For Whom Do I Toil?

On Globalization and Contemporary Hebrew World Literature.

The May 2015 edition of World Literature Today was dedicated to ‘New Hebrew Writing.’ The edition included a piece of creative nonfiction written by myself, as well as poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction by Tahel Frosh, Yaakov Biton, Almog Behar, Yael Neeman and many others.

This wasn’t my first involvement with world literature. About a year earlier, a German radio program about world literature featured a book of prose I had written in Hebrew, Stone, Paper, which had been translated into German. Following the book’s translation, I also travelled to public readings and took part in a number of conferences and literature evenings that were held in a mixture of English and German. These events opened my eyes to a community of readers that I never imagined I would have, or that even existed. I happily wrote the book that I spoke about at these overseas events without being conscious that a non-Israeli reader would be likely to read what I had written. The European book tour, organized by various literary institutes, changed the way I thought about potential audiences for my books. Suddenly new questions arose: What are these far away people likely to know or not know? What can my text assume that they know? What shared language do we have? What shared experience and shared world do I have with people from such different places? I asked myself these questions while I continued on my journey, continued to appear at events, and continued to write, while before my eyes my audience of readers changed. Along with it, so did the imagined readers of my own work.

These experiences, which inspired my PhD. research, stem from my existence as a writer in the global present of what Pascale Casanova calls The World Republic of Letters. The translation of literature is of course an ancient practice, and there’s also nothing new in writers traveling to distant places. Nor is the field of international literature a new literary reality: Casanova dates the founding of the global literary space back to the sixteenth century, with the development of vernacular languages and literatures in Europe. The global characteristics of the world literary space are not due merely to it being international, but also to the striking changes that researchers of globalization have highlighted, and which also operate within it: digitalization and the acceleration of the flow of information, media, ideas and images; the cheapest and fastest means of transport ever seen; the acceleration of production processes, consumption and investments in capital flows; and rapid changes in population and communities following mass movements of work migrants and refugees, as well as tourism and relocation.

In the Israeli context, Uri Ram dates the start of Israeli globalization to the beginning of the 1980s, and claims that the process accelerated in the 1990s. This acceleration followed a number of processes: neoliberalism in Israel, which began with what was called the ‘Israel Economic Stabilization Plan’ in 1985, the end of the Cold War and the bipolar global structure in 1989, and the post-industrial revolution and the information revolution in the Israeli economy of the 1990s. Under the dynamics of globalization, global and local trends weaken the national state – which was the central unit of identity and organization in the prior modern period – and create a new ‘glocal’ space (global – local). The global trends are super-trends that erode the national state “from above,” through national technological, financial, media and commercial super-systems; the local trends are countervailing trends that erode the nation-state “from below,” through different ethnic sub-national, religious, racial, regional and cultural identities.

The nature of globalization and the way that it influences people and communities is not identical or equal but is connected directly to their place in the global economy, global geography and politics, as well as the new ethnic and gender map that globalization is creating and depicting. In addition, in the field of literature in general, and Hebrew literature in particular, not every writer is influenced by the same processes in the same way or with the same intensity, and not every writer responds in writing to the same processes in the same way. There are no writers, though, who can remain completely uninfluenced by these processes.

One of the main consequences of contemporary Hebrew literature’s local and global status is that different Hebrew novels – which I place under the banner of “Hebrew World Literature” – aren’t only read by a global readership but are also addressed to this readership and are absorbed into them. In order to exist, and in order to be understood and comprehended, literature has to share codes, understandings, languages and values with its readership. Literature doesn’t only share common denominators with the same readership, but it also produces them and undermines them. In the global present in which Hebrew World Literature is written, translated, distributed and read, what are the literary techniques of addressing global readers? How do these modes of address operate? How do these same novels create worlds of shared language with a global readership while producing that same readership? How does Hebrew World Literature respond to the conditions of production, distribution and reading within which it exists? These are only some of the questions that research of Hebrew world literature in the 21st century will need to address.


From its beginnings, the concept of world literature has comprised two connected but separate meanings: world literature as a way of reading literature, and world literature as literature whose scope of distribution and range of movement expands beyond the cultural and geographic location of its writing. The Bible, a Hebrew text, has stood from the start at the heart of world literature as a way of reading and as a range of distribution. The Bible was a foundational text in anthologies of world literature published from the nineteenth century, mainly in Germany and later also in the United States. It appeared in these anthologies both as a fundamental text of world literature, and as Hebrew literature’s contribution to it. In addition to translated excerpts of the Bible, these anthologies also intermittently included sections from the Mishnah or from Medieval Hebrew poetry. Until the middle of the twentieth century, such anthologies did not include modern Hebrew literature.

