Judith Hendel was born in Warsaw in 1925. In the same year her grandfather, Ezekiel Hendel, a descendant of Ezekiel Taub (d. 1856), the founder of the Kazimierz hasidic dynasty, sold his business and property in Warsaw and emigrated to Palestine together with his sons and daughters. He was one of the founders of Kefar Hasidim. Judith’s parents remained in Warsaw and joined the family in 1930, settling in the Nesher district of Haifa, where her father, Akiva, worked as a bus driver.
Hendel studied at the elementary school in Nesher and was a member of the No’ar ha-Oved youth movement. After the death of her mother Nehama in 1942, the family moved to Haifa, where Hendel completed her high school studies at the Re’ali School. She then studied at a teachers’ college in Tel Aviv and in 1948 married the painter Zvi Meirovitz (1911–1974). The couple lived in Haifa with their two children, Dorit (b. 1952) and Yehoshua (b. 1963). In 1980 Hendel moved to Tel Aviv.
On the occasion of receiving the Bialik Prize for Literature in 1996, Hendel related that while still in elementary school, she would write stories instead of her school assignments; it therefore came as no surprise when her first story, “Bi-khvot Orot” (At lights-out, 1942), was published when she was only seventeen. Between 1944 and 1949, she published more than twenty short stories in Mi-Bifnim, the quarterly journal of Ha-Kibbutz ha-Meuhad, Davar, Sh’naton Davar, Mishmar and Le-Ahdut ha-Avodah as well as in Haaretz, Molad and Keshet Sofrim. In 1948 she edited an anthology entitled La-Magen: Pirkei Shirah (Poems for the defender) for the Information Department of the Histadrut. Her first collection of short stories, Anashim Aherim Hem (They are different), was published by Sifriyyat Po’alim in 1950. But her real breakthrough, in terms of public recognition, occurred only four years later, in 1954, when the manuscript of her book Rehov ha-Madregot (Street of steps) was selected out of thirteen anonymous manuscripts as the winner of the Asher Barash Competition. The book, which became a bestseller upon its publication in 1955, was adapted by Hendel into a play performed by the Habimah theater in 1958.
Several months after the publication of Rehov ha-Madregot, an item in the literature and arts section of the Yedi’ot Aharonot daily (June 1, 1955) stated that a sequel to the book (named after an actual street in Haifa inhabited by “members of the Sephardic community, who live in all their folksy exuberance”) was in preparation; Hendel was quoted as saying that she was now working on the second part of the novel, which also dealt with that very same “world that leads its own, virtually separate, existence.”
He-Hazer shel Momo ha-Gedolah (The courtyard of Momo the Great, 1969) portrays life on the neglected margins of Haifa through the figures of Holocaust survivors and Sephardic Jews living in a portside neighborhood. But the fourteen years that had elapsed between the two novels left their mark; the realistic writing that characterized the first book had given way to a lyrical, surrealistic style by the second. Indeed, the first phase of Hendel’s work can be described as a formative period of shifting poetic attitudes between lengthy intervals: the aforementioned break, from 1955 to 1969; and the second, from 1969 to 1977. In 1970, while she was working on a novel entitled Zelilah Hozeret (Repeat dive), her husband fell ill and she had to file it away. Nevertheless, material from this novel eventually provided a screenplay for a film of the same name directed by Shimon Dotan (1982). Following her husband’s death (1974) Hendel composed a fragment entitled “Alter” (the name of a family friend), which later expanded into Ha-Koah ha-Aher (The other force, 1984)—a reflective biography of Meirovitz as a person and an artist. Parts of this book were published in the literary magazine Siman Kri’ah over the course of several years (1977–1983). Catalogs accompanying exhibitions of Meirovitz works, compiled in 1979, 1981 and 1999, also included chapters from Ha-Koah ha-Aher.
