculation, will find neither of his expectations fulfilled. At first glance the Israeli intellectual seems wholly a man of the West, with his British weekly tucked under one arm and a highbrow American paperback under the other, his conversation sprinkled with the literary or artistic slogans of the day before yesterday. But scratch the surface and you find that you are dealing with someone sui generis, someone who identifies himself with the West but is not quite of it, though certainly no Oriental either.
The intellectual’s age is very important, too, because of the decisive break between the generations in Israel. If he is over forty, his background is most likely to be East European and Diaspora-rooted. If he is under forty, he was born or raised in Israel, and is as different as sons can often be from fathers, though they have been molded by them. If you glance at the old-timer’s library, you will find it made up of Hebrew books for the most part, with a few volumes in Russian or Polish to set them off. The Hebrew section will not only comprise belles-lettres but will also include the Talmud, Midrashim, and Shulchan Aruch, as well as quantities of Rabbinic and homiletic literature. When you converse at length with him you may get an odd feeling of having stepped into the East European past, so saturated is his talk with references, reminiscences, and jokes centering on the world of his childhood and youth. His interest in foreign literature is likely to terminate with Tolstoy and the 19th century generally; if he is avant-garde, he may have the works of Alexander Blok. The 20th-century modems are little more than names to him; Eliot means George Eliot, the author of Daniel Deronda.
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