The Elusive Young Hebrew Reader (Extract)

Veteran poet Haim Gouri reflects on the storied past of Hebrew literature and its uncertain future

02gouri (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Israel was born of the written word. Both its land and people are the creation of a book, or, as the renowned literary critic and polymath, George Steiner observed, the book, the Bible. Yet the Bible is more known in translation than in its original, for Hebrew is, and has always been, a minority language. In 1966, when S.Y. Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature, there were complaints over a "writer of folk tales" receiving such a prestigious award. The misunderstanding came about because most translations of this Shakespeare of Hebrew Letters simply failed to catch the layered resonances of his deceptively simple prose. Agnon's Hebrew echoed three thousand years of writing - from the Bible, rabbinic commentaries, and mystical writings to piyyutim and hasidic tales. Such Hebrew - rich as it was - seemed doomed to a ghetto existence. In many ways, of course, Agnon was sui generis. His grasp of traditional Hebrew texts was phenomenal, though this did not prevent him from using very modern themes and styles in his writings. Nevertheless, according to the poet, Haim Gouri, "Agnon did demonstrate that you could write first-rate literature from within the tradition and to some extent, too, fiction that was independent of immediate day-to-day existence." Remarkably, even before the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Hebrew literature flourished, wonderful poetry and prose written in a language that was supposed to have been dead for 2,000 years. But the establishment of the state had a bracing effect on both the Hebrew language and its practitioners. "In the 1950s," observes writer and critic, Ariel Hirschfeld, professor of Hebrew literature at Hebrew University, "there was an amazing renaissance of the language, in which everyday jargon freed Hebrew from its ancestral roots, and began to express the soul of a living people. This new awareness of the spoken language even had its own prophets, foremost among them Natan Zach. In a poem entitled Rega Ehad (Just a Minute), in which he recalls his dead father, the language is demotic and straightforward, where everyday slang appears juxtaposed with Biblical allusions." Gouri, at 85 one of the doyens of Hebrew letters, notes that the early 20th century writers may have differed over style and content, but they were mainly at one with the aims of Zionism. "They identified with the Return to Zion," he says, "whether in poetry or prose, satire or political essays. They weren't unaware of the problems surrounding them but they were also keenly aware that political Zionism had offered them new opportunities, a brighter future." Here Gouri quotes a poem by Alexander Penn (1906-1972), considered one of the most Bohemian of the poets of his time: "Instead of yesterday / we have tomorrow.... our future is the reward," and continues: "If you wrote that today you'd be laughed at. But then people wrote even as they worked the land or did other manual labor, which had turned into a kind of religion. There were hundreds of poems dedicated to the soil, and the experience of the Return to Zion, alongside their personal poems. But no one was asked or pressured to write these poems. It was a spontaneous feeling in which the line between national and personal was often blurred. I often wrote poems in which the 'we' and the 'I' were the same. The underlying sense that we all had was that our struggle was totally justified." Sitting in his book-lined salon, Gouri looks every inch the grand master of his trade. He has just launched a two-volume literary autobiography called "On Poetry and Time," an anthology of essays, newspaper articles and poems drawn from 40 years of writing, appearing for the first time between hard covers. Gouri still speaks with passion as he recalls his own youth and long literary life, and is not afraid to address the contradictions that he met along the way. "Along with this enthusiasm," he says, "there was a sober appreciation of the multi-faceted dimensions of the existential situation." Both Gouri and Hirschfeld concur that Samech Yizhar's story "Hirbet Hiza," written around the time of the War of Independence (it was first published in 1949), was not only a turning point in Hebrew literature; it literally altered people's way of looking at themselves. "Prior to this," says Gouri, "the Zionist dream united everyone, however difficult the situation was. Natan Alterman, for example, wrote against the indiscriminate killing of Arabs, as well as against what happened at Deir Yassin, where a massacre of Arabs by Jewish forces occurred in 1948. But incidents like these were isolated and did not reflect the overall situation. Suddenly, you had one of 'our' writers create a story about a fictitious Arab village and how our own soldiers expelled people and showed cruelty and indifference." Samech Yizhar (the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky) also wrote one of the most important novels of the War of Independence and, indeed, of the entire Israeli literary canon, "Days of Ziklag," a huge work of dense and poetic Hebrew which illuminates more the tragedy than the wickedness of war. So alongside the sense of "the justice of our cause," there were writers who were trying to take a more balanced, objective view of the political situation. This trend became ever more apparent as the new state developed. Authors used increasingly complex language in poetry, plays, and fiction, as well as in more popular forms of writing such as satire and screenplays, reflecting the complexity of the overall situation. You could be loyal without having to toe any particular line. "The soul of any people," observes Gouri, "is best expressed through its arts." He cites a conversation he had with a leading Egyptian intellectual, Dr Hussein Fawzi, in 1977 (just before Sadat's historic trip to Israel), who, he says, told him: 'Had your intelligence people read what Egyptian poets and novelists were publishing between 1967 and 1973, they would have realized that the October war was inevitable. Israelis never understood the depths of humiliation to which the Arab people had been subjected, and the subsequent need for revenge. Every good intelligence officer ought to be obliged to read poetry.'" Gouri speaks not just as a man of letters - poet, essayist, journalist and novelist - but also as a man of action, a soldier, as he refers to himself. Born in Tel Aviv in 1923, he joined the pre-state Palmah military force. In 1948, he joined the fledgling IDF, became an officer, and saw action in the Negev. In addition, he served in the Sinai campaign of 1956, the 1967 Six-War and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He also followed the wars as a journalist and a poet. Indeed, one of his most famous poems,"Hare'ut" (Friendship), a paean for fallen comrades, was written in 1949 in the wake of the War of Independence. Penned as a lyric to a new melody, the song became Yitzhak Rabin's favorite. Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.