The year 1984 marked the start of a second phase of more coherent, consistent writing: Le-Yad Kefarim Shketim: Shneym-Asar Yamim be-Polin (Near quiet places: twelve days in Poland), 1987; Kesef Katan: Mahzor Sippurim (Small change: a cycle of stories), 1988; Har ha-To’im (The mountain of losses), 1991; Aruhat Boker Temimah: Mahazor Sippurim (An innocent breakfast: a cycle of stories) 1996; and Terufo shel Rofe ha-Nefesh (Crack-up) 2002. Also reprinted were her earlier works: Ha-Hamsin ha-Aharon (The last sirocco, a reissue of He-Hazer shel Momo ha-Gedolah under a new title, 1993), Rehov ha-Madregot (1998) and Anashim Aherim Hem, including the previously censored short story “Kever Banim” (The sons’ grave) 2000. Throughout the years Hendel also published literary reviews, articles and essays in the daily press and several periodicals. In 1985 she hosted her own talk show on the Voice of Israel, broadcasting “Be-Guf Rishon” (First person). Her books and stories were translated into numerous languages and honored with a host of awards: the aforementioned Barash and Bialik Prizes, the ACUM (Israel Association of Composers and Publishers) award (1976), the Agnon Prize (1989), the Newman Prize for Hebrew Literature (1995), the Prime Minister’s Prize (1975, 1998), and the Israel Prize (2003).
At a symposium on the meaning of life held at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1996, Hendel opened by stating that she does not know whether she “understands much about the meaning of life,” but it seems to her that “perhaps it is precisely this lack of understanding … of that very essence and of the very absence of that understanding” that offers meaning. In the context of literature, “just as there is text, but the core of the text is the subtext” (that is, what is behind the black letters or the white spaces between the black letters), perhaps it is the subtext of life, of the everyday, that actually constitutes meaning …”
It is apparent to anyone who studies the full array of Hendel’s writings that “lack of understanding” and “subtext” are both key concepts in her work, because the point of departure from which she develops her stories is a state of misunderstanding: a situation in which the protagonist (male or female) stands dumbfounded in the face of a certain phenomenon or person, without the ability to understand, to explain, or just make sense. This state of perplexed, inquisitive, frustrating lack of understanding opens up verbal, cognitive and reflexive dialogues which, even if they often come across as passive and fantastical, are actually intentional and probing. This intensive questioning, however, does not guarantee an understanding of the matter or its significance, but only serves as an impetus for more and more searches and explanations that in turn offer such understanding through yet another series of relevant, and seemingly irrelevant, stories and expository passages. In other words, there is no marshalling of rational, philosophical, psychological explanations; the sole attempt is to explain a story through a story, with every additional story not only diverting the seeker to another question but actually intensifying the misunderstanding and all the “white spaces” between the “black letters.” On the other hand, the combination of all these parallel, metonymic stories that accumulate and flesh out one another, creates a subtext whose increasing scope rivals the actual text, illuminating the work with a unique poetics.
This constitutive poetic stance—with its elements of “facing the other,” of bewilderment, of frustrating misunderstanding—is already evident in Hendel’s first collection of stories, Anashim Aherim Hem: Holocaust survivor Sheftel is baffled and uncomprehending in the face of his Erez Israel-born peers (“They are different”); an older patient is shaken when confronted with a paralyzed young girl in hospital (“Adumat ha-Se’ar” [The red-headed girl]); Rina is helpless as she faces her husband, wounded in the head in the War of Independence (“Zikhrono Nifga” [His memory was damaged]); Gad the kibbutznik is frustrated when faced with the relationship of his neighbors Bracha and Eliezer, observing and intervening in their lives (“Almanato shel Eliezer” [Eliezer’s widow]). In this collection, however, the subtext is not yet able to draw the reader’s attention to the same extent that the actual text manages to astonish through its characters and their assigned roles.
