“Yet that courtyard, which is the beginning, is not a clear-cut beginning, since this courtyard is not mine and was never mine. We were strangers there, only tenants. And although I was born there, I sometimes doubt this, because there are earlier images, images from another country. Perhaps this is the point of beginning—to be born into non-belonging.” (Marguerita’s Nightly Charities, 1969)
Already in her first book of stories, Marguerita’s Nightly Charities (Hebrew, 1969), Almog was remarkable for her awareness of the condition of “non-belonging,” which she had apparently experienced first hand in her birthplace, Petah Tikvah, one of the earliest Jewish settlements in Palestine. This awareness, rather uncommon for a “sabra” writer, may be attributed to several factors, not least among them the German language and culture which surrounded her as a child both at home and in the close-knit community of immigrants to which her parents belonged.
Almog’s father, Jacob Lump, was born in 1900, in the village of Schmalnau, Germany. His medical studies took him first to Würzburg and then to Frankfurt. Upon completing his studies he moved to Wüstensachsen where he worked as the district doctor. Almog’s mother, Miriam Gewürtz, was born in Chemnitz, Germany, in 1908. Miriam completed her medical studies in Hamburg but had not completed her internship when she met Jacob in 1933. They married and that year immigrated to Palestine, settling in Petah Tikvah where they raised bees. After Jacob’s death in 1950, Almog’s mother completed her medical studies and practiced in Petah Tikvah. She died in 1994.
As Almog’s early fiction attests, she seems to have inherited a family tradition of story telling, and more importantly—a strong sense of social justice, which translates into identification with the downtrodden and underprivileged, including the Arab neighbors. The latter has reemerged significantly in her greatest achievements to date: Death in the Rain (Hebrew, 1982), a Rashomon-style novel also available in English (1993), which was strongly endorsed by Professor Gershon Shaked (“It has been a long time since I read such a tender, sensitive and humane book”); Roots of Air (Hebrew, 1987), an ambitious novel that won the prestigious Brenner Prize in 1989 and catapulted Almog to public recognition (“A metaphor for the design of the soul,” critic Ariel Hirschfeld called it); and Invisible Mending (Hebrew, 1993), a collection of stories which won great praise from readers and critics alike. While Almog’s later fiction has received the enthusiastic attention it deserves, the significance of her earlier work is only now beginning to be grasped. A reappraisal of the trajectory of her writing is now possible with the publication of her twenty-first book, a retrospective volume of her short fiction, All This Exaggerated Bliss (Hebrew, 2003).
A close reading of Almog’s corpus reveals that she was in fact the only Israeli woman writer of her generation to partake in the wave of fictional autobiographies that began in the 1970s and is still going strong. Her early Proustian stories, including the collection After Tu bi-Shevat (Hebrew, 1979), lovingly reconstructed the sights, sounds and fragrances of her childhood hometown, bringing to life its entire social milieu, as well as her own extended family and friends. She was no less unique among her female peers in the openly psychological nature of her fiction, which facilitated the probe of her personal trauma (the loss of her beloved father when she was fourteen), as well as the general “female condition.” Coupled with her strong ethical bent, these themes coalesce into an overall poetics of tikkun, repair or mending, which she learned from the great Hebrew author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1880–1970).
The major painful trauma to which Almog obsessively returned in an attempt to amend it is the [female] Oedipal Complex. In the early novels The Exile (Hebrew, 1971) and The Stranger and the Foe: A Report on A [Writer’s] Block (Hebrew, 1980), as well as in the collection of stories Women (Hebrew, 1986), Almog devised a variety of artistic forms to expose the umbilical cord [her image] that binds women to father figures and to (unresponsive) lovers and husbands, bringing them to the brink of insanity and disease. Only in Roots of Air did she for the first time let her heroine cut this umbilical cord. Inspired by Western feminist novels (Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea), she endows the heroine of Roots of Air, Mira, with a strong (though suicidal) mother, yet allows her to leave home and follow her father to Europe; there, in the stormy 1960s, she tests firsthand the promise of ideologies of freedom and feminist liberation. Following the acclaim of this novel Almog was invited to inaugurate the writer-in-residence program at the Hebrew University for the academic year 1989–1990.
In her more recent fiction, Almog has crossed the personal and gender boundaries of her early artistic interests. The protagonists of Invisible Mending are mostly male children (presented in the context of their family dynamics), and in later stories this extension includes adult males as well. Most of these superbly wrought and heart-rending stories are set in post-Holocaust Palestine. Here Almog courageously delves not only to the bottom of human pain and suffering but also to their sources—human cruelty and evil—in the attempt to amend the wounded lives of children, new immigrants and other outsiders.
Steeped in philosophy and psychology (which she studied at Tel Aviv University), Almog’s fiction is a unique blend of Israeli color and European culture. This tendency begins in The Exile (Hebrew, 1971), gains momentum in Death in the Rain (Hebrew, 1982), and blossoms in Roots of Air (Hebrew, 1987) and the recent postmodernist novel, The Inner Lake (Hebrew, 2000), where classical mythologies constitute the backbone of the narrative.
Married since 1959 to writer Aharon Almog (b. 1931) and the mother of Shira (b. 1971) and Eliana (b. 1972), Almog is also a prolific writer of juvenile literature, and has co-authored two thrillers as well. She has won many prestigious awards, including the Brenner Prize, the Haifa University Prize for Juvenile Literature (1986), the Yad Vashem Prize (1999), the Agnon Prize (2001) and the Bar-Ilan University Neuman Prize (2004). In 1967 she became the assistant literary editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz, where she now publishes a weekly column.
Marguerita’s Nightly Charities (stories), 1969; The Exile (novel), 1971; After Tu bi-Shevat (stories), 1979; Naphy (children), 1979; The Stranger and the Foe, 1980; Death in the Rain (novel), 1982; Gilgil (children), 1986; Nomads in the Orchard (youth), 1986; Women (stories), 1986; The Silver Ball (children), 1986; Roots of Air (novel), 1987; The Wonderbird (children), 1991; Rakefet, My First Love (children), 1992; Invisible Mending (novella and stories), 1993; A Perfect Lover (novel), by Ruth Almog and Esther Ettinger, 1995; Gilgil Wants a Dog (children), 1998; My Journey with Alex (children), 1999; The Magic Acorn (children), 1999; The Inner Lake, 2000; Estelina My Love (novel), by Ruth Almog and Esther Ettinger, 2002; All This Exaggerated Bliss (stories), 2003.
Feldman, Yael S. No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women’s Fiction. New York: 1989, Chapter 8 (See Notes for Chapter 8 and Bibliography pp. 291–292).
Feldman, Yael S. “From the Madwoman in the Attic to The Women’s Room: The American Roots of Israeli Feminism.” The Americanization of Israel, a special issue of Israel Studies 5:I, (Spring 2000): 266–286.
“To Repair the Irreparable”: Afterword, All This Exaggerated Bliss, pp. 443-473. [Heb]