The Other in Hebrew Literature, Self and Other in Israeli Prose, and similar titles, seem powerful, given that they engage with politics, as well as identity politics, in the making of literature, and in the process of reading and interpretation.
Titles such as these imply that there is a hegemonic “One,” (in the sense of the dichotomy of the “one” against the “other”) depicting and determining this through (most likely) stereotypes—stereotypes created by the author-authoritative “One,” and thus enabling and supporting its domination over the subaltern “Other.” Domination and subordination are created in multiple ways: literature, through the image of the Other as portrayed in literary works, joins in to support the hegemonic discourse. Put differently, the category of the Other implies that first there is a “One”; and that literature belongs to this “One,” to a (relatively monolithic) center which defines and creates the power relations that perpetuate this point of view, this “One” as the center around whom all other perspectives orientate themselves.
These power relations were especially evident when Israeli literature consisted of a single center, often working in tandem with Zionist ideology. In recent years, the category of the “Other” has been apparent in different political-cultural configurations. One good example is the reception of Dorit Rabiniyan’s novel Gader Haya (All the Rivers, 2014). The reception of this novel can be seen to compress the attitude of Israeli culture towards the Palestinian Arab—the ultimate “other,” if you will—in recent years: anxiety, attraction, repression, racism.
Across the decades, Israeli literature (sometimes overlapping with Hebrew literature) has been understood as comprised of a triangle: territory (the State of Israel); language (Hebrew); and identity (Jewish). While there have always been some other voices, this triangle has remained stable, until the 1980s. But all power relations, as well as presumptions, are bound to be destabilized, eventually. In this regard, it is worthy to mention one of the crucial moments of Hebrew literature, the publication of Anton Shammas’ Arabeskot (Arabesques) in 1986, created a major sea change in the definition of both “Hebrew literature” and “Israeli literature”—stressing that Hebrew Literature belonged to its readers and writers, whoever they might be.
This essay focuses on Hebrew poetry of the past two decades, poetry published widely and written by many poets, sometimes after crowdfunding campaigns. We wish to argue that the power balance of “Self” and “Other” is going through a significant change; we suggest that the stark difference between the monolithic “Self” and “Other,” still evident in many cultural and societal products in Israel, does not capture the evolution of Hebrew poetry in recent years. Contemporary Hebrew poetry has, as we argue here, no authoritative center to determine in questions of “self” and “other”. “The Other in Israeli poetry of recent years” is therefore an irrelevant consideration. At the same time, we would like to demonstrate how Hebrew poetry is increasingly preoccupied with the question of a “Self,” voicing the unique experiences of its speakers, in terms of their cultural, political, religious, social and/or sexual identities. What might be seen here as a contradiction will be explained — and, perhaps, understood — by and by.
In her influential 2006 article “Hegia Hazman Lomar ‘Ani’ Acheret Bashira ha’Ivrit” (“The Time Has Arrived to Say ‘I’ Differently in Hebrew Poetry”), the writer and thinker Haviva Pedaya called for a revolution in modern Hebrew poetry. Joining other scholars and literary critics, Pedaya referred to Natan Zach as the leading Israeli poet of the 1960s and onwards. Zach, as is commonly agreed, formulated a new “I” in Hebrew poetry, a universal “I”, as is suggested by the various readings of his poem Rega Eḥad: One moment of silence please. If you please. I/ Would like to say something.
As Pedaya argues, this universalistic “I” (Ani, in Hebrew), intended to liberate the voice from the collectivist tone that dominates the poetry of the Palmach Generation (of the 1940s), is in fact a seemingly universalistic “I,” or an empty signifier. As Pedaya writes: “That which was supposed to be a device for individual expression, turned into an apparatus of production and reproduction [… leading poetry] to the exact place from which it attempted to escape.” Thus, in its dominance, Zach’s universal “I” annulled any particular attempt to articulate authentic experiences of actual subjects in Israeli poetry; the universal I was always already a Western, Ashkenazi, masculine. In the name of the universal “I,” as Pedaya argues, all “poems engaged deeply and intensively with immigration and identity were rejected, labeling them as either ‘religious,’ ‘peripheral’ or ‘ethnic’.”
Pedaya stresses that a time for change has come. She calls for a conceptual minimization of Zach’s poetics, and for the acceleration of new poetic modes in its place. She writes: “Only the deconstruction of the dichotomy between a ‘Universal’ and ‘Spontaneous’ I (be it ethnic or religious) will pave the way for the outburst of a new poetic generation […] This is not necessarily related to one specific model, but rather, this outburst will break the wall of unreceptiveness, open blocked channels, enable new form and possibilities… an outburst that no longer attempts at presenting its ‘I’ in the same old suit of yesteryear.”
A first hint of the change that Pedaya called for occurred, in fact, two years before her aforementioned essay, in the poetry collection of the Druze poet Salman Masalha. The collection, titled Eḥad Mikan (“One from Here”) was published in Hebrew in 2004, following the lead marked by Shammas’ Arabesques. As we have shown elsewhere, Masalha’s collection problematizes the definitions of Hebrew and Israeli poetry, questioning as it does the ostensibly natural sides of the triangle referred to earlier: identity, territory, and language.
