Israeli Literature: A Reader’s Guide

Hebrew literature in translation.


Approximately 5,000 books are published annually in Israel. Considering that Hebrew books are from a small country and in a relatively obscure language, they are often translated into English at an astonishing speed. Within two to three years of their initial publication, novels by prominent Israeli writers such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua appear on shelves at American bookstores and on the pages of The New York Review of Books.

While not all Hebrew books appear in English as quickly as these Israeli best sellers, readers in English can sample the richness of modern Hebrew literature, particularly novels and short stories, through the many works currently available in translation.

Beginnings of Modern Hebrew Literature

Modern Hebrew literature first emerged in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Few of these classics are still in print, but several notable writers are featured in recent books and reprints.

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) is one of the best known poets of the late 19th century and early 20th century renaissance of Hebrew literature. His rich and complex poetry, presented in translations such as David Aberbach’s C.N. Bialik: Collected Poems, explores radical changes in Eastern European Jewish life, biblical themes and the beauty of the natural world.

Yosef Chayim Brenner (1881-1921) was among the first generation of Hebrew writers in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine). Perhaps his best known work is Breakdown and Bereavement, a novel that traces the unraveling of an aspiring pioneer.

While Bialik and Brenner are mainstays of the Hebrew canon, a more surprising figure to find in English translation is Devora Baron (1887-1956). Baron wrote one novel and many intricate, lyrical short stories–often set in small towns in Eastern Europe–that have been collected in “The First Day” and Other Stories, translated and edited by Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld.

Sly Modernists and Fervent Zionists

By the 1930s, the center of Hebrew literature had shifted from Europe to the Jewish community in Palestine. In the decades before and after the founding of the state of Israel, there is immense variety in Hebrew literature, mixing new and old literary themes and techniques.

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Naomi Brenner is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the many connections and interactions between modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

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