The study of the history of modern Hebrew literature’s reception into the canon of world literature is yet to be written. According to bibliographic data, though, the main languages that modern Hebrew literature has been translated into since its increase in distribution as world literature after the establishment of the State of Israel are English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian – i.e., the dominant languages in the contemporary global literary space.

There are many reasons for these developments. On the Israeli level, the general increase in translations is definitely connected to the establishment of an Israeli literary center after the establishment of the State of Israel, to the publication of an increasing number of modern Hebrew books, and to the efforts of local private and governmental players to bring translated Hebrew works into the world literary space’s main centers. Looking at the same development from the target literary spaces, the reasons for the increase in the number of translated Hebrew books are attributable to local politics and the country-to-country variability of translation and publishing, as well as the efforts of local players in the target language’s literary sphere. For example, Omri Asher points to the dramatic increase in the translation of Hebrew literature to English in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, attributing it to the increased acceptance of the Zionist ideology and the State of Israel by American Jewry during that same period. Gisèle Sapiro explains the increase in translation of modern Hebrew literature into French with regards to the increased interest in France towards translated literature in general and Jewish literature in particular, and in the tightening of cooperation between Israeli and French players in the field of translation. There is no research data available regarding the history of the reception of modern Hebrew literature into German, although analysis of existing bibliographical research also indicates an increase in translations, mainly starting from the 1980s and 1990s, and the large number of young adult books in the list perhaps suggests an educational orientation to the translation choices.

The significance of the sharp increase in translations of Hebrew literature in the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first century doesn’t simply lie in an increase in translated titles. Such an increase means an intensification of contacts of the writers of Hebrew literature with their various non-Israeli, non-Hebrew-reading readership, whose empirical world, life experiences, living environment and futures are different from those who read Hebrew literature in the original, and are also different from each other. The translation of every contemporary Hebrew novel is accompanied by promotional trips and book readings in the countries whose language the book was translated into, by invitations to literary festivals and meetings of the invited Israeli writers with different readerships. Such translation means visits to book fairs in world literary metropoles and meetings with publishers from outside the field of Hebrew literature, an encounter with their interests, funds, communities and tastes, their literary agents and their translators. It means an increase in invitations to international academic conferences, radio and television interviews, book reviews and responses from the point of view of non-Hebrew readers and critics. All these factors alter the readership of these authors’ books and expose the writers to these different communities and to their symbolic, cultural, social and economic capital.


The world literary space isn’t a fixed or stable space. It’s dynamic and it’s changing, a constantly reshaped result of literary power struggles – linguistic, aesthetic, formal, generic – which are constantly taking place between the different literatures and centers of writing, translation, publishing, reading, and criticism. The literary centers that participate in these struggles do not have equal power, status, prestige, or influence in shaping the nature of the world literary space, its form and composition.

One of the decisive elements in determining the status and strength of each literature in the world literary space is its age. Casanova divides the history of the world literary space into three periods, with new literatures entering the space in each of them. According to Casanova, the establishing period of the world literary space began, as mentioned, in the sixteenth century, with the first rebellions against Latin as the sole legitimate language for written literature, and the development of the first vernacular literatures in Europe, with French, Italian, English, and Spanish literature shaping the first stages of world literary space. The second stage began at the end of the eighteenth century, with the strengthening of national ideologies about the connection between language and national identity. New competitions arose between nations over literary prestige, and new national literary spaces began competing over status in the world literary space, for example German, American, and Russian literature, and the literature of the different Balkan and North African nations. The third stage began at the end of World War II, with decolonization and the independence of new countries in Africa and Asia. The national literatures created in these places, which then entered the changing world literary space, relied on folk traditions and oral literature.

As stated, modern Hebrew literature entered the world literary space during the third stage of its formation, alongside the literatures of the new national centers that resulted from decolonization. Thus, modern Hebrew literature shares with other literatures that entered the world literary space alongside it the position of the Other, the Exotic, the Far Away, aspects that are all identified with the developing world. The universal is defined by the centers of power, the exotic is defined by not being them. Upon entering the world literary space, literary works that, from a geographic or structural perspective, are from places on the margins of the centers of power have been read ethnographically. Such ethnographic reading of literature far from the center of literary powers looks in these texts for a double possibility: both getting to know a distant and different culture through reading, and finding in the same reading, in the same literary text, the universal that is in the other. Every Hebrew writer whose book is translated and published in the centers of the global literary space encounters and copes with this ethnographic way of reading. The Hebrew writer will share this experience with other Israeli writers in translation, as well as with writers from places with similar status in the global system, like those from Sudan, Korea, Ukraine, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and others.

Unlike most of these literatures, however, whose status in the world literary space is weak because of their late entry into it, modern Hebrew literature garners linguistic and literary prestige because it is seen as being historically, linguistically, and literarily connected to the Bible. As I have already written, the Bible is seen as the foundational text of Hebrew literature in the canon of world literature. “Hebrew literature, that has its beginnings in the Bible, has an extremely long history,” writes Alon Mintz in the introduction to his book about modern Hebrew literature. The Bible is the undisputed bestseller that Hebrew literature contributed to the world literary space; the Bible is an ancient classic of world literature, written in Hebrew; and it is also a shared cultural foundation for modern Hebrew literature and the Christian world, where the centers that determine the taste of the world literary space are located. No other modern literatures enter world literary space with a dowry such as this, especially not the literatures that entered it belatedly and who suffer, therefore, from a structural sub-recognition of their literary traditions, like modern Nigerian, Vietnamese, or Albanian literature. At the same time, and alongside this same cultural capital, Hebrew literature is read in the world literary space’s center of power as the national literature of the Jewish people. The level of distortion, injustice and violence of this attribution does not alter the fact of its existence, and this is to a certain extent the result of the State of Israel’s diplomatic success in branding itself, falsely, as the national state of the entire Jewish people.

Alongside the connection to the Bible and the Jewish people that is attributed to modern Hebrew literature, it enters the global literary space with two thematic particular-universal baggage. By the phrase “particular-universal baggage” I mean the theme that relates to a particular literature and that has a sort of symbolic privilege to engage in it, and that at the same time endows it with universal importance in the world literary space’s centers of power. This kind of baggage allows the writers of these literatures to deal with subjects that are thought of in the global literary space as unique to them, relevant to the conditions of their lives and the conditions in which they write, but is of shared interest to them and the centers of translation, reading, taste-setters and distribution of world literature. Most of the literatures that entered the global literary space during the third stage of its consolidation did so with the particular-universal baggage of colonialism – life under it, liberation from it, or the nature of its continuity. The two particular-universal themes that modern Hebrew literature carries with it when entering the world literary space are the Holocaust and the Conquest of Palestine.

Modern Hebrew literature entered the world literary space in the second half of the twentieth century as the national literature of the survivor. Of course, the Holocaust has been written about in many languages other than Hebrew, but no other literature has been associated with the particular collective that survived the Holocaust an act of violence that, in the world literary space’s centers of power, defines the universal, an act of violence that forced the world to ask itself anew what is humanity and what is man.

At the same time, modern Hebrew literature entered the world literary space with the particular-universal baggage of the conquest of the holy land. No land is more universal than that particular land, the promised land, the Biblical homeland, the homeland of two covenants. The conquest of that Biblical strip of land and the establishment of a Hebrew national state upon it were the cultural and political foundations of the establishment of modern Hebrew literature as a national literature, and its subsequent entrance, via translation, into the multiple focal points of the world literary space. Reading modern Hebrew literature in translation means a reading of a contemporary Chronicles of the people of the Bible and the land, whose history is the cultural, theological and literary foundation of world literary space’s centers of power.

Modern Hebrew literature carries with it the baggage of the national literature of the Jewish people – the survivors, the conquerors, the returners to their land, the people who continue to write their history there in the language of their canonical literature. This same baggage also provides new Hebrew literature with a special and senior position among Jewish readerships in world literary space’s centers of power. These readerships and their institutions and literary professionals provide modern Hebrew literature with the basis of its interpretative and economic reception. They relate to it as a literature that has a collective relationship to their communities and their experiences, and this is how they read it in translation.

But, on the other hand, the value of the literary capital each literature brings with it to this competitive space is determined not only by the various factors of its own reception but also by the local material conditions in which literature is written, published, and read. And so, alongside the prestigious status that modern Hebrew literature has acquired in world literary space, and in contrast to that same wealth, the local conditions in which modern Hebrew literature exists are conditions of impoverishment.

