Israeli Women's Writing in Hebrew: 1948-2004
The achievements of women’s writing in Hebrew rank among the unquestionable triumphs of Israeli feminism. From a (culturally speaking) atypical starting point of almost total exclusion from Hebrew language and literature, Israeli women writers have been able to ascend to a prominent position in the Hebrew literature of the last two decades. In the space of less than fifty years, Israeli literature has undergone a profound process of change, in which women played an important role. The talent of the women writers, coupled with the encouragement of women readers and academics, have helped women’s writing to progress from marginalization to its rightful status. This change, which did not come about easily, was part of the struggle for equality of the sexes in every aspect of Israeli society. Before reviewing the accomplishments and analyzing the processes that produced the change, this article will focus briefly on the obstacles that confronted women authors writing in Hebrew.
During the two thousand years of the Exile of the Jewish people, the Hebrew language became the exclusive province of men. Very few women either read it or wrote it (Parush 1994). Men rarely spoke the language, but they did learn it and were fluent in it for the purposes of prayer and the study of sacred texts. Perhaps more than any other tongue, Hebrew—as the original language of the scriptures—was identified with the patriarchal perception of the sacred. It is grammatically a gender-based language, divided entirely into masculine and feminine, with no neuter gender. Women were forced to wait until the language became secularized in order to find their place in it. By virtue of its being the holy tongue—the language of halakhah (Jewish religious law), law and ritual—ancient written Hebrew was created and preserved as part of cultural creativity solely by men. Women’s exclusion from Hebrew, until approximately one hundred years ago, prevented them from playing a role in it, with the exception of rare instances (Kaufman, et al. 1999).
The Haskalah movement and Zionism, which waved the banner of women’s equality, provided women with the opportunity to study Hebrew and even encouraged them to write in it. The revival of the language was an essential component of the Zionist revolution and it was necessary to include women in this audacious undertaking. In order for the ancient tongue to once again become a language of daily speech, mothers would have to speak it with their children. The transformation of Hebrew into a living language, reactive and evolving, is one of the outstanding achievements of the Zionist movement, unparalleled in any other language. The major role that women played in this process resulted in grudging encouragement to participate in the creation of Hebrew literature. Even if the male authors did not intend to grant women writers an important role in the emergent culture, the absence of women’s emotionalism in Hebrew literature was obvious to them.
But familiarity with Hebrew as a spoken language still did not enable one to compose literature. Among the most difficult stumbling blocks faced by women was acquiring fluency in the Jewish canonical texts—“masculine” texts according to the gender-cultural definition—that were a prerequisite for writing literature in the late nineteenth century and until the mid-twentieth century. Since studying the sacred texts was off-limits to women, their education lacked one of the central preconditions for participating in the creation of literature. The national cultural heritage, transmitted through the canonical texts, was the “father tongue” whose acquisition and “retooling” by women writers made it possible for them to create in it. It was only the merging of “the father culture” with the “mother culture” (Showalter 1985) that gave women writers in Hebrew the opportunity for authentic self-expression, which did not exist outside the canonical circle.
The founding mothers of Hebrew women’s literature were thought of as “step-sisters,” in the words of Miron (1990)—and not only in the field of poetry, to which he relates, but also in the realm of prose. Despite being explicitly invited to participate in the new Hebrew literature, and even being pursued by literary editors, the first women writers were consigned to the “women’s section.” Amalia Kahana-Carmon (1991) employed this fitting metaphor to explain the difficulties of the women writers within Hebrew culture. Hebrew literature can be likened, in her view, to a “temple of the spirit” in which women are relegated to the “women’s section—the passive area in the synagogue, where one is expected to keep silent.” By contrast, the congregational prayers (considered more important in Judaism than the prayers of the individual) take place in the active area, where only men are situated. Thus, the masculine voice in literature is seen as that of the sheliah zibbur (who leads the congregation in prayer), while the women writers are forced to content themselves with the role of ezer ke-negdo (helpmate).
The dual status of the women writers—outside the male linguistic-cultural tradition, yet at the same time, within it—was one of the primary reasons for their unique style (Glusman 1991). It was not only the emotional approach of the women, or their separate life experience, that led to the emergence of the qualities that characterize Hebrew women’s literature, but the need to choose between two dichotomous traditions—“the father tongue,” with its subtexts, and the “mother tongue,” which was often Yiddish or a foreign language. This phenomenon is particularly evident during the early years of women’s literature; but it created a paradigm that persisted even among the women writers born in Israel, whose mother tongue was Hebrew and who had equal access to Jewish works as a result of the coeducational school system.
The work of Devorah Baron, considered the founding mother of Hebrew women’s literature, is rich in elements drawn from Jewish tradition. As the daughter of a rabbi, Baron had the benefit of a religious education, which was rare at the time (although she was forced to hide behind a mehizah [divider] in order to study together with boys). That same education, along with her independent personality and her great talent, may have been what enabled her to fashion an individual style that regularly drew upon Jewish sources. But Rahel, the founding mother of Hebrew women’s poetry, who did not enjoy a similar education, wrote her earliest poems in Russian; yet she too relied on the Bible and made deliberate feminine use of allusions. The complex manner in which the women writers (some of whom received a religious education and others, a secular one) acquired the “father tongue” is among the central distinguishing characteristics of Hebrew women’s literature.
The most outstanding woman writer in this area is Amalia Kahana-Carmon, whose story “Ne’imah Sasson Kotevet Shirim” (Ne’imah Sasson writes poems, 1963) is rich in references not only to the Bible but also to the literature of the ancient Merkavah mystics (Rattok 1986). Likewise, the story describes the “apprenticeship” of a woman writer who attributes religious meaning to her work. While at the opening of the story the protagonist believes that she needs a male spiritual mentor to realize her spiritual destiny, by the end, she earns her independence and sees herself as the legitimate successor to David, the singer of Psalms. Kahana-Carmon’s claim to a central place in Jewish culture, by virtue of her identification with, and study of, the sacred texts, is presented in this story as a theme that complements the love story at its center.
