Back to the Future: Standing at the Intersection of Valley-of-the-Ghosts and Our-Mother-Rachel

April 1, 2005
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Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

AS SLAVES OF MEMORY, Jews tend to imagine cultural figures as recycled versions of the past. We in Israel should not then be surprised by the ghostly, reflected, images that have come to haunt our streets or the prediction that the future of Hebrew literature will entail a reappropriation of forms of the literary imagination that had persisted for decades as contraband in the recesses of Hebrew memory. I do not mean this primarily in the psychoanalytic or intergenerational sense, although it has become something of a truism that what is forgotten or repressed by the founding fathers and mothers is bound to be “recuperated” by those irrepressible agents of nostalgia, the grandchildren. I am making a claim about the particular cultural atmospherics of Zionist — and then Israeli — society, about the virtual boundaries around what could be thought, said, and written, and about the ways in which those boundaries are now being renegotiated in the unspoken and messy process that parallels the negotiations over physical boundaries.

This could be the most natural resolution to the basic paradox of Israel’s birth narrative: that Zionism’s mandate to forge a new future was at the same time a revocation of the license to imagine alternative futures, a revocation, at some profound level, of poetic license itself. The highly inventive literary forms and visions that engendered Zionism became, in principle, at least, illegitimate in Zion. Consider the most conspicuous early example of that literature, Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland, in which every detail of daily life is cheerfully accounted for and wholly reinvented. Herzl unwittingly sounded the death-knell of imaginative literature in that novel with his famous epigraph, which became the clarion call of political Zionism: “if you will it, it is not a dream.” Zionism itself was a dream, or something like a dream, an extravagant act of the imagination, with the utopian novel its perfect vehicle. But the logic of any utopian project, Zionism included, is that the very realization of the dream abolishes dreaming. By its very nature, utopia realized makes the imagination of alternative worlds not only unnecessary, but illegitimate. Plato banished poets from his republic because they could not be relied upon to represent the presumably perfected values of the unchanging, ideal state. Recovering the past, with its multiple visions of the future, is, then, nothing less than a reinstatement of the place of the imagination in the Hebrew soul.

In the Yishuv and the early years of the State, fictions of longing, of restlessness, of wandering, had no obvious legitimacy in the place that was both ground zero and telos of the Jewish journey. There were pressures to exclude foreign and subversive matter, especially literature that suggested the resiliency or authenticity of the Diaspora — Tevye’s world, or Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Instead, the literature that was officially valued conjured a perfect fit between map and territory, between blueprint and edifice. Much of the writing of Uri Zvi Greenberg, Natan Alterman, Moshe Shamir, the writers referred to as “dor ba-aretz,” enacted a kind of “aesthetics of the whole” — it was ecstatic, celebratory, epic. Zionism in its many articulations shared a utopian vision: an expectation that the encounter with the landscape of Palestine would so overwhelm the senses that it would produce a perfect correlation between mind and matter. When it did not, as in S.Y. Agnon’s epic Tmol Shilshom, the despair was palpable, and apocalypse emerged as the dark side of utopia.

The mandate to build a Hebrew alternative to diasporic Jewish culture concealed an even more fundamental paradox in relation to the reclaiming of “original” geographical and linguistic space. While Zionists were, much like other settler colonists, discovering new territory, they were at the same time, unlike other settler colonists, recovering an ancient, deeply-imagined community as a modern national entity. In reconnecting with the Holy Land as habitat, with its biblical flora and fauna and archaeological evidence of Hebrew origins, Zionism tried to tie up the loose ends in the national biography, reclaiming its source as its final destination and reinforcing the coherence of the utopian-messianic vision. Outside the sacred center, what had characterized the literature that evolved over 2,500 years were metaphors, stories, and parodies that played upon the profound and complex link between memory and imagination — between the memory of the Temple and Hebrew sovereignty and the burden and privilege of creating alternative stories on foreign soil — since the story of return and redemption had to be postponed till the “end of time.” Thus the memory of Zion both animated and liberated the work of the imagination in exile.

In this sense, perhaps, Herzl’s Altneuland was at some level an acknowledgment of the great diasporic achievement it sought to supersede: it envisioned a Jewish state with a plurality of languages and multiple points of origin and tried to anticipate and preclude anything that smacked of cultural self-ghettoization. Jewish cosmopolitanism and a persistent longing for places beyond the horizon, a self-exiling impulse, fed by the inevitable dissonance between utopian visions and reality — the friction that generates fiction—were to become persistent subversive undercurrents in Israeli literature. None of the great writers of the Zionist canon — not H.N. Bialik, nor Y.H. Brenner, nor Leah Goldberg, nor even N. Alterman — wrote in a way that succeeded in banishing ambiguity, personal longing, skepticism — in short, diasporist “weakness” — from their work. Hebrew fiction was planted in the soil of Eretz Yisrael but never fully acclimated, never really relinquished the lower-case homelands of the Jewish Diaspora. Fiction trespasses, ultimately infiltrating even sacrosanct spaces. Amos Oz, one of the most Israeli of Hebrew writers, locates the genesis of his literary mandate and sensibility in the place where that trespass occurs: “I am fundamentally a Jewish writer. But I am a Jewish writer in the sense of writing forever about the ache to have a home, and then having one, aching to go away thinking that this is not the real one.” It is not just that the Jew always dreams of being wherever he or she is not — and in this sense represents the universal human longing that we equate with exile. It is that Oz’s kibbutz or Jerusalem, as microcosm of the state of Israel, was supposed to have put an end to such longings and dreams. To the extent that Oz sees them as restless, resilient sites for his fiction, he remains a Jewish writer. And he creates space in Hebrew fiction for the explicitly Jewish narratives of a displaced writer like Aharon Appelfeld. There were writers, like D. Fogel, U.N. Gnessin and G. Preil, who wrote in Hebrew but never joined political Zionism. They can furnish us now with a model for a non-utopian literature that is not enslaved to the material life it is made to represent. Living outside of the reterritorialization of Hebrew, even outside of the dream of reterritorializing Hebrew, meant imagining Hebrew speech in the streets of Odessa, the spas of Austria, or New York’s Central Park. By these very acts, such writers point intriguingly to a zone of freedom that is always beyond reference — that is, beyond the materialization of Hebrew conversations on concrete Israeli street corners.

The good news is that, 103 years after the publication of Altneuland, if we spend more time on those very street corners, we can hear the cacophony of voices that signal a massive defiance of utopian dreams, a massive affirmation of the material of this world and a massive celebration of the elasticity of the Hebrew language: the Arabic accents of Sayed Kashua, the postmodern accents of Orli Kastel-Blum, the Yiddish accents of Yoel Birstein, the Russian accents of Gali-Dana Singer, the brazen amalgamations of Agi Mish’ol and Meir Wieseltier — and the persistent cadences of those who came of age in the 1970s and 80s and continue to astonish us with their recombinant flights of fiction: David Grossman, Yoram Kaniuk. And, always already, the haunting, teasing and enabling voice of the late Yehuda Amichai.

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Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is Professor of Comparative Jewish Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and visiting professor at Duke University. She is the author most recently of Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (2000), which was a finalist for the Koret Jewish Book Award. (This essay is adapted from an earlier version published in Religion and Literature, 30:3 (Autumn, 1998).

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