Commentary Magazine

Israeli Writers & Their Problems

The recent American reissue of A Whole Loaf,1 Sholom J. Kahn’s anthology of Israeli fiction, raises a number of questions about the kind of literature that is being created in Israel. The most obvious fact about this collection of stories—and about the Israeli literary scene as well—is that it is not a whole loaf at all, but two loaves so different from each other that they hardly seem to have been baked in the same oven. The organization of material in the Kahn collection is itself partly a concession to the profound disparity that exists between two broad modes of fiction practiced in Israel today. The first half of the anthology is devoted to “Wars and Independence” and mainly represents the younger generation of Israeli writers, that is, writers still under the age of forty when the volume was originally published in Tel Aviv in 1957. The second half of the book, entitled “Backgrounds,” is, with one exception, the work of the older literary generation. It is ironically appropriate that this second section should be bracketed with two stories by S. Y. Agnon. For though the seventy-four-year-old master of Hebrew fiction was nurtured in roughly the same cultural environment as the other writers of his generation, his moral and artistic concerns and his technical virtuosity lead him both further back and further forward than his close contemporaries; he is at once more distant than they and closer to the younger writers.

Every literature, of course, has more or less recognizable literary generations, usually defined by the inevitable movement of rebellion by the younger writers against the tastes, standards, and objectives of their immediate predecessors. But the literary situation in Israel is in some respects unique. To get an idea of the position in which a young Israeli novelist finds himself, one must imagine writers with the interests, say, of Malamud, Bellow, or Styron, setting out to create their novels of moral quest when their older contemporaries are people like Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne.

Though some qualification would have to be made, it is not misleading to think of the Hebrew literary generation now in its sixties as deriving from the same world as Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and certainly Isaac Bashevis Singer. The typical Sabra writer, on the other hand, has grown up in Mandatory Palestine in a socialist youth movement, worked for a while on a kibbutz, fought in the Israeli army and perhaps earlier in the British army, supported himself with a variety of odd jobs ranging from manual labor to journalism and high-school teaching. The limiting pressures of his native milieu thrust against—but do not mold—the contours of his personality: in most cases he has outgrown the Sabra’s pose of toughness, his strident self-assertiveness, and is self-consciously attempting to overcome his provincialism. The writer’s attitude toward the traditional Jewish life that used to exist in the Diaspora is not necessarily negative—as is often claimed—but is certainly unconcerned. East European Jewry, by and large, is simply beyond the horizons of his own life. The language he writes in is the language he has always spoken—a new Hebrew whose vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and idioms are often determined by its present-day speakers and whatever languages they have brought with them to Hebrew. This modern Hebrew, of course, takes advantage of linguistic resources from the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, even the prayer book, but a novelist who writes in it is as far away from the older stylists who model their language on tradition as Malamud’s prose is from Fielding’s.



A Whole Loaf gives a reasonably fair idea of the relative success or failure of Israeli writers in representing Israeli life, though some details of the picture suggested by the fifteen stories will have to be corrected. Except for certain peripheral areas the older writers are quite incapable of capturing the new accents and rhythms, the distinctive nuances in feeling and thought that characterize the contemporary Israeli scene. The younger writers, on the other hand, continue to fumble—with considerable intentness—for ways to bring their awareness of themselves and their culture into sharp literary focus.

Flipping through the “Backgrounds” section of A Whole Loaf, and thinking back over the novels located in Israel written by the older Hebrew writers (Ag-non always excepted), I formulated the following rule-of-thumb: when an older Hebrew writer sets his narrative in Israel, he either succeeds by selecting an enclave of life in Israel which is not Israeli and therefore is in some sense familiar ground to him, or he fails by writing a story with such a thin social texture that it could fit almost anywhere, but nowhere in particular. The latter alternative is seductive to the many derivative writers in contemporary Hebrew letters; their imaginations seem principally engaged in imitating a literary model—or more often, an amalgam of models—rather than in transcribing real human problems in real human situations. Two painfully clear examples in the Kahn anthology are the stories by Yehuda Yaari and Yisraeli Zarchi; though both are set in Jerusalem, the only detectable local atmosphere is a certain odor of pulp magazines compounded with a mustiness of late 19th-century Continental fiction.

