- Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe by Shachar M. Pinsker
Shachar Pinsker’s Literary Passports is a major study of early twentieth-century Hebrew fiction in the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires and the problems of urban experience, sexuality, and religiosity that framed its creation. It should be read not only by scholars of modern Hebrew literature, but by anyone interested in Jewish literary history generally, the history and theory of modernism, and the impact of the specific modernity of urban Europe on Jewish culture and consciousness.
Literary Passports focuses particularly on the famous “Homel group” of iconoclastic experimental writers Yosef Haim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnesin, and Gershon Shofman. Pinsker also examines the unlikely cultural lodestar of this group, the unorthodox orthodox religious writer Hillel Tsaytlin [Zeitlin] as well as figures outside this circle like David Fogel, Dvora Baron, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Eliezer Shteynman, and David Shimonovits/Shimoni. [End Page 137] Literary Passports can be read for its compelling analyses of these and other figures, but it is organized not by author but around the three aforementioned cultural sites of the city, sexuality and gender, and religiosity.
Pinsker’s core contention is that the literary achievements of Brenner and his contemporaries should be understood above all as the fruit of an encounter between “young Jewish writers attempting to forge a sense-of-self in Hebrew and the shifting terrain of European modernity” (8). How precisely Pinsker specifies this “terrain”—and the argument for the Europeanness of Hebrew modernism it grounds—is the key, and I will turn to this momentarily. However, we should first note a second dimension of his overarching argument: that the modernist sensibility he sees at work in this Hebrew prose is not a modernism of place but of placelessness, or more particularly, of “restive, dialectical movement between urban centers” where these writers were not at home (7). Responding to Dan Miron’s Bodedim be-Moadam, which placed particular emphasis on the importance of Hebrew writers’ literary and social experience in major centers of East European Jewish modernity like Warsaw and Odessa, Pinsker argues that it is no accident that many of the innovative Hebrew modernist works of the early twentieth century were created outside these Jewish centers, in secondary sites like Homel and Lvov or in Central and Western European metropoles—London, Vienna, Berlin—where Hebrew culture was marginal. Echoing Miron, Pinsker suggests that this displacement had something to do with the need of young, experimental writers to distance themselves from the dominant figures (Bialik, Peretz, Frishman, etc.) and literary modes associated with Warsaw and Odessa, but he also argues that displacement and marginality were essential to the literary creativity of these writers at a formal and intellectual level too. Perhaps the Hebrew translation of Pinsker’s book should be titled Nodedim be-moadam.
But Literary Passports is much more than an expansion of Miron’s classic literary history. Famously, there Miron relates the literary work of figures like Gnesin and Brenner first and foremost to a series of generative problems like the decline of readership for Hebrew literature, the suffocating authority of the previous literary generation, and the potentially stultifying pressures of organized Zionism. Pinsker takes a different though by no means opposing tack and shows how this same Hebrew fiction was shaped more broadly in relation to three bundles of questions, cultural problems and anxieties, institutions, and forms of experience particular to the life of the fin-de-siècle European intelligentsia: the experience of city life with [End Page 138] its particular pleasures and tensions; questions of sexuality and gender in the context of European Decadence; and the questions of religiosity that preoccupied the nominally secular East European intelligentsia.
Section 1, “The European Cities of Modernist Hebrew Fiction,” articulates the argument sketched above: that the experimental Hebrew fiction of Brenner, Shofman, et al. took part in the transnational early modernist exploration of the city as cognate to the representation of the unstable modern self precisely by leaving the great centers of East European...