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  • How to Do Things with Futurism: Traces of Futurism in Hebrew Culture

“[T]hey added a name to mine: Futurist. And I knew that this name is for the Italian Marinetti, not for me, a terrible Jew.”1 This complaint on the part of the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg about his association with the futurists, in a 1926 essay, not only denotes a highly ambivalent and complex relationship of a Hebrew writer with Italian futurism; it also indicates that futurism is used as a highly fluid “name,” a generic title, a “catchphrase with a semantic field that could be markedly different from how Marinetti defined it.”2 This process of futurism’s reception, faulting the specificity of its avant-garde endeavor, paradoxically also structured it as a model: not another avant-garde movement, but the emblem of the avant-garde as such. Futurism was constructed as “a state of mind,” a cultural “moment” that Italian futurism just “had the great merit of fixing and expressing.”3 The scandalous publication of the first futurist manifesto by Filippo Tomaso Marinetti in 1909—a ne plus ultra of textual violence glorifying machinery, war, and all that is “new” while demolishing all that is “passéist”—served as only the beginning of this cultural turn.

Indeed, as Geert Buelens and Monica Jansen suggest, “Futurism is always in the plural.”4 Rapidly internationalized, futurism caught on not only in Russia and in multiple European regions but also in England, Latin America, the United States, Japan and Egypt.5 Although established as a nationalistic Italian movement, in practice it was a powerful trigger for the creation of multi-national and often anti-national futurist offspring. Increasing interest in futurism scholarship in recent years has shifted attention to this diversity and emphasized the transnational proliferation of the movement, revealing the multiplicity of the [End Page 1] “futurist moment.”6 Futurism was also abundantly imitated, mutated, and re-created in heterodox forms, which are often retroactively granted titles such as epi-futurism, para-futurism, and, as suggested here, post-futurism and meta-futurism.7 “The most creative Futurists,” Günter Berghaus suggests, “were those who declared Futurism to be dead and buried and created something new” (“International Impact,” 15).

Contributing to this inclusive internationalized perspective, this article presents the surprising and often amusing journey of futurism into a particularly intriguing context—that of the cultural space of Hebrew writing. The radical transformations that futurism undergoes when it is integrated and translated (or mistranslated) into Hebrew throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, reflect the complex relations between the well-established European culture and the newly established modern, secular Hebrew one, which often shared the same bilingual cultural actors. This inquiry into traces of futurism in Hebrew also emphasizes the movement’s far-reaching impact and its altering functions under changing historical and cultural circumstances.

The emergence of futurist sensibilities in Hebrew was far from immediate and simply manifested, as Greenberg’s complaint suggests. Such profound difficulties, though, are not unique to the Hebrew case. One of the central issues in any embrace of futurism was what might be referred to as the ontological fallacy of belatedness. The belatedness inherent to any embrace of an avant-garde trend imposes paradoxical temporal relations, as the avant-garde position is bound with a notion of precedence (inherently occupying the temporal dimension of being “avant,” or “before,” in addition to being a special metaphor meaning in front, or ahead). This paradox is exacerbated in the futurist case with the even more troubling notion of “belated Futurism.” It is precisely because of this temporal trouble that Russian cubo-futurists tried to perform pseudo-epigraphic mischief by dating some of their works earlier than Marinetti’s manifesto of 1909—providing what is nowadays termed “alternative facts” to prove precedence over the Italian group.8

The political and ethical problem was certainly no less severe. Notwithstanding the actual political diversity of Italian futurism, the movement remained fascist in its public reputation. The glorification of violence and war espoused by the movement, its ethos of aggressiveness and destruction, and its notorious misogyny created a common split between fascination with futurist aesthetics and repulsion by futurist ethics.9 In fact, the dynamic of attraction/repulsion has come to characterize most futurist reactivations. Futurist influences hardly ever took the form of a naïve embrace, and even its relatively straightforward imitations included various adjustments. Futurism’s less affirmative reactivations often included sharp denunciations (specifically of the scandalous Marinetti) and attempts to distance the problematic aspects of futurism and suggest a “real” futurism as opposed to the “fake,” absurd one. This often took the form of dissociation through renaming: even if some futurist characteristics were practiced, the rhetoric was one of total alienation from the Italian precursors and even renunciation of the “futurist” label itself.

In modern Hebrew culture, both problems—the temporal and ethical—appeared to be even more acute. From the temporal perspective, although some Hebrew-writing [End Page 2] (bilingual or multilingual) writers and artists were active participants in the European modernist cultural sphere, direct references to futurism in Hebrew occurred long after the historical “Futurist Moment” of the 1910s. During the early twentieth century, the Hebrew language itself was at the beginning of its journey as a revived language of secular communication and creation, and lacked the “passéist” literary layers against which Marinetti protested. As opposed to Yiddish, which seems to have absorbed futurism more naturally (albeit with reservations of its own), the use of Hebrew as a secular literary language was in many ways an avant-garde act in its own right.10 As Chana Kronfeld writes in her account of the complex time-relations facing Hebrew modernists, this circumstance required unique poetic strategies, often employing neologisms “both as a vehicle of modernist (Futurist-inspired) poetics and as part of the push toward lexical innovation that was necessary for the revival of the Hebrew language.”11 Thus, the entire temporal and linguistic context of Hebrew writing was highly challenging to the emergence of Hebrew futurist sensibilities. The fascist political aspect was no less troubling for Hebrew-writing Jews, although, as I demonstrate here, until the 1930s this problem was not considered an obstacle at all in terms of futurism’s integration within the emerging Hebrew culture.

Hence, it may be unsurprising that no official futurist-influenced movement was ever created by Hebrew writers and artists, and that the futurist trajectory in Hebrew was always marginal, ambivalently practiced by scattered individuals, and often nourished by a vague futurist zeitgeist rather than absorbed firsthand. In fact, only one Hebrew poet was in direct contact with first-wave European futurists: Russian-born poet Alexander Penn, affiliated with the Imaginist group led by Sergei Yesenin, had met Vladimir Mayakovsky in Moscow in 1923 during a poetry-reading competition. Mayakovsky, who appreciated one of Penn’s poems, encouraged him to leave Yesenin’s group and join his own.12 This time spent in Moscow among the bohemian writers and artists deeply shaped Penn’s literary perception. Later on in Palestine, mostly during his period as a recruited Communist “proletarian” poet in the 1930s and 1940s, Penn made substantial efforts to construct himself as “the Hebrew Mayakovsky.”

Indeed, futurism was often transmitted to Jewish writers and artists, many of whom were raised in Eastern Europe and later made up part of the cultural elite in Palestine, through its Russian futurist successor—the branch of futurists who were “right” (or at least “acceptable”) from a political standpoint. The poetry of young Hebrew modernists of Russian origin, such as Penn, Abraham Shlonsky, and Liuba Almi, often directly alluded to or indirectly incorporated Communist Russian futurism—notably, Mayakovsky’s work. The translation of Russian futurists was a central strategy of their positioning in the literary field. Nevertheless, this influence was not often as direct as it appeared in idiosyncratic examples such as in the poem “Cubofuturism” (1923) by the lesser-known Hebrew poet Jakob Peremen, which aestheticizes the intensity of building in Mandatory Palestine, or in the work of the Hebrew literary group the “Octobrists,” which was active in Russia during the days of the 1917 revolution.13

Indirect traces of futurism in Hebrew writing, though—and particularly those of the more politically problematic Italian futurism on which this discussion focuses—are no [End Page 3] less revealing. While these traces obviously do not provide a full account of the array of influences on these Hebrew writers, they do provide a particularly telling glimpse into their (overt or implied) cultural positions and desires in relation to the thriving European modernism in four key cultural phases. A preliminary trace of futurism in 1919–20 manifested in a highly unpredictable context—that of the Purim holiday, the traditional carnivalesque Jewish celebration in which Futurism appeared as a folkish fodder for comedy. The next and perhaps most significant phase occurred during the 1920s and 1930s in Mandatory Palestine, when several central modernist poets—immigrants raised in Eastern Europe—ambivalently adopted futurism, intertwining messianic Zionist politics with modernist aesthetics. In a third phase, after the World Wars, futurism was marginalized even more than it had been previously—if not as ethically illegitimate, then as purely anachronistic, a process taking a surprising turn in the 1960s, in the work of poet David Avidan, who occupied the complex position of a post-futurist. In the fourth and last phase to date, a few Hebrew little magazines alluded to futurism at the beginning of the twenty-first century, further strengthening futurism’s role as an ultimate signifier of the avant-garde position, while often using it loosely in what I seek to define as a meta-futuristic pastiche.

