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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Hebrew Literature: Translated and Discussed

Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts
edited by Alan Mintz.
Hanover and London: University Press of New England, Brandeis University Press.

A Review Essay by Daniel Grossberg

Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts makes apparent the range and quality of modern Hebrew literature as well as the range and quality of literary criticism of that literature. The design of the book itself contributes to this understanding. Poems and short stories in their original Hebrew and in English translation serve as the primary texts. Critical statements by three different scholars follow and illuminate each story or poem. The following outline of texts and literary commentators shows the inventive format of the book:

1. The Red Heifer by M.J. Berdyczewski (tr. Wiliam Cutter) Wiliam Cutter, Anne Golombe Hoffman, Avner Holtzman
2. To the Sun by Saul Tchernichovsky (tr. Robert Alter) Aminadav A. Dykman, Arnold J. Band, Robert Alter
3. The Sense of Smell by S.Y. Agnon (tr. Arthur Green) Naomi Sokoloff, David G. Roskies, Alan Mintz
4. Man's House by U.Z. Greenberg (tr. Harold Schimmel) Lewis Glinert, Dan Laor, Hannan Hever
5. Bridal Veil by Amalia Khana-Carmon (tr. Raya and Nimrod Jones) Nancy E. Berg, Gilead Morahg, Hannah Naveh
6. Hovering at a Low Altitude by Dahlia Ravikovitch (tr. Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch) Barbara Mann, Nili R. Scharf Gold, Chana Kronfeld

A prose piece and a poetic work represent each of three major periods in the development of modern Hebrew literature: numbers 1 and 2 (above), the national Renaissance or Revival, (1881 – 1919); 3 and 4, the Modernist period (1920 – 1947); and 5 and 6, the State period (1948 to the present).

The value of Reading Hebrew Literature is multi-dimensional. The three critical statements on each work approach the text from varying perspectives and present several layers of meaning of the poems or stories. A volume with one essay on each work too often suggests that there is but one correct meaning. The set of three interpretive essays presented in this volume corrects the error that such a narrow grasp of art expresses in other books of literary analysis.

The three critical analyses of the six literary works here cast light on the range and variety of literary-critical approaches to literature, and Hebrew literature, in particular, as well. Traditional, historical, feminist, and postmodernist literary criticism are employed in the illumination of one or more of the eighteen literary pieces.

The choice of authors and texts was a wise one. There are too few works of Hebrew literature and literary criticism on Hebrew literature available in English. The authors chosen for this volume are among the most highly regarded writers in each period of modern Hebrew literature. The works of the artists chosen, however, are generally among their lesser-known stories and poems. This is not a negative comment. On the contrary, this anthology exposes readers’ to more than the few well-known works that are more commonly available, thus, expanding the readers’ familiarity with Hebrew literature. The volume makes a precious contribution toward remedying the dearth of Hebrew literature in English translation. The fine works chosen, the English translations of them, and the literary commentaries on them, moreover, foster a greater enthusiasm and appreciation of Hebrew literature.

Alan Mintz introduces the volume, perceptively tracing the development of modern Hebrew literature and featuring major influences on its form and content. Mintz discusses, for example, the spiritual climate for the Hebrew writers of the National Revival at the outset of the 20th century, “For this generation ... writing in Hebrew was not part of an ideological program but rather an attempt at a desperate solution to the unbearable pain of religious and cultural orphanhood. The vast and reticulated resources of the religious tradition that had collapsed upon them were utilized — often ironically and subversively — to explore the vicissitudes of experience in the world after faith. It was this existential exigency that drove writers to a level of imaginative complexity and invention that turned Hebrew into a serious modern literature.” Indeed, throughout modern Hebrew literature to the present, the subversion of traditional texts appears as a major recurring theme. No fewer than five of the six modern texts presented in Reading Hebrew Literature evidence this subversion theme. To illustrate, I cite some observations made by the commentators.

Avner Holtzman writes, “the poetics [of The Red Heifer] consists of bold, condensed inter-textual relations with the entire range of Jewish and non-Jewish cultural heritage ... Therefore it will not be an exaggeration to claim that almost every sentence of the story is potentially explosive.”

Robert Alter, on To the Sun declares that Tchernichowsky’s “radical project was to use the language of the Hebrew Bible ... not allusively, as did his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, but in innovative reconfiguration, in order to express an imaginative world that challenges the very ontological postulates of the Bible.”

David G. Roskies points to Agnon’s traditional Hebrew styles that raise contradictions and ambiguity. Roskies writes, “... The Sense of Smell combines disparate elements that are not easily reconciled. The story’s homiletic structure, storybook headings, archaic style and anecdotal plot, and its coincidental encounters, dream sequence, and moment of mystical reverie bespeak a world of all-too-perfect harmony. Yet the narrative is riddled with riddles. Is the writer/protagonist a pious raconteur or a misanthrope?”

The very title of U.Z. Greenberg’s poem, Man’s House recalls the biblical first man and creates an uncertainty of cosmic proportions. Lewis Glinert recognizes this ambiguity in his comment: “At the same time, we have to grapple with a disturbing poetic ambivalence as to the nature of the human condition and its remedy.” This ambivalence is embodied in the title. Does it denote “Man’s Home” or “Adam’s Home?”

Nili R. Scharf Gold identifies the shepherd girl in Hovering at a Low Altitude with goats. “She may resemble the black goats in her care, so much a part of the landscape, almost invisible and just as vulnerable. Goats, ‘izim, recall for the Hebrew reader kid or goat, gedi’ ‘izim or se’ir ‘izim, the quintessential sacrifice or victim” (Gen 37:31; Lev. 3:12; 5:6).

Scharf Gold suggests that Dahlia Ravikovitch introduces the young girl as a future sacrificial offering. The present volume engages readers and encourages them to seek continuities and nuances of meaning among the modern texts as well as among the literary/critical essays. I applaud the publication of Reading Hebrew Literature and I commend Alan Mintz for his editorial decisions. I further recognize the important position Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts will fill in the study of modern Hebrew literature and criticism in universities and in private homes.

Daniel Grossberg is professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Albany and a contributing editor.

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