- The Person, the Path, and the Melody:A Brief History of Identity in Israeli Literature
This article uses the image of life as path to trace the changes in Israeli identity since the founding of the State. The poetry of Natan Alterman, to begin with, foregrounds the figure of the passerby, whose forward motion is an endless encounter between "the self " and "the world." He collects the vivid scenes that confront him, briefly receives the love offered him, and then moves on. In Alterman's later poetry, the figure of the passerby changes into the figure of the living-dead, the youthful warrior sacrificed on the national altar, who continues to wander through the nation's consciousness. During the Statehood period, especially in the stories of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua from the 1960s, this dynamic embrace of the world is arrested by a perceived cleavage between the individual and the collective. The world now seems capricious or malevolent, and acts of individualistic resistance are often harshly punished. Parallel to the work of these writers is a parallel but yet less noticed trend represented by the fiction of Pinḥas Sadeh and Yitsḥak Orpaz, at the center of which are the figure of Jesus' Passion and the notion of the secular pilgrimage. In recent Israeli literature, the idea of the journey has returned with the added features of the nomad and the accidental tourist.
Hey, little landmarks,Whitish stonesIt's good to wander—pack on shoulderTo not anywhere, to wander far.—Aharon Ashman
Celebrating the half-century birthday of the State of Israel, especially at the end of the millennium, is an occasion that invites introspection for both individual and society. As just such an exercise in stock-taking, I propose to take the image of the "path of life" and see how the changes in this image reflect the changes in Israeli identity since the founding of the State. To carry out this exercise, I avail myself of the conceptual vocabulary of Mikhail Bakhtin and his notion of the chronotope.
The journey in search of Israeli identity begins with four poems by Nathan Alterman: " ʿOd ḥozer hanigun" (Again the melody returns), "Baderekh hagedolah" (On the great way), "Shalosh imahot" (Three mothers), and "Magash hakesef " (The silver platter). The first three were written about a decade before the establishment of the State of Israel but, as several scholars have noted, each from a different point of view,1 accurately reflecting the current worldview. The fourth [End Page 318] poem, "The Silver Platter," was published in the daily newspaper Davar on 19 December 1947, shortly after the United Nations' decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and the outbreak of the War of Independence.
"Again the Melody Returns" opens Kokhavim baḥuts (Stars outside) and, as Dan Miron notes, sets the tone and character of the entire collection:
Again the melody returns, the one you neglected in vainAnd the length of the path is still openAnd the cloud in its sky and the tree in its rainStill expect you, the passerby.
And the wind will arise and in flight of swingsThe lightning will pass over youAnd ewe and doe will bear witnessThat you stroked them and kept walking—(Kokhavim baḥuts, p. 7)
The passerby is the main persona of this poem, of the entire volume, and indeed, of the vast majority of literary texts written by the generation of the War of Independence, as well as documentary texts and memoirs of that period.2 The passerby is compelled by a preordained, irresistible force: the melody that sets the passerby in motion and presents him with repeated encounters with the wonders of the world. These sights are always surprising and full of youthful and erotic vitality, and the melody is synonymous with this progression.3
The protagonist of the poem is "the Cain of sights," a compulsive collector of occasional experiences, related to the flaneur, who serves as a symbol of the modern world. This same picaro, in various masks and incarnations—some mischievous and frivolous, others serious and more somber...