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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2007
Number 67
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Modern History and Modern Letters

The New Tradition: Essays on Modern Hebrew Literature by Gershon Shaked, Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press
A Review essay by Daniel Grossberg

The 17 essays in this work by Gershon Shaked, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, open with major contributions to the definition of the “new tradition” in Hebrew literature that evolved in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That tradition, Shaked explains, is a “modern Hebraic secular cultural tradition,” characterized by “both the secularization of religious values and the sacralization of a revived Jewish nationalism.” Shaked notes that “however secular that new canon may seem, the culture it describes is engaged in a constant intertextual dialogue with the Jewish heritage.”

The author’s studies are penetrating and his analyses of the creation of the new canon are lucid and compelling. He identifies, for example, the preferences of different ideological groups in nineteenth and twentieth-century Jewish history to identify with specific biblical books and personalities. “The choice of a particular subsection of the canon for poetry and reinterpretation transform the subsection into a dominant one, in this way the subsection derives its legitimacy from the very canon of which it is a minor part.” Thus, a new canon, an anti-canon comes about and a new tradition evolves. Our literary analyst points to Shaul Tchernichovsky’s “Canaanite Poems,” as an example of the poet’s choice of a pre-monotheistic Canaanite world and a tragic, anti-prophetic, combative historical figure such as Saul as “a clear expression of his search for an appropriate (sub-canonical) selection that would support his outlook within the canon itself… Here, conquest and slaughter are viewed as positive values, while Isaiah’s vision ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more’ is moved to the margins….”

The volume is a fine record of modern cultural history and as such treats all major aspects of Jewish history of the last two centuries that have left an imprint on Hebrew letters. The effects and affects of persecution, destruction and the Holocaust are patent on the literary imagination of the Hebrew writers and these too are ably traced among the essays. 

Shaked is no less adept at incisive analyses of individual works and their styles than dealing with general literary trends. Shaked writes of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, what is true of Natan Zach also. “[He] challenged the poetic conventions and thematics of his times: he lowered the stylistic register of literary Hebrew and transformed the pathetic, exalted poetic idiom of the pre-state years into a sober, sensitive, accessible language. Style and content unite in his poetry to reflect the change in the national atmosphere from the euphoria of  the founding years to the down-to-earth realities of the 1950s and 1960s…He mourned the decline and fall of the founding fathers’ idealism.”

The literary scholarship displayed in this work of criticism is dazzling. Shaked brings to bear on his investigations of Hebrew works the content, themes, and styles of scores of writers of world literature. In his study of Mendele Mokher Seforim alone, he makes masterful juxtapositions to Gogol and Saltykov-Schedrin’s Russian social satire; Richardson’s sentimental novel Pamela; Fielding’s picaresque novel Tom Jones and Dickens’ examples of the Bildungsroman David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. This is his practice throughout the book and no citation is gratuitous; each adds a significant nuance or dimension. In discussing Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Shaked begins with a comparative study of the Hebrew Nobel laureate and his contemporary and “spiritual sibling” Franz Kafka. Shaked’s brilliant mind does not stop there. He then examines the influence of the Scandinavian literary impressionists on the Hebrew prose artist.

The final three chapters of The New Tradition deal with individual writers who arose in vastly different venues and represented markedly different outlooks: Joseph Hayyim Brenner, born in Russia, drafted into the Russian army, deserted after a year, traveled to Germany and then to London before immigrating to Palestine; Yitzhak Shami, born in Turkish Palestine, taught in Damascus and Hebron among Arabs; and David Vogel, born in Germany, lived most his life in Vienna and Paris. Brenner conveys the “uprooted” experience of the European Jew in Palestine. Shami treats the Arab-Jewish experience in the Palestinian and Syrian communities and Vogel writes in Hebrew outside the mainstream of Israeli literature - more in the German-Jewish literary tradition. Shaked subjects the work of each to an incisive literary analysis.

Shaked’s breadth of knowledge and reading not only elucidates the writing he discusses. It spreads a broad backdrop for the understanding of modern Jewish history and Hebrew culture and literature, as well.

Dr. Daniel Grossberg recently retired from the University at Albany where he held a joint appointment to the Judaic Studies Department and the Religious Studies Program.and served as the Director of the Hebrew Program. His numerous publications are in Biblical studies with a specialty in biblical poetry and in modern Hebrew literature. Grossberg was also visiting Scholar at the Oxford Center for Post-graduate Hebrew Studies in England.

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