These futurist traces, not to be regarded as definitive paradigm changers but rather as landmarks in a literary genealogy, reveal a diverse, multi-layered Hebrew futurist masquerade. Seemingly, rather than accepting futurism directly or absorbing it indirectly, Hebrew writers treat futurism as a flexible title or mask that provides a sense of identity while simultaneously evoking profound foreignness. While some of these writers try to reach the subversive potential of the cover futurism offers, most of them use it instrumentally as an ephemeral costume for various pragmatic needs. In that sense, the Hebrew futurist identity seems highly remote from the historical futurist moment.

In fact, any discussion about futurist influences raises a profound methodological problem: “futurism” was mutated very early after Marinetti’s initial scandals into a title that could refer to any experimental, bizarre, defying, or pretentious aesthetics, implying a loose set of topoi or memes, often transmitted interculturally without any necessary connection to a futurist “source.” The aggressive rhetoric of destruction, the praise of the city, of the machine, of war, and of all that is “new,” as well as the emblems of the race-car and the airplane, the onomatopoeic typographic experimentations, all created a repertoire of ready-made “futurist” clichés, loosely activated out of context. In peripheral areas such as Palestine, where Marinetti did not bother to stop during his public relations tours, futurism often became a pure avant-garde simulacrum.

Thus, I present futurism here as a performative structure that is constantly re-shaped, transformed, and adjusted to new contexts in order to perform various actions (rather than a fixed movement bound to a specific moment), while also constantly resonating with the traces of the historical futurist moment. Writers and artists use futurism, whether by way of identification or dissent, as a powerful rhetorical gesture, a discourse marker playing an active role—enabling the construction of a national stance, positioning one in the cultural field as an ultimate avant-gardist, or simply as entertainment. This article, in other words, explores how writers and works do things [End Page 4] with futurism. Moreover, futurist traces in Hebrew highlight theatrical, messianic, and humorous aspects of historical futurism that pave a path towards further critical scrutiny of the movement itself in retrospect. Most of all, they demonstrate the inexhaustible power of futurism to inspire writers, artists, and cultural entrepreneurs, long after the revolutionary moment of 1909.

“The Second Marinetti”: Futurism for Purim

The “importing” of futurism into Hebrew was defined from the outset by its impossibility. Rachel Bluwstein (known as “Rachel the Poetess” or simply “Rachel”), the prominent Hebrew poet who served briefly as an educator in the first Kibbutz in Palestine (Degania Alef) in 1920, wrote one of the first Hebrew literary pieces in Palestine that dealt directly with futurism (fig. 1). Following one of her teaching experiences, Rachel published a feuilleton-poem in the Degania Purim leaflet “Ha’dagdeganiton.” This amusing Purim poem, entitled “A True Story,” sets futurism itself as its hero:14

We knew Symbolism—See Maeterlinck;We knew Romantism—See Schmetterling.

We know socialism –There is Ben-Yaakov to readAnd only Futurism,They wonder—could it be?

And one day in the winter,Shabbat was now to end,A stubborn one RachelHad decided to amend

Gordon declared: “Nonsense”15Not a minute until he rose;Baratz just sat there staring,Immediately he dozed;

Then Tan interrupted herWith only one brief query:“Does Futurism haveSome connection with the barley?”. . .

Rachel shut up embarrassedAnd bitterly she sighed . . .So soon to combine-harvesterOur discussion turned aside [End Page 5]

Rachel’s ironic citation of the Kibbutz member “Tan” in asking whether futurism has anything to do with barley (namely, does futurism somehow promote the ethos of agricultural work?) alludes humorously to the fundamental difficulties of the attempt to import European modernism to the Eretz-Israeli (Land of Israel) cultural intelligentsia, which was preoccupied with nation-building and “the religion of work” (as fostered by A. D. Gordon, who is mentioned in the poem).16 Even more so, it implies the inherent foreignness of futurism to the Eretz-Israeli cultural sphere of the early 1920s. At the end of this Purim booklet, each Kibbutz member is given a humorous Purim gift (a Mishloach Manot): Rachel is given “propaganda skills” and Tanhum receives “a clear idea about the difference between barley and Futurism.”17

Rachel exploits the double meaning of “futurism”—as both an avant-garde movement and the common term for innovation in agriculture at that time—to draw a satirical portrait of the suspiciousness of Kibbutz members towards the unknown new, despite their status as self-proclaimed pioneers. As both an agronomist who studied in Toulouse before arriving at Degania, who is thus proficient in agricultural innovation, and a poet well acquainted with modernist movements, Rachel creates an effective Purim parody humorously addressing the internal discourse of the Kibbutz. Simultaneously, this piece implies Rachel’s own curiosity about and enchantment with futurism (be it the Russian futurism that was accessible to her as a poet raised in Saratov, or the Italian futurism that was most influential in the French cultural environment). The poem is even followed by a futurist-like angular sketch. Ironically, one of the first Hebrew poets in Palestine to directly relate to this macho avant-garde movement was Rachel, whose own poetry was influenced by the more restrained Acmeism.18 Although Rachel uses the poem to complain about the impossibility of teaching about futurism in Palestine, the effect created by the use of futurism as Purim material is comic; futurism is constituted as an amusing curiosity, foreign and bizarre, a site of laughter and entertainment.

This was not the only poem that related to futurism in the context of Purim. In 1919, a year before the publication of Rachel’s poem, another Purim leaflet, “Hamantsash” (“Oznei-Haman” in Hebrew, published in Jerusalem), included a poem alluding to futurism, and this time directly to Marinetti.19 This anonymous satire, entitled “Serenade,” is written under the pseudonym the “Second Marinetti” and is presented as “a Futuristic song that Eliezer the slave of Abraham sang to Egyptian Hagar.” This somewhat scant pseudo-futuristic poem is written as an address to the biblical slave of Hagar (Abraham’s mistress), mimicking the alleged coarse dialect of a slave courting and tyrannizing her. The alleged “futurist” aspect is expressed not only in the provocative tone, but also in the over-use of simplistic rhymes, as if expressing the desperate, preposterous attempts of the slave to sound poetic (and thus be the “Second Marinetti”). The humor relies on the anachronistic combination of the pseudo-biblical episode with the pseudo-modernist imitation, creating an ironic tension.

This imagined futurist expression in fact reveals little familiarity (if any) with Italian futurism, even as a parody. The exaggerated use of provocative rhyming perhaps distantly echoes Mayakovsky rather than Marinetti, who was a free verse pioneer. Nevertheless, this satirical Purim poem exposes another significant relation to futurism: [End Page 6] more plainly than in Rachel’s poem, it places “Futurism” and “Marinetti” as loose codenames for bizarre, ludicrous, and pretentious poetic expression. In this poem, Marinetti becomes an empty costume, a random Purim mask, a funny joke. This use of futurism as a Purim mask builds on the connection between the fundamental theatrical and eccentric nature of futurism and the inherent theatrical-carnivalesque nature of Purim.20 Purim is a traditional-secular holiday that encompasses themes such as the reversal of high and low, masquerade (it is the only holiday allowing religious boys to

Fig. 1. Rachel Bluwstein, manuscript of “A True Story,” Kibbutz Degania Alef, 1920. The original poem from the Ha’dagdeganiton booklet (not in Rachel’s handwriting) is presented here courtesy of the Degania Alef Archive, Kibbutz Degania Alef, Israel and the Harvard University Judaica Archive, Cambridge, MA.
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Fig. 1.

Rachel Bluwstein, manuscript of “A True Story,” Kibbutz Degania Alef, 1920. The original poem from the Ha’dagdeganiton booklet (not in Rachel’s handwriting) is presented here courtesy of the Degania Alef Archive, Kibbutz Degania Alef, Israel and the Harvard University Judaica Archive, Cambridge, MA.

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wear costumes of non-Jewish figures and even of women), and heavy drinking as an institutionalized custom (the “Adloyada” Purim tradition literally translates as drinking “to unconsciousness”). This contact with controversial cultural elements is legitimized by the structured temporary frame of the holiday, but at the same time enables the individual to unload anxieties and express potentially subversive fascination toward otherwise taboo cultural areas.21 In the case of the poem discussed above, however, while bringing together the Purim and the futurist theatricality, the use of futurism does not meet the subversive potential of Purim, and it lacks any relation to the alluded source—containing neither embrace nor implied criticism. Futurism becomes merely a floating signifier of absurdity, completely irrelevant to either life or art.

