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Place and Ideology in Contemporary Hebrew Literature by Karen Grumberg (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Volume 6, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 84-86 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0006

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Karen Grumberg’s Place and Ideology in Contemporary Hebrew Literature is a welcome addition to material culture analysis in general, and an imperative contribution to this trend within the study of Hebrew literature and culture in particular. Alongside studies of visual images, artifacts, and other components constructing the everyday—food, fashion, design, architecture—this is, to use an appropriate expression, a well-placed project.

Grumberg’s chief inspiration is John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s notion of “vernacular landscape,” referring to marginal sites that are unshaped by official political regulation of space but nevertheless influence their surrounding culture immensely. Following this discussion she sets out to uncover the cultural and political significance embedded in “vernacular places” typically disregarded by Israeli discourse surrounding space and place as they are revealed in literary representations of such settings. She focuses her examination mostly on Israeli literature of the last two decades of the twentieth century, thus reflecting the influence of some of the most dramatic political events in Israeli history on the emergence of a new critical spatial approach in scholarship and literature. The stretch of the literary arc Grumberg sketches begins from Amos Oz’s representation of the Kibbutz, development towns, and the desert. Grumberg’s reading of Oz’s work reveals the footprints of inherited Zionist dichotomies even when dealing with characters grappling with the Zionist narrative. Most notably, she identifies a clear binary between the safe and ordered here and the chaotic and primitive there (thus begging a reference to the title of Oz’s documentary text “Here and There in the Land of Israel.”)

The next two stops in Grumberg’s analysis can be jointly defined as an exploration of literary depictions of “limbo-esque” settings or sites that embody suspension of some sort—physical, cultural, or political. On one end of her discussion Grumberg offers a reading of Orly Castel-Bloom’s recurring reference to the balcony and her exigent engagement with “cultural backyards,” such as asylums, hospitals, and cemeteries. On the other end, she locates an exploration of Sayed Kashua’s rendering of the Israeli-Palestinian village and the Israeli checkpoint. Grumberg focuses on Castel-Bloom’s and Kashua’s depictions of the identity crisis that follows any incapability to yield to Israeli spatial norms. She reads these depictions as an expression of the struggle of a younger generation of Hebrew authors against the very same Zionist spatial dichotomies that Oz’s characters eventually accept.

In her final two chapters Grumberg turns to examine the alternative spatial approaches suggested by Yoel Hoffmann and Ronit Matalon that could be jointly labeled as “the self as place” approaches. Grumberg shows that both authors present different expressions of the self—the private home, the feminine body, literature, and movement—as sites that subvert hierarchical and monolithic perceptions of place in mainstream Zionist discourse. By doing so they open up the Israeli spatial discourse to allow a plurality of place concepts, thus offering an escape from the identity crisis that Grumberg shows to be so inevitable in Castel-Bloom’s and Kashua’s works. In this sense, while Grumberg’s employment of Bakhtin’s idea of the “chronotope” is indeed valuable to the discussion, his notion of the heteroglossia could add much to the analysis of the plurality of voices both authors promote within the Israeli spatial discourse. This is especially relevant in light of the fact that Hoffmann and Matalon are among the first Hebrew novelists to include photographs in their novels (a fact which Grumberg aptly highlights with regards to Matalon’s work but less so regarding Hoffmann’s.)

Besides the fascinating journey through the literary depictions of vernacular places in Israeli reality she provides her readers, some of Grumberg’s choices of authors deserve special praise. The choice of Oz as a departure point for such a journey is highly perceptive. While over the years Oz maintained his status as the spokesman of the liberal, mainstream left, the other salient representative of his literary generation, namely, A. B. Yehoshua, has developed in recent years an odd sense of particularistic Jewish-nationalism. (Among other public expressions, he labeled diaspora Jews “partial Jews” based on the argument that living in Israel and...

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