The Bible in Contemporary Israeli Literature: Text and Place in Zeruya Shalev's Husband and Wife and Michal Govrin's Snapshots
Shemtov, Vered, Hebrew Studies Journal
What an intoxication at slowly opening, while driving, the folded infinity of the place here, confronting dream with reality. *
Zeruya Shalev's Husband and Wife and Michal Govrin's Snapshots offer two distinct literary responses to Anita Shapira's polemical question: "Is there a way to restore the Bible to the focus of Hebrew Culture?" In both novels, the authors try to find a place for the Bible in a contemporary Israeli context: Shalev makes the Bible part of the local, intimate life of her protagonist and Govrin breaks the Bible's dominance over the Talmud and of the primacy of sovereignty over mobility, and in so doing gives legitimacy to different narratives of place. Both authors search for feminine models in order to move away from the Zionist association of the Bible with the land. Furthermore, both authors advance, or at least allow for, a reading of these feminine models as metaphors for a larger, collective identity, which not only reflects personal, private conflicts but also reacts to the changes that Zionist ideology has undergone in Jewish thought.
1. TEXT AND PLACE IN CONTEMPORARY HEBREW LITERATURE
Heinrich Heine claimed, with regard to the Jewish people, that
a book is their fatherland, their possession, their ruler.... They live between the boundary markers of this book; here, they exercise their inalienable civic rights; here, nobody can chase them away. (1)
Against this assertion, Zionism and the new settlements in Eretz Israel represented a shift from text to territory. Hebrew literature, as influenced by Zionism, was able to imagine a literary space in which Jewish texts and national territory were woven together, almost seamlessly, in order to create a new national home. Through an intertextual web of biblical and modern language and imagery, the modern Hebrew text conflated the past and present landscapes of Eretz Israel. Initially, descriptions of the Land of Israel relied heavily on biblical texts, as Ya'akov Fichman observed: "Those who returned to Zion needed to feel that they lived in the land of the Bible." (2)
Though the Bible was not, of course, the only intertext for imagining or describing the land by Hebrew writers, (3) it was undoubtedly a major and influential one. To this day, the land continues to be perceived in Israel as a bridge between the past and the present. David Jacobson argues that "not only is Israel's national identity permitted by the sense that it is reconnecting the Jewish people to its biblical past, but Israel is also the country in which most biblical events took place. As Ruth Kartun-Blum puts it, "one cannot escape the feeling that here biblical reality is repeating itself." (4)
Recent scholarship nonetheless characterizes the shift away from biblical references as a salient feature of contemporary Hebrew literature. Although this scholarship refers to intertextuality with the Bible in general, it also takes into consideration the use of biblical narratives and language in descriptions of the land. For example, the very title of Malka Shaked's 2005 anthology of poems, I Will Play You Forever ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), reflects a response to her own discomfort with what she describes as "the fading status of the Bible in Israel." In her introduction to this anthology, Shaked mentions by way of example a character from S. Yizhar's Days of Ziklag, a soldier who carries his Bible with him into the Negev and reads to his fellow soldiers sections of the biblical text that identify their battlefield with King David's biblical Ziklag. According to Shaked, Yizhar's warrior no longer speaks to contemporary Israelis; rather, in the present context, he comes across as ridiculous and even grotesque. (5) Anita Shapira's recent study The Bible and Israeli Identity traces the different ways in which the Bible shaped and became an integral part of Zionism but later assumed a minor role in Israeli identity. As Shapira argues,
In a society were a considerable portion of the young are native Israelis or even the off-spring of native Israelis, there is no longer any need to prop up the attachment to the land with genealogical charts or a "book memory." (6)
Like Shaked, Shapira is also disappointed with the new generation's lack of interest in the Bible, and concludes her article with the question "Is there a way to restore the Bible to the focus of Hebrew Culture?"
