Netiva Ben Yehuda
Beginning her writing career late in life, Netiva Ben Yehuda transformed the Israeli literary scene with her explosive Palmah trilogy. Ben Yehuda grew up in Palestine and served in both the underground Palmah and the IDF. After studying linguistics and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she became a freelance editor, working on projects that included the Encyclopedia Hebraica. Known for her scathing wit, Ben Yehuda co-authored the World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang in 1972. In 1981 she published 1948—Bein ha-Sefirot, the first book in her iconoclastic Palmah trilogy, which challenged the history of the supposedly egalitarian pioneers by exposing the sexism she and others had endured and the oft-ignored sacrifices women had made. In 1996 she began broadcasting a popular late-night radio show.
We were not suffragettes [...]. The Palmah was suffragist—self-declared suffragist. The Palmah inscribed “sexual equality” on its flag along with other things while we, the girls, were expected to put this principle into practice. So we accepted this, and ate shit. (1948–Between Calendars, 1981)
Netiva Ben Yehuda was unique among the writers of her generation not only by virtue of her late entry onto the Israeli writing scene (1981), but also because of her lifelong devotion to the cause of spoken Hebrew. Moreover, though she became somewhat of a media figure beginning in the 1980s, she had previously hardly been recognized as a professional writer. Rather, Netiva Ben Yehuda, “Tiva” to her many friends, had long been identified as a living emblem of the myth of the Palmah, those legendary elite units that spearheaded the struggle for Israel’s independence in 1947–1948. Indeed, Ben Yehuda had for many years embodied precisely that heroic voluntarism and utter loyalty to the “Jewish national rebirth in its homeland” that had been the hallmark of the Palmah since the 1940s. She was also known for her sharp tongue and scathing humor—qualities that stood her in good stead when she finally came into her own as a writer.
Simultaneously, however, Ben Yehuda was ahead of her time: her bold sexual permissiveness stood out like a sore thumb in a period marked by sexual puritanism. In a way, she brazenly carried out her own private sexual revolution, living (rather than writing) through the body, in an age that locked both body and emotions “in the cellar,” to use Shulamith Hareven’s useful metaphor in her 1972 novel, City of Many Days.
Champion of Spoken Hebrew
Fearlessness, physical prowess, and total devotion were thus some of the features that distinguished this young officer, whose military specialties included topography, reconnaissance, and demolition. Yet, for later generations, it was mainly Ben Yehuda’s “fearlessness” that captured the imagination, expressed now not in military pursuits but in the battle for the soul of the Hebrew language. A few years after independence, after having studied at home and abroad (art, language, and philosophy), Ben Yehuda became a freelance editor, openly fighting the chasm between the spoken Hebrew developed in the Palmah, marked by humorous slang and linguistic inventiveness, and the elevated, highly stylized standards then required by Hebrew belles lettres. Her dedication to this issue resulted in the publication in 1972 of The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang. Indeed, this hilariously irreverent book, co-authored with another Palmahnik, the writer and satirist Dahn Ben Amotz (1924–1990), added another layer to the cultural idiosyncrasy of that legendary generation.
Traces of this early work can be found in her later Palmah trilogy, published between 1981 and 1991. As indicated by the title of the first of these books, 1948—Bein ha-Sefirot, she still perceived 1948 as a momentous breach in history, a transition of tremendous magnitude (which the English translation, Between the Calendars, unfortunately fails to convey). She chose to express this traumatic experience through an idiosyncratic language, colloquially repetitious and associative, at times preserving slang and idiomatic Hebrew of days gone by—all of which makes her writing difficult to digest. The same applies to its generic hybridity: “This book is not history,” she maintained in the brief preface, not fiction, not even memoirs. It is “a report from the field,” she argued in her next book, Through the Binding Ropes (1985), a “worm’s-eye view” of a low-ranking soldier. “And I speak this report ...”
