Hebrews in America: Israeli Literature goes Global

Zionism was conceived as an antidote to Jewish displacement, but a few generations after the establishment of the Jewish state, Israeli literature makes itself at home even far away from home.  

The State of Israel, which was invented to solve the intractable problems of the Diaspora, now has a diaspora of its own. It’s not quite true that you can’t go home again. You can, but you also might not want to stay. There are Israelis everywhere, doing close to everything: selling hummus and real estate, teaching Hebrew and hawking cell phone covers, strumming guitars in Berlin and falafel in Tibet and diamonds in Manhattan. They work in Hillels, or never set foot in one. They get gigs as security guards at Europe’s barricaded synagogues or remain perpetually on the move, balancing the narrowness of where they came from with the endless breadth of the wider world. They seek each other out or hurtle into indifference. They end up going home, or they find new homes with different tastes and smells, fewer projectiles and less pain.  

The old categories of Aliyah (“ascending” from the Diaspora to live in Israel) and Yeridah (“descending” from Israel to live elsewhere) have yielded to horizontal movement; the Israeli dream exists at the nexus of Tel Aviv and Palo Alto. Israeli Jews, far more than their American counterparts, travel incessantly. They backpack post-army, sometimes for years at a time. They pursue graduate degrees abroad. They have ensured that Israeli culture is felt globally.

Distinctly Israeli holidays like Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’aztmaut, Memorial Day and Independence Day, are no longer confined to Israel. I vividly remember a Yom HaZikaron ceremony at the JCC in Palo Alto, and being powerfully moved by the sight of a thousand Israelis observing the day as they would have in Israel. There was nothing “Jewish American” about the event; it was underpinned [AAA1] by a strong sense of a thick gathering, itself but elsewhere.

The numbers, although difficult to come by, back up the observation that there is a critical mass of Israelis underwriting these kinds of community. The most reliable estimates by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics place the number of Israelis living outside of Israel at between 557,000 and 593,000, not including children born to Israeli emigrants. For a country of a little less than 8 million, this is remarkable. The 2018 data showed an increase of 26% in Israelis studying abroad over the previous four years, for a total of 33,073 students. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 87,000 Israelis became permanent residents or citizens of the United States between 2006 and 2016, up from 66,000 between 1995 and 2005.    

The establishment of Israel suggests that Jews were never so restless as to their homeland. The subsequent wandering of Israelis demonstrates that even the return to Zion was not enough to cure habitual wanderlust. Israelis in the United States have changed the texture of Jewish American life; Jewish life in Europe is increasingly an Israeli affair. Israeliness has become detachable from Israel; in some ways, the triumph of Israeli culture far away from the State of Israel suggests that its positioning, one flavor among many in places like the United States, yields a different kind of thriving. Restaurants like Zahav in Philadelphia and New Orleans’ Shaya, indulging American palates with the finest Israeli cuisine, are a case in point.       

This is one aspect of far-flung Israeli life; but what of its letters? Israeli literature is part of the grand resurrection of the Hebrew language, a people learning its tongue while returning to its land. The earliest birth-pangs of Hebrew’s revival occurred outside the land of Israel, midwifed by writers in Europe who haltingly but determinedly bent liturgical language into a literary shape. Not so much “Our homeland, the text,” as George Steiner would have it, but texts that conjured a homeland. Just as the Biblical Israelites knit themselves into a people somewhere between Egypt and the Jordan River, finding their land only after discovering themselves, Hebrew took wing before it could be firmly planted. Writers like Avraham Mapu, Joseph Perl, and Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote in Hebrew from afar. In Yoseph Chaim Brenner’s short story “Nerves,” two immigrants watch a bird go by, and remark that they don’t know the word for it in Hebrew. Even in this story, set in the Land of Israel and penned by a writer who moved there from Russia only to die in the Arab riots of 1921, the relationship between language and land was still jagged.  The language had not yet begun to run with the land.

Once it did take root, Hebrew literature and Hebrew land thoroughly grafted. As the only place in the world where Hebrew was spoken natively, Israeli literature became inseparable from the wars and the peace, the fighting and the building and spring in the Golan and summer in the Negev. In the conventional telling of Israeli literary history, the poetry and prose of the State’s early years was bound up in the national project. There was little time to think of anything else. Works as diverse as S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, which casts a critical and questioning eye on the human cost of the War of Independence borne by dispossessed Arabs, and Natan Alterman’s Magash Hakesef, which lionizes and laments the price paid by young Jews, take as their subject the forging of the State. This was literature in a national mode, keyed to triumph and tragedy. These texts were keyed to the scale of shattering events, but were not interested in whitewashing. The struggle was the point. Like Israel’s founding fathers, this literature was resolutely secular, yet attuned to the Biblical echoes of the work being undertaken. They were also nearly entirely Ashkenazi, telling certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of ways about certain kinds of people.   