Already in the 1940s and 1950s Hendel’s human landscape departed from the literary concept of the “Dor ba-Aretz” school, to which she belongs and with which she is classified (the first generation of Israeli writers who were native-born or had arrived at an early age, for whom Hebrew was their natural language and the bulk of whose work was rooted in Israeli reality). Unlike the writers of this school (Moshe Shamir, Aharon Meged, Nathan Shaham and others), whose work always revolved around the masculine, hegemonic “we”—through which alone they confronted the “other” (new immigrants, Sephardic Jews, women, Arabs, members of a lower socioeconomic class)—Hendel already in her early short stories chose to place her focus expressly on the “other,” making him speak in his own voice and from his own perspective.
This practice of canonizing the (social or existential) “other”—the weak, the tormented of all kinds—dominates her work to this day. “I was always fascinated by the marginal things in life and the people who live on the sidelines,” she has stated. Hendel treats the so-called minor, peripheral stories of her characters in such a way that they become central and significant. Witness the story of the love of Avraham Bachar, of Haifa’s “lower city,” for Er’ella Dagan, daughter of a wealthy contractor living in the more prosperous Carmel area (Rehov ha-Madregot), or the stories of the wanderings of the new immigrant Shaul from one wretched courtyard to another, his Israel seen as a painful, delusional “place” barely worthy of the name (He-Hazer shel Momo ha-Gedolah).
Both these early novels still bear the hallmarks of experimentation, en route to the unique subtextual poetics of Hendel’s later years. In Rehov ha-Madregot the interplay between text and subtext is diminished by the linear realism of the “Dor ba-Aretz” school that dominates the novel, while the subtext in He-Hazer shel Momo ha-Gedolah oversteps the bounds of balanced, novelistic discourse, which made it difficult for the average reader at the time to connect with the work. It was only with Ha-Koah ha-Aher that Hendel reached the singular “anti-writing” that was all her own, and that free-floating equilibrium that subverted accepted literary codes but at the same time proffered unexpected alternatives. Ha-Koah ha-Aher undoubtedly marks a turning point in the evolution of Hendel’s work: from this point on, she is preoccupied with the “marginal” not only thematically but also aesthetically, in the sense that she takes the rough, trivial raw materials of concrete, factual reality and employs them as aesthetic elements (in a manner akin to the architectural concept of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris which exposes its structural pipes and presents them as part of the artistic fabric of the building’s façade). In Ha-Koah ha-Aher, for example, Hendel offers concrete facts relating to the life and work of her husband, artist Zvi Meirovitz; in attempting to define his “creative force,” she does not set out to obscure the biographical trivia of his life, as is generally done. On the contrary, there is a consistent effort to “expose the plumbing,” that is, to chart the authentic reality, to cite people by name, note exact dates, and so forth. The end product, however, is a novel that is neither testimony nor documentary, because Hendel seeks only to break free of the actual text (which she refers to as “unfinished”), to take it apart and put it back together as the desired subtext. This reconstitution is accomplished through interruption of the narrative, multiple points of view, a rhythm generated by repetition of verbal elements, a poeticizing lyricism and figurative language that is rich and colorful.
This innovative work, which cannot be neatly categorized under the rubric of a specific genre, was greeted with amazement and enthusiasm by Israeli readers. As A. B. Yehoshua wrote: “I would like to get straight to the unique quandary posed by this book, which is the question of its genre. This is a book that seemingly cannot be placed in any category. … There is no narrative at all, and most of what is written here are actual facts; there is not even one thread that develops a plot.” Despite this, he concludes: “This book is simply a literary work in the real sense of fiction.”
From Ha-Koah ha-Aher onward, Hendel continues her ambivalent poetics (falling somewhere between real and fictional, between marginal and central, between the unfinished, almost “haphazard,” and the canonical), allowing the truncated fragment to organize the work, whether novel or short story. This results in other innovative syntheses of genre, such as: (a) collections of short stories that take the form of variations on a theme, with the final work being broken down to examine the theme through various plots and situations; for example, the short-story collection Kesef Katan, which contains six narrative fragments that present the subject of death in different ways, or Le-Yad Kefarim Sheketim, which strings together the stories of twelve days in Poland, exploring the subject in short bursts of encounters, memories, landscapes, unrealized plans and the like; (b) novels that break down into separate stories; though they unfold according to a plot with a beginning, middle and end, they are constructed piece by piece, with narrative fragments inlaid one alongside the other like a patchwork quilt. These include Har ha-To’im, which focuses on bereaved parents at a military cemetery on the day before Memorial Day—what they say and what they leave unsaid; or Terufo shel Rofe ha-Nefesh, in which a psychologist, helpless in the face of his own emotions, records his behavior as if observing a patient.
