Born in Warsaw, Yehudit Hendel immigrated to Palestine with her family in 1930. She began writing fiction as a child and published her first story in 1942. Her real breakthrough occurred in 1954, when her novel Renov hamadregot (Street of the Steps) won the Asher Barash Competition and became a bestseller. Her first literary period was strongly impacted by her life as a woman, wife, and mother and came to an end when her spouse fell ill with a degenerative disease in 1970; er second literary period represented a transformation in both her work and Israeli literature. For over fifty years, she made a presence of her bold, independent, “other” voice, bringing us face to face, in her own way, with the fragilities of an Israeliness in search of itself.
Early Life and Family
Yehudit Hendel was born in Warsaw on October 25, 1921, into a Hasidic family descended from the renowned Rebbe Yehezkel Taub (1772–1856) of Kazimierz Dolny (Kuzmir). In 1925, her grandfather, Yehezkel Hendel, immigrated to Palestine with his family, following his relative, Rebbe Yehezkel Taub of Jabłonna, to become one of the founders of Kefar Hasidim in the Zebulon Valley. Yehudit’s father, Akiva, an adherent of the Bund, Poland’s non-Zionist Jewish labor movement, at first stayed behind, but in 1930, after tragedy struck the family in Palestine, he, too, moved there with his wife Nehama and his daughter Yehudit. They settled in the working-class suburb of Nesher, near Haifa, and Yehudit attended a primary school associated with the labor movement in Nesher. Her father, who later became a founder and director of the Egged bus cooperative, worked as a bus driver in Haifa. When the family moved there, Yehudit continued her secondary studies at the Hebrew Reali School.
Yehudit belonged to the Noar Ha‘oved youth movement in Haifa. In 1939 she took part in establishing A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.Kibbutz Gesher in the Jordan Valley, but her mother’s death in 1940 brought her home to run the household for her bereaved father and two younger sisters. Some time later, she left for Tel Aviv to study in the Levinsky Teachers’ Seminary. In 1948, after serving briefly in the War of Independence, she married the painter Zvi Meirovich (1911–1974), and they spent two years in Paris before returning to make their home in Haifa. Their daughter Dorit was born in 1952 and their son Yehoshua (Shuki) in 1963. Meirovich died in 1974, and in 1980 Hendel left Haifa to live in Tel Aviv.
First Literary Period
Two periods may be discerned in Hendel’s path as a writer. The formative first period, from 1950 to 1977, is marked by discontinuity. Between her silences, from 1955 to 1969 and from 1971 to 1977, she sought tirelessly to develop a language of her own, through which she could express her way of observing and interpreting the here and now.
On the occasion of receiving the Bialik Prize for Literature in 1996, Hendel recalled that in primary school, the other children laughed at her for writing stories instead of essays. Undeterred, she continued to write fiction, and her first published story, “Bikhvot ha’orot” (At lights’-out), appeared in 1942 in Mibifnim, a quarterly journal published by the Kibbutz Hameuhad movement. She went on to publish over twenty short stories in organs of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine—Mibifnim, Davar, Shenaton Davar, Mishmar, and Le’aḥdut ha‘avodah—as well as in the Ha’aretz daily newspaper and the journals Molad and Keshet soferim.
In 1948, while working as a journalist at the Knesset, which was then in Tel Aviv, Hendel collected and edited materials for a literary anthology, Lemagen: Pirkei shirah (For the defender: Chapters of poetry), for the public relations department of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor. In 1950, her first collection of short stories, Anashim aḥerim hem (They are different) was published by Sifriat Poalim. The book drew some attention for its original voice, but Hendel’s breakthrough into public consciousness occurred four years later, when, of thirteen manuscripts submitted anonymously to the Asher Barash Competition, headed by Avraham Shlonsky, her novel Rehov hamadregot (Street of the Steps, 1954) took the prize. The book, named for a real street in Haifa that was populated by “members of the Sefardi community, with their vibrant folk customs,” was one of the first to offer a panoramic depiction of the Jews of European origin and their descendants, including most of North and South American Jewry.Ashkenazi-Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi ethnic divide, whose existence the young state of Israel was attempting to deny. It became a runaway bestseller and was reworked by Hendel as a play, staged by the Habimah theater company in 1958.