This is evident both in content and in form. Some of the poems in Eḥad Mikan are organized —side by side—by a common theme reflecting on the complexity of the unique “I,” the speaker-poet. For example, the poem “Ani Meshorer Aravi” (“I am an Arab Poet”) faces “Ani Kotev Ivrit” (“I Write Hebrew”). This juxtaposition places the two seemingly-opposing identities side by side; yet the “Ani,” the “I,” locks them in place, right here, or in Hebrew—Kan.
Interestingly, Masalha’s poetry resembles—or perhaps echoes—Zach’s poetics, especially in its musicality. Nevertheless, the “I” which emerges from his poetry is, unlike Zach’s “I,” a very particular one: the “I” of a Druze poet who chooses to write in the language that is considered to be that of the Jewish people. Masalha’s collection puts forward the understanding of Hebrew as a language of a place, while rejecting the idea of a language of the people.
Six years after Pedaya’s call for change, a new phenomenon emerged in Hebrew poetry. Arspoetica, a group of young Mizrahi poets led by a woman, Adi Keissar, stormed into the literary republic, writing of the Mizrahi experience and pain and creating a new “I” in Hebrew poetry. The name of the group is a play on words: the ars points both to the word “art” in Latin, and to the Hebrew slang ‘ars which refers to men of Mizrahi background, pejoratively. Their popularity, the sales of their books, their fans, critics, as well as their haters, all show that a change has been evoked in Hebrew poetry, a change similar to that which Pedaya had envisioned. Adi Keissar’s often quoted poem “Ani Hamizraḥit” (“I am the Mizrahi Woman,” published in 2013) can be seen as the prime example of this change. The title of the poem, repeated in the first line, begins with the word “Ani” (“I” or, “I am”). Then, as if responding directly to the universalistic “I” formulated by Zach, the speaker specifies two particularities of her identity: she is “Mizrahit,” both Mizrahic and woman. The poem goes on to elaborate on the specific experiences of this “Ani”: the chauvinism and racism that she faces in her daily life in Israel, as well as the facts of her private life and her literary influences.
As such, the speaker of this poem can—and must—be understood as Adi Keissar, the poet herself. Unlike Zach’s poetics, which stripped the speaker of any distinguishable characteristics, distancing the poet from the speaker of his poems, Keissar’s poem (as well as many other poems written by the ‘Arspoetica poets) re-connect the two together.
In the wake of the popularity of the group, the dominant tone of Hebrew poetry, as well as its poetics of the “I,” have changed. Below, we present a few trajectories created by this change.
Dor 1.5 (“The 1.5 Generation”), a cultural group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel, was founded in 2011, following the socio-economic unrest of that year. They started organizing poetry events in late 2012, under the name Tusóvka (Russian: a get-together). This group was immediately compared to ‘Arspoetica; both, ‘Arspoetica and Dor 1.5, demonstrated their power to push for a change in the dominant poetics of the moment, such as the change of “I”’. It is important to mention that the Dor 1.5 poets, such as co-founder Alex Rif, are active both in Hebrew and in Russian, and that they consider themselves Israeli (rather than exclusively Hebrew) poets and cultural activists. They see poetry as presenting an opportunity, one of many, to represent themselves, and their story of immigration, to Israeli society and culture. Similarly to ‘Arspoetica, many of the poems written by members of the collective (see Rif’s poem “Halom Hozer”, for example) focus on the individual, on the particular and autobiographical experience of the poet. Universalism—no more.
As demonstrated above, Pedaya’s call has been answered. Hebrew poetry is no longer written in any particular form; Using Pedaya’s metaphor, the suit is no longer pre-tailored, no longer one size fits all.
The words of the poet Janet Belay from Beer-Sheva, part of the Ethiopian ensemble of Modern Israeli poetry (founded in 2018) are particularly poignant. Her poem “Isha” (“Woman”) ends with the following lines, which exemplify a particular “I”: a queer black subject, responding to the white-hegemonic-heteronormative Israeliness surrounding her; responding to the universal “I,” yet stripping him, once again, from its seemingly natural status, which nevertheless ever stabilizes power relations. Belay writes:
I am an Israeli woman
Still not an integral part of society
Equality and freedom of choice are not fully mine.
Sometime in the future they expect me to turn from black into white
Or at least into a light Mizrachi brown
It would seem just right –
I’d be part of the right group just like that
And on a second thought–
In this white town – better grow a dick and be a man
Yet I wonder if as a former black, no longer woman
I would suffer even more pain
To sum up, the movements we have described may seem, simply, like a wave of identity politics in modern Hebrew poetry. But as demonstrated above, the change runs deeper. It is an “I” (or “I”s) that is here to stay: religious and religiosity poetry is more present than ever; Queer voices are heard (and not only at Pride parades); the change that began at Israel’s Periphery can no longer be overlooked. One striking example is Ilan Berkovich. Berkovich, poetry critic for Haaretz, named his third book, from 2016, Hameshorer Ha-Ashkenazi Ha-aḥaron (The Last Ashkenazi Poet). Berkovich openly admitted that reading Arspoetica’s poems encouraged him to question himself on the authenticity of his own poetry. Put differently: even a male Ashkenazi poet can no longer make use of the well-tailored suit that was Zach’s universalistic “I.”
To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s poem: the “I” of modern Hebrew poetry contains multitudes.