However, these two folkish Purim journals were not alone in associating futurism with the Purim tradition. In 1919, the same year the poem by the so-called “Second Marinetti” was published, the first issue of the Yung Yiddish magazine, representing a group of young writers and artists, among them Moyshe Broderzon, Peretz Markish, and Greenberg, was published in Łódź, Poland. This Yiddish group was deeply influenced by futurism, declaring: “[i]n our turn towards impressionism, expressionism, cubism, we will ironically combine all the perspectives under the name Futurism.”22 The first issue was dedicated to Purim, reviving the popular Jewish tradition while discovering and enhancing its radical socio-political potential. One of the notable items was a poem by Moyshe Broderzon, “Ikh—a purim-shpiler” (“I’m a purim-player”). In this manifesto poem, Broderzon appropriates the folk figure of the Purim performer (purim-shpiler), granting him the voice of a revolutionary modernist, in an oratory tone recalling Mayakovsky’s provocative monologues. This publication comprised part of a joint attempt by Yiddish writers and artists of the era to revive and re-narrate folk Jewish culture (portrayed as inferior by the Jewish enlightenment [“haskala”] movement), as signifying “simultaneously tradition and revolution, folkishness, and avant-garde.”23For the contemporary audience, this was indeed “a slap in the face of Public Taste” (in the words of the 1912 Russian cubo-futurist manifesto) (Stern, “The Purim-shpiler,” 56). Like many proponents of futurism in Europe, Jewish writers in Poland argued at the time about the “true” futurist identity. In reaction to the futurist declarations of the Yung Yiddish group, poet Aharon Zeitlin called it “our childish pseudo Futurism” and suggested replacing “the dynamic-mechanical of Futurism with a dynamic consciousness of what I call cosmic poetry and what I wish to call ‘neo-Kabbalism.’”24 Only a year before this debate, Polish Jewish poet Julian Towim declared in his meta-poetic poem “poetry”: “I will be the first ever Futurist in Poland” (Livnat, “Sefirot,” 285).

These examples show that while Yiddish poets in Europe argued about the “correct,” “authentic” implementation of futurist methodologies and searched for ways to merge futurist sensibilities with Jewish folk tradition, the relation to futurism in the Hebrew poems in Palestine was scant, to say the least. While in the Yiddish case, a (modified) futurist ethos merged with the Purim carnival tradition offered a radical cultural tool in the quest for a complex Jewish-modernist stance, in the Hebrew case, this attitude was replaced with a ridiculing tone that identified futurism as an irrelevant empty catch-phrase. It was only later, and most markedly in the writing of Greenberg in his Hebrew [End Page 8] phase, that futurism began emerging as a relevant cultural option for Hebrew writers in Palestine. Nevertheless, an ambivalent, ridiculing, “Purimic” undertone persisted.

Futurism and Messianism between the World Wars

While expressionism and symbolism served as salient models for Hebrew writers between the world wars, futurist ideas seemed to be “voices from outer space.”25 Nevertheless, futurism was used instrumentally as a possible resolution for a dominant tension at the time—the dissonance between the secularized messianic discourse of Zionism, traditional Jewish identity, and the modernist literary ethos. In its occasional manifestations, futurism served as a practical tool kit in the attempt to create the synthesis of a Hebrew-European Jewish nationalist avant-garde. The messianic discourse, appearing as a vague and flexible set of tropes and used as a prestigious umbrella for a variety of political standpoints, comprised an integral component in the lexicon of hegemonic culture in Palestine between the World Wars.26 This same discourse was also an integral part of the literary practice of Zionist “work literature” which, despite differences and varying nuances between writers and works, fostered the image of the salvation of the land of Palestine and of the “New Jew”—a potent doer, in contrast to the feeble image of the exiled Jewish man. While some writers rejected a messianic poetic stance, others embraced it—among them the poets Greenberg, Shlonsky, Avigdor Hameiri, and Izhak Lamdan. Indeed, these were the central poets who considered themselves the Hebrew literary avant-garde, positioning themselves as both Zionist and literary pioneers. As opposed to the traditional prophetic literary mode associated with the “national poet” Haim Nahman Bialik, which came under severe criticism in the 1920s and was already considered by many anachronistic, the messianic standpoint offered a more engaged prophetic stance that integrated the utopian future salvation with the bodily action of the present. As opposed to the linear progress in time toward a utopian end of days, as Hannan Hever suggests, this position offered another temporal structure of salvation as a continuous possibility in the present.27

Despite some profound differences between futurism’s temporal perception and the messianic mode, futurism offered a lucid utopian avant-garde discourse, merging the idea of secular salvation through action, the inseparability of politics from poetics, and a general strong present-future orientation. Hebrew poets in general refrained from broadly embracing futurism; however, as David Weinfeld suggests, it “was one of the currents that colored the period and influenced also many who hadn’t seen themselves close to its ideas and rejected it in its doctrinaire form” (“Greenberg and Futurism,” 345). Even futurism’s local and anecdotal embrace and the widespread (often unacknowledged) fascination with it signified a possible missing link between Zionism, messianism, and western literary modernism.

The two dominant poets who flirted with this possibility were Greenberg and Shlonsky.28 In fact, the well-known aesthetic and political split between the two— Greenberg turned to politically-recruited militant nationalistic literature, Shlonsky to communist-oriented universalist literary expression—is epitomized by their turn [End Page 9] towards two futurisms: Italian versus Russian, respectively. Doubtless this divergence was the outcome of their different backgrounds: Greenberg’s upbringing in Austro-Hungarian Galizia (later Poland) brought him into contact with Jewish-Polish Yiddish poets who were influenced by both futurisms (among them the aforementioned Yung Yiddish group in Łódź, and specifically Peretz Markish, later the establisher of the futurist-influenced Khalyastre [gang] literary group). Having begun his career as a bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew writer, Greenberg embraced Hebrew as his central language of writing after immigrating to Eretz-Israel in 1923, while also gradually developing a militant nationalist stance. In the early 1930s, he became a founding member of the Strongmen Alliance (Brit Ha’birionim, literally—the bullies’ or zealots’ alliance)—a radical extension of right-wing Zionist revisionism.

In contrast, Shlonsky’s upbringing in Ukraine in a socialist Zionist family created a natural bond with Russian futurists, particularly with the compelling image of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Shlonsky’s poetry in the early 1920s absorbed an array of influences (the poetry of Peretz Markish being one of them), and his poems were replete, among others, with typical futuristic images of movement, urbanism, and the “young bastard.”29 Following his short time as a pioneer-worker in the ”Labor Brigade” in Palestine (1922), Shlonsky also fostered the idea of poetry as work, echoing Mayakovsky’s concept of the poet as a recruited “poem maker.” His poetics indeed often contained an interesting duality of avant-garde and folk: his experimental poem “Train” published in 1926, which comprised onomatopoeic train noises in a typical futurist technique (termed by Shlonsky “a laboratory exercise”), was well received at the time (Halperin, Color, 193–95). Later in the 1940s, futurism’s influence manifested prominently in Shlonsky’s translations of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov (as well as his translation of the Communist International).30 These undertakings assisted in Shlonsky’s self-positioning as a successor to Russian futurism and associated him with the legacy of the avant-garde.

Despite these differences, both Greenberg and Shlonsky—third aliyah poets who grew up in the same years in educated, traditional Jewish families—were exposed to the hectic activities of the eastern European avant-garde and shared the same desire to merge their rooted Jewish education as well their Zionist ideology with modernist sensibilities in the new geopolitical landscape of Palestine. In Greenberg’s case, the seemingly unsettling synthesis of messianic-Zionist discourse, Jewish tradition and futurist sensibilities was remarkable, and as Weinfeld suggests, his relation to futurism was significant, even if “episodic, selective and un-doctrinaire” (“Greenberg and Futurism,” 345).

