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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Prose

Modern Hebrew prose in the Land of Israel was first written by immigrant authors. Although their roots were anchored in the world and traditions of East European Jewry, their works dealt primarily with the creative achievements in the Land of Israel to which they had come "to build and be built by it." Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921) and Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), who propelled Hebrew prose into the 20th century, are considered by many to be the fathers of modern Hebrew literature, although they acted neither alone nor out of historical context.

Brenner, torn between hope and despair, struggled with his doubts concerning the difficulties of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel and the low spiritual quality of certain sectors within the yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine (Land of Israel) prior to the establishment of the state. He saw flaws everywhere and feared future developments with regard to the encounter between the Jewish and Arab populations of the area. In his endeavor to capture reality, he favored the rabbinical and medieval forms of spoken Hebrew, creating new idioms and employing dramatic syntax to give the effect of living speech. Central to Brenner's works is his identification with both the physical struggle of the pioneers for a toehold in an arid, harsh land, very different from the European countries where they were born, and the struggle, no less difficult, to shape the identity of the Jew in the Land of Israel.

Agnon chose to use more modern forms of the Hebrew language in his works. His familiarity with Jewish tradition, together with the influence of 19th and early 20th century European literature, gave rise to a body of fiction dealing with major contemporary spiritual concerns, the disintegration of traditional ways of life, the loss of faith and the subsequent loss of identity. An Orthodox Jew and a writer of intuition and psychological insight, Agnon expressed an affinity for the shadowy and irrational sides of the human psyche and an identification with the inner uncertainties of the believing and non-believing Jew. Reality, as depicted by Agnon, exudes a tragic, at times grotesque ambience, with war and the Holocaust influencing much of his work, and the world of pious Jews revealed with all its passions and tensions. In 1966, Agnon was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (together with Nelly Sachs), the first Nobel Prize granted to an Israeli.

Native-born writers, who began publishing in the 1940s and 1950s, and are often referred to as 'the War of Independence Generation,' brought to their work a different mentality and cultural background from that of their predecessors, primarily because Hebrew was their mother tongue and their life experience was fully rooted in the Land of Israel. Authors such as S. Yizhar, Moshe Shamir, Hanoch Bartov, Chaim Gouri and Benjamin Tammuz vacillated dramatically between individualism and commitment to society and state, and presented a model of social realism, often in the heroic mode, featuring a blend of local and international influences.

In the early 1960s, new approaches in Hebrew prose writing were explored by a group of younger and very influential writers, including A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz,, Yoram Kaniuk and Yaakov Shabtai, marking a break from ideological patterns and focusing on the world of the individual. During the next two decades, experimentation with narrative forms and various prose writing styles, including psychological realism, allegory and symbolism, as well as speculation and skepticism regarding Israel's political and social conventions, featured prominently in contemporary writing.

The 1980s and 1990s have witnessed a burst of intense literary activity in which the number of books published increased dramatically. Concurrently, several Israeli writers achieved international recognition, notably Oz, Yehoshua, Kaniuk, Aharon Appelfeld, David Shahar, David Grossman and Meir Shalev. A belief in literature as a means of enabling readers to understand themselves as individuals and as part of their environment characterizes the prose of this period, written by three generations of contemporary authors.

Renewed efforts to cope with the tragedy of the European Holocaust have brought about the formulation of fresh modes of expression to treat fundamental questions which can be discussed only within the perspective of time and place, integrating distance with involvement (Appelfeld, Grossman, Yehoshua Kenaz, Alexander and Yonat Sened, Nava Semel and others).

Previously unprobed themes have also been introduced, including the milieu of the Arab village (Anton Shammas, an Arab-Christian writer), the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews who deliberately segregate themselves from modern society (Yossl Birstein), the way of life in Jerusalem's Hassidic courts (Haim Be'er) and attempts to deal with the existence of the unbeliever in a period when secular ideologies are collapsing and religious fundamentalism is gaining strength (Yitzhak Orpaz-Auerbach). Another important topic which some Israeli authors, themselves of Sephardic background, are addressing is the place in society of alienated new immigrants from Arab countries (Sami Michael, Albert Suissa, Dan Benaya Seri). Others explore universal themes such as democracy and righteousness as seen in the context of a society which is subject to constant challenges in most areas of its national life (Yitzhak Ben-Ner, Kaniuk, Grossman, Oz).

A number of major women authors have recently come to the fore, writing not only on general topics but also dealing with the world of women aware of their place in Jewish tradition and their role in the Zionist enterprise (Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Hannah Bat-Shahar, Shulamit Hareven, Shulamit Lapid, Ruth Almog, Savion Liebrecht, Batya Gur). Lapid and Gur have also entered the genre of detective fiction to critical acclaim, both in Israel and in translation abroad.

Recently a younger generation of writers, who reject much of the centrality of the Israeli experience and reflect a more universalistic trend, often of an alienated, surreal and idiosyncratic nature, has emerged. Some of these writers enjoy almost cult followings, and their new books are assured a place at the top of the bestseller lists (Yehudit Katzir, Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Blum, Gadi Taub, Irit Linur, Mira Magen). In addition to the prolific body of Hebrew literature, a significant amount of writing, both prose and poetry, appears in other languages, including Arabic, English and French. Since the recent immigration of over 700,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, Israel has become the largest center of literary creativity in the Russian language outside Russia itself.

During the last few years, Israeli publishers have entered the field of electronic publishing (multimedia, CD-ROM) in a massive way. Covering a wide range of topics, Israeli programs are being marketed worldwide.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry