Israeli Writing: The Next 50 Years

The future of Israeli literature is as uncertain as Israel's ever-fluctuating demography.

This article was originally presented at a conference convened by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1998 entitled, “Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation.” It is reprinted with permission from Judaism, Issue 192/Volume 48/Number 4 (Fall 1999).

This topic reminds me of a joke I once heard about a man who is puttering around at home while listening with one ear to a talk show on the radio in which an astrophysicist is being interviewed. Suddenly he jumps up with alarm, runs to the telephone, dials the number of the talk show, and says to the moderator, “Tell me, in how many more years did the man you’re interviewing say the sun was going to explode and extinguish all life on earth?” “In ten billion years, sir,” replies the moderator. “Whew!” says the man, greatly relieved. “I thought he said ten million.”

I suppose I might be relieved, too, that we are not being asked to discuss the next 500 years of Israeli writing here today. The fact of the matter is that we cannot easily predict with any degree of accuracy what is going to happen to any of us within the next 50 minutes, much less what will be the fate of an entire literature within the next 50 years.

Indeed, it occurs to me that even the next 50 minutes may contain the seed of developments in the Israeli literature of the future that those of us gathered here can only guess at. Suppose, for example, that right now, in some Asian country, the Philippines perhaps, or Thailand, a young man or woman is about to board an airplane that will take him or her to Tel Aviv in pursuit of work. Suppose that it is a woman, and that she will be embarking in Manila, and that she will start working tomorrow as a housekeeper, as many Filipino women in Israel are now doing; and suppose that she will meet there a construction worker from Rumania, and that the two of them will fall in love and marry while (in all likelihood, illegally) remaining in Israel; and suppose they have a daughter who grows up there, in the slums of south Tel Aviv, and whose mother tongue (since it will be the language spoken brokenly between them by her parents) will be Hebrew. And suppose (for the ways of talent are mysterious) that this child is born with the soul of a writer. And suppose that she writes in a Hebrew like none that has ever been written before, a tough demotic street talk enriched by a love of the literary classics such as only a child of immigrants who must woo and win the language of her country entirely on her own–little help from the adults around her–can have. And suppose that the result is an extraordinary new voice in the Hebrew literary world, the first major non-Jewish Hebrew writer of our–perhaps of any–time. 

Photo: J.D. Abolins/Flickr

As I say, the next 50 minutes could prove crucial.

Or suppose that right now, in some Israeli development town, Kiryat Gat, let us say, or Karmiel, a young Russian boy, the son of recent immigrants, is sitting down–a magical moment!–to write his first poem. And suppose that, although he knows Hebrew perfectly well, this poem comes out, to his own surprise, not in Hebrew, in the language of Bialik and the Bible, but in the language of Pushkin and Mandelstam, in the Russian that he was lullabied in as an infant. Suppose, indeed, that one of the great Russian poets of the next century is growing up in Israel right now. Why not? Think of Cavafy in Alexandria; he did not have more Greek around him than there is Russian in Karmiel.

Or suppose that, in the next 50 minutes, a child will be born in the ultra-Orthodox community of B’nei Berak or Me’ah She’arim. Suppose, too, that this child grows up and, after receiving a traditional, rigorous, yeshiva education, opts to leave this community for the modern world, as hundreds of thousands of young Jews did at the turn of this century and as (for we err when we think that the current trend toward haredization in Israel is either eternal or irreversible) tens of thousands of young Jews may do again. And suppose that this young man, as so many Hebrew writers also did a hundred years ago, takes with him his great knowledge of the classic Jewish religious texts, a knowledge that no ordinarily-educated Israeli possesses any more, and enters with it into the world of Hebrew literature, in which–becoming one of its leading twenty-first-century figures–he creates a new synthesis of Jewish tradition and modernity such as, in our current pessimism over such a possibility, we have all but despaired of. It is certainly not unimaginable.

If we can dream of all this happening in the next 50 minutes, what do we know about the next 50 years? All that we can really say about the future is that it will contain much that we cannot even dream of, since our best guesses about it are never more than intelligent extrapolations from the present. The real surprises will be the ones to which the present offers no clues at all.

Still, I do think that one can say with some confidence that Israeli literature in the next 50 years will reflect a Jewish and human reality more fractured and polyphonal than anything we have known in Israel until now, including the period of mass immigration to the state in its early years. It will be a literature that will contradict many of the assumptions about a majoritarian culture in Israel that we have made in the past.

It will be a literature in which, for the first time in Jewish history, the nexus–taken for granted until now–between Jewishness and writing in Hebrew will be partially broken, since there will be in Israel a growing number of non- or partially Jewish Hebrew writers too. And it will also be a literature in which the very notion of Jewishness will become a central bone of contention, fought over and claimed by different factions and schools.

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