An additional obstacle confronting the women writers was the androcentrism of the Zionist revolution. The ideal of the “new Jew” in Zionist ideology reflected the dream of a “masculine revolution”—a transformation from weakness and passivity to power and aggressive activism (Biale 1992; Almog 2000). The myth of the fighting sabra, which was a by-product of the military struggle that accompanied the settlement of pre-State Palestine, and especially the establishment of the State of Israel, also led to the marginalization of women. Despite the existence of a feminist ethos in the Zionist-socialist movement, equality remained an unfulfilled promise, a pretty slogan that concealed a different reality (Hazelton 1977). And the meta-narrative of Hebrew literature—redemption of the people through redemption of the Land—is a Zionist male myth addressed by most of the works of prose produced in the 1940s and 1950s (Shaked 1993).
The primary function of women’s literature in Hebrew was to present the authentic female experience, while battling the stereotypical characterization of women in much of men’s writing. The formulation of a feminine identity lay at the heart of the works of the “foremothers” of Hebrew poetry and prose—Devorah Baron and Rahel. Each of them was noteworthy for her profoundly independent nature, and each paid a heavy personal price for daring to infiltrate one of the key strongholds of Jewish culture—Hebrew literature. Baron produced the bulk of her work under conditions of self-imposed seclusion, not venturing outside her house for thirty years. Rahel sought to realize her pioneer dream in Kibbutz Kinneret, even traveling to France to study agronomy; but when she returned, ailing with tuberculosis, she was asked to leave due to her illness and died young, alone and destitute. Only after her death in 1931 was she allowed to return to Kinneret, where she was buried.
The patriarchal circle of literary critics initially accepted women’s writing, on condition that it not openly challenge the conventional wisdom in two major spheres: Zionist ideology and the definition of womanhood. The “subversive” examples of such work were intended to conceal women’s objections to this diktat behind docile and exaggerated acquiescence in its precepts. What emerged as a result was the model of the short lyric poem, marked by clear emotional elements, as a characteristic of women’s poetry. With respect to prose, there was Baron’s model: the short story, focused on the details of the shtetl milieu while stressing identification with the fate of characters on the margins of society, primarily girls, young women and their older counterparts. In other words, the work of Baron and Rahel accepted the ancient tenet of Jewish culture, that women are identified with the domain of the individual, leaving the tasks of leading the nation and shaping its future—the role of the prophet—in the hands of the male writers.
From the beginning of women’s participation in Hebrew literature, there were already expressions of protest against the patriarchal Jewish culture. But the more overt these became (for example, in the defiant poetry of Esther Raab, the first native-born Israeli poet), the more difficult it was for the women writers to find acceptance. The fact that poets such as Lea Goldberg and Dalia Ravikovitch, in later generations, opted for the more conservative faction of the literary movements in which they took part, also stemmed from the fear that they might be denied the opportunity for formative innovation.
It was only in the mid–1960s that the greater openness towards women’s writing made it possible for the exceptional inventiveness of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, in prose, and Yona Wallach, in poetry, to garner critical praise. Both of these writers, who played a prominent role in the feminist turnaround within Hebrew literature, were marked by an independence and determination that enabled them to fashion a totally different style from that of their male peers. Simply put, Kahana-Carmon and Wallach were responsible for the revolution that took place in the mid–1960s. The unique life experiences of Kahana-Carmon included participating in the Israeli War of Independence, serving as an emissary to England and studying at university. The influence of European culture, to which she was exposed for several years (in particular English literature and the work of Virginia Woolf [Feldman 2002]), can be discerned in her first collection of stories, Bi-Kefifah Ahat (Under one roof, 1966). The author’s insistence on her unique syntax was one of the reasons for the delay of ten years until the collection came out.
Wallach, a member of the next generation, created for herself an extraordinary life experience: She had herself voluntarily committed to a mental hospital in order to experience the impact of drugs in a controlled environment. This plunge into the depths of consciousness found expression in her poetry, with its amorphous structure that challenges all the literary conventions of her generation.
Wallach’s poetry, which combined the spoken idiom with flowery phrasing, was influenced by the feminine tradition, in particular the poet Rahel. She managed to convey her objection to the country’s patriarchal culture in a brief, emotionally loaded poem, whose simple language encapsulates the dissatisfaction of women with Israel’s materialistic society and the marginal role that it accords the woman writer: “And this is not what/will satisfy/my hunger, no/This is not/what will ease/my mind/No/That’s not it.” The female longing for freedom, recklessness, spirituality, as expressed by Rahel in her poem “Be-vo” (When it comes), which opens with the words: “And that’s it? That’s all there is?” is echoed in Wallach’s poem (Rattok 1997). If Kahana-Carmon can be credited with the major prose expressions of that which is unique in women’s literature, Wallach is responsible for the poetic formulations of feminism.
A feminine identity was forged in their work that gave authentic expression to the intimate experiences of women. Their writing is marked by protest against the masculine world and a longing for equality in the spiritual-creative sphere. There are, of course, numerous differences between the two—in personality, subject matter, generation. But each of them affected not only the younger writers that followed but their own peers. A central motif in the work of Judith Hendel, for example, from the 1980s onward, is feminist protest, which she was not known for when she began her writing career in the 1950s. Dalia Ravikovitch, who was older than Wallach, was also affected by the raw and violent outbursts of the younger poet.
Until the 1980s, women were only a small minority among Hebrew writers. They were situated on the cultural margins and their incorporation into the canon was difficult and complicated. This is something that bears remembering when examining the first eighty years of their writing. Hebrew women’s literature was at one and the same time both part of Israeli writing and a separate tradition of a minority group (in terms of the number of women writers and the attitude toward their work, if not their actual numbers in the population). The dual status of women writers as part of both a common and a separate tradition generated particular interest in the women’s voice and in the alternative that it offered to modern Hebrew literature. The unique popularity of the women poets, from Rahel and Lea Goldberg to Dalia Ravikovitch and Yona Wallach, cannot be explained solely on the basis of their special gifts. Although none of them earned the title of “poet laureate” of Hebrew poetry, the reading public saw in their works an important expression of its feelings. Their preoccupation with the personal and emotional spheres answered a strong need to focus on the individual at a time when writers were to a large extent expressing Zionist ideology and its dictates. A similar quality also typifies the women writers of prose, from Devorah Baron and the women of the First Aliyah to Judith Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Shulamit Hareven and Ruth Almog. It was the individual, the one who was considered the “other” in relation to the dominant center, who found expression in their writing, which revolved around the feminine experience.
