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  • Israeli Children in a European Theater:Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness and S. Yizhar's Preliminaries
  • Sheila E. Jelen

How can he know that he is actually sitting here inside a theater, that tiny theater in which the greatest show on earth is being performed, the spectacle of the birth of the new Jew in the new Land?1

In recent years, the premises of Israeli literary history, organized in large part around questions of authors' biographical relationships to the State of Israel (whether the author was born in the Land of Israel or elsewhere, before the establishment of the State or after), have been challenged in discussions over tension in the formation of literary canons between cosmopolitanism and native Israeli authorial identity. For example, Esther Raab, among the first "native" Israeli poets, whose parents were founding pioneers of Petach Tikvah and who was born there in 1894, was valorized for her "nativism." Her landscape poetry, evoking the dry, white-hot reality of the land of Israel was, until recently, read as a sign of her deep connection to the land and was seen as an antidote to the poetry of her European-born peers with its expressions of longing for an unattainable, imagined landscape modeled on European standards of beauty. However, even as Raab was viewed as more "indigenous" to the land, Raab's European-born peers (Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, and Leah Goldberg), by virtue of their European modernist affiliations, were considered (or considered themselves) superior stylists.2

Critics of late have worked to downplay the value of "nativisim" and to play up the inherent cosmopolitanism in the work of writers who, having [End Page 504] been born in Israel, were nevertheless born to European parents and grew up in European enclaves, both linguistically and culturally. Adriana Tatum, for example, points out that while Raab was born in Petach Tikvah, she was, in fact, surrounded by Russian, French, and German speakers throughout her childhood and even spent several years studying French at the Sorbonne in early adulthood. She lived, in Tatum's view, at a linguistic and cultural crossroads, singing, in Petach Tikvah, Psalms set to the music of the Ukranian national anthem.

S. Yizhar, in Preliminaries (2007), and Amos Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), negotiate a similar tension, between pride over their role as the first native-born representatives of an autonomous political identity in a Jewish national homeland, and consciousness of cultural forces that exceed a territorial nationalism. Narrated from the perspective of mature writers at the end of their careers, each of these autobiographical novels captures the breadth and the wonder of growing up in an overwhelming psychic world which is the special territory of gifted, sensitive children, but also in the tumultuous period of the new Yishuv on the threshold of the birth of the State of Israel. In A Tale of Love and Darkness and Preliminaries, Oz and Yizhar negotiate the countervailing powers of the self and the nation, depicting their psychological development alongside the political development of the State of Israel whose heavy mantle they were forced, as the children of Zionist idealists (to a greater or lesser degree), to bear. Implicit in each text is a profound awareness of the burdens of growing up as a first-generation Israeli with spiritual and intellectual leanings toward a kind of aesthetic and consciousness that cannot be confined to a single landscape or a single language. Each of these writers, reflecting on his position as a native-born "Eretz-Israeli" Jew to Eastern European immigrants within an imminent Israeli landscape, plays with the expectations heaped upon him—the embodiment of the Zionist ideal—against a backdrop of longing (as in Yizhar's case) or ambivalence (as in Oz's case) for broader, richer, and more culturally resonant European homelands left behind.

As Eran Kaplan argues of Oz: "He emerges from [A] Tale of Love and Darkness as a native-born Israeli whose environment and cultural background were shaped as much by Jerusalem of the 1930s and 1940s as by Europe of the previous century."3 Yet, as I hope to argue, while Yizhar seeks to embrace...


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