Orthodox Israeli Women Novelists

Over the past two decades, new authors take on the tension between tradition and autonomy.

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Michal GovrinThe Name By Michal Govrin

Michal Govrin, the most conceptually oriented of the writers discussed, has also created a beautiful, densely written novel, Hashem, artfully translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav as The Name (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998). Instead of portraying the inner world of a haredi girl, she has succeeded in getting into the head of a young ba’alat teshuva.

The very title Hashem bespeaks daring. It means The Name but it is also an almost intimate appellation for God, referring to a mystical-erotic relationship to God felt by the book's protagonist, Amalia. In the highly secular Israeli literary scene, Govrin has written a novel in what might be called the liturgical mode, addressing God regularly.

She has structured her narrative around the counting of the omer, between Passover and Shavuot. In contrast to the predilection in recent Israeli literature for everyday street language and realism, The Name abounds with allusions to Jewish sources. Govrin's work is written in the spirit of the earlier works of A.B Yehoshua and Amos Oz, in which the fiction is a symbolic structure driven by conceptual concerns.

The charismatic Govrin, a lecturer at the School for Visual Drama in Jerusalem, has published two volumes of poetry and short stories, as well as The Name. Her second novel, Hevzekim (Snapshots) which is now being translated into English, deals with an Israeli woman confronting her father’s Zionist ideals. Govrin’s father was from a kibbutz with strong Labor pioneering ideals.

Govrin has also called upon her own biography in writing "The Name." Her mother was a Holocaust survivor. "I had childhood memories, the trauma of learning that my mother had a child before me that didn’t survive," says Govrin. 

"But growing up in Tel Aviv in the 1950s, there was no way of absorbing and digesting these experiences. Zionism and the State of Israel provided an official way to think about the Holocaust. But it didn't leave any private space, either for personal pain or for memory. Everything was devoured by the machinery of nation-building."

The heroine of the novel, Amalia, turns to religion as an alternative to this secular Israeli life. Govrin herself became interested in Judaism in Paris when she was working on her doctorate in theater. "But I never reached the realms of ecstatic experience which Amalia enters," she declares.

According to the Kabbalah, evil is perceived as "a shattering of the cosmic vessels" and it is man's goal to repair the brokenness of the universe through tikkun olam. Govrin depicts Amalia’s attempts at reparation after the Holocaust, helping God mend the break, by weaving a curtain for the Ark of the Torah during the 49 days of the omer between Passover and Shavuot. The omer symbolizes the ascent of the Jews from the state of bondage in Egypt to spiritual freedom, culminating with the revelation at Mount Sinai.

On the personal level, Amalia feels herself ascending to spiritual heights, ultimately, to become one with God. But she also perceives this fusion with the Almighty as an act of self-annihilation. Ultimately, Amalia backs away from the suicide option. "She claims more and more of the human dimension," explains Govrin. “She accepts the fact that there are fissures in the universe. Instead of a mystic union with God, she becomes more tolerant of human limitations.

She serves as a catalyst to bring different types of people together," explains the author. "Israelis are often afraid to cross borders."

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Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.