A few months after the publication of Reḥov hamadregot, the “Ba‘et ubamikḥol” culture section of the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (June 1, 1955) reported that a sequel was already underway. Hendel affirmed that she was working on another novel that would deal with that same “world unto itself.” However, that work was published only after fourteen years of silence. In Heḥatzer shel Momo hagedolah (The courtyard of Momo the Great, 1969), Hendel carried on with her depiction of life on the neglected margins of Haifa’s Lower City, this time centering on a panoply of eccentric societal rejects—Holocaust survivors, Jews from Middle Eastern countries, new arrivals, and veterans—all searching vainly for where they belonged. The bright, realistic representational style that characterized Reḥov hamadregot gave way in Heḥatzer shel Momo hagedolah to a dark, fantastical realism, in which the story unfolds in a non-communicative repartee to which readers found it hard to relate.
Hendel’s first literary period was strongly impacted by her life as a woman, wife, and mother. When her spouse fell ill with a degenerative disease at the end of 1970, she put aside the novella she was working on, Tzelilah ḥozeret (Repeat dive). It was never completed, though it furnished material for a 1982 film of the same name directed by Shimon Dothan.
Second Literary Period
After Meirovich’s death in 1974, Menahem Perry, editor of the Hebrew literary journal Siman Keri’ah, invited Hendel to contribute to the journal. Her first response was to publish the story Alter: Portret (Alter: A Portrait), which appeared in Siman keri’ah no. 7 (May 1977). She followed with a series of texts, published in 1978, 1979, 1980 (twice), and 1983, dealing with Meirovich’s personality and life as an artist. Entitled “Hakoaḥ ha'aḥer: Dapim lo gemurim” (The Other force: Unfinished pages), they were accompanied by reproductions of Meirovich’s works and were also included in the catalogues of the three retrospective exhibitions held in 1979, 1981, and 1999.
Hendel’s second period represented a transformation—in her work, and in Israeli literature. The publication of Hakoaḥ ha'aḥer as a complete work in 1984 presented a groundbreaking hybrid genre; not quite biography and not quite fiction, it challenged the reigning poetics. This period in Hendel’s writing was one of continuous, coherent productivity, and her works were received with appreciative criticism, reviews, and a growing body of academic studies. In these years, she published Leyad kefarim sheketim: Sheneym-‘asar yamim bePolin (Near quiet places: Twelve days in Poland, 1987), Kesef katan: Maḥzor sipurim (Small change: A cycle of stories, 1988), Har hato‘im (The mountain of losses, 1991), Aruḥat boker temimah: Maḥzor sipurim (An innocent breakfast: A cycle of stories, 1996), Terufo shel rofe hanefesh (Crack-up, 2002), and Hamakom hareik (The empty place, 2007). She also published new editions of her early books: Haḥamsin ha’aḥaron (The last sirocco, 1993), a revision of Heḥatzer shel Momo hagedolah; Reḥov hamadregot (1998); and Anashim aḥerim hem (2000), including the previously censored story “Kever banim” (The sons’ grave). The story “Semalot hameshi shel Geveret Klein” (Mrs. Klein’s silk dresses), first published in the collection Aruḥat boker temimah, was republished separately, in a finely bound numbered edition (1995).
Throughout the years, Hendel also published literary criticism, articles, and essays in various newspapers and journals, and in 1985 she hosted a radio program, “Beguf rishon” (In the first person). Her stories and books were translated into many languages, and she was recognized with a number of awards—not only the Asher Barash and Bialik prizes, but also the ACUM (Israel Association of Composers and Publishers) Award (1976), the Agnon Prize (1989), the Newman Prize (1995), the Prime Minister’s Prize (1975, 1998), and the Israel Prize (2003).
Hendel died on May 23, 2014, at 92.
Place in Israeli Literary History
Hendel may be assigned to the “War of Independence” generation of Israeli writers, also called Dor ba’aretz (the “land of Israel” generation), the first generation of native-born Israeli writers, for whom Hebrew was their natural language and whose work collectively voiced their Israeliness as the central, driving element of their identity. However, Hendel also set herself apart from her contemporaries, taking her place as a singular “I” glancing to the sides; as she put it, “I wrote about the people on the margins, not about the war heroes. I was always fascinated by the marginal elements in life” (Davar hashavua, January 29, 1988; quoted in Shirav, Non-Innocent Writing, 49).
