- Spoiling the Stories: The Rise of Israeli Women’s Fiction by Tamar Merin
Spoiling the Stories: The Rise of Israeli Women’s Fiction
Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2016. 200 pages.
At the end of Rachel Eytan’s 1962 novel Barakia haḥamishi (The fifth heaven), the protagonist, Maya Hermoni, is left to take care of a little boy named Ketzele in the now-emptied orphanage that has served as their home. When Ketzele asks the older Maya to tell him a story, she offers up a dark tale of a wise king who abandons his beautiful queen and never returns, prompting an angry reaction from her small charge:
“Why! Why he didn’t return?” “I don’t know why. I don’t know anything.” “You’re always making up things like that,” he murmured heavily. “Always spoiling the stories. Make up something else.”(quoted by Merin, p. 123)
This passage, which provides the title to Tamar Merin’s new study of the rise of Israeli women’s prose writing, typifies the disruptions and revisions of canonical masculine literary tradition that Merin identifies in the work of Eytan, Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Zeruya Shalev. Eytan’s Maya cannot provide the abandoned Ketzele with the supportive, comforting literary ending he craves. According to Merin, “the closing scene of The Fifth Heaven hints at the only possibility left to a female writer abandoned by her patriarchal literary family: Rather than becoming an authoritarian parent herself”—for example, by adopting the fairy-tale formula of courtship leading to marriage—“she imagines her literary parents anew, destabilizing their gender identities” (p. 123). Indeed, in each of the book’s chapters, Merin shows how her chosen Israeli women writers replicate with crucial differences the stories of their literary “fathers,” thus “spoiling” and reconstituting the Israeli literary canon.
The back cover of Spoiling the Stories asserts that Merin presents “the as yet untold story of the rise of prose by Israeli women,” though it would be fairer to say that parts of this story have already been told. As far back as 1987, Esther Fuchs wrote about the emergence of Israeli women’s writing in her path-breaking Israeli Mythogynies (SUNY Press), which included two chapters on the fiction of Amalia Kahana-Carmon.1 Lily [End Page 158] Rattok offered a long account of the rise of Hebrew prose-writing by women before and after the establishment of the State in the lengthy afterword to Hakol he’aḥer: Siporet nashim ‘ivrit (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1994), while Yael Feldman’s No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women’s Fiction (Columbia University Press, 1999) includes insightful, theoretically informed readings of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Shulamit Lapid and Netiva ben-Yehuda. Yaffah Berlovitz has published two anthologies of Hebrew prose by women in the first half of the twentieth century with commentary: Sifrut nashim benot ha‘aliyah harishonah (Tarmil, 1984) and She’ani adamah ve’adam: Sipurei nashim ad kom hamedinah (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2002). Nurit Govrin’s study of the early fiction of Devora Baron, Hamaḥatzit harishonah (Bialik Institute, 1988), blazed a trail for other studies of Baron’s Hebrew and Yiddish fiction, by Naomi Seidman (A Marriage Made in Heaven, University of California Press, 1997), Wendy Zierler (And Rachel Stole the Idols, Wayne State University Press, 2004) and Sheila Jelen (Intimations of Difference, Syracuse, 2007, and Hebrew, Gender, and Modernity: Critical responses to Devora Baron’s Fiction, 2007, co-edited with Shachar Pinsker). Perhaps because significant work has already been done on Baron and because “she wrote only short stories and never developed into a novelist” (p. 5), Merin elects to omit Baron’s work from her book, a somewhat lamentable choice, but more on this later.
Merin is correct to note that none of these previous critical studies offer a female historiography of Hebrew prose fiction. Yael Feldman’s book jumps around between historical periods, while my own history of Jewish women’s writing in And Rachel Stole the Idols includes both poetry and fiction, focusing largely on the period before the establishment of the state. The historical focus of Merin’s study on...