The basic objective element of this impoverishment is the small number of Hebrew readers. In 2012 the number of mother-tongue Hebrew readers stood at 4.3 million (Dekel, 2014), similar to the number of native speakers of Albanian (5.4 million), Catalan (4 million), Korean (5.6 million), Danish (5.5 million), and Georgian (4.3 million).

Additional impoverishing factors can be added to this objective variable. Other small literary spaces, which share with Hebrew the systematic characteristics of small number of speakers, are supported by the possibility of a regional existence, i.e., they rely on translations into the languages of their neighbors, for example the translation of Slovakian into Czech and German or the translation of Estonian into Finnish and Russian. As we know, though, this kind of solution is not an option for modern Hebrew literature, given the political situation between Israel and the other states in the region. The conquest of Palestine, the land of the Bible – the same political, military and cultural act that, as mentioned, was the founding condition for the establishment of modern Hebrew literature as a national literature, and which provided it with intricacy, interest and capital in the world literary space, excludes it from the regional literary space that it entered as an occupier and where it still exists as such.

These impoverishing factors are accompanied by local impoverishing factors connected to the neo-liberalization of the Israeli economy since the middle of the 1980s. Public support for local literature is an important foundation for every national literary space, and especially for small literary spaces that are not able to rely solely on local book-buyers. Neoliberalism in Israel reduced the level of public investment in literature, and in doing so weakened Hebrew literature in the public Israeli space. At the same time, it increased the gaps between rich and poor and reduced the numbers of readers by eroding the Israeli middle class, which is where most prose readers usually come from. To this can be added, in a nutshell, the closure of independent Israeli publishers or their absorption by large business corporations as part of the creation of conglomerations in the world of Israeli publishers, while harming the vital role of independent publishers; the destruction of independent book stores and the damage caused to the important role that they play; an unstable book market due to a failure to implement regulatory legislation for the sale of books (Books Law); a decline in the status of the study of literature, both in the academy and in the state education system; and the closure of literary taste-setting platforms, a closure that creates a vacuum that online literary platforms are yet to fill. Each of these factors reduces the number of professionals – writers, publishers, editors, translators, reviewers – that the local Hebrew literary space can provide for and has turned the Israeli literary space into one that is mainly maintained by what feminist economics calls unpaid labor.

To conclude this part of the discussion discussion, I would like to add three points. First, globalization, as mentioned, doesn’t influence every literature identically, nor does it influence each writer in the same way. The writing of a literature that Wallkowitz calls “literature translated from birth” is not the only response of Hebrew writers to the systemic inequality between local and global conditions of contemporary Hebrew literature. But, in my opinion, in the systemic situation that I described, Hebrew world literature is one of the main processes that is taking place and will continue to take place within 21st-century Hebrew literature.

Second, in open conversations with Hebrew literature scholars from the Israeli academy I frequently hear a chuckle and encounter gestures of resignation in the face of the claims about the local impoverishment of contemporary Hebrew literary space. The chuckles echo Yehuda Leib Gordon, who in the nineteenth century already despairingly wrote the poem “For Whom Do I Toil?”, or Frishman, who wrote: “Every day I spoke to you and I said that we don’t have writers and we don’t have subscribers and we don’t have book-buyers and we don’t have anything, and that we only have empty prose.” Such scholars smile and relate forgivingly to those same manifestations of anxiety – the dogs are howling and the caravan is passing – like they were a type of unique mental pathology for Hebrew literature and its neurotic tendencies. But what it seems like these same scholars don’t know, those who, apart from Hebrew, read and engage with major literatures like Russian, French, American and Spanish, is that this concern isn’t an anomaly, that the same fear is shared between Hebrew and other literatures, which also have these ingredients of local impoverishment, like for example Luxembourgish, which fears for its fate, or Belgian literature.

Thirdly, there is no ethical or aesthetic advantage in writing for original readership over writing for readers in translation. Speaking here of works written for translation, I do not mean to ridicule or mock such works. A literary text that is read by homogeneous communities isn’t a priori preferable to a work that’s read by readership of heterogenous nationalities, languages, religions or geographical spaces. We can open our ears and our hearts to Gordon’s question “For Whom Do I Toil?” It is a valid question that should be considered anew, a question not to be understood as closed and rhetorical but as an open question, a question whose tone is not despair but curiosity and a desire to learn. For whom do I toil? And to transform Gordon’s brave and open (albeit in parts worried) question into something that produces scholarship and learning.


In an article published in 1988, Gershon Shaked discussed a lecture that he gave at a conference in the United States. At the end of the lecture an American professor remarked that it seemed like quite a few of the Hebrew books that get published in Israel are essentially written for an audience that will read them in translation, and not for an audience who will read them in the original language. Shaked writes:

I can’t say with certainty that the same professor was right and I cannot say with certainty that the same professor was mistaken. I consider translation to be legitimate, a characteristic element of our shrinking world, in which all the cultural borders are fading, and Goethe’s ideal of “world literature” is being practically realized, through the offices of cultural export companies, which sell rights to translation in the same way that they sell patents or distribution licenses. It will be a sad situation in which a writer will lose touch with his natural readers, and following this all his readers, because then he will address his writing to an imagined audience…A literature that is written for an imagined audience, which doesn’t speak the language in which it was written, is fake and false. The inclination to create an artificial world under fiction, and so it will lose its credibility in dialogue with its readers.

30 years after Shaked wrote these lines, I return to them in order to deny the existence of a “natural audience” for literature. Different elements, both textual and non-textual, create a readership, which is never natural but is always historical and constitutive. Shaked was looking at Hebrew literature during a period of change in its literary space and readership. Since then, processes of globalization have intensified within the Israeli economy and Israeli culture, and the process that Shaked noted in its infancy has developed and deepened. But despite the rich research dealing with the contact of literatures in different languages with the globalization of the economy and culture, only a small amount of research examines which mechanisms contemporary Hebrew literature has used in order to cope with the conditions of its writing, distribution and reading in the global present.

Recognition of the world literary space in which contemporary Hebrew literature exists and reading it in this framework requires us to recognize the violent forces and difficult power relations that global capitalism has imposed on the field of cultural production, and especially on cultures that are not located in the global centers of economic power. Almost all studies of world literature address these conditions of inequality. Walking in the path they have created can allow us to better understand the Israeli context.

Research’s disregard of the conditions that change the global conditions of writing, distributing and reading contemporary Hebrew literature are in my opinion connected to the fact that the process of Hebrew literature’s ‘worldization’ is still ongoing, and to academic research’s preference to deal with processes that have already been completed, often out of a reluctance to err in its theory of what is still ongoing. It can also be explained by the hypothesis that scholars of Hebrew literature in Israeli faculties tend – out of habit, out of tradition, out of political or disciplinary ideology – to study Hebrew literature from a national perspective, even when the object of research itself is not national, like a reading of Hebrew literature from a gender or ethnic perspective.

However, in recent years, Hebrew literature scholars have begun to publish new readings of modern Hebrew literature. Such is, for example, the research of Adriana X. Jacobs on the poetry of Vaan Nguyen or the research of Melissa Weininger on what she calls “Hebrew Literature in English,” both of them published in a special edition of the Shofar journal from 2015, edited by Rachel Harris, which dealt in its entirety with twenty-first century Hebrew literature as transcultural. Other studies exist too. Such is, for example, the comparative reading of Anna Bernard, who examined the reception of male Israeli and Palestinian writers in the world literary space’s centers, in contrast with the reception of female Israeli and Palestinian writers in the same space; or the study by Omri Asher about ideological aspects in the translation of new Hebrew literature in the United States. Yigal Schwartz, in his book From Pen to Pen, points at new changes, even if he does not develop his distinctions in scholarly directions. Along with these, the important work of Lital Levi seeks to turn the attention towards movements and transitions between Arabic and Hebrew literary spaces. The anthology The Arabic-Hebrew Literary Space also seeks to describe and to produce a regional literary space, while the academic and publishing work of Tal Hever-Chybowski seeks to write Hebrew and read it as an exilic language, beyond a national one.

This body of research, pioneering but also primary, in which few scholars from the Israeli academy participate, will need to deepen, to strengthen and to develop, in order to deal with the questions it faces today. With the entrance of modern Hebrew literature into the twenty-first century there is nothing for its scholarship to do other than to join the new century with it, a critical and alert entry, with open eyes. It is incumbent on it to recognize the changing conditions of writing, distribution and reading of contemporary Hebrew literature, and to read it in their light.


Originally published in Hebrew in: Teoria Ve Bikoret 50, 2018: 293-312.
English translation: Alex Stein










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