The success of the other strategy is attested by several stories of the older writers in A Whole Loaf. Pieces like Haim Hazaz’s “The Lord Have Mercy,” Yaakov Churgin’s “Reb Shmelke of Safed,” and Yehoshua Bar-Yosef’s “The Lateborn” have a distinctive warmth and charm which should be familiar to anyone even casually acquainted with Yiddish literature. Like so many Yiddish stories, these examples of “Israeli” fiction have little plot, no tight structure, no crisis, moral or otherwise; they seem to stand apart from any main tradition of Western fiction. The stories are pleasantly ambling sketches of colorful folk types—and the types themselves are familiar in Yiddish literature: the long-suffering pure-hearted simpleton, the quixotic ne’er-do-well, the genuinely loving couple constantly at swords’ ends. A writer does not have to have grown up in Eastern Europe in order to go in for this kind of Old World art. As a matter of fact, both Churgin and Bar-Yosef are native Palestinians; but Churgin was born at the turn of the century and Bar-Yosef, a decade younger, was raised in the old Orthodox community of Safed. There are abundant pockets of Old World life in Israel: whether they derive from Galicia or Lithuania or Yemen, they all have the same appeal of quaintness for the practicing “folk” artists and literary ethnologists among Hebrew writers.



The career of Haim Hazaz, generally considered the most important of the older writers after Agnon, illustrates with paradigmatic clarity how the Old World oriented novelists have responded to the challenge of Israeli reality. Hazaz is a writer with great gifts for lyric description, for bold caricature, and for lively characterization. A good part of his earlier work concerns itself with the portrayal of colorful figures from the East European shtetl. Later, as a resident of Palestine and Israel, Hazaz began to devote his abundant energies to his portraits—the word is inevitable with such a writer—of Yemenite Jewry, both in Yemen (the Yaish trilogy) and in Israel (Mori Said, available in an English translation by Ben Halpern). The transition, of course, was not from Diaspora to Israel, but from one kind of Jewish folk-material to another. When Hazaz tries to deal with the more characteristic aspects of modern Israel (as in the volume of stories, A Belt of Constellations, published in 1958), his work is much flatter and suffers more obviously from ideological tendentiousness. Hebrew critics like to praise Hazaz for his “vivid depiction of the life of the Yemenites.” To an American critic this is likely to seem a rather limited and anachronistic achievement in the middle of the 20th century. To a young Israeli writer, it is likely to seem that way, too. In any case, the older writers who spend their energies on quaint and loving portraits of quaint and lovable types can teach the young novelist nothing about how to render his own problematic world.

A young Israeli setting out to be a writer is confronted with a further difficulty—or at least annoyance—from which creative artists in the West are comparatively free. While he is doing his best simply to probe with honesty and intelligence the reality in which he finds himself, something more is often expected from him—by many critics, by older writers, by the press, by educators, by his party, by the regime. Modern Hebrew literature, from its beginnings in Central and Eastern Europe, was to a great extent publicistic in nature; by the latter half of the 19th century, it had become the handmaiden of nationalism for many Jews: Ahad Ha’am in the Odessa of the 90’s could feel justified in rejecting for publication in his Hashiloach some fine lyric poems by Bialik because they did nothing to heighten national consciousness. It is hardly surprising that in an Israel of the Age of Ideology there are circles—often the product, in fact, of Ahad Ha’am’s cultural nationalism—that preserve this quasi-propagandistic notion of the function of literature.

The persistence of such an attitude was made extremely clear by the furor raised over the publication in 1958 of S. Yizhar’s long novel about the Israeli-Arab War, The Days of Ziklag. Though Yizhar’s book suffers from some artistic uncertainty and too much verbiage, it is a strikingly revealing moral document. Yizhar’s young soldiers, both in their interior monologues and in their lengthy discussions, lay bare all the pained questionings and radical self-doubts of sensitive Israeli youth: about the significance of statehood, about their Jewishness and their cultural future, about the existence of any certain values by which they can live. While the novel had many enthusiastic defenders, particularly among the younger intellectuals, it was denounced by most of the older critics as “cynical” or “nihilistic,” and it was turned down for the coveted Bialik Prize largely because, as one of the judges asserted, it “betrayed” the brave Israeli youth that had fought in the War of Independence.

There is, moreover, little indication that this demand for good Zionists and good Jews in Hebrew literature has relented since 1958. Just this April, at the festive twentieth convention of the Hebrew Writers’ Association, the younger novelists and poets found themselves assaulted from two sides. The convention began with a message from Ben Gurion which sharply criticized Hebrew writers for their lack of social responsibility, for their indifference to the great national effort of Israel’s ingathering of exiles. Then Haim Hazaz, in the opening address, castigated with equal vehemence both the younger writers for turning their backs on the riches of Jewish tradition and the Israeli public for its lack of interest in Hebrew books.



It is true that literature in Israel must struggle to keep its own footing in the tide of translated culture that floods its relatively tiny reading audience. But it is also true that the indigenous literature of Israel often seems pale and uninteresting not because its writers have failed to be loyally Israeli or authentically Jewish, but because they have not yet found adequate ways to be themselves in literature. The problem is not that “there is nothing really authentic about you or the life you lead,” in the words of the protagonist of one story in A Whole Loaf, but that the younger Israeli writers are only beginning to discover coherent literary forms for their lives.

One fact that is clear about the novels and stories of this younger generation is that their authors are honestly trying to find what they can or should expect of themselves instead of attempting to write what others may expect of them. For example, there is not the slightest echo of patriotic drum-beating among their stories in A Whole Loaf. In the “Wars and Independence” section, each of the younger writers finds that war tests traditional values and brings moral ambivalences or conflicting allegiances into high tension; and much the same moral tenor is found in their authors’ longer works. One finds the characteristic tone in the battle-hour reflections of the protagonist in “The Living and the Dead,” an excerpt from S. Yizhar’s first novel, The Grove on the Hill:

. . . you remember that there are others like you and they haven’t forgotten you, and the job you’re doing and your own life are part and parcel of the big undertaking, and so on and so forth; and yet for some reason these are only fine phrases that are far from the truth. For the heart feels sour, so sour, far beyond any supposed deeds of daring, beyond sacrifice or all kinds of things; and you have to hide this well, because you’re among people who believe in and look up to you. . . .

The passage illustrates both the moral integrity and the artistic weakness which characterize the work of Yizhar and his close contemporaries. One often has the feeling that these writers—particularly when they move beyond the short story to the novel—are unable yet to establish a necessary distance between themselves and their narrative. In their intent desire to grapple with their own moral problems, they frequently neglect the artistic demands of fiction, so that instead of structured novels with individualized characters and realized social settings, they are likely to end up with long, amorphous dialogues or monologues in which faceless voices crying out in a void discuss the moral dilemmas which beset the writers. Yizhar, who is probably the most talented and is certainly the most ambitious of the younger novelists, still suffers from this tendency to slide into formlessness; eleven years after The Grove on the Hill, it persists as the chief weakness of The Days of Ziklag, despite the strands of leitmotif with which he tries to hold together the twelve hundred pages of his later novel.

It is worth noting in this respect that of the fiction included in A Whole Loaf, Yizhar’s piece is the only one—again with the exception of Agnon’s stories—that shows any experimenting with literary form. While it would be silly to want or expect Israeli fiction to be particularly avant-garde, the timidity or indifference of the younger writers in exploring the medium in which they work results in their failure to develop an original style. And this is to say that none of the writers has adequately reproduced in language the distinctive texture of the world around him. Yizhar comes closest to doing so, but as the passage quoted from “The Living and the Dead” indicates, he does not seem to have really worked out what he wants to do technically with the stream-of-consciousness form, or rather, with the rough approximation of it which he uses. The presumable justification for his blurring of syntactical connections, his redundancies, his sprawling, ungainly sentences, is that this is the way people think. But, in fact, Yizhar’s sentences are far too conversational, too much like slack monologue.

The Days of Ziklag, impressive a book as it is for what it has to say, similarly put off many intelligent readers in Israel by its awkward manner. The long interior monologues are sometimes so amorphous, and so undifferentiated from one character to the next, that one has to look back to the beginning of the chapter to recall who is supposed to be thinking. Yizhar is particularly effective in reproducing the impact of fear and the weight of boredom upon a soldier’s awareness, and he shows real virtuosity in his detailed lyric descriptions of natural settings. However, he will have to develop a more disciplined and resourceful technique to carry out his intentions as a novelist.



The two names of the younger generation most often mentioned with—or after—Yizhar’s are Moshe Shamir and Nathan Shaham. Each is represented in A Whole Loaf by a well-told war story, though Shamir’s piece is flawed at points by melodramatic clichés. In their longer narratives, both Shamir and Shaham have suffered from the typical failure to achieve sufficient artistic distance from what they were writing. That You Are Naked (1958), one of the most recent novels of the prolific Shamir, illustrates this general weakness with great clarity. The novel is meant to present a young Israeli trying to define himself as an individual against the pressures of a group—in this case, his youth movement. Like a number of novels by the younger writers in Israel (including Yizhar’s major work), all the principal characters are adolescents: they are precisely at the age of confused seeking and frequent self-definition. The hero of That You Are Naked is the most thinly-veiled autobiographical figure: his name is Moshe Avni (both Shamir and Avni suggest “stone” in Hebrew); he was born in the same year as Shamir; like his author, he has grown up in Tel Aviv and is a member of a left-wing youth movement. Moshe Avni, moreover, takes frequent pains to remind the reader what his story is all about: “With desperate persistence we are searching for ourselves, as though we were seeking a sanction for our existence, as though without some sanction we would be thrown out into the cold.” This slow-moving, repetitious book reads more like a personal declaration of independence than a novel; there is little evidence that the young novelist has made as yet the subtle but crucial distinction between life and literature.

