Hebrew Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Hebrew Novel

Todd Hasak-Lowy

The unique features of the Hebrew novel, especially during its early stages, can be traced back to the unusual condition and evolution of Hebrew during the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe. Though never a dead language by any means, it had long since ceased to be a spoken language. By this time its use was restricted primarily to prayer and religious study, though more secular genres, such as business correspondences, travel books, and poetry, were occasionally composed in Hebrew as well. Over the course of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment (ca. 1770—1880), a small minority of Jewish men, who like many of their peers had acquired mastery of Hebrew through intensive study of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) and its commentaries, began applying their knowledge of this language to the production of radically new types of nonreligious texts. Such study was essentially off limits to women. These assimilating and secularizing writers were intent on engaging the forms of contemporary European culture, including prose fiction. Hebrew, as a language with a long-standing, widely recognized aesthetic dignity among Jews and non-Jews alike, presented itself as an attractive alternative to their native Yiddish. Nevertheless, turning Hebrew into a language capable of meeting the linguistic demands of the novel was a challenging project that lasted many decades. The first Hebrew novel—Abraham Mapu's Love of Zion —was published in 1853, but was little more than a pastiche of biblical phrases. By drawing extensively on rabbinical Hebrew, which has a much larger vocabulary and a more flexible syntax than its biblical counterpart, the novelist S. Y. Abramovitz developed the first viable Hebrew prose style in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Though Yiddish was often dismissed and disparaged by adherents of the Haskalah as a “jargon” emblematic of the traditional European Jewish life they sought to transcend, in practice the Hebrew novel emerged alongside and thanks to the parallel development of the Yiddish novel. Working in the comparatively better-equipped Yiddish, these writers, whether or not they aspired to write in Hebrew as well, imported the techniques, forms, and subject matter of nineteenth-century European fiction into a burgeoning modern Jewish culture that enabled the formation of a new Jewish public sphere covering large parts of the continent. Indeed, in many senses, and despite the fact that these two languages competed with one another throughout this period, Hebrew and Yiddish writing together participated in an intertwined, bilingual Jewish literature, something perhaps best illustrated by the trajectory of Abramovitz's career. Often called the grandfather of both modern Hebrew and modern Yiddish prose, Abramovitz began writing in Hebrew in the 1860s, only to switch to Yiddish for a couple of decades in order to work in a language better able to accommodate the sociological concerns of his oeuvre. Then in the 1880s, Abramovitz, having forged a richer, more versatile Hebrew prose idiom, returned to the language, autotranslating much of his celebrated Yiddish oeuvre into Hebrew over the next twenty years.

Throughout this period, virtually all of these new Hebrew writers possessed considerable knowledge of a third language (such as Russian or German) in addition to Hebrew and Yiddish. This multilingualism played a crucial role in both the creation of a Hebrew language capable of meeting the linguistic demands of modern fictional prose as well as the production of a vibrant Hebrew literature, one complete with journals, printers, publishing houses, and, most importantly, an interested reading public. The development of the Hebrew novel in particular and modern Hebrew culture in general relied quite heavily on the translation of popular European novels. In comparison to other European national cultures at this time, translations represented an unusually large amount of the creative work of numerous leading Hebrew writers. These writer/translators were driven to this practice for at least three reasons. First, these translations required the expansion of the still-impoverished Hebrew lexicon while also forcing the language to accommodate the syntactical and grammatical nuances and complexities common to the European novel. Second, the process of translation afforded these writers the opportunity to wrestle with and internalize the concerns and sensibilities of the genre, which after all elucidated the revolutionary transformations of nineteenth-century Europe for the larger gentile population. Third, the publication and dissemination of these translations enriched considerably the otherwise meager modern Hebrew library, thereby drawing and maintaining a readership which obviously had the option of turning to other literatures.

The trajectory of Hebrew prose in general and the Hebrew novel in particular departed from normative European paths in at least two additional distinct ways. First, because this fiction emerged belatedly, Hebrew writers encountered realist and modernist trends or modes simultaneously (see MODERNISM, REALISM). As such, the modernist fiction of influential writers such as U. N. Gnessin and Y. Ch. Brenner was written during the height of European modernism. Second, though Hebrew literature, like many other European literatures, came to be intimately tied to a nationalist movement (in this case Zionism), the first couple of generations of its writers lived and wrote in Europe, as this literature only migrated to Palestine during the first few decades of the twentieth century. As a result of the initially deterritorialized qualities of this uniquely ambitious literature many Hebrew writers advocated for a complete renegotiation of Jewish society—the Hebrew novel played an unusually central role in “imagining” the nation. The combination of these two qualities of the Hebrew novel gave rise to an atypical genre that was at once intimately tied to a revolutionary nationalist project and riddled with the sort of skepticism, subjectivism, and fragmentation common to the modernist novel. In this regard, the Hebrew novel, though born in Europe, more resembles literature produced outside Europe by various postcolonial national cultures.

During the 1920s Palestine became the undeniable center of Hebrew literature, which two decades later would become nearly synonymous with Israeli literature, although both yiddish and arabic literature would be produced there as well. By mid-century, Hebrew prose was being written by European immigrants, chief among them Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon, as well as writers born in Palestine and raised in Hebrew, such as S. Yizhar. In much less than one hundred years, the Hebrew novel had evolved from a somewhat deformed version of the genre—written against all odds for a few thousand European readers for whom Yiddish was their mother tongue—to a central component of a thriving national Hebrew literature produced and consumed more and more by native speakers who encountered and contributed to the revitalization of the Hebrew language as a whole. During the first few decades of statehood, the central strand of the Israeli novel tended to offer critical representations of the country as part of a highly ambivalent response to the realization of Zionism's central aim and the ongoing imperatives of state building. In the 1960s and 1970s, novelists such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and Yaakov Shabtai offered portraits anticipating and later documenting the decline of Ashkenazic (i.e., Central and Eastern European Jewish) Labor-Zionist hegemony in Israeli society.

While women writers came to comprise a larger and larger portion of Hebrew novelists, their tendency to focus primarily on the private and the personal—as opposed to the public and the national—experience of supposedly unrepresentative female protagonists led to their collective marginalization all the way into the 1980s. Similarly, Hebrew writers originally from Arab or Muslim countries, who immigrated to Israel during the first few years following independence in 1948, narrated a radically different encounter with Zionism and were also rendered to the margins of this literature until quite recently. Investigating and interrogating the complex ideological presuppositions informing the construction of the modern Hebrew canon, which privileged certain biographies, stories, settings, and even styles, has been a central concern of scholarship on the Hebrew novel since the 1970s. Today, the Hebrew novel has come to include everything from Orly Castel-Bloom's postmodernist Israeli dystopias to Aharon Appelfeld's opaque Holocaust narratives to Sayed Kashua's understated representations of contemporary Arab-Israeli experiences, novels published in great numbers considering the still relatively small readership. The increasingly diverse Hebrew novel, now often written in an informal Israeli Hebrew fairly indifferent to the numerous historical layers out of which it was first created, continues to occupy a central position in a largely post-nationalist literature.

SEE ALSO: National Literature.


1. Alter, R. (1988), Invention of Hebrew Prose.

2. Hever, H. (2001), Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon.

3. Miron, D. (1987), “ Domesticating a Foreign Genre,” Prooftexts 7: 1—27.

4. Shaked, G. (2000), Modern Hebrew Fiction.