“Gentiles and Jews, they are like men and women, my father used to say. ‘Why,’ I once asked. ‘Only because of preconceived judgments. Of each side: about oneself; about the other, too,’ my father smiled. Each side has its own picture, my father always said. Its image of the other. Therefore, when addressing someone from the other side, to the image and not to the person one would speak.” (Up in Montifer, 1984)
The recipient of many prestigious literary prizes, the “darling” of Israeli academe and the subject of several scholarly Hebrew monographs, Kahana-Carmon’s central place in Israeli literature was formally recognized in 2000, when she was awarded the coveted Israel Prize. Born in Kibbutz Ein Harod on October 18, 1926, Amalia Kahana is the daughter of Chaim Kahana (born Ukraine, 1890; died Israel, 1974) who had received a rabbinical education and was an inventor of and consultant on technical mechanisms. He immigrated to Palestine in 1910. Her mother, Sara Crispin (born Bulgaria, 1903; died Israel, 1985) graduated from the Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Bulgaria, emigrated to Palestine in 1922, and studied bee-keeping at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school. She worked as a teacher of both Hebrew and bee-keeping. Their second daughter, Miriam, was born in 1929.
Kahana’s studies at the Hebrew University were interrupted in 1948 by the War of Independence, in which she actively participated in a Palmah unit as a radio operator. However, this experience is less prominent in her work than her sojourn in England (1951–1955) and Switzerland (1955–1957). In 1951 in London she met and married an Israeli student, Arie Carmon (b. 1930), who was studying civil engineering. The couple had three children: Raya (b. 1953), Iddo (b. 1956) and Haggai (b. 1959). Arie and Amalia divorced in 1978.
This superb (and idiosyncratic) Hebrew stylist has long been associated in the Israeli literary mind with Virginia Woolf, on two counts: the uniqueness of her poetics, and her thematization of women’s plight, on a scale previously unrivalled in Hebrew literature. A typical Kahana-Carmon protagonist is a frustrated woman, one who seems to have lost her ability to reach the highest level of existence, which she had experienced before marriage, in her aspiring university or war years. Yet despite this preoccupation, the protagonists of Kahana-Carmon’s early work, starting with the lyrical, beautifully crafted stories of her first book, Under One Roof (Hebrew, 1966), are allowed epiphanic ‘visions’, moments of a (sometimes mutual) enchantment, that ‘lift’ their narratives above and beyond a narrow feminist angle. Kahana-Carmon apparently shares in the general Modernist endeavor to redeem a world cut loose from its spiritual anchors through “involuntary memories” (Marcel Proust), “elusive epiphanies” (James Joyce), or visionary “moments of being” (Woolf).
Her Woolfian Modernism is expressed also in her reluctance to admit the relevance of such personal factors as sex, class and the like, to the artistic process, as a conversation with a fictional (male!) writer in her first novel And Moon in the Valley of Ayalon (Hebrew, 1971) clearly attests. This refusal complicates her early feminist leanings, dictating a world full of “others”: Not only the women, but most of her characters enter the scene other-wise. They are fully aware of their ‘otherness’ as women and wives, sometimes as mothers or children, as artists or new immigrants; sometimes as 1948 Israelis (of either sex) marooned in the Tel Aviv of 1967 and after; sometimes as a (male!) artist trapped in a ‘masculinist’ system, ironically represented by a young, goal-oriented American(!) female scientist, who frustrates his dream of “work and love” (Magnetic Fields, Hebrew, 1977). Theirs is a disabling otherness of the worst kind—almost crippling, yet rendered with the most powerful literary mastery.