The Poor Man’s Wisdom (1960), Nathan Shaham’s latest novel, offers a somewhat different illustration of precisely the same failing. There is nothing obviously autobiographical about Shaham’s novel, but again the writer is bent on the pursuit of his own existential problems to the manifest neglect of the novelistic demands of his book. The protagonist of The Poor Man’s Wisdom is a Polish Jew who has devoted his life to the Communist party. Finally disillusioned with the party, he escapes to Israel in the hours of grace in 1956 and goes to live on a kibbutz. Through a long series of unwieldy flashbacks, through repeated discussion and debate with his old party friends and with kibbutzniks, he ponders the problem of individual conscience within a party discipline, the difficulty of the intellectual in adapting to communal life and manual labor, the force of moral obligations outside the sphere of political activity. In all this earnest but somewhat tedious dialectic, elements like plot and character receive only the most perfunctory attention, and again one feels that the book is not quite a novel.



One might expect that the younger Israeli writers would turn for help in their technical difficulties to the one major creative figure of the older generation, S. Y. Agnon. Yet the fact is that Agnon, at least until very recently, has had no appreciable impact upon them. The reasons for his lack of influence are clear. However profound his artistic vision may be, it is also highly idiosyncratic, intimately connected with his own background and personality. Agnon’s stylized, traditional Hebrew is, as I noted, centuries removed from the language of the Sabras, and his imagination was nourished in a Galician study house, not on a collective farm in the Negev or in a war against the Arabs.

Nevertheless, there are some significant points of contact between Agnon’s world and that of the native Israeli writers. Like them, he is essentially concerned with moral issues; that is to say, at the center of his work stands an individual who is continually faced with critical choices or imperatives. And Agnon, for all his attachment to tradition, often reveals a disturbed sense of ambivalence toward values about which tradition or society claims to be sure. His great theme of radical homeless-ness even provides a specific parallel to the sense of disinheritance and moral isolation which makes itself felt in much of the writing of the younger generation. Yitzhak Kummer, the doomed outsider torn apart between two worlds in Agnon’s Not Long Ago, is no less an Isaac bound for a meaningless immolation than the soldiers in The Days of Ziklag or the young socialists in That You Are Naked. (All three novels use the Binding of Isaac as a central motif.)

Even apart from his affinities in outlook, it seems almost inevitable that Agnon’s fertile symbolic imagination and fine control of tone and style would eventually tempt the young Hebrew writers to borrow and even to imitate. Three recent pieces of Hebrew fiction suggest the possibility that Agnon’s influence may prove to be more fruitful than anyone has yet guessed. Yehuda Amichai’s In This Terrible Wind (1961), Yoram Kaniuk’s The Acrophile (published in English in 1961—the Hebrew original has not yet appeared), and Aharon Meged’s As It Happeneth to the Fool (1959) make use in varying degree of Agnonesque effects and techniques, particularly those that come from the rich anti-realist and symbolic vein of Agnon’s work.

In This Terrible Wind is the most radically experimental and also by far the most uneven of the three books. Amichai, who has acquired a reputation as a poet in the last few years, attempts in this volume of stories to apply some of the methods of poetry to first-person narrative. Many of the longer stories wander unsteadily through a plotless, characterless vacuum, but a few of the shorter pieces are quite striking. One is tempted to describe Amichai’s world as surrealistic, but it would be more accurate to say that reality is essentially metaphorical for him: people become metaphors and metaphors become people, every element of experience demands a symbolic reading. Amichai diligently explores the possibilities of each passing comparison. “[When the war was over] we scattered like papers after the elections, in every direction. Only the dead were cast into the dark ballot box, only they influenced what would be.” And he finds tongues in trees, sermons in stones, and, generally, gloom in everything.

When I drew near [the sickbed], I heard the great oxygen bomb whispering. It used to be that an angel stood by the beds of the sick. Now there are bombs filled with whispering oxygen. Divers and pilots are also given oxygen tanks. Where will my father go? Maybe he’ll dive, maybe he’ll climb. Anyway, he’ll leave us.

