The Peculiar Case of Hebrew Literature in America


A few years ago, one of my colleagues dedicated a whole book to this perplexing question: why is contemporary Israeli literature more popular in Europe than it is in the United States? After all, Europeans love to hate Israel, or so goes the rap, whereas Americans love it... for the most part. But it is true—Israeli authors sell much better in Europe than they do in the US and receive the highest honors from a continent whose relationship with the Jewish state is fraught with tensions, long and complex.

And what about the Jews? Where do they fit in this picture? There aren't too many of them in Europe, and they certainly don't play the central role Jews play in America. Shouldn't that translate into popularity, then? This may be the most complex part: the Jews. One of the reasons we ask the question in the first place is precisely because the Jewish presence in America is so vibrant, and because its connection to Israel has been so extraordinary warm for almost a century now. Why, we wonder, those of us who know it well and speak for it publicly, don't these strong ties translate into a deeper engagement with perhaps the easiest, most accessible products of its culture: books.

To be fair, the picture is not so bleak. There are a few Israeli authors who do cross over, are very well known and very well respected. I am speaking, of course, of the three heavyweights, Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman. But even these three stars still do much better in Europe than they do in the US. A few years ago Amos Oz received the highest literary honors possible in Germany, the Goethe prize, and Grossman and Yehoshua are not neglected either.

What is it then?

One obvious part of the answer lies in the well-known Israeli saying, dvarim shero'im mikan lo ro'im misham, which roughly translates to “It's all a matter of perspective.” Because of their unique history, Jews everywhere tend to be lumped together, by Jews and non-Jews alike. But in truth, this is not the case at all. Differences between Jewish communities have always existed, and the differences that separate Jews in the U.S. and Israel today are natural and expected, even though they're not always so readily admitted. Americans—non-Jews too—grow up with a very particular idea of Israel that often has little to do with reality. The vibrant and lively little country, with its dazzling mixture of contradictions and paradoxes, and especially its irrepressible penchant for self-critique, often to the point of self-flagellation, seems to Americans so, well, un-American.

If, in the little space I have here, I had to give one good reason for these differences, it would be critique. Certainly with respect to literature. One of the most frequent responses from my students is one of disbelief. Not at the profound depths and artistic heights of writers like Brenner, Agnon, Yizhar, Grossman, or Castel-Bloom. Most often students marvel at the criticism, what they see as a shocking exposure of the culture's ills that in book after book are laid before readers like bleeding chunks of meat.

This is not so strange considering that modern Hebrew literature began as a corrective movement that sought to bring light unto the old fashioned and traditional Jewish masses. Almost two hundred years later it still hasn't lost its zeal for education, for prophesying. With very few exceptions, Israeli writers have been pounding that creature called modern Hebrew culture from its infancy. A brief look at the Big Three would suffice to prove it: Amos Oz's brutal critique of labor Zionism, A. B. Yehoshua's sober examinations of the internal divisions between eastern and western Jews in Israel, and Grossman's harshly honest exposure of Israel's treatment of Arabs. All three are master storytellers, and I don't mean to diminish their more belletristic virtues. But to many American readers, their critical thrust seems gratingly jarring.

It may seem a small matter, maybe even simplistic, but year after year I see how students brace themselves to read the grim fare that is laid before them: the corruption of the kibbutz idea, a socially disharmonious Israel, the meanness toward Arabs etc. This is not what they sign up for. They come for a different kind of meal and get humble pie instead.

Israelis don't see it that way, of course. We are conditioned to it. As one smart author once observed, when Israelis open a book in Hebrew a light bulb is switched on in their heads and they go into prophetic mode. That writer, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, didn't much like it, and tried to write otherwise. But I am not sure she was very successful. The trait is part of the literature's DNA, and in the last two successful decades it has really spread. Hebrew literature today is not as small and exclusive as it used to be and yet its penchant for dealing with the stuff of history, with the Jewish Condition, animates even its lower rungs, the middle- and lower-brow works that are the literature's most recent development.

Is that the reason why Hebrew works do better in Europe than in America, because their self critique appeals to continental prejudices, while they offend well-disposed Americans? I doubt it. And yet it is probably still part of the answer. So there she is—hinenah, modern Hebrew literature. The prophesying may be disguised better and better by proliferating genres and a growing sophistication of the literary idiom, but the urge to effect change continues strong. Now, is that so grim?