Early Israeli Literature

Nationalistic poetry was a powerful, early Israeli genre.

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The highly charged emotionalism of the declaration is partly created and reinforced by the ritualistic and traditional associations of Shlonsky's language. The word used for poet is paytan, i.e., the liturgical poet. Calling himself "your son Abraham" (the poet's name) recalls the biblical patriarch chosen by God. Donning the coat of many colors is, of course, a reference to the favoring of Joseph by his father. And the city as a whole is praying the morning prayer. Pioneering labor is now a religious exercise, a recreation in another form of an ancient ritual.

Religious and Secular Styles

Greenberg makes a similar declaration in his first Palestinian Hebrew poems where, in ringing tones, he recalls glory and disaster to his pioneer readers: "You ask the way to a time two thousand years ago, to see the infancy of a people, its cradle, before its sanctuary was consumed / I know your yearnings…So I want to be your wandering poet (paytan) forever, from Ashdod to Metullah beneath cactus and shady palm." At this stage of his writing career, Greenberg was quite close in spirit to Shlonsky, identifying with the Hebrew laborer and the collective effort. But his liturgical vocabulary was taken more literally, and the sorrow over the destroyed Temple became an integral part of nationalist political vocabulary.

This sort of religious association is also invoked by Y. Lamdan (1899‑1954) in his expressionist effort, Masada (1927). The sacral allusions add immediacy and power to the secular context, which then acquires a religious power in its demanding impositions. This "secular context" is the resettlement of the Jews in Palestine, their return to the Land. It may be that the distinction between religious and secular is artificial. Certainly, the secular can acquire religious overtones, as does the Russian revolution in A. Blok's famous poem "The Twelve." Poetry, hortatory or expressionist, was the characteristic mode of the Third Aliyah, which used literature to stake an affiliation to the Land, a bond earlier questioned by Brenner.

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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.