As lives lengthened and the founding of the state lengthened into a kind of war-punctuated normalcy, Israeli literature shrugged [AAA2] off its heroic tasks and embraced the mundane. This next generation of Israeli writers, headlined by Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, depicted a different kind of Israel; less overtly taken with Jewish themes and references, more mundane and unadorned, more engaged with a kind of normalcy that also made them celebrated abroad. Relative to the literary craft of previous generations, their books held at bay what Gerhsom Scholem described as the “volcanic ghosts” of Hebrew. Theirs was resolutely the language of the everyday: of divorce and marriage, and yes, of war and occupation. But the road from 1948 had been traveled a little farther, and something had to follow the founding. That something was everything else, the decades where Israel grew up, if it hasn’t yet grown old.  That generation, like its counterpart in the United States, is passing from the scene. Oz departed earlier this year, Yehoshua is in his ninth decade. David Grossman still writes; as always, the writer in Israel is corded to the country’s realities. A yeshiva student recently murdered on the West Bank was found clutching Grossman’s latest book, the pages soaked through with blood.

If all of this sounds too neat, that’s because it is. No literature can be entirely summarized in near movements and clean chapters, even a literature as “new” as Israel’s. Every book contains multitudes, and every cluster of books is a cacophony. This messiness is even more pronounced in the current moment, where language, place, citizenship, and identity are all up for grabs and down for redefinition.  Criticism needs to reflect rather than rigidify this fluidity. In the face of a radical diversity of perspectives and experiences, Israel emerges as global, wild, and unpredictable, reinventing as it goes along, with its own ways of speaking, thinking, eating, singing, and being.    

This is a new kind of worldwide culture in Jewish history, one that travels through specifically national rather than transnational byways. Three works can stand in for a range that maps out global Israeli fiction. Each is off-center and askance in its own way. This is not to suggest that there is no center. On the contrary, the center is robust enough that the linguistic, geographic, and thematic periphery possesses a borrowed and extended charismatic vitality. Each of the books is deeply infused with Israeli flavor, but they are pugilistic, undertaking combat by art with a host of complacencies. They plot pressure points: American Jews and Hebrew, Mizrahi Jews and Israeli society, the menace of myth stalking secular modernity. This oblique approach nevertheless offers direct through lines to the most interesting elements of an Israel that defies easy assumptions. American Hebrew speakers in Boston, a Yemenite Israeli in Canada, an Israeli writer composing an epic of the Upper West Side. Israel is all of these in part, and none of them completely. Taken as a cohort, they stereoscope an Israeli identity that has spun off from the land into a more far flung web of histories and hang ups.

Ayelet Tsabari’s The Art of Leaving is an augmentation and deepening via autobiography of her earlier collection of short stories, 2013’s The Best Place on Earth. The essays in The Art of Leaving hew tightly to her experience, while opening wide to the Yemenite Jewish story. The collection’s power comes from interweaving vividly detailed glimpses of growing up Yemenite and a compelling account of the modes available for putting distance between Israel and a young person—a tiyul that becomes a sojourn, a temporary stay abroad that becomes a life. The things that push Tsabari away from Israel are the things that she carries with her. Tsabari records the moment when she learned that Shir HaFreha, the iconic song sung by Ofra Haza—for a time the “Madonna of Israel,” the daughter of Yemenite-Israeli parents at a time when precious few pop stars came from that background—was in fact written by Assi Dayan, son of the legendary general Moshe Dayan, “a privileged Ashkenai man who knew nothing about the Freha [a derogatory term for a Mizrahi “bimbo”] experience.” For a Yemenite girl like Tsabari growing up in 1970’s Israel, Haza represented both the pinnacle and limitation of what could be imagined; a rock star in a culture for which she would always be something less than autonomous. Tsabari feels that limitation in her skin, her hair, and her bones.  

The book excavates [AAA3] that experience, from Tsabari’s youth in Petah Tikvah, to the story of her grandparents and parents in Yemen and their journey to Israel. It includes Tsabari’s dissolute and unfruitful IDF service—this a helpful expansion of literary representations of Israeli army service experiences. It then tracks Tsabari’s extended stays in India and Vancouver. Along the way, Tsabari learns that “Home became the liminal space in between – between identifies, between cultures, between languages- and I was content claiming that space as my own…home, essentially, was the act of leaving- not a physical place, but the pattern of walking away from it.” For Tsabari, these revelations are hard-earned and cumulative, the hard-won insights of exploration. But the remarkable fact is that increasingly, these are the contours of the Israeli experience writ large. Israel was meant to solve the problem of Jewish wandering, but Israelis have become the epitomes of the new class of wandering Jews. Stop by Chabad for Shabbat dinner in Bangkok or grab a bite of hummus and pita in northern India, and you will encounter Israelis on open ended journeys that do not require them to shed their Israeli identities, but that seem to result in a deepening of those very personae. Credit should go, at least partially, to the transformative power of exhaling, the salutary effects of distance from home and base. But traveling has become an Israeli tradition, and in journeying Israelis move towards, rather than away, from a defining experience in Israeli life.    