The desire to overturn the conventions of Hebrew literature was more covert during the early years of women’s writing, becoming candid and even blatant in the 1960s and especially during the 1980s and the 1990s. Initially, the primary goal of the women writers was simply to make inroads into the field of Hebrew literature, but at a later stage they fought to change the face of Israeli culture and society. The myth of Rahel, which arose following her tragic death in the 1930s, portrayed the founding mother of Hebrew women’s poetry as representing a heroic period that bequeathed to later generations the guiding principles of national existence in the Land of Israel. Yona Wallach, by contrast, had already become a cultural icon during her brief lifetime (both died at the age of forty-one); her work led to the revolution of “gender bilingualism,” in the words of Oz Almog (2000). If Rahel deliberately emphasized feminine modesty in her work, Wallach expressed boldness and employed blunt, sexual language. The symbols of cultural bisexuality that characterized Israel during the 1990s, according to Almog, were part of the vocal message of liberation of the country’s poetry and behavior alike.
In the area of prose, the women writers challenged the models that consigned them to the margins with their emphasis on the pioneer and the sabra—models of masculine heroics and the machoistic culture of the fighter—leaving the women with the roles of helpmate, in fact, and idyllic beloved, in fancy. But women remained in the role of “the other” not only in the literature of the so-called “Palmah [i.e., pre-State] generation,” that is, in the writings of S. Yizhar (b. 1916), Moshe Shamir (1921–2004) and Nathan Shaham (b. 1925), but also in the literary revolution of the subsequent “generation of the state,” encompassing the works of A. B. Yehoshua (b. 1931), Amos Oz (b. 1939) and Yoram Kaniuk (b. 1930), in which women were on the sidelines and had even taken on a negative dimension (Fuchs 1987). The identification of women with the national enemy in the “generation of the state” stemmed from the portrayal of relations between the sexes as a battle. If in the previous generation love was the opposite of war, in the literature written by men in the 1960s and 1970s there is an emphasis on the element of danger in the figure of the woman, and the language of war makes its way into the realm of love (in the opinion of Esther Fuchs).
The women writers’ “incursion” into Hebrew literature during the generation of the state also involved a struggle over the stereotypical portrayal of women. Women’s suffering stood at the heart of the work of such writers as Judith Hendel, whose first book, Anashim Aherim Hem (They are different, 1950), was extremely courageous in that it provided a voice to other groups that were “different” in Israeli society: Holocaust survivors and families whose sons had fallen in battle. Years before the concept of “the other” (aherim in Hebrew can be rendered as both “different” and “other”) became popular, Hendel felt the pain of those who could not find a place for themselves in the surrounding culture. With bitter irony, a survivor of the concentration camps explains to his friend that, despite their being involved in the Israeli war effort, they are not like the sabras, who had not been forced, as they were, to experience the atrocities of the Holocaust: “They are different.” Hendel was not deterred by the limited Hebrew of the survivors, and the spoken Hebrew of her protagonists became a trademark of her literary style throughout her career.
Another area in which Hendel consistently defied contemporary literary norms was in her attitude toward the price of war. Already in the collection Anashim Aherim Hem and the novel Rehov ha-Madregot (Street of the steps, 1954), which was also adapted into a play mounted by the Habimah Theater, Hendel allowed the casualties of war to speak: the wounded, their girlfriends, the widows and the bereaved parents. Against the backdrop of the national ethos forged in the War of Independence, which portrayed the death of a hero as an inspiration to carry on the fight, Hendel stood out for her emphasis on the terrible suffering of those who are left behind.
It was only in the early 1950s that women poets and authors of prose succeeded in incorporating their subversive voices into Hebrew literature, which revolved around the experience of the War of Independence. Since war is by nature a gender-defined activity that women are expected to observe from the protected home front and not from the exposed battlefield, Israeli women were excluded from describing it; this, despite the fact that they played an active role in the fighting. War was traditionally viewed as an arena in which the fighter proves his masculinity; thus, even women who excelled in combat and served as commanders (of men), such as Netiva Ben Yehudah, were forced to wait until the 1980s to see the publication of their works about the War of Independence.
The glorification of the fighting man was the central motif in Hebrew literature, with the hegemonic Zionist narrative setting up this figure as the exemplar and leaving only a marginal role for women. A large portion of the narratives of the Palmah generation end with the death of the fighter, “a sort of death that commands us to live,” in the words of Shaked (1988). The portrayal of the body of the “living-dead” as a central motif of the national revival was the very national ethos that the women set out to protest. This ritual offering stands at the center of the well-known poem by Nathan Alterman, “Magash ha-Kesef” (The silver platter), in which the nation is described as owing its birth to personal sacrifice. Haya Vered, for example, who attacked this notion in her poems, paid the full price for her daring in the form of the marginalization of her work.
The refusal to accept the myth of masculine sacrifice, in the name of which fathers offered up their sons on the altar of the homeland, is largely the province of the women writers. Since the 1980s, women have been a conspicuous presence in the Israeli peace camp as part of the “Women in Black” and “Four Mothers” movements; and the addition of bereaved mothers such as Raya Harnik to the poets criticizing the awful price of war has added new depth to these movements. Also notable for her searing criticism of the occupation is Dalia Ravikovitch, whose underlying assumptions are fiercely maternal. Long-time authors of prose, such as Judith Hendel in her book Har ha-To’im (Mountain of losses, 1991), and their younger counterparts like Leah Eini (b. 1962), in Ge’ut ha-Hol (Tide of sand, 1992), protested in their work against the nation’s appropriation of fallen soldiers, via the symbol of the military cemetery. The women’s refusal to submit to the social rules that demand resigned acquiescence in the loss of life, expresses the pain of the bereaved, whose voices were stifled at earlier stages in the country’s history.
