Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts

By Nash, Stanley | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts


Nash, Stanley, Shofar


edited by Alan Mintz. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003. 258 pp. in English; 38 pp. in Hebrew. $60.00.

Reading Hebrew Literature, edited by Alan Mintz, is an exceptionally instructive and useful volume for the teaching of evocative contemporary Hebrew texts of both prose and poetry. Mintz has artfully brought together the original Hebrew texts; English translations, some of which he has evidently commissioned specifically for this volume; and three interpretive essays for each of the respective works, written by leading American and Israeli critics. The texts under scrutiny are "The Red Heifer," by M. J. Berdyczewski, translated by William Cutter; "To the Sun," by Saul Tchernichowsky, translated by Robert Alter; "The Sense of Smell," by S. Y. Agnon, translated by Arthur Green; "Man's House," by U. Z. Greenberg, translated by Harold Schimmel; "Bridal Veil," by Amalia Kahana-Carmon, translated by Raya and Nimrod Jones; and "Hovering at a Low Altitude," by Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana and Ariel Bloch.

"The Red Heifer" is a gruesome tale about a group of butchers in an Eastern European town who epitomize in the most essentialist manner the brutality inherent in their profession. William Cutter views the story as part and parcel of Berdyczewski's anti-idealistic debunking of Judaism. Ann Golomb Hoffman expands the rubric of her interpretive hermeneutic to encompass psychoanalytic issues of gender, most notably, the "history of Jewish male feminization" -- a fashionable topic of both psychological and ideological import -- which Hoffman views as being adumbrated boldly in Berdyczewski's story. The third essay on the "Red Heifer" is by Avner Holtzman, one of the world's leading Berdyczewski researchers. Holtzman views the story as connected with Berdyczewski's peculiar declaration of his intent to "memorialize" a Judaic culture that comes across as neo-pagan in a good many of Berdyczewski's stories and in his novel Miriam as well. Holtzman is a bit too quick in giving the appearance of dismissing or minimizing the fact that "for generations of readers, this story was viewed as an expression of belief in the potential powers of earthly life hidden beneath the surface of diasporic meager existence, waiting for their fulfillment." Proto-Zionist or not, the story "The Red Heifer" seems to embody a dynamic re-mythicization of Judaism, which may indeed run counter to Berdyczewski's avowed pessimism about Judaism during this period (1905). It is surprising that none of the authors saw fit to cite Dan Almagor's masterful study of archetypal figures and situations in Berdyczewski's work, one small facet of which is Almagor's illustration of the eroticism implicit in the color red in what he terms "Berdyczewski's personal mythology." (See Almagor's article in Nurit Govrin's edition of "Selected Articles on Berdyczewski's Literary Work.")

The second text studied, Tchernichowsky's "To the Sun," is a corona or wreath of sonnets -- in which the last sonnet in the cyle is composed of the first line of each of the fourteen previous sonnets -- and is generally acknowledged to be one of the more complex works of the Tehiyyah, the modern Hebrew renaissance period (1880-1920). The master linguist and translator, Aminadav Dykman, provides fascinating parallels in Russian literature, which inspired Tchernichowsky's effort in "To the Sun." Arnold Band, following the lead of the critic Boaz Arpali, offers an excellently detailed and probing analysis of the biographical introspective elements in the sonnet cycle. The poems translator, Robert Alter, takes issue with Boaz Arpali (and hence differs with Arnold Band, too) in stressing the more intellectual and daring ideological purview of "To the Sun." He takes pains to expand the more transparently ideological and historically based subject of sonnet number seven ["As I stood between the living and one already dying (What a terrible craft!), a sharp scalpel in my hand"] to encompass the entire cycle. …

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