Regarding her role as a woman writer, Hendel is often asked in what way she sees herself as representing the women’s voice in Israeli literature. Her customary response is that her writing is not women’s writing and her body of work is not women’s literature. Despite this, researchers of her work (whose numbers have increased since the late 1980s), and especially those who base themselves on feminist and gender-based theories, offer highly fascinating interpretations of her work (as women’s literature), examining it from its beginnings to the present day through the lens of gynocriticism.
Pnina Shirav, for example, outlines two phases in Hendel’s unconscious opening of herself to the role of representative of women; she distinguishes between Hendel’s early stories, which see a need to obscure the feminine voice or subordinate it to the masculine one, and her later stories, in which the feminine voice stands at the center, lending “independent value to existence, as experienced, perceived and conveyed by women.”
Dan Miron regards Hendel as the outstanding representative of écriture féminine (literally, feminine writing; the school of literary criticism centered on the existence of a distinctive “women's language”), identifying in her work not only women’s themes or representations of the relationship between women and the central objects in their lives, but “a language and structure unbound by the masculine ‘symbolic order’ … whose roots lie in the phallic principle.”
Hannah Naveh, in her discussion of Har ha-To’im, highlights the gender differences between the language of the father and that of the mother, demonstrating how Hendel reclaims the Israeli language of bereavement, which has been “nationalized” as a paternal language, recreating it as a maternal one. This is done both by “exposing the clichés and inauthenticity” of the father’s language, and by “preferring the alternative lexicon” of “the intimate female grammar book of grief.” In other words, whether or not Hendel is aware of her women’s writing, the very fact that she is challenging the literary consensus, her attention to the weak and the marginal (and consequently, the feminine), and her continual insistence on dismantling hegemonic (and inherently masculine) cultural structures all mark her work as a feminine literary achievement unique in the annals of late twentieth-century Israeli prose.
Berlovitz, Yaffah. Award citation. Newman Prize for Hebrew Literature, awarded to Judith Hendel. Bar-Ilan University, 1995; Berlovitz, Yaffah. “Woman-to-Woman Metaphor: Small Change.” In Ha-Tekst ha-Musaf, 45–52. Tel Aviv: 1992; Gertz, Nurit. “‘I Am the Other’: The Place of the Holocaust Survivor in Judith Hendel’s Story ‘They Are Different.’ In Aderet le-Binyamin: Sefer Yovel le-Binyamin Harshav, 150–167. Tel Aviv: 2001; Miron, Dan. The Weak Force: Studies in the Prose of Judith Hendel. Tel Aviv: 2002; Naveh, Hannah. “On Loss, Bereavement, and Mourning in Israeli Existence.” Alpayim 16 (1998): 85–118; Rattok, Lily. “Every Woman Knows It: The Short Story Collection Small Change by Judith Hendel.” Aperion (Summer 1986): 13–17; Shaked, Gershon. “Hebrew Narrative Fiction, 1880–1980.” Vol. 4 of Be-Hevlei ha-Zeman, 121–128. Jerusalem: 1977; Shirav, Pnina. “Reflections on the Work of Judith Hendel.” In Non-Innocent Writing: Discourse Position and Female Representations in Works by Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Ruth Almog, 48–114. Tel Aviv: 1998; Yehoshua, A. B. “Ha-Koah ha-Aher: The Madness of Art: Remarks On the Publication of Ha-Koah ha-Aher.” Siman Keri’ah 18 (1986): 424–425.