Those readers who were willing to ignore the author’s disclaimers (and many other masks woven into the narration itself) found themselves not only in the presence of a garrulous but consummate storyteller, but in the current of a gripping narrative. Moreover, they slowly realized that this was a subversive telling of a major chapter in the Israeli national narrative—the “collective memory” of the 1948 War of Independence. In fact, the Palmah trilogy as a whole contributed to the process of de-mythologization of the past that has been taking place in Israel since the early 1980s. It was surely not by chance that Ben Yehuda’s confessional memoirs coincided with the work of the Israeli “new historians.” Her books functioned as a courageous corrective by a first-hand witness, reducing the myth of a glorious past to human, and at times petty, proportions. Inter alia, they also expressed remorse about the attitude of the native young fighters towards the Yiddish-speaking new immigrant soldiers, whose foreign manners and diasporic language were often the object of ridicule and misapprehension (see especially the third volume, When the War Broke Out, 1991).
At the same time, however, this rewriting also coincided with the revisionist feminist research that gained momentum in the 1980s. In fact, as the title of second volume of the trilogy implies, it directly challenged Israeli public discourse over the akedah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Ben Yehuda’s unique contribution to this discourse was the foregrounding, perhaps for the first time in Israeli culture, of the “Tizhakot,” in her language, the female Isaacs of Israel’s wars. Yet her critique goes even further. Although this aspect of Ben Yehuda’s work was not readily detected, a close reading of her texts uncovers a subversive exposure of the gap between the Palmah’s promise of “sexual equality” and the reality in its ranks. As the study No Room of Their Own (Feldman 1999) has shown, the entire “plot” of the Palmah trilogy stems from and revolves around a personal trauma caused by this gap. Half camouflaged by the narrator’s rhetoric, the conflict between the slogan “inscribed” on the flag of Zionist ideology and the sexism carried out by its propagators nevertheless emerges as the hidden motivation behind both this telling and the “writer’s block” underlying the author’s thirty-year-long reticence.
Family and Education
Netiva Ben Yehuda was born in Tel Aviv on July 26, 1928 (Tishah Be-Av). Her father, Baruch (1894–1990), who was born in Mariampol, Lithuania, and emigrated to Palestine in 1911, was first a teacher and then principal at the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasium from which Netiva graduated in 1946. He later became director of education of the Va’ad Le’ummi (1947–1948) and finally served as the first director-general of the Ministry of Education and Culture (1948–1951). In 1919 he married Yaffa Turkenitz (1896–1987), who was born in Kovel (Ukraine) and emigrated to Palestine in 1906. Ben Yehuda had two sisters, Odeda (b. 1921) and Tzlila (b. 1926). In 1950 she married Pincas Avivi (b. 1921), a professor of physics, and gave birth to a daughter, Amal, in 1953. The couple separated in 1962 and later divorced. After a year of studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem (1949–1950), Ben Yehuda continued her art studies at the University of London (1951–1952) and then spent three years studying Hebrew language, linguistics and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In addition to serving in the Palmah and as an officer in the Israel Defence Forces, Ben Yehuda worked as an editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and as a spokeswoman in the Ministry of Labor. Starting in 1996 she broadcasted regularly once a week on a highly popular late-night program of talk and music. In 2004 Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky honored Ben Yehuda as a Yakir Yerushalayim, a “worthy” citizen of the city of Jerusalem.
Netiva Ben Yehuda died at age 82, early in the morning on February 28, 2011.
Selected Works by Netiva Ben Yehuda
The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang (with Dahn Ben-Amotz). Part I. Tel Aviv: 1972.
1948–Between the Calendars. Jerusalem: 1981.
The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang (with Dahn Ben-Amotz), Part II. Tel Aviv: 1982.
Blessings and Curses (A Private Collection). Jerusalem: 1984.
Through the Binding Ropes. Jerusalem: 1985.
When the State of Israel Broke Out. Jerusalem: 1991.
Autobiography in Shir va-Zemer (Israeli folk songs). Jerusalem: 1990.
Feldman, Yael S. No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women’s Fiction. New York: 1989, Chapter 7 (see notes for Chapter 7, pp. 281-283, for bibliography in Hebrew).