Since the mid-1980s, however, Kahana-Carmon has become the outspoken feminist critic of Israeli literature and Jewish culture, adding programmatic essays to her fiction. Although Virginia Woolf’s feminist grievances reverberate in these essays (now in process of collection), the immediate inspiration for this turning point was her visit to America, where, in an international meeting of writers, she was for the first time introduced to the work of the father of postcolonial criticism, Franz Fanon (1925–1961). Wedding his analysis of the otherness of race (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952) to the critique of gender otherness in the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986; The Second Sex, 1949), she came up with the exceptional triptych Up in Montifer (Hebrew, 1984), in which she adroitly probes and compares three categories of otherness—gender, race and class. Conducting a dialogue with both Beauvoir and contemporary feminist sensitivities, she opened a space for a postmodern, multicultural feminism in Israel.
This libratory impulse is clearly the primary motivation behind the major novella of the triptych Up in Montifer, in which Clara, the heroine, is equipped with a freed slave as a companion. After releasing herself from physical and mental bondage, Clara reaches independence as a free agent and a merchant through a fascinating dialogue with the black ex-captive. Replete with echoes of both Shylock and Fanon, this dialogue draws an analogy between racial consciousness and gender consciousness, both viewed from the position of a subject rather than an object. Clara is obviously better off than most of Kahana-Carmon’s earlier protagonists, who do not manage to reach beyond passive frustration and complaint. Yet Clara is not an Israeli woman. She is a seventeenth-century Jewish European girl, whose life story is shrouded in the mists of geographical and historical distance. Thus her story, although inadvertently reminiscent of the seventeenth century Jewish merchant Glueckel of Hameln, is more of a parable than a realistic narrative.
Apparently, even in the 1980s, Israeli feminists needed to rely on historical displacements to convey their message. No wonder that even for a Woolf disciple like Kahana-Carmon, the idea of “a room of one’s own” had no pragmatic validity. As late as 1988, Israeli women writers made fun of the idea, and Kahana-Carmon, by then a literary figurehead and a married mother of three, admitted that even in a spacious and comfortable Tel Aviv apartment that had room for children, a husband, and four desks, her instinctive choice at the time was not to have a desk of her own, so that she was confined to writing with pen, on a large atlas stretched on her knees...
Only in her latest novel, With Her on Her Way Home (Hebrew, 1991), did Kahana-Carmon dare to take off the mask of historical displacement, positioning a liberated protagonist in the context of contemporary Israel. Meira, the mature—and divorced—protagonist, a famous Tel Aviv actress, continues the process of liberation started with Clara. More importantly, in Meira’s protracted love affair with a Mizrahi prodigy, a rising star from “the second Israel,” Kahana-Carmon has applied Clara’s experience to Israeli society. In both narratives, crossing color (race) boundaries is analogous to crossing gender boundaries.
Interestingly, the author chose to end her latest book to date, Here We’ll Live (Hebrew, 1996), a carefully reorganized selection of her fiction, with the narrative of Clara. Indeed, this narrative turns out to be not only Kahana-Carmon’s model for feminist liberation, but also her most subversive confrontation with the ‘fathers’ tongue.’ Although her style had always been marked by stark appropriations from Scriptures, it is in Up in Montifer that appropriation turns into subversion, along the way exposing both national and sexual biases inadvertently imbedded in the biblical fathers’ tongue.
Under One Roof (novellas and stories), 1966; And Moon in the Valley of Ayalon (novel), 1971; A Piece for the Stage, in the Grand Manner (monodrama), 1975; Magnetic Fields (novella and stories), 1977; High Stakes (stories), 1980; Up in Montifer (novella and stories), 1984; With Her on Her Way Home (novel), 1991; Here We’ll Live (novellas), 1996.
Feldman, Yael S. Feldman. No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women’s Fiction. New York: 1989, Chapter 3 (See Notes for Chapter 3 and Bibliography pp. 309–310); Feldman, Yael S. “Returning the Gaze: Traces of Simone de Beauvoir in Hebrew Literary Feminism.” Re’eh (Paris), Fall 1999, 25–32; Feldman, Yael S. “‘A People That Dwells Alone?’ Toward Subversion of the Fathers’ Tongue in Israeli Women’s Fiction.” AJS Review 28:1 (2004): 83-103.