The research that I have highlighted above does not necessarily argue that contemporary Hebrew literature does not make a single reference to the Bible. On the contrary, many of the poems, articles, songs, and novels that are in circulation today make use of biblical references and language and affirm or contest this canonical text. Malka Shaked's exhaustive project, for example, attests to the continuous dialogue with the Bible in Hebrew poetry, as does the special volume of the AJS Review titled Recreating the Canon: The Presence of the Bible in Israeli Literature and Culture, which featured several of the articles that I cite here. (7) What is evident, however, especially with regard to geographical descriptions, is that biblical references are no longer perceived as literary conventions that blend seamlessly into contemporary texts. Rather, their presence in a literary text is often very noticeable and less conventional. The decrease in the use of biblical phrases in literary texts, as well as changing literary conventions and a shifting cultural climate, has rendered biblical intertextuality even more salient.
In an article published in Recreating the Canon, Avraham Balban argues that "postmodernist Hebrew fiction depicts protagonists for whom the Bible, its language, and its characters, form no part in their experience and Weltanschauung." Intertextuality with the Bible, he argues, was once considered as a way to
amplify the text and broaden its meaning. The new authors, on the other hand, refer their readers to modern texts, and make use of colloquial expressions and phrases that are taken from popular media in order to stress the "textuality" of their characters and as a means of flattening the language and the reality it reflects. (8)
He further argues that postmodernist Hebrew literature defines itself by
emphasizing the arbitrary, accidental nature of existence and the flat, one level quality of its texts, render the biblical content irrelevant ... Yet, the Bible is not altogether absent from postmodernist Hebrew fiction. As the works of [Meir] Shalev and Nurit Zarhi attest, it survives in places where it does not conflict with central postmodernist trends, but rather complements them. (9)
Although Balaban advances a very inclusive definition of postmodern literature which seems to take into consideration many different trends in contemporary Hebrew prose, his observations nevertheless highlight the continued presence of the Bible in contemporary texts.
The Bible's textual presence notwithstanding, over the years Hebrew literature and culture has also accumulated a large body of descriptions of Israeli locations, developing a new language in which to write the land. Moreover, contemporary Israeli readers are familiar with their space, or at least with their own local place. Their native relation to the land no longer requires the mediation of old texts or a national ideology in order to feel at home when reading about their place. In today's secular Israeli culture, the homeland is no longer the text, nor does the text necessarily serve as a bridge between the ideal and the real land. There is no longer any need to question the gap between these two conceptions of place, to find ways to justify Zionism, or to unify the nation through the text. (10) Rather I argue that, in addition to the postmodern conventions that Balaban pointed out, Israeli literature's relation to the Bible should be read in the context of shifts in Israeli perspectives with regard to the connection between the biblical text and the Land of Israel, the meaning of home and place, and the ways in which these terms and their interrelation affect the definition of Israeli identity/identities. Husband and Wife (11) and Snapshots, (12) the two novels that I will discuss in this paper, explicitly reflect and participate in this cultural context, by weaving together questions of text, territory and gender.
The changing status of the Bible in Israeli literature presents a particular challenge for women writers who attempt to gain a foothold in a place previously denied to them in a literary space dominated by male voices. (13) Traditionally, Jewish women have enjoyed limited access to the religious textual tradition, a fact which defined their participation in the late nineteenth century revival of modern Hebrew literature, at a time when writers were expected to be familiar with the Jewish bookcase and refer to it in their work. (14)
Women writers are now actively conversing with the Bible in Hebrew literature not only by adopting certain stylistic conventions but also by functioning as innovators and participating in a polemical discussion with the Bible, its values and status in Israeli culture. Shulamit Hareven's Desert Trilogy, for example, situates women writers in the tradition of Abraham Mapu, David Frishman, and Haim …
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Publication information: Article title: The Bible in Contemporary Israeli Literature: Text and Place in Zeruya Shalev's Husband and Wife and Michal Govrin's Snapshots. Contributors: Shemtov, Vered - Author. Journal title: Hebrew Studies Journal. Volume: 47. Publication date: Annual 2006. Page number: 363+. © 2008 National Association of Professors of Hebrew. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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