The Bible in Contemporary Israeli Literature: Text and Place in Zeruya Shalev's Husband and Wife and Michal Govrin's Snapshots

Article excerpt

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.


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. …