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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Fifty Years of Culture in Israel - From “Melting Pot” to “Bouillabaisse”

by Asher Weill

A review of any country's cultural history over the last fifty years would show enormous changes — undoubtedly a quantum leap — and certainly more changes than in any other fifty year period in history. How much more so then in Israel, where that same period was marked by a series of cataclysmic events which had — and are still having — an effect on the very nature and cultural character of this young but old nation.

Israel in 1948: a country of 650,000 Jews; just three years after the annihilation of six million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. A country on the eve of invasion by five neighboring Arab nations intent on wiping it out, or, in the words of one of the Arab leaders, “driving the Jews into the sea.” A country in the throes of absorbing the remnants of decimated European Jewry — despoiled of all their worldly goods and brutally severed from their cultural and linguistic roots, but intent on surviving and creating a new life in the one piece of land that was prepared to accept them.

Each of the decades that followed was marked by yet more social and political convulsions. The fifties were the years of the mass immigration of Jews from Arab lands: from Morocco, from the Yemen, from Iraq, along with a leavening of tens of thousands of Jews from some 75 other countries; all of them brought with them their own language, national heritage and cultural baggage.

The sixties were, above all, marked by the Six-Day War of 1967, when a whole new national mythos and sense of euphoria engulfed not only the Jewish population of Israel, but indeed the entire Jewish Diaspora - only to be shattered to a large extent by the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and its aftermath, the effects of which are still very much with us 24 years later. The seventies and the eighties saw the first tentative bridges to peace with the Arab world, beginning with the epoch-making visit to Israel of President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt in 1977.

In this present decade, we are still involved in the continuing struggle for normalization with at least part of the Arab world, particularly Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and some of the Gulf states. But the assassination in November 1995 of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the change of government, and the slowing down of the peace process, are also events that have had a decisive influence not only on the political life of the country, but also on its cultural development.

The first task facing the young state, once its physical security had been assured, was to confront the existing educational system and build a structure that would make one Israeli people out of the multi-stranded population that made up this new state. Many mistakes were made in the process. It took a great deal of time and often bitter experience to realize that the aim was not a "melting pot," to use the concept that was then current, but rather a blend in which every individual could proudly maintain his or her cultural heritage within a receptive society that ensured room for everyone, while still forging a homogenous cultural identity — a “bouillabaisse” of individual flavors that combine to make a harmonious whole. That aim has still not been wholly achieved, but it is recognized as the target.

A reform of the educational system was closely linked to the necessity to teach Hebrew to the new immigrants, most of whom had no prior knowledge of the language. Hebrew, one of the world's oldest tongues, had almost died out as a language of everyday speech. Its revival was largely the work of one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who, together with a handful of adherents, created in one generation a "new" and dynamic language which increasingly became the mother tongue of the Jewish inhabitants of Eretz-Israel.

The Hebrew Language Committee, founded by Ben-Yehuda, coined literally thousands of new words and concepts based on biblical, talmudic and other sources, to cope with the needs and demands of twentieth century living. The acquisition of Hebrew became a national goal: the slogan current at the time was "Yehudi, daber ivrit" ("Jew - speak Hebrew"), an exhortation that was drilled into kindergarten pupils, schoolchildren and adults alike. Special intensive Hebrew schools called ulpanim were set up in towns, villages, kibbutzim and community centers throughout the country.

Pre-state Israel had, of course, a rich cultural life of its own, despite the paucity of its population. Literature flourished, with the national poet Chaim Nahman Bialik and the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon leading the way. Agnon was to go on to receive Israel's only Nobel prize for literature in 1966. The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, subsequently to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded by a renowned Polish-born violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, in 1936, its opening concert being conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The Bezalel Academy of Art which had been founded by the Bulgarian-born Professor Boris Schatz in Jerusalem as early as 1906, had already trained a generation of painters, sculptors, carpet weavers, craftsmen and women, whose work was widely appreciated and had even been shown in exhibitions abroad. Painters such as Reuven Rubin, Anna Ticho, Mordechai Ardon, Yosef Zaritsky, Marcel Janco; the sculptors Yitzhak Danziger, Avraham Melnikoff, Chana Orloff and others, were beginning to receive international recognition. The Habimah Theater, founded in Moscow in 1917, had moved to Tel Aviv in 1931 and attracted large and appreciative audiences for its dramatic offerings, which were already beginning to include works by local playwrights.