Another woman writer of her generation, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, compared the new Israeli literature to a “synagogue” in its reliance on the male writer to speak for the public, like the prayer leader in an Orthodox service, while sidelining the woman writer to the “women’s section” and relegating her work to a secondary status, “like a letter from the rear.” Not so Hendel. Precisely by setting the “rear” in the center of her writing, she broke out of the “women’s section” to train her gaze upon the accepted and the normative as though it were the “other.” By way of this tension between the “marginal” and the “central,” Hendel’s insistent dealing with the “other” took on essential proportions in her poetic-literary world. This was her means of breaking down things that had been taken for granted, to examine them, disassemble them, and give them her own new meanings. And so she did, from her first collection of short stories, Anashim aḥerim hem, to the last of her books.
Anashim aḥerim hem deals with the young state of Israel in the 1950s, after the War of Independence and during the waves of mass immigration from east and west. While the Dor ba’aretz literature continues the triumphant Zionist meta-narrative, Hendel’s Israel is post-traumatic. Its condition, on both the societal and the individual levels, is borne out in her broken, suffering figures: the lonely ice-seller seeking to rebuild his life by reaching out to a young woman relative, a Holocaust survivor who has lost her mind (“Hamevulbelet”); the young “Sabra” girl whose boyfriend has returned from the war with a head injury, leaving her to care hopelessly for him, trapped in the tragedy that has enveloped them both (“Zikhrono nifga‘”); or the father, a simple laborer who, after finishing his workday, goes to visit the grave of his dead son, buried alongside his comrades, and, as it starts to rain, takes off his coat and cloaks it over the gravestone so that it shouldn’t get wet (“Kever banim”).
Poetic of the Other
This thematic dominance of the “other” steadily became more and more characteristic of Hendel’s writing, hand in hand with the development of the “otherness” of her poetic, which declared the utter disintegration of the accepted literary style of the period. Her texts are characterized by their competing subtext, evoked in a frayed and fluid style of writing that swings back and forth between high and low registers, and in ambivalent pieces of information, which, even in their most banal and predictable context, come out sounding anomalous and baffling. For her, as she said in a symposium on the meaning of life held at Tel Aviv Museum in 1996, “what lies behind the black letters, or in the white spaces between the black letters” was paramount.
“In the place where you start not to understand—that’s where life begins,” said Hendel, quoting Meirovich. Indeed, anyone perusing the corpus of her writings will immediately be cognizant of the “incomprehension” that shows up as the point of departure for every one of her stories—a point at which her character, be it man or woman, apprehends a phenomenon, a situation, or a person without being able to understand, explain, or perhaps even connect with it. This standpoint of fascinated and frustrated incomprehension gives rise to verbal, mental, and reflexive dialogues, which, though they may sound passive and chimerical, are actually intent and investigative. However, the intensity of the investigation does not ensure that the nature or significance of the matter will emerge, as much as it prompts yet more searching, yielding explanations that are no more than fragments of information of greater or lesser relevance.
This “poetic otherness” was first exercised in Hakoaḥ ha’aḥer, in which Hendel set out to narrate the overwhelming, enigmatic phenomenon of her departed spouse, Zvi Meirovich, and the demonic, suicidal urges that imbued him with his power as a man and an artist.
Hendel presents Hakoaḥ ha’aḥer as a random collection of chapters from different periods (1976, 1976–1977, 1978–1983), which she refers to as “texts,” consciously rejecting any attempt to establish a coherent life story. Instead, her narrative self seized from the start with the fear of not remembering anything at all, she focuses on piecing together associative fragments having to do with Meirovich. Only gradually, by a process of unconscious distillation, from she knows not where, do the memories emerge (“from dimness to a spot of light”). Though it eliminates any possibility of a plot, this memoiristic jumble goes on and on, serving up vital testimony about Meirovich, all of it external: Meirovich, evoked in a panorama of people, events, streets, and places (all tagged with their authentic names and precise dates); Meirovich, in a detailed sketch of his agitated countenance: his lurching motions (also as a painter who was paralyzed in one hand), his speech, his voice, his mutterings; and Meirovich, in the retelling of his jokes, his song-snatches, his discourses, recurring in a kind of spellbinding monotone of Yiddish and Hebrew. Taken together, these five disparate chapters nevertheless coalesce into a kind of artistic/intellectual biography, allowing us to gain insights into that unfathomable “other force.”
