Author Archives: Leon Yudkin

Leon Yudkin

About Leon Yudkin

Leon Yudkin is the author of nine books, the most recent of which is Public Crisis and Literary Response: The Adjustment of Modern Jewish Literature.

Hebew Literature: Early Themes

Reprinted with permission from
Modern Hebrew Literature in English Translation
, edited by Leon Yudkin.

This brings us to the preeminent subject of modern Hebrew literature during the period of the revival–the tension expressed between attachment to the old world and attraction to the new. These polar opposites took on different forms: geographical, historical, religious, cultural. The old world could be epitomized by loyalty and tradition, life in the shtetl, Yiddish speech, the East European environment. The new world could be the antithesis of these–loss of tradition, emigration, the Land of Israel, life permeated by rationalism and freedom. 

Expression of this tension with all its different features remains the theme and the mode of modern Hebrew literature. Both in the poetry of H.N. Bialik (1873-1934) and the fiction of S.Y. Agnon (1888‑1971), disparate subjects abound, but one theme predominates.

Bialik expresses the nation through himself, and himself through the nation. He mourns both, as in the poem “Al saf bet hamidrash” (1894), when he addresses the study‑house, repository of tradition, Jewish learning, and sentiment: “Should I weep for your destruction or for my own.” The study‑house is associatively equated with the Temple, whose destruction remains the focal reference point of Jewish history. And the destruction, via the depredation of the study‑house, now involves the poet in a consideration of his own disintegration.

hebrew literatureThis is the sense in which Bialik genuinely assumes the role of the national poet, the way in which the national fate is subsumed in his own to the point of their merger. Agnon, too, throughout his work mourns the death of the old world, physical and spiritual, and implies the impossibility of its recovery, or a successful late return. Whereas the Haskalah [Enlightenment] literature had aspired to raise the Jewish standard and to address itself to the nation through the nation, Bialik and Agnon, like Uri Nissan Gnessin and Yoseph Hayim Brenner, addressed themselves to the individual through the individual, i.e., through themselves.

Early Israeli Literature

The following article focuses on some writers and works characteristic of early Israeli literature. One writer who is mentioned in passing and deserves a special note is Yoseph Hayyim Brenner, who left Russia and his Orthodox upbringing and settled in Palestine in 1909. His writing was critical of traditional Judaism and Diaspora life, and he was the first great prose writer in modern Israel. Other important writers who could have been discussed include Nathan Alterman and Yocheved Bat Miriam. The following is reprinted with permission from Modern Hebrew Literature in English Translation, edited by Leon Yudkin.

In the course of the 1920s, Palestine was confirmed as the center and focus of Hebrew literature. During that decade, H.N. Bialik (1873-1934), U.Z. Greenberg (1896‑1981), and S.Y. Agnon (1888‑1971) (for a second time) joined the yishuv [the pre-1948 Jewish community of Palestine]. Several major writers came later in the thirties.

No centers of Hebrew literature remained outside of Palestine. There were various reasons for this. The Russian revolution and especially Stalin’s accession to power virtually put an end to the Hebrew movement in the Soviet Union. Poland was becoming a dangerous place for the Jews in the wake of its independence. World War I and the civil unrest in Germany and Russia had undermined shtetl life, and the Pale of Settlement [a territory for Russian Jews established in 1791] was at an end.

On the positive side, the Balfour Declaration issued by the British Government during the war, and confirmed in the post‑war period, strengthened the claims of the yishuv and the demand of Jewish immigration to Palestine. The yishuv indeed began to look like a state‑in‑the‑making, and considerable resources were now directed towards the fulfillment of this projection, which was now perceived as urgent.

The Writers of the Second Alyah

The writers of the Second Aliyah (the second major wave of immigration to Palestine, 1904-1914) seemed to have been influenced by Y.H. Brenner and turned away from Palestine as a serious subject for fiction. But, as though in response to this, the poets of the Third Aliyah (1919‑1923) characteristically adopted the new land as their major subject matter, and even tried to change their personalities to fit the new role of local poets serving a community of Hebrew pioneers. A self‑conscious effort was made by the new Hebrew poet to break away from the Diaspora tradition and to become an authentic native in local garb.