The extreme emotional restraint that marked the literature of the sabra/fighter condemned the feminine voice to a state of marginalization. The expression of emotion was seen as a sign of weakness, of lack of backbone; consequently, the voice of the victim in the dual national traumas of Israeli society—the Holocaust and the war—was virtually mute for the first decade of the state’s existence. True, women were permitted to display compassion (rahamim, in Hebrew, etymologically derives from the word rehem, or womb), and they were even expected to have some empathy with human suffering; but the price they were forced to pay was the struggle to break into the literary canon. Such was the lot of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, a sabra and fighter in the Palmah, who succeeded in getting her first collection of stories published only with the change in tastes in Hebrew literature and the rise of the “generation of the state.”
The metaphysical and religious elements in the writing of Kahana-Carmon, her innovative style and her exceptional linguistic richness, helped her gain immediate acceptance by the critics. Although her male literary peers, Yehoshua and Oz, were considered the central figures of the “generation of the state,” her unique contribution could not be ignored. The religious about-face in Hebrew literature, which evolved into a significant cultural phenomenon involving a return to the Jewish sources and the study of Judaism’s canonical texts by non-observant Jews in the classical manner of havrutot (study partners), was largely influenced by her work. In her stories she expressed a profound yearning for the infinite and described intense mystical experiences. The act of writing itself was portrayed as a spiritual calling with religious significance in her story, “Ne’imah Sasson Kotevet Shirim,” which was awarded a prize as best short story by the periodical Amot and became an instant classic.
The important feminist meaning of this story lies in the fact that the writer is a young girl who devotes herself to her calling, transforming the failure of her love story into a liberating and constructive element. Ne’imah Sasson achieves spiritual independence when she frees herself of her dependence on her beloved teacher and understands that the path to enlightenment lies open before her, just as she is open to it. In a later work by Kahana-Carmon, Sadot Magneti’im (Magnetic fields, 1977), it is a woman who now fills the role of the guide to hidden worlds; one can productively engage with these worlds only at the price of total dedication to the creative act. Giving precedence to creativity over love is one of the important messages in Kahana-Carmon’s work, which revolves around the question of the relationship between these two areas in the lives of men and women alike. The redefinition of the nature of love plays an important role in the Hebrew literature produced by women, and Kahana-Carmon’s stories highlight the course followed by the heroine from extreme dependence to promising independence.
Even as she was portraying the inner world of women, Kahana-Carmon fought concurrently in her essays for the public recognition that women’s writing so richly deserved. Her works on the subject of women’s literature stressed the stifling of the voice of “the other,” and elucidated its origins in Jewish culture. A scathing protest against the oppression of women emerges also from the work of Hendel, in particular her collection of Expressionist stories, “Kesef Katan” (Small change, 1988). Both of these writers—each in her own way—presented a type of heroism that was an alternative to the macho spirit of Israeli culture. In her novel, Ve-Yareah be-Emek Ayalon (And moon in the Ayalon Valley, 1971), Kahana-Carmon extols the ability of women to withstand the hardships of everyday life, while Hendel gives this phenomenon a symbolic name in her book, Ha-Koah ha-Aher (The other power, 1985). It is the ability of the weak, and especially of women, to safeguard the gift of life; the other power is the ability of those who suffer to maintain their openness and not become indifferent to the pain of those around them.
Identification with the suffering of other women plays a central role in the novels of Kahana-Carmon and the collections of short stories by Hendel. Both writers demonstrate the female narrator’s more flexible boundaries of the self and her ability to identify completely with other women, whose story becomes her own. Their work stands out for its lyrical power and sweeping nature; yet it demands a great deal of the reader, both male and female, thanks to its metaphorical richness and uncommon syntax. The fact that both writers dared to deviate from linguistic convention allows them to create the particular lyricism that is the hallmark of their work. The conversational element becomes more dominant in their writing as it evolves over time, with their characteristic repetitions exuding an almost-magical effect on the emotionally charged sections. The use of allusion in the work of Hendel, and allusion coupled with direct references in Kahana-Carmon’s writing, serve to intensify the message and reinforce the religious element.
Interestingly, the two outstanding poets of the early years of women’s poetry in Israel—Lea Goldberg and Dalia Ravikovitch—made use of their education and their close familiarity with the riches of Western culture and the poetry of the Bible to give their very personal poetry a resonance that extended beyond itself. Goldberg enriched Hebrew poetry with the sonnet and terzina forms, while Ravikovitch, in Ahavat Tapuah ha-Zahav (The love of an orange, 1961), composed poems whose enchanting quality is based on biblical language, classical forms and intense yet sophisticated emotional power. It is no coincidence that Kahana-Carmon quotes from the poems of Lea Goldberg and also graciously recognizes her novel Ve-Hu ha-Or (And he is the light, 1946), which may have influenced her best-known story, “Ne’imah Sasson Kotevet Shirim.”
Women writers played a role in the literary changing of the guard—in poetry, during the 1950s, and in prose, in the 1960s. Dalia Ravikovitch took her place alongside Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), Natan Zach (b. 1930) and David Avidan (1934–1995), becoming along the way the central figure in contemporary women’s poetry. The women’s voice appears openly, in feminist defiance and blatant eroticism, in a collection of poems by Shin Shifra (b. 1931), Shir Ishah (Song of a woman, 1962). That same year, Rachel Eytan (1931–1987) published the novel Ba-Raki’a ha-Hamishi (In fifth heaven), which also focused on the world of young women. The historical trilogy by Naomi Frenkel (b. 1918), Shaul ve-Yohannah (Saul and Johanna, 1956–1967), aroused great interest. And the debut of the religious poet Zelda, in her collection Penai (Leisure, 1967), astounded the reading public and sparked the beginnings of the religious revolution in Hebrew literature, which would reach its peak in the 1990s. This redirection is also noticeable in the works of Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Yona Wallach, whose first books came out in 1966.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the women’s voice is manifest in the work of Shulamit Lapid, Shulamit Hareven and Ruth Almog. The feminist foundations of their work gradually intensified, climaxing in the 1980s and 1990s—the years of the major flowering of women’s literature in Hebrew. Ir Yamim Rabim (City of many days, 1972) by Shulamit Hareven and Gai Oni by Shulamit Lapid, both of them historical novels and women’s “coming of age” stories, helped enable the women writers to treat emotionally charged feminist material via a historical detour to the past (Feldman 2002).
