- The New Tradition: Essays on Modern Hebrew Literature
When a copy of this volume was handed to me for a review, I heard that Gershon Shaked had been hospitalized. At the time, I did not realize the seriousness of his condition and hoped he would still be able to read the review. But on December 28, 2006, Shaked departed from his loving family, numerous friends, colleagues, and former students. With his unexpected death still reverberating in my mind, I would like to open with a personal note.
I first met Shaked during the eighties when he came as a visiting professor to teach Modern Hebrew literature at UC Berkeley, where I was doing my graduate work. The seminar he taught there on H. N. Bialik and S. Y. Agnon was a rare learning experience that shaped in many ways my attitude towards literary studies in general and Modern Hebrew literature in particular. During seminar meetings, his passion for close, nuanced reading of the two authors was complemented by his admirable literary and historical erudition. I was particularly intrigued by Shaked's attraction to the troubling, grotesque, and subversive elements of these two pillars of Modern Hebrew literature. In reading Bialik, Shaked emphasized the contempt of this great "poet laureate" — or "national poet" according to Eastern-European tradition — for his own people; and in reading Agnon, he unveiled a dark, almost nihilistic dimension lurking in the works of this bearer of Jewish heritage.
Shaked's enlightening readings did not promote any political agenda. As a literary critic and historian he always emphasized the in-built tension between great literary works and prevailing social expectations, norms, and ideologies. History, of course, has its ironies: as the years passed by, Shaked, the unorthodox, subversive reader of Modern Hebrew literature, was perceived by newer schools of criticism as a representative of "hegemonic Zionist" criticism. This image stuck to him partly because of his autobiographical essay Ein Makom Akher (There Is No Other Place), in which he articulated his Zionist beliefs, and partly because his voluminous histories demonstrated the intimate links between the Zionist movement and the flourishing of Modern Hebrew literature. The growing Jewish Settlement — the Yishuv — in the Land of Israel and, after World War I, its adopting Hebrew as a spoken language provided the conditions for a rich development of Modern Hebrew literature. True, to discuss Modern Hebrew literature in purely aesthetic terms is almost impossible: after all, from its inception, the very decision of an author to write in Hebrew had existential and ideological implications. But labeling Shaked as a spokesperson of Zionist [End Page 207] hegemony neglects the assumption, underlying his entire oeuvre, that great literature is autonomous. It also neglects Shaked's inclination to sympathize with authors and literary characters outside the mainstream: newcomers, uprooted foreigners in their own homeland, who enact his own formative experience as a Viennese-born child who came to the Land of Israel at the age of ten.
The New Tradition brings together a selection of articles and essays from four decades of prolific writing, during which Shaked published more than thirty books of criticism. Chapters 1 and 2 explore the ways in which Modern Hebrew literature balances between traditional Jewish heritage and the growing secular Jewish culture. They outline the major tensions between the two key terms of the book's title, "new" and "tradition": between the secular, even profane aspects of modern life in Israel and the sacred, religious Jewish heritage. Shaked's judicious observations about the intricate dynamic processes of secularization of the sacred and sanctification of the mundane in these two chapters could be used in any introductory course on Israeli culture based on the assumption that "alongside a culture based on faith and mitzvah observance, a Jewish culture has been created in Israel that is based on the tradition but is not a religious culture" (29). These two essays, written during the nineties, not only provide some valuable socio-cultural observations but also express the author's worries in the face of the polarization and fragmentation of...