But the times called for change. The first signs came in literature with the work of a group of writers who became known as the “Palmach Generation” (the Palmach was the strike force of the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces). These writers, who had themselves fought in the War of Independence, and who have entered the pantheon of Israeli literature, include S. Yizhar, Chaim Gouri, Hanoch Bar Tov, Benjamin Tammuz, Aharon Megged, Moshe Shamir and the poet Yehuda Amichai. The work of these writers, most of whom are still active today, was often cast in the heroic mold called for by the times. They set the tone for artistic creation in other fields as well, and can be seen as the starting point of contemporary Hebrew cultural activity.

These literary icons were succeeded by the so-called "Generation of the State" writers. These writers were profoundly influenced by the preceding generation, and the creation of the state and its existentialist struggle during their own childhood were still their main concerns. Several of these writers have gained substantial international recognition, and their work is widely translated. They include Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yoram Kaniuk, and Aharon Appelfeld (the latter's main influence is that of the Holocaust, although his work, set in rather amorphous and intangible European settings, only contains allusions to the cataclysmic events of that time).

But the "Generation of the State" writers have now also passed on the literary baton. Some younger writers, now in their forties, such as David Grossman, Meir Shalev and Yehoshua Kenaz, continue to have a major influence on the local literary scene, and they too are published abroad. An important phenomenon of recent local writing is the predominance of women, whose voice was relatively unheard during the early years of the state. These include Shulamith Hareven, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Shulamit Lapid, Batya Gur, and the poets Dahlia Ravikovich and the late Yona Wallach.

We are now witness to yet another generation of writers, this time of a very different nature. Gone are the old concerns of nation building, absorption of new immigrants, the heroic cast of the pioneers of the kibbutzim, the melting pot, existentialist concerns for the future of the country. In its place is a new brand of less spiritual concerns - the good life, the pursuit of happiness, the debunking of hitherto "sacred" causes - often in a surrealistic, anarchic, iconoclastic, and at times even nihilistic, literary style. The things that matter to these writers are no longer the causes over which their parents agonized, but the same things that concern their fellow writers in Paris, London or New York. Such writers include Yehudit Katzir, Orly Kastel-Blum, Etgar Keret, Irit Linor, Gadi Taub and several others, all of whom might be loosely termed the “Post-Zionist Generation.”

As we have seen, Israel's cultural founding fathers and mothers perceived a national imperative in creating one society where ethnic individuality and varied cultural backgrounds would be subsumed within a homogenous “Israeli” society. That perception is very much a thing of the past. Israel is a multi-cultural society, and it is now accepted that the country stands only to benefit from retaining cultural individuality while striving to achieve a parallel Israeli culture which will absorb and be enriched by the manifold strands that make up the whole. Israel is still a country of immigrants — from 1989 to 1996 alone, well over 600,000 immigrants arrived from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and some 60,000 continue to arrive every year. In “Operation Moses” of 1984-1986 and “Operation Solomon” of 1991, over 30,000 Jews arrived from Ethiopia. All of these, in addition to thousands of other immigrants from all over the world, have increased the population of the country by over 12 percent in six years — comparable to the United States taking in over 30 million people in the equivalent amount of time!

The arrival of over half a million people from the former Soviet Union has had a critical impact on Israel's cultural life in all its facets, but none more than in the field of music. (The standard joke at the height of the last wave of immigration was that if a Russian immigrant coming off the plane did not have a violin case tucked under his arm, he was probably a pianist.) The country has seen a proliferation of new orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs and soloists, and no less important, music education in the country has been immeasurably enriched. There is not a school or community center in the country that does not have its own group of musicians playing or singing under the watchful eye and ear of a Russian-speaking teacher. It seems probable that the next few years will see young musicians, whether born in Israel or abroad, who have been tutored by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, joining the select band of Israeli soloists such as Yitzhak Perlman, Pinhas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim and Shlomo Mintz, who have made a mark on the stages of concert halls all over the world.