In other ways, too, Tsabari’s perspective is growing from a footnote into a central paragraph in the story of contemporary Israel. The Mizrahi voice and experience is now crucial. As Matti Friedman recently put it, “Israel is part of the continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world, together with the remnants of European Jewry. The Jews of European origin are becoming more Mizrahi here — in their behavior, their attitude to religion.” In music, in politics, and everywhere else Ashkenazic hegemony is over, if not exactly entirely dispersed. Tsabari is best read as a scout liming the shape of an experience many Israelis recognize. Where once Shir HaFreha was the only reflection Tsabari could find herself, today the band A-WA, four women of Yemenite origin singing largely in Arabic, lives on iPhones and Spotify accounts all over the world. There is a new beat, and Tsabari is picking it up. Tsabari’s wanderings are varied, and involve passionate affairs with men and women, Jews and non-Jews, and falling in and out of love with places, languages, and habits of living. Her story suggests a push-pull relationship between an experience of dislocation at home and the tug of wanderlust abroad. The marginalization of her family and community in Israel enables and sponsors a roving quest for meaning and belonging outside of Israel. Growing up cramped, she grows to crave space, wide and expansive.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew, a collection co-edited by Naomi Sokoloff and Nancy E.Berg, provides a very different look at the North American continent. At first, it feels dedicated to a niche subject, the teaching and learning of Hebrew as a second language. The essays between its covers, however, feel like crucial pressure points in the triangle constituted by American Jews, Hebrew, and Israel. American Jewry’s relationship to Hebrew is largely one of ignorance, a mismanagement of literacy that has damaged the communicative capabilities of the world’s two largest Jewish communities. But the lessons have cut in an unexpected direction. The experience described in What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew suggests that arrangements that were once idiosyncratically possible—modern Hebrew spoken outside Israel, by non-native speakers—have been precluded by Israel’s entrenchment as the Hebrew State. No longer a language accessible only in books or reworked in laboratories of linguistic imagination, Hebrew belongs to a place and a people now, and grows through and with them. Its shape is impressed on some tongues more than others. It is not free-floating, but proprietary. At this late date, the detachment of Hebrew from the Zionist project is folly; but it also might constitute a frontier. Hebrew was once seen as necessary to build a new country, and a new Jew. Now, it might be one tool at hand to save the Diaspora.

The collection takes flight from a point of paradox. On the one hand, “contemporary Hebrew language and culture brim with startling vitality.” On the other, “the study of Hebrew is met with widespread indifference and neglect-if not out-and-out rejection- by American university students.” To understand this divergence, the book convenes “Hebraists by choice—non-native speakers” who have “traversed the cultural distance to Hebrew” to think through Hebrew’s American shape. Briefly put, things aren’t great. According to the MLA, between 2009 and 2013 enrollment in Modern Hebrew at the university level declined nearly 20%, the largest for any language besides ancient Greek. It fell another 17.6% between 2013 and 2016. As Aviya Kushner notes, this trend does not bode well for the link between Israel and the Diaspora; “without Hebrew, much of contemporary Israeli culture is simply inaccessible.” And yet, in the face of this withering, the editors note that all the contributions “push back against the idea of Israel as the sole, exclusive locus of Hebrew activity.” This quixotism either appeals or not; it is worth asking whether this very pushback is contributing to the decline. Regardless, it seems like a strange posture to take, when there is a place where Hebrew is spoken (literally) from the mouths of babies. Imagine an Italianist “pushing back” against Italy as the bulwark of Italian culture. These dual trends—attrition, and the desire to distance Hebrew from Israel—capture much of the crisscrossing challenges of envisioning Hebrew as a joint-custody project. It is reasonable to assume that the drop in Hebrew language enrollment is both symptom and cause of the distance American Jews feel from Israel. Is inserting a greater distance between the two a helpful freeing of possibility—or a release into an ever more detached and disassociated orbit?

