Modern Hebrew literature is populated by scores of fathers and sons. Writers and scholars of the literature have embraced the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as a central paradigm for writing and reading, because it offers nearly unlimited opportunities for reinterpretation, transvaluation, and revision. (1) The story's idea of the father prepared to sacrifice his son resonates in a society dominated by wars, and this characterization of the literature as a literature of fathers and sons persists despite the many changes in Israeli society and in the literary scene. The father-son relationship is explored by variations on the Akedah story in Mizrachi, (2) immigrant and even post-Zionist literature, in which the son or the father dies in the beginning or the end of the narrative. Consider the following examples: the plot of A. B. Yehoshua's story "B'thilat HaKayitz 1970" (At the beginning of the summer of 1970) is set into motion by the notice of the death of the protagonist's son, while the narrative of Mar Mani (Mr. Mani) (3) builds up to the death of the father; the father's death near the beginning of Sami Michael's first novel Shavim VeShavim Yoter (Equal and more equal) expresses the tragedy of the family, HaYoshevet Baganim (The one sitting in the garden) by Haim Hazaz ends with the death of the father, and Yaakov Shabtai's tour de force Zikhron Devarim (Remembrance of things) is framed by both the father dying at the beginning and the son at the end. (4) The Akedah motif is, of course, also prevalent in poetry. (5)
The literary scene, however, has been opening up, and if anything, even more influenced by nearly contemporaneous literary trends. Mothers figure prominently in women's literature around the world. (6) Jewish literature--especially American Jewish literature--holds up the mother-son relationship for scrutiny in all of its neurotic pathology. (7) The galut-like stereotype of the overbearing mother generally does not hold currency in Hebrew. In Israeli literature, the mother of a son is often the mother of a soldier, giving voice to Sarah. (8)
The father-daughter trajectory is often omitted from the writing, nearly always from the reading. As part of a larger project, I offer a reading of the stories of fathers and daughters. How does this body of work differ from the literature of fathers and sons? What relationship does it have to the master narrative? How does it modify it? How does it differ from the fathers and daughters literature of the West--what is Israeli about it?
1. Electra and Iphigenia
Scholars of the father-daughter dyad in Western literature often discuss the daughter as a commodity while the father represents the patriarchal system. The father-daughter plot may include challenges to the father's authority, but it concludes with the daughter reconciling herself to the law of the father and thus reinforcing the patriarchy. (9) The traditional narrative ends with the daughter's marriage, death, or her exclusion as a social outcast.
Much of the theory applied in reading these narratives is based on the Freudian-Lacanian model of father-daughter interaction, grounded in the story of Electra. (10) Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia allows herself to be sacrificed to help her father's military campaign (a gender shifting version of the Akedah); his other daughter Electra avenges her father's death by having her mother killed.11 The two options--to be sacrificed or to take revenge--serve the interests of the father. Even more difficult to digest, service of this kind is often sexually charged, and the "specter" of incest hovers, whether repressed or realized, literally or metaphorically. (12) Because the threat of taboo is so strong, the father-daughter relationship, it has been said, is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Thus in the literature, one or the other is generally absent, if not physically, surely emotionally.
Early feminist scholarship in the West focused on identifying and critiquing patriarchal structures ("metaphorical incest" ala Chesler), and patriarchal society. The father represented the patriarchy, his interest was in its perpetuation, and thus his role was defined in his primary responsibility to marry off his daughter. Not surprisingly, many father-daughter stories offer variations on the marriage plot. "[U]nable to replace the father," Cullingford notes, "the daughter must realize instead that she will eventually be possessed by someone who resembles him." (13)
While in European fiction, the marriage plot focuses on the daughter, early twentieth century Hebrew fiction emphasizes the role of the father in marrying off his daughter. Agnon's novel Hakhnasat Kala (Bridal canopy) details the almost picaresque adventures of Reb Yudel to find a groom for his oldest of three daughters. (14) The novel focuses on the father, a reluctant adventurer, and his passivity. He is so disengaged from his daughters' lives that he needs his wife to bring their dire situation to his attention and thus arouse his "fatherly pity." Even so, he often forgets his purpose, tarrying along the way and never taking the direct route home when he can extend his journey. The relationship between the father and his daughters is defined by absence and obligation. He absents himself from home in order to fulfill his obligations to these daughters.
The daughters are self sufficient in their own way. When the father returns with a match for the oldest, but without even one of the 12,000 gold pieces he has pledged for her dowry, the girls stumble across a treasure chest filled with gold. Only at the beginning and end of this long novel do the daughters and their father exist in the same location. Even then, there is no interaction between them, no demonstration of affection. In most of the story, the daughters are absent in their father's absence. The law of the father is upheld without a tremor of resistance.
The novel stands as an inverse of Yitzhak Shami's short story "Father and Daughters" (15) in which the father is out of the house for seven years traveling in order to procure a dowry for his daughters. Instead of describing the father's journey, the narrator focuses on his return. Rather than ending in the anticipated wedding joy, this narrative ends in shame, defeat, and ignominious death. In the father's absence, the daughters have descended into debauchery, entertaining strangers, dressing provocatively, and living in decadent opulence. The actual homecoming stands in stark contrast to the one the father imagined in happy anticipation of the daughters' cries of joy and expressions of contentment, their attention to him, and their delight at the splendid gifts he brings.
Instead, his daughters react to his return with fear and revulsion. They clearly wish him gone again and dismiss his gifts with scornful grimaces. The reader quickly understands how little the father has known his daughters. "The old feelings of distaste and loathing awoke [in the daughters] and extinguished the spark of pity and forgiveness which had kindled in the ashes of forgetfulness and distance." (16) It is not that the daughters have changed in his absence, but rather, they have been liberated from his stifling rule, free to express their wanton materialism and licentiousness.
The law of the father has been totally abandoned; the father casts himself into the river. He cannot face life outside the (patriarchal) myth--while the daughters cannot face life within it. The story tells of an interesting clash of myth and reality, and shows that there is destruction in both.
Another of Agnon's works, "Bdemei Yameiha" (In the prime of her life) (17) opens with the death of the protagonist's mother Leah, leaving a family unit of a father and daughter. Their relationship vacillates between estrangement (18) and muted affection. The daughter, Tirzah, speaks of the winter …