Modernist Hebrew prose was shaped by the encounter between young Jewish writers attempting to forge a sense of self in Hebrew and the shifting terrain of European modernity.1
Hebrew modernism was a Diasporic, transnational voice that, like other European modernist literature, was characterized by the “inward turn” that focused on the inner life of protagonists, “as well as describing the urban experience and the contemporary preoccupation with gender and sexuality.”2 Influenced by European rather than Anglo-American modernism, it drew its roots from the spirit of the fin de siècle at the turn of the twentieth century. Continental philosophers and writers, including Nietzsche, Rilke, Trakl, Hofmannsthal, Mann, Musil, Kafka, Döblin and Brecht, influenced the movement of Hebrew literary thought as it passed from traditionalism to modernity. Their literary heritage can be traced to Russian modernism (1890–1917) and writers [End Page 361] of the “Silver Age” of Russian literature, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Blok, or Leonind Andreyev, to name a few. Hebrew modernism was in many ways a reaction to decadent and symbolist trends, and in time would also adopt selected elements from the postsymbolist movements of Futurism, acmeism and, after 1917, imagism. Yet in contrast to their many European modernist influences, which were inextricably linked with the local nationalist ideals of the day, Hebrew writers were part of a cosmopolitan milieu moving between the centers of European literary creativity. Among those cities were Odessa, Warsaw, Lvov, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Moscow and London. Searching for an income, publishing opportunities and a literary life, some wandered as far afield as New York. Many eventually settled in Tel Aviv, which became the center of Hebrew literature from the 1920s onwards. Thus Hebrew modernism began in the first decade of the twentieth century and lasted into the 1950s, eventually morphing into other modernist movements, such as Hebrew surrealism.
Though many important Hebrew writers would start out as modernists, their work within Europe, and its influence on their fiction, has generally been neglected by scholars and the public at large. This disregard primarily resulted from the rise of Hebrew nationalism, which used literary fiction chiefly as a way to represent Zionist principles and beliefs. The emerging nation idealized novels that celebrated Zionist values and disavowed the European Diasporic life. Meanwhile, the experimental fiction that viewed this project ambivalently, negatively or neglectfully was excluded from the canon of national literature, and was relegated to the margins of history. Pinsker reflects that the “Zionists wanted large scale social and realistic novels in Hebrew” that would articulate the epic concerns of nationalism and build on the realist and nationalist tendencies that emerged in the late nineteenth century; meanwhile, the young modernist writers were more interested in short pieces, particularly “fragmentary novellas and short novels” (14). Later, modernist fiction was viewed as decadent by the realists and social realists, who made up many of the key players of Hebrew literature in the Yishuv (the Jewish Zionist settlement in Palestine) and in the early years of the State.
The so-called modernist camp struggled to rally supporters both in terms of readership but also funding. The dismal financial situation was exacerbated by the fact that by the end of the 1930s Modern Hebrew literature had become increasingly tied up with political and ideological interests, and writers who failed to cultivate a relationship with certain public bodies were automatically left without any support or backing.3
Funding, publication opportunities and the impossibility of earning a living curtailed many modernist writers’ output, and they were eventually driven to the margins of Jewish literary life in Mandate Palestine and Israel.
By contrast, poetry was able to maintain a modernist influence without the risk of cultural censorship because it was...