Iphigenia in Israel: The Daughter's Options in Hebrew Literature

By Berg, Nancy E. | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Iphigenia in Israel: The Daughter's Options in Hebrew Literature


Berg, Nancy E., Hebrew Studies Journal


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.

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