An Introduction to Modern Israeli Literature. (Arts and Letters)

By Grossberg, Daniel | Midstream, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

An Introduction to Modern Israeli Literature. (Arts and Letters)

Grossberg, Daniel, Midstream

Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon are the two masters of Modern Hebrew Literature--Bialik in verse and Agnon in prose. The distinctive and unrivaled artistry of each, notwithstanding, an examination of some shared aspects of their literary activity places their accomplishments in sharp focus.

The works of Bialik and Agnon give strong testimony to their remarkable command of the rich Jewish textual tradition. The thematic richness, no less than the linguistic richness, of their oeuvres owes much to their mastery of the literature. Both men were obsessed with the old world of Jewish piety and drew extensively from it. The poet and prose master alike also cultivated some of the same literary motifs. Despite their shared orientation to the Jewish past, the writings of each reflect well the times in which they lived--the transition from the old world to the new--and the tension arising from that transition. These personal themes and the many variations on them in the writings of Bialik and Agnon represent a greater malaise in the modern world, as well. Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Shmuel Yosef Agnon alike exerted a profound influence on their literary contemporaries and successors to the present day.

To fully appreciate the work of these two giants of modern Hebrew literature, it is important to understand the historical and cultural force that produced them.

I. Haskalah and Renewal

Russia and Poland of 1881 to 1920 were the scene of a new stage in Modern Hebrew literature called "The Literature of Renewal," which grew out of the Haskalah literature of Western Europe that flowered during the preceding century. The Haskalah was an enlightenment movement advocating the modernization of Jewish thought and culture. The movement was a deliberate effort on the part of Jewish intellectuals (maskilim) to "enlighten" the masses of European Jews and spread modern Western culture among them. The maskilim believed that acceptance into the wider culture demanded intellectual and social adherence to the models of the non-Jewish world and adoption of their aesthetic values. These changes, they maintained, would also lead to the elimination of the antisemitism in Eastern Europe.

The didactic Haskalah literature was an organ encouraging change. With sharp, realistic, and naturalistic tendencies, the writers/social critics employed strong satire as they argued for change. The Haskalah cultivated Hebrew as their literary medium and conveyed secular materials to the Jews in Hebrew translation. This choice of language was made to a great extent because the gentile world held Hebrew, the language of the Bible, in much higher esteem than Yiddish, the "Jewish ghetto jargon." The literary use of the language of the Bible also spurred a national and linguistic romanticism and neoclassicism. The style of the Hebrew creations, however, was, all too often, an artificial, belabored Hebrew pastiche of Biblical phrases removed from their ancient context and forced to convey a new message.

The didacticism notwithstanding, the achievements of the Haskalah were considerable. The Jewish Enlightenment revivified the Hebrew language and made it serve a new secular literature; it translated into Hebrew major works of Western literature, philosophy, and science; and it planted in the minds and hearts of the young Jewish intelligentsia a strong interest in secular study. By the 1870s, the maskilim had succeeded in winning a good many adherents, but despite significant attainments, the movement was coming to an end.

The Haskalah had proven that the old norms in life, education, and religion were wanting. But it had failed to provide in their stead an enlightened Judaism for the newly edified. The young Russian maskil, who had gained a modicum of sophistication, now yearned for a fuller secular education, but the tsarist government would not open the doors of the universities to the Jews. The pain of deserting the familiar but of not gaining desired goals brought about anxiety, disillusionment, and ultimately assimilation.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

An Introduction to Modern Israeli Literature. (Arts and Letters)


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?