Between 1987 and 2007, Hendel published six collections of short stories and novellas, in which her creative “otherness” only intensified. For example, her themes continued to focus on an array of battered, marginal figures, deeply damaged in body and soul. But if, in her works of the 1950s and 1960s, those figures belonged to the social fringes, in her stories from the 1990s and the 2000s they are located in the center and can be assigned to ordinary urban bourgeois society. That is to say, the “otherness” in Hendel’s writing now moves into the realms of existential suffering, with the body (female or male) treading at the extremities of illness, bereavement, old age, and loneliness. Is Hendel speaking of Israeli society as sick and suffused with loneliness, or is it rather that, living her life of Tel Avivian normativity, she seeks to train our gaze on human distress, wherever it may lie?
These injured figures intensify the thematic structures that had gone into the making of Hakoaḥ ha’aḥer, which Hendel continued to deploy in her later work. For example, the “demoniacal” creativity that had agitated Meirovich (and the bizarre figures around him) dominates in these stories as well, in different variations of emotional deformation: in the father’s quiet and horrifying abuse of his daughter in “Small Change”; in the nightmarish aestheticization of a dying woman’s vengeance in “My Friend B’s Feast”; in Elhanan’s sadistic treatment of Yael, the widow whom he has made his wife, in “Crack-up”; and in a whole frightening range of eccentric (“The Dancer”), obsessive (“Apples in Honey”), and disturbed (“Fata Morgana across the Street”) behaviors. Cowed or crazed in the face of their domination by men, Hendel’s women characters nevertheless raise their heads in acts of silent resistance (“Vengeance Delayed”; “Fata Morgana across the Street”; Amira in Mountain of Losses) or outbursts of rebellion (“Small Change”; “My Friend B’s Feast”; “An Innocent Breakfast”).
These stories are mostly narrated to us in the first person, by way of “a close friend,” “a prying neighbor,” or “a curious woman”—an attentive figure who not only communicates with the characters but enfolds them in an involved and caring empathy that rescues the story from utter despair. Particularly with the women characters, that attentiveness extends not only to their distresses and dreams, but to the banal particulars of their daily lives—shopping, gossip, cooking, jewelry, flower arrangements, and such.
The involved first-person narrator is often intermeshed with Hendel herself, the omniscient author. As she had done in Hakoaḥ ha’aḥer, Hendel continued in her later stories to rework and interweave authentic raw materials, such as childhood memories and stories of people she had known, in a hybrid genre of her own – not quite biographical and not quite fictional – of which Hebrew literature had never seen the like.
Hendel was asked on a number of occasions to what extent she represented a woman’s voice in Israeli literature. Her answer, each time, was that her writing was not “women’s writing,” and the works she produced were not “women’s literature.” Nevertheless, especially from the 1990s on, they have been the subject of some fascinating feminist readings. Pnina Shirav, for example, distinguishes between Hendel’s early stories, in which she still saw a need to camouflage the female voice or subordinate it to the male voice, and the later ones, in which the female voice sits firmly in the center, imbuing “existential experience as it is lived, understood, and handed down by women with autonomous value.” Dan Miron crowns Hendel as Israel’s most outstanding representative of “feminine writing” (ecriture feminine), pointing not only to her female “subjects,” but also to her “language and structure, liberated from the masculine ‘symbolic order’ … originating in the phallic principle.” Hannah Naveh, discussing Hendel’s Mountain of Losses, points out Hendel’s extraction of the Israeli language of bereavement from its nationalization in the “father language,” to be rephrased in the “mother tongue.” Elaine Showalter’s “quilting” metaphor for female texts made up of patches ripped apart and rejoined may also usefully be brought to bear on Hendel’s patchwork style.
For over fifty years, Yehudit Hendel succeeded brilliantly in making a presence of her bold, independent, “other” voice, bringing us face to face, in her own way, with the fragilities of an Israeliness in search of itself.
Ben-Naftali, Michal. “On Judith Hendel’s Book The Other Force” (‘Al sifrah shel Yehudit Hendel “Hakoaḥ ha’aḥer”). Ot: A Journal of Literary Criticism and Theory 3 (Fall 2013): 83–92.
Burstein, Dror, ed. “Farewell to Judith Hendel” (Preidah miYehudit Hendel). Helicon, 106 (2014).
