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In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the all-encompassing religious complexion and cohesiveness of Jewish communal life began to disintegrate. One response to the ensuing Jewish struggle for survival as a spiritual entity was the emergence of a modern Hebraic secular cultural tradition. This volume presents a selection of seminal essays by Gershon Shaked, all of which explore the evolution of that new tradition, tracing its major processes and identifying central stages in the development of its new canonical master-texts.
Focusing upon major cultural issues of Jewish and Israeli modernity, Shaked first expands upon the discussion of Jewish secularism and its dependence upon the traditional heritage. He then considers the formative function of the Holocaust and other traumatic memories of destruction and persecution on the collective Jewish and Israeli mentality. The next essays provide a general overview of modern Hebrew literature in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora-particularly in the United States, where that literature has had a minor impact.
The first specifically literary section, on poetry and drama, describes the mythopoeic creativity of the Hebrew poet laureate Hayyim Nahman Bialik and of the major Hebrew playwright Mattityahu Shoham. While Bialik In his long narrative poem "The Dead of the Desert" forged the subversive myth of a rebellion against the curse of an eternal desert exile and its probable success or failure, Shoham understood very clearly the revolutionary mythological role that reinterpretation of the biblical text could play. The third essay in the poetry and drama section is dedicated to Yehuda Amichai, who lowered the stylistic register of literary Hebrew and transformed the pathetic, exalted poetic idiom of the pre-state years into a sober, sensitive, lowbrow language.
The next two sections are dedicated to Mendele Mokher Seforim and Shmuel Yosef Agnon, two major novelists of the New Tradition. Mendele was the voice of the beggars, the underdogs, the limping shlemazels of the shtetl. His fiction foretold the destruction of the Eastern European Jewish community, but offered no constructive alternative to its dismal prophecy. Agnon's work, with its surrealist technique and concealed content, is in some ways similar to that of Franz Kafka. Agnon's characters, caught in a religious and cultural crisis, seek redemption by immigrating to Eretz Israel. The two works discussed here, Agunot (Forsaken Wives)and Shevu'at emunim (The Betrothed) suggest, however, that while it may be possible to take neurotic Jews out of the Diaspora, taking the Diaspora out of them is another matter.
The next section is dedicated to two radically different Hebrew authors. Joseph Hayyim Brenner, an immigrant in the Second Aliyah, wrote of displaced strangers trying to set down roots in a foreign environment; Itzhak Shami, an "Arab- Jew," wrote-in excellent literary Hebrew-about Arab-Jewish honor and the mentality, ceremonies, habits, and lifestyle of the oriental Jewish communities of Palestine and Syria. The last chapter is dedicated to David Vogel, a writer working outside the mainstream of Israeli literature. Although his novel Hayyei nissu'im (Married Life) was written in Hebrew, its plot and characters are strongly reminiscent of the German-Jewish literary tradition.
In analyzing the cultural processes underlying Hebrew literature's major achievements in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these essays seek to shed light upon the major concerns of this new and secular Hebrew tradition. Especially for the non-Hebrew reader, it is hoped that they will illuminate key aspects of modern Jewish culture.
Gershon Shaked, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is the author of more than thirty books of criticism in Hebrew and in several other languages. He won the 1986 Bialik Literary Prize, the Israel Prize for Literary Scholarship in 1992, and the Bahat Award for non-fiction in 2004.