Opera always had its adherents in Israel, even in the early days of the state. The Tel Aviv Opera mounted operas in a variety of tongues and even gave a start to a promising young Spanish tenor called Placido Domingo. But opera received a tremendous fillip from the massive Russian immigration and with the opening in 1995 of the magnificent Opera House in Tel Aviv's new Golda Center for the Performing Arts.

Theater too, has moved away from the heroic, rather melodramatic and studied image of Habimah, the national theater company, in 1948. Newer theaters, such as the Cameri, celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the Haifa and Be'er Sheva theaters and the Khan in Jerusalem, have joined the national theater in presenting plays and standards of acting which are very much of this time and place, and reflect modern day reality and concerns. The newest major theater company in the country is Gesher (“Bridge”), which was founded by immigrants from the former Soviet Union — at the beginning to provide work for immigrant actors who had not yet mastered Hebrew, and at the same time answer the cultural demands of a Russian-speaking, and culturally-hungry, audience. Within a very few years, Gesher started mounting plays in Hebrew with both immigrant and locally-born actors, and they have become one of the most innovative and interesting theater companies in the country.

Many of the local theater productions are by Israeli playwrights, and audiences will flock to see the latest play by writers such as Hanoch Levine, Yehoshua Sobol, Shmuel Hasfari or Hillel Mittelpunkt.

Dance is yet another field that has seen vast changes. Prior to 1948, dance in the country was mainly the field of enthusiastic practitioners of folk dance, who were busy creating a local dance idiom from a skein of Russian, Balkan, and local Arab influences, and meeting at regular folk dance festivals beginning in 1944 at Kibbutz Dalia. Since then, several professional groups and dance schools have come into being, notably the Batsheva and Bat Dor groups, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and the Israel Ballet. Of special interest is the Kol Demama Company, a modern dance group comprising both deaf and hearing dancers.

Prior to 1948, the only museum in the country of any consequence was the small archeological collection at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. Painters and sculptors had very little in the way of permanent venues to display their work, and would often spend time abroad, especially in Paris, to gain exposure. In 1965, a major spur to the plastic arts in Israel was the opening of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This, the country's largest and most important museum, has many divisions, notably those of archeology and Judaica, which include the collections from Bezalel as well as the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Ruth Youth Wing; departments for photography and design, and above all, extensive collections of modern Israeli art on permanent display and in temporary exhibitions, as well as the country's major repository of sculpture in the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden. The Israel Museum has sometimes been accused of neglecting Israeli art in favor of contemporary international art, but in recent years, major strides have been taken to broaden the museum's activities in this sphere. Other important venues where one can view modern Israeli art are the Tel Aviv Museum, the Ramat Gan Art Museum, Mishkan Omanut in Kibbutz Ein Harod, as well as smaller museums throughout the country, and private galleries, most of which are concentrated in the Tel Aviv area.

Only relatively recently has Israel began to develop a cinema industry. Prior to the creation of the state, film-making in the country was almost entirely restricted to the production of propaganda films for national institutions, such as the Jewish National Fund. While a few full length features were made in the early days of the state - memorably, a film entitled “Hill 24 Does Not Answer,” which is cast in the heroic mood of the times — quality commercial film-making really only got underway on any scale in the last two decades or so. The more successful films tend to draw on the Israeli experience, the Arab-Israel conflict, Holocaust- related topics and so on, rather than on international themes.

Israel in 1948 was a small sliver of land with a minuscule population, overwhelmingly concerned with the problems of daily survival, and struggling to create the framework for an independent and viable state. Fifty years on, it is home to a thriving and vibrant cultural life embodying manifold forms of human expression. It has developed from an inward-looking, introverted and culturally self-absorbed people, into a universalist, extrovert and dynamic, multi-cultured world-embracing force. Its artists, writers, dancers and musicians have made an impact far beyond their number, while an increasing variety of international festivals and events, such as the Israel Festival, the Jerusalem International Book Fair, the International Poetry Festival, the Karmiel Dance Festival and many others, have become notable events in the world's cultural calendar. In Israel itself, the constant search for cultural identity is expressed by dynamic creativity in a broad range of art forms, appreciated and enjoyed by a great many people — not as an activity for the privileged few, but as an essential part of daily life.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry