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Reviewed by:
  • Self as Nation: Contemporary Hebrew Autobiography by Tamar S. Hess
  • Michael Keren (bio)
Tamar S. Hess. Self as Nation: Contemporary Hebrew Autobiography. Brandeis UP, 2016, 213 pp. ISBN 978-1611688801, $40.00.

To those of us interested in the lives of others, Hebrew autobiographies, whether written before or after the establishment of the State of Israel, have often been disappointing because so many of these texts have been rooted, as Tamar Hess rightly notes, in collective national life. In her introduction to Self as Nation, Hess shows how Hebrew autobiography since the mid-nineteenth century has followed the path familiar to other national literatures in which the individual self has been subjected to the national narrative. The autobiographer may celebrate the Jews' settlement in a new home or express disillusionment with the Zionist project, but that project overwhelms all dimensions of life, especially in men's life writing. Autobiographies written by women are often more concerned with personal agonies, such as the betrayal of women pioneers by fellow men settlers, but the focal point remains on the collective effort.

Hess analyzes a handful of autobiographical works by Israeli writers of different backgrounds and life experiences. These include Yoram Kaniuk and Netiva Ben-Yehuda, whose post-traumatic accounts of their experiences in the war of 1948 are soaked in blood and tears; Nathan Zach and Haim Be'er, whose autobiographical selves are formed in relation to dying mothers; and [End Page 510] the Baghdad-born Shimon Balas and the Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, whose life stories represent two aspects of the immigrant experience in Israel. Since autobiography allows silenced voices to confront hegemonic ideologies and marginal groups to renegotiate their relationship with the social center, it is not surprising that all the writers analyzed here have taken critical moral stands that challenge the Israeli collective. According to the author, however, they have also continued to assert a commitment to that collective. For example, Kaniuk's narration of the 1948 war reflects both a personal and collective trauma, and in her discussion of autobiographies by Esther Raab and other women Hess states that these writings offer a point of departure for critical meetings of individual identities with the national collective.

Self as Nation thus reaffirms a common conception about Israeli identity according to which the self and the nation cannot be separated even in an era in which literature focuses on the individual and society is split. As Hess puts it, "At a period marked by the splintering of Israeli society by ethnicity, class, gender, and religion, Israeli autobiography has become increasingly drawn to collective symbols and cultural tropes" (164). This statement is supported, for example, by an autobiographical sketch written by literary scholar Ariel Hirchfeld, whose older brother was killed in the 1948 war. Hirschfeld tells of his brother's portrait that hung above his cradle, which understandably played a role in his identity formation. Hess, however, does not allow this episode to remain within the private sphere of a family who had suffered a terrible loss. To her, "the national circumstances that underpin his older brother's death prevent it from being exclusively private, thus framing the memoir in relation to both spheres—the public and the private, the individual and the national—inseparably and at once" (154).

Here lies what I consider the book's main shortcoming: the assumption that the individual voice of Israeli writers "clearly represents the national, just as the national is the plain on which individual Israeli identities are inscribed, and can formulate themselves" (155). This assumption is not necessarily confirmed by the autobiographies discussed here but seems to stem from the fact that the author is admittedly less concerned with the persons who wrote them than with the ways in which their self-representations construct their identities. Thus, when novelist Haim Be'er, who grew up in a Jewish orthodox home in Jerusalem, tells of the alienation his parents felt toward officials of the Ministry of Rationing and Supply who enforced the government's austerity policy in the 1950s, it makes sense that Hess ties that alienation to Jewish people's traditional fear of ruthless institutions that had endangered them in the...


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pp. 510-512
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