This sort of brooding over the mysteries of metaphor sometimes occurs in Agnon, though it is certainly never given such free rein. Be that as it may, the entire dreamlike mode of narration of In This Terrible Wind is in some degree inspired by the expressionistic stories of Agnon’s Book of Deeds. Though Amichai’s touch is often unsure, he has made a brave attempt to create a new kind of story which can serve as an artistically coherent expression of his own inner world.



Yoram Kaniuk, on the other hand, has a firmer grasp of his method: The Acrophile is a spare but skillfully managed novel. It also gives evidence of considerable technical indebtedness to Agnon. Kaniuk’s tone is often reminiscent of his: it has many of the same resonances, even much the same pace, the same quiet control, ranging from wry humor to muted lyricism. This, for example, is the way Kaniuk conveys the pain of separateness of a couple who will soon be divorced.

Mira remained silent. I put my arms around her and tried to kiss her. She was cold. I let her go, feeling like a fool. Two strangers, we walked together through the morning chill, the play of wind and trees, the game of the yellow leaves on the sidewalk.

And this is how Agnon, in “Metamorphosis,” one of the stories included in A Whole Loaf, presents the same emotion in a couple who have just been divorced.

The sun was about to set. In the fields the wheat swayed silently, and the sunflowers gazed one-eyed out of their darkening yellow faces. Hartmann stretched his hand out into the vacant air and caressed Toni’s shadow.

Some of the situations and symbols in The Acrophile also distinctly call Agnon to mind. The protagonist of The Acrophile is involved in the symbolically significant work of piecing together “the language of the black cave people,” just as Adiel Amzeh in Agnon’s “Forevermore” (COMMENTARY, August 1961) is trying to reconstruct the ancient civilization of Gumlidata, and just as Dr. Ginat in Agnon’s longer story, “Ido and Einam,” unearths the two archaic languages which provide the link “between the very beginnings of history and what preceded.” Or again, when Kaniuk’s Daan locks himself out of his apartment on his wedding day and all circumstances conspire against his getting back in, readers of Agnon will recall the similarly archetypal situation in The Book of Deeds. With all this, I do not mean to imply that Kaniuk is a derivative writer, merely that he appears to have borrowed a little and learned a great deal from the older Hebrew novelist.

Agnon’s influence on Aharon Meged is more tangential, perhaps no more than awakening him to the possibilities of adopting a Kafkaesque narrative to Hebrew fiction and Israeli reality. In any case, As It Happeneth to the Fool derives much more clearly from Kafka than from Agnon. The presence of the German writer in fact makes itself felt with awkward obtrusiveness in the first section of Meged’s novel. The nameless protagonist is invited by somebody called “B.” to a meeting of the Society of Evildoers; after he has been laughed out of the meeting for claiming he has a conscience, he tries desperately to win acceptance from the Society, but his efforts end in a shattering fiasco when he tumbles from the lofty scaffolding where he was to give a speech on the Society’s behalf. As Meged works further into his novel, the symbolic machinery creaks less, and the protagonist who began as a pawn in a Kafkaesque chess game turns out to be a rather believable homme moyen moral involved in an absorbing struggle against both the pressures of conformity from without and the limpness of his own timidity.



It is significant that Meged, in following Kafka’s conception of the novel as a moral fable, manages in the end to get across a much sharper sense than his more conventional colleagues of the distinctive reality of present-day Israel. Perhaps he owes part of his success to the entrenched bureaucratic way of life in modern socialist Israel. Kafka, of course, was himself a bureaucrat (as is the hero of As It Happeneth to the Fool), and the kind of novel he created reflects in many ways the peculiar character of this experience. In a bureaucracy, people have initials instead of names. In a bureaucracy—as anyone who has ever dealt with Israeli officialdom certainly knows—the individual is at the mercy of a madly confused machine in which no part accepts ultimate responsibility and from which on occasion inscrutable decrees are issued without warning or possibility of revocation. For an Israeli, there could be no more appropriate image for Judgment Day than the one offered by Meged’s novel: an obdurate tax-examiner, clutching the dossier that contains the protagonist’s entire adult life, seems literally to hold the hero’s fate in his unrelenting hands.

The case of As It Happeneth to the Fool could be particularly instructive to the writers we have been considering. While borrowing generously from a European writer, Meged has not been solely imitative and, in fact, has managed to invoke and explore his own national climate with considerable fidelity. The small strip of Hebrew-speaking culture at the east end of the Mediterranean does not have to be engulfed by the imposing cultural blocs of the West. At the present, there are at least a few hopeful indications that the new Israeli fiction may be developing its own distinctive voices.




1 A Whole Loaf: Stories from Israel, edited by Sholom J. Kahn, Vanguard Press, 344 pp., $4.50.

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