The feminist element is particularly prominent in the stories, plays and detective novels of Shulamit Lapid, whether in the form of a protest against violence (notably in the story “Nehitat Ones” [Forced landing], which is so horrifying precisely because of the role reversal between victim and tormentor); concentration on the feminine sphere in the play Rehem Pundeka’i (Womb for rent, 1990); or the portrayal of the liberated young female protagonist—a detective who is single by choice and manages to combine a career with a love life.
The 1980s and the 1990s were marked by the collapse of the hegemonic center in Hebrew literature and the rise of voices that had heretofore been marginalized (Schwartz 1995). Outstanding among these is the women’s voice, since women writers are also involved in shaping ethnic and religious expression. Thus, for example, Chaya Esther (b. 1941) and Chana Bat-Shahar (b. 1944) are opening a window onto the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, while Dorit Rabinyan (b. 1972) and Ronit Matalon (b. 1959) are highlighting the Sephardic immigrant experience.
Hebrew women’s literature presents the deepening rifts in Israeli society—between religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the Jewish majority and the Arab minority—while at the same time attempting to bridge them. Special concern with these problems is already apparent in the debut collection of Savyon Liebrecht, Tapuhim min ha-Midbar (Apples from the desert, 1986). The optimistic quality of her stories stems from the ability of her female protagonists to open themselves to the “other,” a daring act that changes their lives. Through the unexpected joining of forces by women of distant worlds and different generations, they manage to overcome the oppressive power of patriarchy. Liebrecht’s sensitivity to the suffering of the weak extends also to the female foreign workers in Israel, in the collection of novellas entitled Nashim Mi-Tokh Katalog (Women from a catalogue, 2000). The origins of this special compassion may lie in the fact that Liebrecht was born in 1948 to Holocaust survivors in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. She is among the leading female members of the “second generation,” who place this theme at the center of their work. The subject is also addressed in the prose, plays and radio dramas of Nava Semel (b. 1954), whose story collection, Kova Zekhukhit (Glass hat, 1985), portrays victims of the Holocaust. Shulamit Hareven, Devorah Amir and Leah Eini have also given expression to the anguish of Holocaust survivors, in both poetry and prose. The refusal of Israeli society to open itself up to the suffering of the survivors, a subject that Judith Hendel already courageously addressed in her book Anashim Aherim Hem (1950), is combined with a feminist message in Leah Eini’s “Ad she-Ya’avor Kol ha-Mishmar Kulo” (Until the whole guard passes, 1991), one of a collection of stories that draws a parallel between feminine hardship and the suffering of a Sephardic woman who survives the Holocaust.
The forging of an alternative feminine identity through a nonconformist reading of the scriptures and an affinity for negative or marginal female characters, has been a major aspect of the work of Hebrew women writers since the beginning of Israeli women’s literature. But in the poetry and prose of recent decades, the majority of the women writers have identified with a biblical heroine who was disgraced for eternity, such as the Wife of Lot or the Wife of Job, who are not even referred to by name in the negative context. There are dozens of examples of this feminist expression in the realm of poetry, in the article “Yayin Hadash bi-Kli Yashan” (Old wine in a new bottle, Rattok 1999) and in the book by Haya Shaham, Nashim ve-Masekhot: Mi-Eshet Lot ve-ad Cinderella (Women and masks: From Lot’s wife to Cinderella, 2002).
Two daring women writers of the 1990s are Nurit Zarhi (b. 1941), who depicts the biblical Joseph as a woman disguised in men’s clothing, in the story “Hi Yosef” (She is Joseph, 1993); and Michal Ben-Naftali, who rewrites the Book of Ruth as a love story between women (2000). Zarhi creates the androgynous ideal—a woman who, thanks to her male attire, achieves the special status of Pharaoh’s second-in-command by combining her feminine intuition (the ability to interpret dreams) and her masculine ability to take action. In her story, one of the more mysterious figures in the scriptures becomes the model of the woman of the future, who may be able to rescue not only her people but the entire world from the symbolic seven years of famine.
Michal Ben-Naftali’s choice of the ancient text of the Book of Ruth as the point of departure for an experimental work of art that combines a sweeping confession with a theoretical discourse—she opens the book with a “Chronicle of Farewell: On the Failed Love of Deconstruction”—is extremely interesting. Her Book of Ruth is a liturgical text that opens with a poem by Zelda but incorporates quotations and questions from Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva in addition to the Bible. In Ben-Naftali’s interpretation, the national text becomes a personal-feminine story that revolves around the power, complexity and torment of an intense love between women. A sensual, multihued portrayal of love between women also characterizes the work of Judith Katzir (b. 1963), from her first book Sogrim et ha-Yam (Closing the sea, 1990) to her most recent book Hinei ani Mathilah [Dearest Anne, 2003]; but the primary expression of this theme is through poetry, notably in the works of Agi Mishol (b. 1947), Sharon As and Shaz.
In the 1990s, Israeli literature experienced a major change, in which Orly Castel-Bloom (b. 1960) played a central role. For the first time, a woman was in the position of “modern-day prophet” previously held by men, where she occupied center stage. The post-modern prose of Castel-Bloom is characterized by a biting feminist-political message that is nonetheless conveyed with a sense of humor and fantasy that make it highly appealing. She succeeds wonderfully in describing the sense of misery amid a capitalist culture, in the wake of the collapse of the old, familiar frameworks. Her characters are marked by alienation, detachment and a lack of focus and meaning; they flit from one constantly shifting fad to another. Although the deconstruction of the subject is a universal problem of post-modern prose, Castel-Bloom ably spotlights its uniquely Israeli elements.