Futurist influences can be detected in Greenberg’s writing in Yiddish as early as 1917. Indeed, the idea of merging Judaism with a futuristic ethos was already present in his activities among the Yiddish avant-gardes in Poland.31 However, this influence was significantly intensified in Greenberg’s writing in Hebrew starting in the mid-1920s. Weinfeld suggests that Greenberg’s Zionist immigration to Israel and the choice of Hebrew as a central creative language at the expense of Yiddish constituted a biographical rupture that required the development of a new, more “Futurized” ideological and aesthetical ground (“Greenberg and Futurism,” 345–46). In Greenberg’s book Manhood [End Page 10] on the Rise (Hagavrut Haola, 1926) this change is described as a personal revolution, in typical aggressive biomechanical futurist terms: “and I emerged from the depth of the mass as the metal that might be a polished sword on a battle day.”32

Indeed, Greenberg’s relation to Italian futurism was expressed in many aspects of his work: the conception of literature as a direct political action; the use of the manifesto as a genre to express the merging of writing and action (his long poems are not so clearly distinguishable from his manifestos and essays); the praise of novelty and mechanics; the adventurous typography (a new “Uri Zvi Greenberg” font in Hebrew has recently been created as a tribute); and the provocative language, replete with direct allusions to Italian futurism—as in the use of the term “the liberty of phrases,” echoing Marinetti’s “parole in libertà.”33

However, these elements are far from simple futurist reproductions. They undergo radical transformation in Greenberg’s language and are synthesized with his militant messianic Zionist ideology as well as a secularized Jewish orientation, leaning on dominant concepts derived from Jewish mysticism. Thus, Greenberg, having only recently chosen Hebrew over Yiddish for his writing, not only writes about the “liberty of phrases” but also declares: “[p]raise the liberty of phrases in the holy tongue” (Manhood on the Rise, 83). In his essay “Time of Horror and Messianic Realization” (1926), the synthesis between Zionism, messianic impulse, and futurism becomes evident, as Greenberg anticipates the creation of a Hebrew “composition of revolutions” that will transcend the aspirations of Italian futurism: “a Futurist method as it was not even known to Marinetti.”34

The height of this synthesis is found in “Against 99” (“Klapei 99,” 1928), Greenberg’s monumental manifesto that is perhaps the closest text in Hebrew to Marinetti’s first futurist manifesto—albeit longer, more essayistic in nature, and much more complicated and ambivalent than Marinetti’s work. Greenberg’s debt to Marinetti is first expressed in the genre of the text—an ultimate hybrid of prose, poetry, essay and manifesto. He declares the inherent unity of literature, life and politics: “[a]s there is a plan for what the Israeli nation ‘should be,’ there is a plan for what Israel’s literature in the holy tongue ‘should be.’”35 “Against 99” is both that plan itself and, simultaneously, its de facto literary realization. It is a virtuosic call for a political literature and a protest against both vague aestheticism and uncommitted restrained poetics. The contrarian title, signifying the tenacious stance of the individual poet against ninety-nine percent of Hebrew poets, is followed by a differentiation between “the writing of the past and the writing of the present”; between “the ‘lyrical self’ of the yesterday-poet, the allegedly ‘modest,’ who isn’t cutting, and the ‘thundering self’ of the present-poet—who is cutting” (Greenberg, “Against 99,” 219, emphasis in original). The first part of the work ends, fittingly, with a self-association with Walt Whitman (a dominant influence on Italian Futurists): “Rise, Hebrew Walt Whitman, Rise!” (217).

In constructing the evasive position of a Hebrew-futurist, not only does Greenberg appropriate futurist tropes and motifs, but also finds new futurist meanings in Jewish traditional concepts, as if proving that Kabbalah inherently contains modern mechanical innovation: “In our reservoir of concepts there is a radionic concept such as ‘the shortcut’ [End Page 11] [“Kefizat Haderech”] . . . there is an x-ray concept: ‘discovering Elijah’” (199). As far back as “Great Horror and the Moon” (“Eima Gedola Veyareach,” 1924), Greenberg recruits concepts from Jewish mysticism such as “the shortcut” (the mystical shrinking of space and time), and “the sixth millennium” (the salvation at the end of days) and places them as relevant conceptualizations of the political reality (fig. 2). Greenberg deliberately employs concepts that reflect a futurist sense of time. While some European avant-gardes (notably Dadaists and letterists) were influenced by Kabbalah, Greenberg offers the reverse in retrospectively finding avant-garde traces in Jewish mysticism (he presents a rabbi, for example, as a “Dadaist in a prayer shawl and Tefilin”).36 Indeed, this constitutes the core of Greenberg’s revisionist literary-political act: as opposed to the futurist destructive, anti-traditional impulse, Greenberg is deeply rooted in tradition and places himself in a literary-historical continuity, offering not only a call for innovation along a present-future axis, but also a revised, futurist reading of the Jewish past.37

In the part of “Against 99” entitled, “The addition of elements and the change of concepts in the human mind,” the futurist influence is at its peak: “Iron, steam, electricity and concrete—four that have become the beauty and strength of existence . . . these are needed as the air we breathe from genesis” (Greenberg, “Against 99,” 218). This segment challenges traditional concepts of beauty, praising “the construction of the city, powerfully roaring on the single point: Me, the view-of-iron-and-concrete!” (219). Greenberg positions himself as that aforementioned “thundering self”; or, as he writes, “the man of the million,” “the worldish-man,” resonating with Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Marinetti’s “Man-Torpedo” (218). The text ends with typical futurist imagery: “And the poet will be carried to the sky by an airplane, he will long for the moon, not for the land,” resonating with the ending of Marinetti’s first manifesto: “Standing erect on the summit of the world, yes once more we fling our challenge to the stars!” (Greenberg, “Against 99,” 224; Marinetti, “Founding and Manifesto,” 53). This similarity also draws a clear line of distinction: although he fostered a collective sense of nationality, Greenberg was an extreme individualist, the individual poet carried to the sky, relinquishing the futurist “we.”

Greenberg, who was more than once faulted for being a futurist, actively tried to dissociate himself from this title.38 In a manifesto published in 1926, he writes: “I have risen in Italy and said: no! My name isn’t Marinetti but: Uri Zvi. The beautiful foreign outfit doesn’t change the flesh” (Greenberg, “Height of Aspirations,” 159). Interestingly, Greenberg treats futurism as an “outfit”—a foreign costume, as it was treated in the context of Purim. Greenberg refuses to be a ludicrous theatrical-Purimic “Second Marinetti,” and he tries to portray the futurist label as forced on him by an external critical voice (“They added a name to mine: Futurist”). However, this dissociation from futurism clearly exposes an undertone of fascination and identification, ironically even enhancing this association. I suggest that Greenberg, who presented himself overtly as the embodiment of false messiah Shabtai Zvi, was highly attracted to Marinetti— the false messiah of modernism. The association with Marinetti, troubling as it was, helped him construct the provocative figure of a “bully-poet”; a daring, insolent and controversial avant-gardist who inevitably is faulted also as notorious.39 [End Page 12]

Fig. 2. Uri Zvi Greenberg, cover for Great Horror and the Moon (self-design, originally in color) (Tel Aviv: Hedim Publishing, 1924).
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Fig. 2.

Uri Zvi Greenberg, cover for Great Horror and the Moon (self-design, originally in color) (Tel Aviv: Hedim Publishing, 1924).

All copyrights in the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg’s work, including this cited work, are the property of his estate.

Greenberg is not the only Hebrew writer who embraced the futurist-influenced figure of the “bully-poet.” A few writers, notably Lamdan, Hameiri, and Gabriel Talpir, realized the military metaphor inherent in the “avant-garde” stance and created militant pioneer-writings, often portraying the poetic act as an act of a military guard or legion, as Hever shows in Poets and Zealots.40 It was only Greenberg, though, who not only lucidly merged a militant semantic field with the futurist-messianic trajectory, but also realized this stance in his political practice. His militant nationalism gradually escalated to the perception of power and violence as preferred actions in the struggle over Jewish control of the territory of Palestine, and he underwent a contemporaneously typical transformation from the socialist left to the fascist right. As noted above, in 1930 he became a founding member of the “Strongmen Alliance”—an organization with fascist tendencies. In the early 1930s, such an association with fascism was [End Page 13] indeed controversial and somewhat shocking for the local intelligentsia, but it was still perceived as a legitimate discursive possibility. Interestingly, admiration for Mussolini did not seem to contradict the nationalist Jewish identity; on the contrary, these two nationalistic political options seemed like two perfectly compatible models.

Despite Greenberg’s partial denial of his connection with Italian futurism, he clearly developed a natural affinity with this movement, which, of all modernist options, uniquely provided him with the political and aesthetic paths to construct a position of a militant Jewish revolutionary poet. In the 1940s, though, after losing his family in the Holocaust, Greenberg, who had already anticipated a catastrophic eradication of world Jewry in the 1920s, did not write a single word for an entire decade, and the fascist Futurist trajectory was suspended.

Long before the dramatic rejection of the futurist model during World War II, in 1926, Gabriel Talpir wrote a short essay entitled “F. T. Marinetti the Lord of Futurism,” in a summarizing tone. The essay ends with the declaration that “Futurism taught us a lot and it will probably continue teaching us. But it is no secret that Futurism’s time has passed, and the new art should learn how to use Futurism’s achievements, while finding completely new grounds to pave the way to god.”41 This fragment captures the fascination with futurism at the time and the nonjudgmental relation exhibited towards the movement’s fascist character (Marinetti is condemned in this piece for his aesthetic weakness, not for his connection to Mussolini). This approach demonstrates futurism’s positioning in the context of secularized theology (as “paving the way to god”) and its ultimate rejection as a relevant cultural model. Notwithstanding the marginal and temporary role futurism played in Hebrew culture during the World Wars, it afforded modernist Hebrew poets a footing in the international avant-garde, while being synthesized with a new local existence and a messianic political rhetoric. The local adaptations entailed the Hebraization and Judaification of futurism, as well as a stubborn experimental attempt to establish Judaism and Zionism at the heart of western literary modernism.

“Grandpa Futurinsky”: Futurism’s Repression and David Avidan’s Post-Futurism

The short days of futurism as a pioneering cultural movement did not prevent writers from continuing to embrace it—as reflected in Talpir’s essay from 1926. However, as indicated by Greenberg’s post-Holocaust silence, this relatively accepting approach changed dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, when the direct destructive effect of fascism on world Jewry was revealed. Fascist futurism was not only condemned during and after World War II; it was harshly silenced and censored. Although, as Berghaus shows, the assumption that futurism was eliminated from the cultural and intellectual sphere by the 1960s is a common historiographic falsity, this assumption generally prevails in regard to the Hebrew-Jewish republic of letters.42 Statistics regarding the appearance of the word “futurism” in the Jewish press (as documented in the Historical Jewish Press database) may not be the finest parameters for detecting the deeper [End Page 14] influence of the movement; yet this measure clearly shows that, at least at the level of direct public discussion, use of the term in the Hebrew and Yiddish press peaked in the early 1920s, followed by an almost complete disappearance during and after World War II, and then by signs of renewed interest emerging in the late 1950s.43 A significant turning point is marked by the publication of the first full Hebrew translation of Marinetti’s “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” by David Weinfeld, as well as Hebrew translations of other futurist manifestos by Benjamin Hrushovski (Harshav), in the latter’s newly established Hasifrut (Literature) journal in 1968/9. This publication, nevertheless, required Hrushovski’s apologetic preface, presenting futurism as “extreme” and “containing elements that are easily translated into political and moral directions incompatible with humanistic thought, to say the least.”44 This renewed interest reflected a similar one in the West at large; in the late 1960s, futurism was re-incorporated into publications and new magazines of young writers and editors in Italy and worldwide, assisting them in constituting a pioneering, culturally controversial or intellectually provocative stance, while the apologetic tone gradually faded.45

The most distinct traces of such renewed interest in futurism in Hebrew writing after World War II are found in the work of David Avidan. Avidan, born in Tel Aviv, was a leading figure in Hebrew poetry during the late 1950s and 1960s. He was considered a representative of the “Statehood” generation of writers associated with the Likrat (“towards”) literary group, the one who personified this group’s image more than any other Hebrew writer, but simultaneously he was an extreme individualist, an idiosyncratic poet both in his generation and in Hebrew poetry in general. It is hard to characterize as a futurist poet someone whose first anthology starts with the most anti-futuristic poem in Hebrew: “The Streets Soar Slowly” (in Lipless Faucets, 1954), perhaps a perfect counter-image to Umberto Boccioni’s painting “The City Rises” (1910), which depicted the intensity and speed of modern urban life. However, this early poem, as well as many other minor and restrained expressions in Avidan’s poetry, reflects only one aspect of his work. Many of his poems, textual experimentations and films, but markedly his late works, reveal a strong relation to the futurist conceptual and aesthetic world.46

Avidan’s use of futurism was unique in merging seriousness and parody inseparably. He expressed fascination with typical futurist tendencies such as praise of technology, bio-mechanics, and broadly all that is new; attraction to movement, speed, aggressiveness and masculinity; a negative (or at least ambivalent) relation to elements such as oldness, femininity, and weakness; embracement of publicity and public relations as a central aspect of poetry; the desire to shatter the autonomy of poetry and place art as a concrete practice within life (as represented in particular in his book Practical Poems, 1973); and linguistic innovation, including abundant use of neologisms and compound words that have become his hallmark.47 But simultaneously, futuristic elements are ironized in Avidan’s work, which is generally characterized by a dual tone, “merging pathos and irony.”48 His admiration of movement, technology, and “the speed dimension,” Anat Weismann suggests, “didn’t bring Avidan to the admiration of the machine in the Futurist version, but rather to the conception of technology as a preferred model [End Page 15] for poetry from within the interests of poetry” (“Poetic Time,” 401). Nevertheless, a futurist influence is present indeed in Avidan’s work, and “the interests of poetry” was not its exclusive motivation.

Avidan, I suggest, uses futurism as a sophisticated instrument of his self-construction and legitimization as an avant-garde poet. As the only Hebrew poet who dared to embrace futurism directly (even if in a semi-parodic version) after World War II, Avidan signals that he is the sole owner of the avant-garde. The futurist aspects of Avidan’s work indeed made up an integral part of his poetic laboratory, as well as a method of dealing with his performative death-anxiety—the “anxiety of stillness”; simultaneously, however, they were the outcome of a sharp perception of the dynamics and the power scheme of the literary field (396). Avidan’s unapologetic use of futurism assisted him in constructing a strong sense of differentiation and an aura of idiosyncrasy. This tendency marked him as a poet with a strong orientation towards the future and associated him with innovation and transcendence over the limited existence of local poetry.

While some critics saw the futurist phase in Avidan’s work as indicative of his creative deterioration and embrace of simplistic “boxing-glove poetics,” it actually constituted an organic move in his conception of the position of the avant-garde and his constant preoccupation with experimentation and “possibilities.”49 Avidan had a strong self-awareness as an avant-gardist, and he maintained a constant performative attempt to construct himself as such (as reflected, for example in his poem “What is Avant-Garde” in The Book of Possibilities).50 Futurism, as the emblem of the avant-garde, provided the sought-after sense of pioneering, and Avidan tried to associate himself with the movement in various ways. The problem, naturally, was the “ontological fallacy”: how could futurism be used while avoiding a simple anachronistic imitation of a movement that had thrived and supposedly faded decades ago? Avidan’s solution was a complex creation of ambivalent temporal relations, constructing himself both as the ancestor of futurism and as a post-futurist, using “a carnivalesque-parodic-Futuristic ammunition box.”51

One of the significant traces of this post-futurist position is found in his typographically experimental book, Impossible Poems (1968) (fig. 3). This book was published by Avidan’s independent “30th Century Press,” demonstrating his rhetoric of impatience with the restraints of the present and echoing Greenberg’s writing through the prism of “the sixth millennium.” The futurist connection is most notable in the poem “Mamashira” meaning “concretepoetry” or “reallypoetry” (indeed, the use of such compound words was one of his chief hallmarks, emphasizing his playful approach to language and linguistic boundaries) (Avidan, Selected Poems, 114). This poem makes mention of “Dr. Concretenberg,” “grandpa Fu-tu-rinsky” and “Uncle Surrealisa”; however, the nature of the poet’s relation to these modernist influences remains somewhat vague. While the very distortion of the names creates an ironic alienation, and prevents interpretation of those allusions as simple declarations of loyalty, they are also not completely parodied. Throughout this experimental poem, Avidan constructs an imagined genealogy of futurism, which takes the place of his mythological “grandfather,” and thus positions himself as an undisciplined, ultimately idiosyncratic, “bastard” grandson. [End Page 16]

Fig. 3a–b. David Avidan, from Impossible Poems (Tel Aviv: The 30th Century Press, 1968). Courtesy of the David Avidan archive, Heksherim Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
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Fig. 3a–b.