Harel, Maayan. “Merging into the Unmentionable: Sickness and Health in the Stories of Judith Hendel” (Lehitama‘ bamuktzeh: Ḥolut uveri’ut besipurei Yehudit Hendel), In “Defective Body, Cancerous Word, Defective Existence: Representations of Sickness in the New Hebrew Prose” (Guf pagum, milah mam’eret, havayah pegumah: Yitzugim shel ḥoli besiporet ha‘Ivrit haḥadashah), 259–290. Ph.D. diss., Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2008.
Harel, Maayan. “Writing from the Bandaged Chair: Poetics and Sickness in the Stories of Judith Hendel” (Likhtov min hakise heḥavush: Po’etikah vemaḥalah besipurei Yehudit Hendel). In Pain in the Flesh: Representations of the Body in Sickness, Suffering and Jouissance (Ke’ev basar vedam: Kovetz ma’amarim ‘al yitzugei haguf haḥoleh, hasovel, hamit‘aneg), edited by Orit Meital and Shira Stav. Or Yehuda – Beersheva: Dvir – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2013.
Lior, Omri. “The Power of Words: The Life and Work of Judith Hendel” (Bakoaḥ hamilim: Ḥayeiha veyetziratah shel Yehudit Hendel), short film in the series “Words with a View,” accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.wordswithaview.com/yehudit-hendel.
Merin, Tamar. “Intersex as Intertext: Dialogue between the Sexes in Israeli Women’s Prose Writing from the 1950s to the 1970s” (Bein minim kevein textu’aliyut: Diyalog bein-mini baprozah hanashit haYisra’elit bein shenot haḥamishim lishnot hashiv‘im). Ph.D. diss., Tel Aviv University, 2010 (on the works of Judith Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Rachel Eitan).
Merin, Tamar. “Cracking the Mirror: Melancholy as Intertextuality in the Novel Street of the Steps by Judith Hendel” (Lisdok et hamar’eh: Melankholiyah ke’intertekstu’aliyut baroman Reḥov hamadregot me’et Yehudit Hendel). Ot: A Journal of Literary Criticism and Theory, 2 (2012): 149–173.
Milner, Iris. “Strangers at Home: The ‘Uncanny’ in the Work of Judith Hendel” (Zarim babayit: Ha-“albeiti” beyetziratah shel Yehudit Hendel). Mikan: Journal for Hebrew and Israeli Literature and Culture Studies, 16 (March 2016): 55–85.
Milner, Iris. “Yehudit Hendel: ‘To Poland and Back.’” In Polish and Hebrew Literature and National Identity, edited by Alina Molisak and Shoshana Ronen, 112–128. Warsaw: Elipsa, 2010.
Qedar, Yair (direction and production) and Oren Kanar (research). “Judith Hendel on Judith Hendel” (Yehudit Hendel ‘al Yehudit Hendel), Part 1, accessed December 16, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0CsqXg08DE; Part 2, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnIZpPc0EbE.
Rattok, Lily. "Women in the War of Independence: Myth and Memory” (Nashim bemilḥemet ha‘atzma’ut: Mitos vezikaron). In The Day of Battle and Its Evening, and the Day After: The Representation of the War of Independence in Israeli Literature and Culture (Yom kerav ve‘arbo vehaboker shelemaḥorat: Yitzugah shel Milḥemet Ha‘atzma’ut basifrut uvatarbut beYisra’el; Sadan: Studies in Hebrew Literature, no. 5), edited by Hannah Naveh and Oded Menda-Levy, 287–303 (discussion of works by Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Netiva ben-Yehuda). Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2002.
Shirav, Pnina. Non-Innocent Writing: Discourse Position and Female Representations in Works by Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Ruth Almog (Ketivah lo tamah: ‘Emdat siaḥ veyitzugei nashiut biytziroteihen shel Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon veRut Almog), 48–114. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1998.
Shirav, Pnina. “Blood is Ink: Body and Writing in the Stories of Yehudit Hendel and Ruth Almog” (Diyo hu dam: Guf veketivah besipureihen shel Yehudit Hendel veRut Almog). In Will You Listen to My Voice? Representations of Women in Israeli Culture (Hatishma‘ koli? Yitzugim shel nashim batarbut haYisra’elit), edited by Yael Atzmon, 169-183. Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute, 2001.