Hebrew has always been contested, and but more attention needs to be paid to the linguistic dimension of the divide between Israel and Jews around the world. Amidst consternation regarding a changing Israel, a changing Diaspora, a Trumpian bear hug and a cold shoulder from progressives, the fact that the Jewish State and World Jewry do not speak the same language necessarily impairs communication and comprehension. As Leon Wieseltier and James Loeffler have argued, the distance of American Jews in particular from Hebrew is so vast as to constitute not so much a linguistic handicap as a constitutive feature. For American Jews, the danger is double. The inability to speak Hebrew severs them from both the contemporary Jewish project in Israel and the rich resources of the endless Jewish library.       

This (dis)connect between the American Jew and the disruptive strengths of Jewish civilization in Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House appears to have very little to do with Israel, but does touch on it in all kinds of odd and resonant ways. It was awarded the Sapir Prize, bestowed annually by literary grandees in Israel on the best novel written in Hebrew, in 2014. The flashpoint was one of language and land. Namdar lives in New York, where the book is set in its entirety. For some, that was grounds for excluding the book from consideration for the Sapir, as Hebrew can only make real sense in Israel. Behind the obvious myopia was the historically rooted intuition that the project of Hebrew revival was dirt flecked, intimately tied with returning to the Land. To disaggregate the two is to allow for new orbital possibilities. But that’s exactly the point. 

The Ruined House is idiosyncratic in other ways as well. It uses a fictional wormhole to connect modern Manhattan with ancient Jerusalem, when the Temple stood and God’s anger (or forgiveness) was visible to all, like the shifting weather overhead. The protagonist is Andrew Cohen, a professor and cultural critic at NYU, with a desiccated Jewish identity and a girlfriend half his age. Over the course of the book, Andrew’s well-curated life begins to fray, distended by increasingly baroque and wild visions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. His professional life collapses, his social cache depletes; Rilke’s advice that “you must change your life” is now offered by fantasias of the High Priest conducting the Yom Kippur rituals. Fiction collapses time while also twisting it into new congruences, and the eruption of the archaic into the arch cultural pretensions that had previously structured his world requires a reevaluation of all things. It is no coincidence that Andrew’s last name links him to the priestly cast. These disruptive prophecies are helixed into him, even as they barrel in from a zeitgeist of galactic distance.

The book’s form mirrors this hallucinatory bifocalism. The chapters are labeled with both the Gregorian and Hebrew dates (“November 24, 2000” and “The 26th of Heshvan, 5761”); sections are divided by pages juxtaposing Talmudic and Mishnaic sources describing the Priestly service in the Temple. Compelling fiction does things with worlds; it describes them, collides them, explodes them. Unlike Tsabari, who is especially attuned to the resonances of a marginal Israeli identity both in Israel and abroad, Namdar pursues a more unusual pairing, uniting traditional subjects and settings of Jewish America fiction with a turbocharged intervention of old time Jewish religion. Perhaps this is a new kind of frontier: an Israeli writer free to use his Hebrew to write about several modes of Jewish experience excluding the ones found in the modern State of Israel.

The Ruined House is a strange and hybrid beast. It is both a Hebrew novel not set in Israel and a Jewish-American book not originally written in English. It scrambles categories even as it takes direct aim at the low hanging fruit of Jewish American ennui; the prestige of tenure, the cachet that comes with a New Yorker byline, and the emptiness of a life validated only by status. The implications of an Israeli doing this work in Hebrew seem both indelible and difficult to measure. It is achieved through an insider-outsider stance. Namdar knows the places, but the distance delivered Hebrew is not entirely dissolved by the novel’s recent translation into English. The title (in Hebrew, HaBayit Asher Necherav) alone provides ample illustration. “Bayit,” which is rightly translated as “House,” carries direct reference to the Temple in Jerusalem. “House” loses this reference, and sounds entirely domestic, almost intimate. This is a book generally interested in how life becomes strange, and that project is heightened by the weird marriage of past and future, cult and culture. 

None of these books speak from the authority of the center. They all feel freed by living at the edges; pursuing idiosyncrasy, finding space to live and think away from the Israel of the poems and polemics. They are loose-limbed and open, finding subplots more compelling than headline news. But that’s the excitement, to watch in real time as the old cisterns of homeland and diaspora, sacred and secular, exile and redemption, are poured full of new and tangy and weird wine, harvested from distant vineyards and trampled by feet that have done their fair share of wandering. But all of this sideways creativity is fueled by an imperfect, tumultuous, yet still vital state that refracts into a various global culture. Diasporas are unpredictable, however; they go their own ways, and find their own stride. Fortunately, we have books, which always break the most important news first and point an inky finger to what’s next.

*What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What it Means to Americans) Ed. Naomi B. Sokoloff and Nancy E. Berg (University of Washington Press, 2018).

*The Art of Leaving: A Memoir by Ayelet Tsabari (Random House, 2019).

*The Ruined House: A Novel by Ruby Namdar (HarperCollins, 2017).


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