David Avidan, from Impossible Poems (Tel Aviv: The 30th Century Press, 1968). Courtesy of the David Avidan archive, Heksherim Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

This address to “Futurinsky” with a typical Russian ending, as well as many other signals in Avidan’s work, have led critics to assume that the poet’s futurist influence was mainly Russian (Meiri, Sympathetic Volcano, 46). Indeed, he was inspired by translations of Mayakovsky, he translated Russian futurists himself, he absorbed Russian futurist influences from other poets, and he was doubtlessly closer ideologically to the Russian futurist tradition (in his youth, he was affiliated with the Israeli Communist Party). However, some of Avidan’s poems demonstrate striking similarity to Marinetti’s writing in their imagery and typography (such as the use of arithmetic symbols as syntactic markers). Avidan’s immediate association with Russian futurism—the “right” futurism from an ethical-political point of view—enabled him to benefit from Italian futurist aesthetic influences without directly facing the stain of fascism within post-war Israeli culture. In his book Messages from a Spy Satellite (1978), in the fragmentary piece “A first assault wave and the scrolled-up time rug,” for example, he combines (like Greenberg) Jewish allusions and Italian futurist aesthetics: [End Page 17]

Again we have landed on the vivacious ground of Jewish termsFireFireFireFireRemaining in timeThe strong remain in time

BiotemporalismBioFuturismBiotime

The remaining of the body in timeAnd the remaining of the soul in the body

When the time-rug is scrolled under our feetIn the highest speedThe quality acrobats are thoseWho always and forever lastTime-piece under their feet52

Among the elements connecting the poem to Italian futurism, such as the idea of the bio-mechanic and the image of the “rug” conjuring up the “opulent oriental rugs” in Marinetti’s first futurist manifesto, the typography provides more than an indirect echo (“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” 49). It resembles typical experimentation in gradually enlarging font sizes as a representation of loudness and intensity, like Marinetti’s line at the beginning of “Zong Toomb Toomb”:53

inline graphic

This formulation also perfectly resembles another part of Marinetti’s poem, entitled “Bombardment,” which contains a similar visual representation of bursting fire:

Watch out the good-god on the head shaaakStaggering   flames     flames   flames     flames     flames     flames      flames   footlight of the forts over there

(Marinetti, “Zong Toomb Toomb,” 75) [End Page 18]

The clear similarities, which read almost as one of Avidan’s well-known experiments in “modeling,” ultimately serve to highlight the differences.54 Marinetti’s poem was influenced by the battlefield in Adrianople where he served as a reporter, and it reflects sincere excitement at the sight of the bursting flames. Avidan’s “fire,” in contrast, is an idiom, placing the intensity of the linguistic bursting as fire with no actual battle to back it up.

Avidan’s final book The Last Gulf (1991), describing his impressions from the Gulf War, comprised experimental poetic war reportage published in Israeli newspapers during the conflict, more evidently resembling the circumstances of Marinetti’s “Zong Toomb Toomb.” This work was “a one-time opportunity of his poetics to move with the events themselves and fulfill desires relating to communicativeness, immediacy and Futurism” (Weisman, “Poetic Time,” 406). It included futurist-influenced lines such as “word-barrage word-barrage the most interesting week of the century” and mentioned (seemingly positively) Hitler’s Mein Kampf as a popular “lahit-ler” (“lahit” meaning a hit in Hebrew—creating the compound word “hit-ler”). The chapter “Wings” encompasses excited descriptions of airplanes and airplane photos, echoing late futurist painting of the Aeropittura genre. The messianic tone and the uncritical embracement of the war ethos has been read as marking “a step back to Futurist fascism” (Meiri, Sympathetic Volcano, 119). Nevertheless, this clownish, long-distance, mediated engagement with the “imagined” war (the first simulacrum war, the war that “did not take place,” in Baudrillard’s terms), alongside Avidan’s inconsistent yet profound rejection of war violence and specifically the Israeli war ethos, places him not as a simple futurist follower, nor as a fascist, but in the profoundly ambiguous position of post-futurism.55

Although Avidan’s fascination with futurism does indeed constitute an idiosyncratic phenomenon in postwar Hebrew literature, it emerged as futurism was substantially re-legitimized in the western world as an object of study and a cultural model. Within this context, Avidan, who always strove to transcend the local, temporary zeitgeist in favor of a broadened international, even trans-humanistic vision, embraced futurism before such an act was even conceivable in post-Holocaust Israel. This sense of precedence—poetically and politically—was indeed inherent to Avidan’s work, as reflected in his well-known poem “Politicians of Language”: “people like me and not like you / constitute the politics of language. / anywhere in the semantic galaxy, / anywhere on earth and outside it” (“The Book of Possibilities,” 29).

“Come on into the Future”: Hebrew Meta-Futurism in the Twenty-first Century

In December 1999, “future” was a particularly salient issue in the West, as the (ultimately nonexistent) “Millennium Bug” threatened. Various cultural agents (media commentators, intellectuals, writers and artists) constructed the turn of the twenty-first century as a unique point in time, echoing the conventional dual image of the fin-de-siècle a century before: an unrepeatable historical moment providing priceless [End Page 19] opportunities for change and innovation, and simultaneously a period of new threats and increasing anxieties from the developing technological world. This context galvanized neo-avant-gardes of the new millennium and comprised a fertile ground for the reactivation of the futurist trajectory. The first two decades of the twenty-first century, particularly around 2009, which marked the centenary of the futurist movement, triggered a renewed interest in futurism worldwide. The preoccupation with the very legitimization of futurism as an object of study and “the old equation ‘Futurism=Fascism’” were now almost completely replaced with an intensified endeavor to map, scrutinize, rethink and discover uncharted aspects of futurism at the international level (Berghaus, “Postwar Reception,” 394).

This cultural atmosphere also brought futurism to the consciousness of young Hebrew writers and artists; and indeed, between 2005 and 2011, several new Hebrew little magazines alluded to Italian futurism in their first founding issue or in one of the first issues. I present three of these here, suggesting that, in all these cases, the loose relation to futurism formed part of the attempt of newcomers in the literary field to establish their own pioneering position by forging a link with the ultimate symbolic avant-garde movement, while at the same time conveying a sense of detachment from the futurist political ethos. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, futurism reached its peak as an obscure signifier of the concept of avant-garde as such, carrying a non-binding set of ready-made cultural connotations.

In the case of Ho!, established in 2005 by poet and translator Dori Manor, the association with futurism made up an integral part of the attempt to construct a literary generational struggle. Denouncing the mellow, minor free verse and meter of the “Statehood Generation” poets represented by the dominant figure of Nathan Zach, Manor turned to his poetic “grandparents”: Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, and Lea Goldberg. This typical move, inspired by Harold Bloom’s concept of “anxiety of influence” and presented overtly as such (in successive publications in the press), enabled Manor to present his literary endeavor as a “natural” process of rebellion against his poetic forebears while returning to the previous generation as a poetic model. The fifth issue of Ho! was dedicated to Italian and Russian futurism, mostly through the translation of selected manifestos, including a new translation of “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Once again, the act of translating futurist works (in this case, the highlighted act of re-translation) enabled young writers to position themselves in an avant-garde genealogy, and this time to establish a double genealogy: with the Shlonsky generation as the first to implement futurist influences in Hebrew, and with the futurist precursors themselves. Although faulted by many critics as anachronistic, this literary act in fact served as an effective mechanism to create a controversial position and a strong sense of association with the modernist dynasty.

Maayan Magazine, also established in 2005 and edited by Roi (Chicki) Arad and Yahushua Simon, took a completely different tack. Instead of reviving a literary tradition, its goal declared in the first issue—reflecting the typical ethos of the avant-garde—was to break the autonomy of poetry, to “shatter the concrete wall separating ‘art’ and ‘life’” and rebel against traditional standards defining “good poetry,” thereby scorning the [End Page 20] bourgeois construction of good taste. Despite offering a dominant left-wing political orientation and a Communist-oriented ethos of political activism, the founding manifesto in the first issue echoed Marinetti’s first manifesto:

Maayan is a display window for new poetry, modern in the sense of vehicle-magazines presenting a car model with a new enhancement or a throttle decreasing the smoke drifting. Formally—it’s an electric poetry . . . Maayan poets stick their heads out of the car window while driving, loudly call at the wind and lustfully open their nostrils to the scents of exhausts.56

This text duplicates Marinetti’s sensual description of the sights and smells of the modern city along with his genuine excitement over the inventions of modernity (street lights, cars, engines, and highways) and their placement as immediate models for modern poetry. Notably, however, this duplication lacks an attempt to modify Marinetti’s poetics of the manifesto and adjust it to the current era, nor to address the different urban scenery and technological inventions characterizing the present (i.e., digital culture and mobile devices). Rather, the manifesto deliberately presents an anachronistic pseudo-excitement of the early-twentieth-century cultural environment, creating an ironic meta-futurist viewpoint. This text thus represents a new phase in the relation of Hebrew writers to futurism, intensifying Avidan’s ambivalent post-futurist stance. This meta-modernist phase, oscillating between the uncritical embrace of Futurism and an alienated ironizing stance, uses futurism very loosely as a floating signifier of cultural innovation, in the form of a ready-made, available pastiche.57