Her awareness of the “culture industry” (to use the terminology of the Frankfurt school) is evident in the title of her book Ha-Sefer ha-Hadash shel Orly Castel-Bloom (Orly Castel-Bloom’s new book, 1998). Self-parody, humor and the absurd are the hallmarks of her work, in which it is difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In the story “Ha-Brigadot ha-Shehorot” (The Black Brigades, 1998), for example, she describes the situation in Israel following the appearance of mysterious vacuums that cause anyone who enters them to “lose his substance.” While the media are focused on debating the future borders of the state, the Black Brigades occupy these vacuums and wreak havoc within them. The tragicomic point is that these same brigades—perhaps “black holes” that engulf everything, perhaps newly awakened spores of the Black Plague—were actually intended to protect Israel in time of need.
The secret weapon against all possible disasters are the military elements that have been absorbed into the Israeli psyche. In the words of Castel-Bloom: “It is a mutation of the Ha-Shomer (pre-state defense) organization; a metamorphosis of the Haganah, the Ezel [Irgun Zeva’i Leummi, IZL or Irgun] and the Lehi [Lohammei Herut Israel]; and an internalization of the Israel Defense Forces.” If the very thing that ensures Israeli survival is a threatening entity that creates a spiritual-cultural-human vacuum, warns the author, our future is in danger. Her protest against the aggressiveness that is gradually taking over from within, is extremely effective, precisely because she uses everyday language and a highly personal tone: “It’s so scary! Who wants to be here anyway when they burst out of the ‘self’ of the people in order to protect them!”
Sexual freedom is a prominent feature of women’s writing of the 1980s and 1990s. The boldest poetry belongs to Yona Wallach, who, in her series of poems entitled “Ke-she-tavo lishkav iti kemo …” (When you come to sleep with me like …), decries the tendency of men to relate to sex as a power game and an opportunity to hurt and humiliate women.
Detailed and forthright poems of erotic yearning are also being composed by Leah Ayalon (b. 1950), Maya Bejerano (b. 1949) and Rachel Halfi. Bejerano is the most conspicuous formative innovator after Wallach, drawing on materials from the field of contemporary science, while Halfi is characterized by feminist messages and an identification with exceptional, creative women who were unable to become artists because they were brutally put to death as witches. Nevertheless, this poetry also exhibits an element of fantasy and humor that attests to the new sense of independence and confidence that is part of women’s writing.
There is also a noticeable erotic openness in the field of prose, as evidenced by the work of Judith Katzir (b. 1963), Zeruya Shalev (b. 1959), Alona Kimchi (b. 1966) and Dorit Rabinyan. Sexuality as a liberated source of pleasure is a central motif of their writing, alongside the limitations of the institution of marriage. But the rendering of the female body, and the process of achieving personal liberation by freeing oneself of dependence on a man, is also fraught with pain. Breaking free of a symbiotic relationship with the mother figure, the courage to turn to artistic expression, and the difficulty of forging a feminine identity on the brink of the new millennium, are all topics that arise in this lively and fascinating body of work.
The same themes also appear in the work of the younger women poets Chava Pinchas-Cohen (b. 1955) and Efrat Mishori. Pinchas-Cohen, editor of the periodical Dimui (Image), is a major figure among religious poets in Israel. Her poetry expresses a courageous feminist attitude couched in the language of the midrash (biblical commentary in the form of stories and parables). Efrat Mishori is known for her poetic performances, her experiments with form, and her extreme feminist stance. Mishori attacked one of the central institutions of Jewish and Israeli culture in her poem “Kir ha-Imahut” (The Wall of Motherhood, 1994), in which she presented mothers as a “non-entity” (i-mahut).
The Wall of Motherhood
are the same
d is like
son and also
the wall of m
(translated by Rachel Tzvia Back)
The most radical prose attack on the institution of motherhood is that of Orly Castel-Bloom in her novel Dolly City (1992). The demand placed on the Israeli mother—to devote her life to caring for her son while at the same time preparing him to fulfill a military duty in which he may be wounded or killed—is presented in all its absurdity in this bizarre satire. Single motherhood, by contrast, is portrayed in a favorable light in the 1990s, in books by Eleonora Lev (Boker Rishon be-Gan ha-Eden [First morning in paradise], 1996) and Gail Hareven (She-Ahavah Nafshi [Whom my soul loved], 2000).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as Hebrew literature by women celebrates the first hundred years of its existence, we can note with satisfaction that one of the major changes in Hebrew culture occurred within its framework. Women writers, who at first played only a marginal role of helpmate to male writers, now participate equally in shaping the content, form and ideology of Hebrew literature. They no longer content themselves with minor genres such as the short story or personal lyric poetry or with writing for children and youth, but write comprehensive, intellectually demanding works in all literary genres. Neither do they follow trends created by members of their generation, instead leading and influencing both men and women and contributing to turning points in literature, such as the transition from modernism to post-modernism in the works of Yona Wallach.
The courage, talent and determination of individual women writers won the support of women editors of anthologies, periodicals and publishing firms. Feminist literary criticism, academic research with profound social commitment and also the feminist movement, which helped to raise social awareness of women’s unique contribution to the transformation in Israeli culture, all had a share in creating this change.
However, Hebrew literature by women is still in the first stages of creating two models essential to the completion of the revolutionary process it began: the image of the liberated woman and the image of a new Israeli society. The difficulty in creating these models stems from the harsh political situation, which allows neither men nor women the leisure to focus on egalitarian relationships that would permit them total self-expression unconstrained by outer factors that derive from living in the shadow of a dreadful, bloody conflict. Although women writers such as Orly Castel-Bloom protest against diverting the whole of Israelis’ psychological energy into politics, they do not have the power to change the public agenda so as to focus on the world of the individual. Even their considerable contribution in highlighting the religious dimension in Israeli culture, which in the long run marks the most important turning point, dulls only somewhat the dominant “color” in Israel’s daily life—the color of a heated argument over the physical borders of the state, which relegates to the margins the no less crucial discussion of the identity, the meaning and the nature of relationships that exist within the state.
Almog, Ruth. Marguerita’s Nightly Charities: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1969.
Idem. The Exile. Tel Aviv: 1971.
Idem. The Stranger and the Foe: A Report on a (Writer’s) Block. Tel Aviv: 1980.
