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  • Translating Israel: Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Its Reception in America
  • Marc S. Bernstein
Translating Israel: Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Its Reception in America, by Alan L. Mintz. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 271 pp. $39.95.

This volume consists of a collection of pieces written by the author over a period of more than two decades during which he has presented modern Hebrew literature to an American audience. His interpretive essays have appeared in such diverse venues as The New Republic, Commentary, and Partisan Review, and these scattered fruits, as well as pieces excerpted from his books, are gathered here for the benefit of those seeking penetrating insights into Israeli literature. The author makes clear that it is not his intent to put forth here a scholarly monograph, and he maintains a refreshing personal tone throughout. At the same time, he forcefully advocates for Hebrew literature, both on the basis of its intrinsic artistic merit, and for the window it opens onto the deeper workings of contemporary Israeli culture.

The volume's introduction analyzes the essential paradox regarding the reception of modern Hebrew literature in the United States: the explosion over the past 25 years of works by talented Israeli authors, and yet the relative failure of this impressive corpus to become part of intellectual discourse in the United States. By far the most provocative explanation he offers for the relative paucity of translations into English is the reluctance of American Jews to confront an Israeli reality that does not correspond to romantic notions of the revived Jewish national history. This North American community is on the whole much more comfortable with an epic mode that buttresses their own sense of identity.

In the first chapter, Mintz briefly explores works of the 1970s by members of the New Wave of Israeli authors as they launch challenges to the ethos of Israel's founding generation and its literary social realism. The second chapter, "The Boom in Israeli Fiction," drawn from the book of nearly identical title, is a more sustained effort that looks at the explosive growth in Israeli fiction during the recent past. Mintz describes three areas in which the boom was manifest: minority discourse, women's writing and the interrogation of gender, and fictional experimentation, most notably under the influence of postmodernism and magical realism..

The core of the book and the location of its most brilliant insights are the studies of literary works that constitute Parts Two and Three of the volume. In his essays on S. Y. Agnon, Mintz hopes to make the Nobel laureate's work more accessible through interpretive interventions that remove some of the barriers to the reader steeped neither in traditional texts nor in the Jewish experience of Central and Eastern Europe, and [End Page 120] contemporary Israel. The first chapter in this section analyzes Agnon's construction of an autobiographical "myth of the artist." While Agnon presented himself as the naïve representative of the lost world of Eastern European Jewry and a mere neutral transmitter of its legacy, in fact his familiarity with western literary and philosophical trends accounts for the subversive manner in which he reappropriated classical Jewish sources.

The next chapter takes on Agnon's unfinished "problem novel," Shira, which Mintz shows to be an implicit critique of liberal, pre-World War II, German Jewish culture on the eve of its dissolution. While Agnon spreads hints throughout the work as to the existence of some transformative artistic or spiritual idea, Mintz maintains that the work could not be completed precisely because such a transcendent alternative reality is beyond the limitations of the novelistic genre with its concern for depicting events of this world. The third chapter in this section explains Agnon's failure to directly address in his work the destruction of the very European Jewish culture that was the source for his creative efforts. Here the focus is on a single short work, "The Sign" (Ha-siman, 1962), which Mintz views as an "inauguration story" for an effort that consumed Agnon throughout his later years. Rather than treat the annihilation of European Jewry, Agnon localized his memorialization by resurrecting the traditions and people of the...


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