- Intimations of Difference: Dvora Baron in the Modern Hebrew Renaissance
Dvora Baron may not have been the first Hebrew woman prose fiction writer, as critics often present her, but as the only woman author of the Techiya—or Hebrew Renaissance—to have attained canonic stature she invites and deserves a serious critical examination of her life and poetic art. Though she has recently become the focus of critical attention, and though much of her work has recently been made available to English readers, Dvora Baron's oeuvre and life have hardly been explored in detail. This is what Sheila E. Jelen sets out to do in the present volume. She seeks to go beyond the biographical and literary readings by, among others, Nurit Govrin, Amia Lieblich, Orly Lubin, and Naomi Seidman, in an effort to create a synthesis between the two—a literary biography as it were—and to elucidate, with sufficient attention to historical context, Baron's artistic accomplishment and cultural contribution to Hebrew letters. Jelen succeeds, in my mind, in reversing the critique of Baron's puzzling literary as well as life choices in such a way as to highlight them as expressions of a creative genius.
Despite her canonic status, Baron remained by and large a puzzle—due to her gender, her life style, and the literary genres she adopted. The emergence of a woman write r from the segregated Jewish educational context of both traditional and Haskalah contexts was an anomaly, and some of Baron's writing has been considered as simple biographical and ethnographic transcriptions. Sheila Jelen's reading of Baron's work and biography reverses the critical reservations, and suggests that rather than manifestations of narrowness and limitations, Baron's "intimations of difference" reflect artistic genius and originality. For the most part, I find her presentation of Baron as both insider and outsider in her literary generation convincing, coherent, and impressive. Baron's difference from other Techiya authors, as a rabbi's daughter in the company of rabbis' sons, as a writer of the European shtetl among writers of the new Yishuv, as an isolate amid the tumultuous life of the Zionist community of Palestine in the 1930s–1950s, is conceptualized here as a challenge, a triumph, and a sophisticated and intentional manipulation by the author who insisted on her artistic independence, thus offering a critique of the conventions, imperatives, and prescriptions of her literary generation.
Thus, according to Jelen, Baron both accepted and rejected the "autobiographical imperative": by planting autobiographical references throughout her work and fictionalizing both personal events and relatives, she seems to adhere to this Renaissance convention, but at the same time, she departs sharply from the collective autobiography of the male Yeshiva student struggling to become secular and modern and in the process becoming a talush—socially uprooted and alienated from both cultures. Instead of creating a female tlushah, Baron preferred to deal with the theme of tlishut or alienation by constructing a gallery of uprooted female narrators, like the Rabbi's daughter, or the displaced [End Page 214] European women of the new Yishuv. Jelen argues that these narrators are both characters in the story and the controllers of the narrative, they are both unwilling to leave the shtetl entirely behind, yet seem unable to return. Baron both accepted and subverted the "mimetic imperative" or realism, but combined her narrator's voice with a photographic idiom. By introducing the photographic medium she draws the readers' attention to the mediated nature of literary perception. Baron subverted the "vernacular imperative"—the required creation of a dialogical, "spoken" Hebrew—by adopting the language of men, or using biblical and rabbinic texts to describe the struggles of simple illiterate women. While she uses a biblical idiom in some of her work, in others she challenges the "intertextual imperative"—or the convention that required authors' Hebrew allusions to classic texts—by alluding instead to women's traditional texts, as the Tkhines, devotional prayers in Yiddish, or the Tsenerene, Yiddish retellings of biblical stories.