From the Academy: Modern Hebrew Literature

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Miryam Segal is Assistant Professor in Hebrew in the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Miryam SegalHer first book, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana, 2009) has been praised by major scholars including Robert Alter and Dan Miron; Harry Fox of the University of Toronto calls it “an extremely impressive piece of literary and historical scholarship.”

What sorts of texts do scholars of modern Hebrew literature study? What are the boundaries of the field?

Scholars of Hebrew literature study poetry, drama, novels; they read poems closely and write about prose fiction as a part of a larger web of cultural production of a given period—including music and visual art; they teach Hebrew poetry in relation to works in other languages; they study Hebrew literature as a series of great writers. In other words they survey the field in almost every conceivable way—by genre, period, ideology, influence, style. Periodization usually has a bit of the arbitrary about it and historians mark a few beginnings for Hebrew literature in modern times: the publication of Avraham Mapu’s novel Ahavat tsiyon in 1853, Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s La-yesharim Tehillah of 1743 and Naphtali Wessely’s Shirei tiferet written at the end of the 18th century.

How does the study of modern Hebrew literature tend to differ from the study of Hebrew texts in earlier periods?

Hebrew literary scholarship is often seen as part of Jewish studies, but it is also a sister to other fields of literature—and is probably more directly influenced by trends in literary theory and criticism and critical theory than Jewish studies as a whole.

Modern works do not present the complex textual problems that are inherent to pre-modern multi-authored texts (e.g. midrashic compilations, the Talmuds). We have Bialik’s letters, the periodicals in which he published his poems; we know a lot about where and when he wrote his poems. The late Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz are popular authors both here and in Israel, and their manuscripts and letters are preserved in archives at Yale, Ben Gurion, and Indiana University. Scholars rarely have this quantity of materials for non-modern subjects.

Posted on March 23, 2010

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