Idem. Death in the Rain. Jerusalem: 1982.
Idem. Women: Stories. Jerusalem: 1986.
Idem. Roots of Air. Jerusalem: 1987.
Baron, Devorah. Collected Stories. Jerusalem: 1951.
Ben Yehuda, Netiva. 1948—Between Calendars. Jerusalem: 1981.
Idem. Through the Binding Ropes. Jerusalem: 1985.
Idem. When the State Broke Out. Jerusalem: 1991.
Castel-Bloom, Orly. Dolly City. Tel Aviv: 1992.
Eytan, Rachel. The Fifth Heaven. Tel Aviv: 1962.
Goldberg, Lea. Early and Later Poetry. Tel Aviv: 1958.
Govrin, Michal. The Name. Tel Aviv: 1994.
Gur, Batya. Murder on Saturday Morning. Jerusalem: 1988.
Idem. A Literary Murder. Jerusalem: 1989.
Idem. Murder on a Kibbutz. Jerusalem: 1991.
Hareven, Shulamith. City of Many Days. Tel Aviv: 1977.
Idem. Loneliness: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1980.
Hendel, Judith. They Are Different People: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1950.
Idem. The Street of Steps. Tel Aviv: 1956.
Idem. The Yard of Momo the Great. Tel Aviv: 1969.
Idem. The Different/Other Power. Tel Aviv: 1984.
Idem. Small Change: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1988.
Idem. The Mountain of Losses. Tel Aviv: 1992.
Idem. An Innocent Breakfast: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1996.
Kahana-Carmon, Amalia. Under One Roof: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1966.
Idem. And Moon in the Valley of Ayalon. Tel Aviv: 1971.
Idem. Magnetic Fields. Tel Aviv: 1977.
Idem. Up in Montifer. Tel Aviv: 1984.
Idem. With Her on Her Way Home. Tel Aviv: 1991.
Lapid, Shulamit. Gei Oni. Jerusalem: 1982.
Lev, Eleanora. The First Morning in Paradise. Tel Aviv: 1996.
Matalon, Ronit. The One Facing Us. Tel Aviv: 1995.
Ravikovitch, Dalia. The Love of an Orange: Poems. Tel Aviv: 1959.
Idem. A Hard Winter: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1964.
Shifra, Shin. The Sand Street: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1994; Zarhi, Nurit. The Mask Maker. Tel Aviv: 1993.
Almog, Ruth. “On Being a Writer.” In Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner and Anita Norich, 227–234. New York: 1992.
Idem. The Thorny Path. Trans. Joseph Schachter. Jerusalem: 1969.
Castel-Bloom, Orly. Dolly City. Trans. Dalya Bilu. London: 1997.
Eytan, Rachel. The Fifth Heaven. Trans. Philip Stimpson. Philadelphia: 1985.
Govrin, Michal. The Name. Trans. Barbara Harshav. New York: 1998.
Gur, Batya. Murder on Saturday Morning. Trans. Dalya Bilu. Jerusalem: 1992.
Idem. A Literary Murder. Trans. Dalya Bilu. New York: 1993.
Idem. Murder on a Kibbutz. Trans. Dalya Bilu. New York: 1994.
Hareven, Shulamith. City of Many Days. Trans. Hillel Halkin. New York: 1977.
Idem. Twilight and Other Stories. Trans. Hillel Halkin. New York: 1977, San Francisco: 1992.
Hendel, Judith. The Street of Steps. Trans. Rachel Katz and David Segal. New York and London: 1963.
Kahana-Carmon, Amalia. “The Song of the Bats.” Trans. Naomi Sokoloff. In Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, edited by Naomi B. Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner and Anita Norich, 235–245. New York: 1992.
Katzir, Judith. Closing the Sea. Trans. Barbara Harshav. New York: 1992.
Liebrecht, Savyon. Apples from the Desert. Trans. Jeffrey M. Green, Marganit Weinberger-Rotman, Gilead Morahg, Riva Rubin. New York: 1998.
Matalon, Ronit. The One Facing Us. Trans. Marsha Weinstein. New York: 1998.
Mishol, Agi. The Swimmers. Translated by seven poets at the Tyrone Guthrie Center, Annaghmakerrig. Dublin: 1998.
Rahel. Flowers of Perhaps: Selected Poems of Rahel. Trans. Robert Friend with Shimon Sandbank. London: 1995.
Ravikovitch, Dalia. The Window: Poems. Trans. Chana and Ariel Bloch. Lebanon, New Hampshire: 1989.
Wallach, Yona. Wild Light. Translated by Linda Zisquit, with an introduction by Aharon Shabtai. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: 1997.
Azmon, Yael, ed. A Window onto Women’s Lives in Jewish Communities. Jerusalem: 1995.
Idem. “War, Mothers and a Girl with Braids: Involvement of Mothers’ Peace Movements in the National Discourse in Israel.” ISSR 12/1 (1997): 109–128.
Berlovitz, Yaffah. Stories by Women of the First Aliyah. Tel Aviv: 1984.
Lubin, Orly. “A Woman Reading a Woman.” Te’oria u-Vikoret [Theory and Criticism] 3 (1993): 65–79.
Miron, Dan. Founding Mothers, Stepsisters. Tel Aviv: 1991.
Rattok, Lily. Amalia Kahana-Carmon. Tel Aviv: 1986.
Idem. Angel of Fire: The Poetry of Yona Wallach. Tel Aviv: 1997.
Idem, ed. The Other Voice: Women’s Fiction in Hebrew. Tel Aviv: 1994.
Shaked, Gershon. A New Wave in Hebrew Literature. Tel Aviv: 1971.
Idem. Hebrew Narrative Prose. 5 vols. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: 1977–1999.
Schwartz, Yigal. “Hebrew Fiction: The Era After.” Efes Shtayim [Zero Two] 3 (Winter 1995): 7–15.
Shirav, Pnina. Noninnocent Writing: Discourse Position and Female Representations in Works by Judith Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Ruth Almog. Tel Aviv: 1998.
Azmon, Yael, and Dafna N. Izraeli, eds. Women in Israel: A Sociological Anthology. New Brunswick and London: 1993.