This stance reached its tentative peak in Hava Lehaba magazine, first published in 2011 by writer and editor Oded Carmeli (fig. 4). The airy name Hava Lehaba is a difficult neologism in Hebrew combining two archaic speech acts, loosely translated as “come on into the future,” or “let us from now on.” It creates a deliberately strange, ungrammatical combination conveying a strong yet vague orientation “towards.” Hava Lehaba was presented in the opening manifesto as a trans-humanistic magazine, clearly drawing from Avidan’s work, including the playful use of neologisms, compound words and pseudo-futurist New Age rhetoric, while taking such syntax one step further. Its declared aspiration is to detach from local, temporary literary and political debates and to turn to promoting a post-humanistic, timeless existence. Typical of meta-modernist rhetoric, these rigid ideological declarations alternated with semi-ironic remarks such as “we promise our readers eternal life” and “the solution to the Occupation is the occupation of space.” As part of this meta-futurist move, the Hava Lehaba manifesto is presented as the collective outcome of “a discussion performed during the darkness of the night”—an allusion to Marinetti’s “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” which opens with the futurist night gathering. Marinetti’s founding manifesto thus continues to function as a primary influence on manifesto writers even in this late, sophisticated meta-futurist phase, ostensibly completely detached from futurist ethics. [End Page 21]

Fig. 4. Journal logo, Hava Lehaba (Tel Aviv: Independent Publishing, 2011).
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Fig. 4.

Journal logo, Hava Lehaba (Tel Aviv: Independent Publishing, 2011).

These three magazines are currently still active in the Hebrew literary field, representing three different voices of young Israeli writers who perceive and present themselves in terms of the avant-garde. The use of futurism in all these cases enables writers and scholars not only to establish futurism as a relevant contemporary object of study and as a provocative cultural model, but also to achieve a seal indicating an ultimate position of innovation. But these examples by no means represent the only traces of futurism in contemporary Hebrew culture. The indirect impact of the movement can be traced in Hebrew experimental prose (in the novels of Shimon Adaf, for example), and poetry (in some poems of Efrat Mishori) and in the uncommon, yet gradually growing, appearances of Hebrew science fiction. It even echoes in Israeli entrepreneurship, represented by the problematic notion of “The Start-Up Nation.”58 Indeed, futurism’s far-reaching impact exceeds direct and overt influence and is integrated as a marginal yet possible trajectory in the DNA of Hebrew rhetoric.

An Outline for a Hebrew-Futurist Genealogy

Futurism’s complex effect on Hebrew writing, as demonstrated here, underwent various phases, following fluctuating political and cultural sensibilities throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These phases can be epitomized by a few phrases expressing temporal relations of succession, simultaneity, and anticipation, reflecting Hebrew writers’ inescapable belated stance in relation to the futurist precursors, the complex, anxious and often paradoxical standpoint with regards to the movement, and the urge to find alternating “masks” and “titles” for their ambivalent contact with the futurist trajectory. Thus, “The second Marinetti,” the pseudonym of the writer of the “futurist” Purim parody from 1919, dismissed futurism as completely irrelevant to the life in Palestine, while Yiddish futurist Purim satire at the very same time comprised a meaningful model for modernist Jewish writing. Greenberg’s complaint, “They added a name to mine: Futurist,” marks a change in the relation of Hebrew writers to futurism during the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the profound ambivalence toward the title “futurist,” modernist poets of this generation noted a possible synthesis between the [End Page 22] messianic national identity, the Jewish identity and experimental modernist aesthetics. “Grandpa Futurinsky,” Avidan’s tribute to the futurists, marks a quest to re-narrate a cultural genealogy post-World War II, after years of at least partial exclusion of futurism as a legitimate cultural model. Avidan applied the futurist trajectory loosely and playfully in his post-futuristic experimentations in the 1960s. At this point, futurism no longer served as a tool for the construction of a Hebrew-European nationality; rather, it was activated as a method of self-legitimizing and as a de-nationalized aesthetical playground. Such further enhanced, de-nationalized futurism manifested itself at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Hebrew sub-culture magazines, where it was applied to suggest a relaxed set of avant-garde tropes. The magazine Hava Lehaba—whose title constitutes the speech act “come on into the future”—represents an extreme manifestation of this meta-futurist stance. With this phase, futurism, in a way, returned to the status it had had as the floating signifier in 1919–20, and its use included a similar sense of non-commitment; in its present incarnation, however, it also included a strong, ironized, meta-modernist self-awareness.

All the cases presented here exhibit a continuous cultural dynamic of attraction/repulsion. The ability of writers to embrace futurism partially, as a fluid and unbinding set of motifs, enabled them to enjoy the fascinating, inspirational aesthetics and rhetoric of futurism while ostensibly renouncing its troubling aspects, often diverting the focus to the less problematic Russian futurism while still preserving elements from the Italian one. This influence was often practiced in a palimpsest-like writing mode in which only an internal, implicit layer contained a futurist trace.59 This dynamic enables an understanding of the trajectory through which a movement fascist by reputation found its (admittedly ambivalent) place in a Jewish-Hebrew cultural space. Although some of these Hebrew futurist traces have been examined before, they have been treated as isolated, separate points in time. This fragmentation, however, tends to duplicate a futurist-like historiography, creating alleged moments of rupture, and endangering in an ahistorical view of Hebrew avant-gardes as idiosyncratic paradigm-changers. This panoramic perspective on futurist traces in Hebrew, in contrast, enables the drawing of genealogical links between cultural agents ostensibly acting under profoundly different circumstances, with different premises and cultural goals. Futurism is thus revealed repeatedly as the ultimate symbolic signifier of cultural innovation, serving as an active performative tool at key cultural moments, and continuing to inspire ambivalent fascination.

Nana Ariel

Nana Ariel is a writer, researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, formerly a visiting scholar and guest lecturer at Harvard University. Her studies cluster around rhetoric and modernist writing culture. She is author of Manifestos: Restless Writings on the Brink of the 21st Century (Bar-Ilan University Press, 2018).

Notes

1. Uri Zvi Greenberg, “To the Height of Aspirations,” in Collected Works of Uri Zvi Greenberg, ed. Dan Miron, 19 vols. (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1990), 15:151–87, 159. All translations from the Hebrew, unless otherwise specified, are my own.

2. Günter Berghaus, “Editorial: Aims and Functions of The International Yearbook of Futurism Studies,” The International Yearbook of Futurism Studies 1 (2011): ix–xiii, xii.

3. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 69.

4. Geert Buelens and Monica Jansen, “Futurisms: An Introduction,” in The History of Futurism, ed. Geert Buelens, Harald Hendrix, and Monica Jansen (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012), 1–8, 1.

5. See Günter Berghaus, “The International Impact of Futurism: Absorptions, Assimilations, Adaptation,” Links: Rivista di Letteratura e Cultura Tedesca/Zeitschrift für Deutsche Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft 12 (2012): 11–22.

6. For one influential framing, see Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

7. See, among others, recent examples of the Afrofuturism of the 1990s and the Arabfuturism of the 2000s such as Lama Suleiman, “Afrofuturism and Arabfuturism: Reflections of a Present-day Diasporic Reader,” Tohu Magazine, June 12, 2016, tohumagazine.com/article/afrofuturism-andarabfuturism-reflections-present-day-diasporic-reader/.

8. See Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 97–98.

9. See Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Futurism: An Anthology, trans. Lawrence Rainey, ed. Lawrence Rainey, Cristine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 49–53.

10. For the conceptualization of the revival of the Hebrew language in terms of a revolution, see Benjamin Harshav, Language in Times of Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

11. Chana Kronfeld, On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 81.

12. Hagit Halperin, The Color of Life: The Life and Works of Alexander Penn (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuhad and Kipp Center, 2007), 25.

13. Published in his journal Elshem in 1923; republished in 1925 in his book Malkosh.

14. The original poem from the Ha’dagdeganiton booklet (not in Rachel’s handwriting) is presented here courtesy of the Degania Alef Archive, Kibbutz Degania Alef, Israel and the Harvard University Judaica Archive, Cambridge, MA.

15. Originally “wadulnish.” A common phrase coined by A. D. Gordon, a Degania kibbutz member and the ideological father of the Zionist “religion of work.”