Biale, David. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. New York: 1992.
Diament, Carol, and Lily Rattok, eds. Ribcage: Israeli Women’s Fiction. New York: 1994.
Domb, Risa. Home Thoughts from Abroad: Distant Visions of Israel in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction. London: 1995.
Domb, Risa, ed. New Women’s Writing from Israel. London: 1996.
Fuchs, Esther. Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction. New York: 1987.
Glazer, Myra, ed. Burning Air and a Clear Mind: Contemporary Israeli Woman Poets. With an introduction by Myra Glazer. Athens, Ohio: 1981.
Gluzman, Michael. “The Exclusion of Women from Hebrew Literary History.” Prooftexts 11/3 (1991): 257–278.
Hazleton, Lesley. Israeli Women: The Reality behind the Myth. New York: 1977.
Mintz, Alan, ed. The Boom in Contemporary Israeli Fiction. Hanover: 1997.
Showalter, Elaine. “Toward a Feminist Poetics.” In New Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Showalter, 137–141. New York: 1985.
Sokoloff, Naomi B. “Modern Hebrew Literature: The Impact of Feminist Research.” In Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies, edited by Lynn Davidman and Shelly Tenenbaum, 224–243. New Haven: 1995.
Azmon, Yael. Will
You Hear My Voice?: Representations of Women in Israeli Culture. Jerusalem:
This anthology deals with gender identity, gender and language, and emphasizes the absence of women in Jewish tradition. Ruth Ginzburg describes the struggle over language in the work of contemporary young women poets, while Rahel Elior discusses the question of the presence and absence of women in the “Holy Tongue,” Jewish religion and Israeli reality. Many essays deal with the objectification of woman’s body as wife and mother and the relationship between body and consciousness, in connection with the works of Devorah Baron, Judith Hendel, Ruth Almog, Tirza Attar, Orly Castel-Bloom and Dorit Rabinyan. The anthology also includes chapters on women from the formative periods of Zionism, women in public discourse and women of various origins (gender and multiculturalism).
Feldman, Yael. No
Room of their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Fiction. New York:
This survey describes the formative stages of feminist women’s literature in Israel during the 1970s and 1980s against the background of the models that influenced it—Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf respectively. The creation of the character of a woman protagonist in a country fighting for its existence is shown in the works of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Shulamit Hareven, Netiva Ben Yehuda and Ruth Almog. Despite the “feminization” of the best-seller lists at the end of the twentieth century, as the author calls it, the women writers encountered substantial difficulty in penetrating into the Hebrew literature of the beginning of the century. The discussion focuses on the question of why the “new Hebrew woman,” whom Zionism was supposed to foster, disappeared on her way to literary representation.
Izraeli, Dafna N., Ariella Friedman, Henriette Dahan-Kalev, Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui,
Hanna Herzog, Manar Hasan, Hannah Naveh, eds. Sex,
Gender, Politics: Women in Israel. Tel Aviv: 1999.
This anthology contains seven essays whose starting point is that the difference between the sexes stems from a social, cultural and historical construct that has become institutionalized and creates a gendered regime, knowledge and social agenda. In other words, the existing order is neither natural nor essential, and in order to combat oppression and inequality one must expose its ideological sources. While the various essays can be of help in understanding the background of Hebrew women’s literature, that by Hanna Naveh, “Gleanings, Corners and Forgotten Sheaves: Life Outside the Canon” deals directly with the topic. Naveh protests against the reproduction and duplication of the male narrative by women writers and praises those women writers who deconstruct it and present a liberating alternative.
Kaufman, Shirley, Galit Hasan-Rokem and Tamar S. Hess, eds. The
Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present.
New York: 1999.
This bilingual anthology includes works by women from biblical times to the present, and its introduction presents an alternative and challenging perspective on the history of Hebrew poetry by women. The selection of works is up-to-date and comprehensive, including even poems written in the last decade of the twentieth century, and surprising in its scope. The biographical appendices on the authors and translators are most helpful, as is the list of books and anthologies in which one may find additional translations of Hebrew poetry by women. The editors’ feminist approach is fascinating, both in the presentation of the subject in the introduction and in the unconventional selection of the poems.
Miron, Dan. Founding
Mothers, Stepsisters: The Emergence of the First Hebrew Women Poets and Other
Essays. Tel Aviv: 1991.
Miron’s book focuses on the appearance and reception of the first Hebrew women poets at the beginning of the twentieth century: Rahel, Esther Raab, Yocheved Bat-Miriam and Elisheva. It describes the revolution in Hebrew poetry which opened it up to the participation of women poets and presents the assumptions that determined the attitude to women’s poetry, creating a kind of model of what constituted “desirable” poetry by women, namely that of Rahel. In this way, the assumptions influenced the treatment of women poets even after the establishment of the state, from Lea Goldberg to Dalia Ravikovitch and Yona Wallach. The detailed historical analysis and the in-depth study of the poetry of the founding mothers aims at achieving a new evaluation of their work.
Shamir, Ziva, ed. Studies
in Hebrew Literature: Selected Writings on Hebrew Poetry by Women.
Tel Aviv: 1997.
This selection of essays is dedicated to Hebrew women poets from Rahel Morpurgo to contemporary writers and includes studies of the characteristics of the works of Morpurgo, Raab, Bat-Miriam, Goldberg and Ravikovitch. It also presents less well-known poets, such as Miri Dor and Zelda. The anthology includes a comprehensive study of the characteristics of the female voice in Hebrew poetry and its subversive use of legends and motifs such as the doll, the witch and the sea (Lilly Rattok: “Hewing Like Water”). In addition, the theoretical essay, by Tova Cohen, describes the appropriation of the “paternal voice” as a method of intellectually shaping the woman creator of Hebrew literature. Women poets and authors make use of texts that present the Jewish cultural and intellectual world to help them cope with patriarchal society’s conventional perceptions of women.
How to cite this page
Rattok, Lily. "Israeli Women's Writing in Hebrew: 1948-2004." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/israeli-womens-writing-in-hebrew-1948-2004>.