16. Miron suggests that the ironic confusion of “Tan” (short for Tanhum) is based on the similarity of the word “futurism” to the Yiddish word “fitern” meaning cattle feeding, thus portraying the Kibbutz member as a simple ignorant peasant. See Dan Miron, “In the Great Heights of the Holy and Pure,” in Founding Mothers, Stepsisters: The Advent of Hebrew Woman’s Poetry and Other Essays (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuhad, 2004), 114–50, 143.

17. One of the anonymous readers of this article brilliantly suggested that “barley” or “orzo” was in fact part of Marinetti’s vocabulary, in light of both the popular Italian barley drink “caffé d’orzo” and the fascist policy of “battaglia del grano,” or “battle for grain,” post–World War I. This context was probably not considered by Rachel; however, it creates an unexpected and indirect connection between agricultural Palestine and Italy between the world wars.

18. See her minor manifesto “On the Mark of Our Times” (1926–27), calling for “the simplicity of expression,” in Benjamin Harshav, Manifestos of Modernism (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2001), 220–21, 220. About the effect of Acmeism on Hebrew woman’s poetry, on the expense of the masculine futurist ethos, see Michael Gluzman, The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modernist Hebrew Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 119–22.

19. I thank David Weinfeld for having revealed this document to me.

20. See Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 87–89.

21. On the liminality of the Purim Carnival, see Jeffery Rubenstein, “Purim, Liminality, and Communitas,” AJS Review 17, no. 2 (1992): 247–77.

22. “Yung Yiddish,” Yung Yiddish 2 (1919): n.p. I thank Roni Cohen for his assistance with the Yiddish translation.

23. Zehavit Stern, “The Purim-shpiler and the Melancholy of the Clown: Folk Performance Between Tradition and Modernism in the work of Avraham Shlonsky and Moyshe Broderzon,” Journal of Jewish Identities 7, no. 1 (2014): 49–78, 58.

24. Quoted in Aviv Livnat, “Sefirot, Wanderings, and Superstructures: Futurism in the Polish Yiddish Arena,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry 28 (2016): 283–305, 289. From a letter to literary critic Shmuel Niger, 1923.

25. David Weinfeld, “Uri Zvi Greenberg and Futurism,” Siman-Keriaa 16–17 (1983): 344–58, 347.

26. See Hannan Hever, “Poetry and Messianism in Palestine Between the Two World Wars,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 7 (1991): 128–58, 137.

27. See Hever, “Poetry and Messianism,” 133.

28. For futurist influences on both Shlonsky and Markish, see Jordan Finkin, “Constellating Hebrew and Yiddish Avant-gardes: The Example of Markish and Shlonsky,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 8, no. 1 (2009): 1–22.

29. See his first anthologies: Dvai [Anguish] (Tel Aviv: Hedim, 1924), Le’Aba-Ima [To Mother-Father] (Tel Aviv: Ketuvim, 1927), and Bagalgal [In the Wheel] (Tel Aviv: Davar, 1927).

30. In 1942, he published a seminal anthology he edited with poet and translator Lea Goldberg, entitled The Poetry of Russia: A Selection (Shirat Rusiia: Yalkut), containing a variety of translations of Russian poetry from the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries. See Nina Segal, “Velimir Khlebnikov in Hebrew,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6, no. 1 (2008): 81–109.

31. For his Yiddish Journal Albatross, see Avidov Lipsker, “The Albatros of Young Yiddish Poetry: An Idea and its Visual Realization in Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Albatros,” Prooftexts 15, no. 1 (1995): 89–108.

32. Uri Zvi Greenberg, Manhood on the Rise, in Collected Works, 1:75–104, 84.

33. See Weinfeld, “Greenberg and Futurism,” 346.

34. Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Time for Horror and Messianic Realization,” in Collected Works, 15: 101–49, 143.

35. Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Against 99,” in Collected Works, 16:193–225, 198.

36. Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Great Horror and a Moon,” in Collected Works, 1:5–74, 69.

37. See Weinfeld, “Greenberg and Futurism,” 354.

38. See Weinfeld, “Greenberg and Futurism,” 236. See also Hannan Hever, Beautiful Motherland of Death: Aesthetics and Politics in Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Poetry (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004), 60–61.

39. Hannan Hever, Poets and Zealots: The Rise of Political Hebrew Poetry in Eretz-Israel (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1994), 251, 268–79, 280–83.

40. See Hever, Poets and Zealots, 103–5. Hameiri was the only Hebrew poet who focused in his writing on his experience as a warrior in the Hungarian army in World War I, and about his militant writing concluding in a pacifist stance (notably in The Great Madness); see Avner Holtzman, Loves of Zion: Studies in Modern Hebrew Literature (Jerualem: Carmel, 2006), 263–77.

41. Originally published in the periodical Ktubim, quoted in Harshav, Manifestos of Modernism (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2001), 214–15.

42. See Günter Berghaus, “The Postwar Reception of Futurism: Repression or Recuperation?,” in The History of Futurism, 377–404, 377–78.

43. See The Historical Jewish Press, Tel-Aviv University, National Library of Israel, web.nli.org.il/sites/JPress/.

44. Benjamin Hrushovski, “Manifestos of Italian and Russian Futurism,” Hasifrut—Quarterly for the Study of Literature 1, no. 3–4 (1968–69): 670–96, 670.

45. See Berghaus, “Postwar Reception,” 385–89.

46. As part of his cross-medium activities and his attempt to break the boundaries of autonomous poetry, Avidan directed a few films. One of them, A Message from the Future (1985), was an English-language feature science-fiction film based on a poem carrying the same title from his book, Messages from a Spy Satellite (1978).

47. Avidan was specifically engaged with the use of machines such as the Dictaphone and in discovering the new possibilities of computerized generators. He acted on this fascination by contacting scientists from the artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT so as to borrow ELIZA, an early natural language-processing program developed in 1964. He published his conversations with Eliza in his book My Electronic Psychiatrist—Eight Authentic Talks with a Computer (1974).

48. Anat Weisman, “The Poetic Time of David Avidan,” Literature and Society in Modern Hebrew Culture (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Ha’kibutz Ha’meuchad and Keter, 2000), 395–409, 395.

49. Yair Mazor, “Poetics of a Boxing Glove; But Sometimes Also Silent Silk,” Iton 77, no. 203 (1997): 18–21, 18. Weisman shows that this perception ignores the consistency of Avidan’s poetic strategies, leaning on a profound conception of movement and time (“Poetic Time,” 395–96).

50. David Avidan, “The Book of Possibilities,” in Selected Poems, ed. Anat Wisman and David Weinfeld, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Bialik Institute and Ha’kibutz Ha’meuchad, 2009), 4:9–199, 93.

51. Gilad Meiri, Sympathic Volcano: Parody, Humor and avant-garde in the Poetry of David Avidan (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuhad, 2012), 45.

52. David Avidan, “Messages from a Spy Satellite,” in Selected Poems, 3:105–218, 217.

53. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Zong Toomb Toomb,” in Selected Poems and Related Prose, trans. Elizabeth R. Napier and Barbara R. Studholme (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 57–82, 57.

54. “Modeling” experiments (“digumim”) were experimental pastiches: imitations of styles, writers and schools, created in workshops between 1976–81. See selected examples in Avidan, Selected Poems, 3:221–94.

55. See Meiri, Sympathetic Volcano, 137–40. See also Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

56. Roi Arad and Yahushua Simon, “Maayan,” Maayan 1 (2005): 102.

57. For metamodernism, see Thimotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010): 1–14.

58. The popular term “Start-up Nation” designates Israel’s global success in high-tech innovativeness. It was popularized in a New York Times bestseller commissioned by the Council of Foreign Relations, published in 2009. See Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (New York: Twelve, 2009). The technological success of Israel, despite being a small country, is attributed in this book, among others, to the obligatory army service in Israel that fosters unique skills and raises “battlefield entrepreneurs,” as Senor and Singer put it (Start-Up Nation, 41). Of course, this book is far from implying any relation to historical futurism; yet the combination of uncritical patriotism with technological admiration, further associated with military proficiency, as well as the national-mechanical hybrid in the title, more than echoes typical futuristic themes.

59. Ilona Gwóźdź-Szewczenko demonstrates such a practice in relation to Czech avant-garde in “Futurism: The Hidden Face of the Czech Avant-garde,” International Yearbook of Futurism Studies 1 (2011): 154–74, 165.

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
1-26
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-25
Open Access
No
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