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159 CHAPTER 4 The Aristocrat and Her Handmaid: Russian-Israeli Literature and the Question of Language It’s true, there’s no shortage of reasons to travel to Paris, but as fate would have it, two weeks ago I started to write my great Israeli novel. And I’d already completed the first chapter, in which the hero, who turned his back on his faith, discovers that his father, who banished him, has died from cancer on the Memorial Day of Fallen Soldiers. And then the travel agency called me to say that the tickets were ready. If that is the case, I said to myself, on the banks of the Seine I am sentenced to write the second chapter, which takes place in a crowded cemetery.1 These opening lines of a story by Alex Epstein, known for his extremely short stories, humorously and critically present the imagined challenges entailed in writing an “Israeli novel.” Packed into the summary of his planned novel are typical elements of Israeli hegemonic novels written between the 1970s and the 2000s by authors such as A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and others. Epstein combines the theme of the intergenerational crisis between the parents’ generation— the great Zionist ideologists—and the generation of their children, who chiefly wanted to elevate their own prosperity with a national allegory where private and national bereavement are interlaced. In Epstein’s fantasized “Israeli novel” the son engages with the memory of his dead father, whose loss and the procession to the cemetery are linked to Yom Ha-zikaron (the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers), that is to an event which cloaks death with a range of ideological significances. Alex Epstein was born in Leningrad in 1971 and immigrated to Israel in 1980. He is among the prominent authors from the former Soviet Union (FSU) who write in Hebrew. Epstein writes very short stories, sometimes comprising just 160 CHAPTER 4 a few words or several lines, describing events on the interface between everyday life and fantastic, weird, and inexplicable events. Despite the declaration at the beginning of this story, Epstein’s works rule out any possibility that he will indeed ever write the “Israeli novel.” In this story, the journey to France deliberately distances the author (and the story) from the Zionist space, leaving us with only the narrator’s witticism as he fantasizes about what constitutes Israeli writing and simultaneously abandons it, preferring another narrative that tracks the fate of a Russian-born Jewish chess player whose book he stumbles upon in France. If one can indeed use Epstein’s phrase—“Israeli novel”—then Israeli literature is something that can be categorized and defined; this of course is not the case. The phrase “Israeli novel” is ironic, meant to emphasize the marginality of authors who deliberately choose different aesthetic paths. As stated above, Epstein will never write an “Israeli novel,” and neither will other poets and novelists who were raised in the USSR and in the FSU and were exposed to diverse literary traditions. These authors not only avoid proposing an “Israel novel” but also any form of “Russian novel” or “Russian-Israeli novel.” The contribution of the literature by former Russians in Israel is not easy to categorize or calculate. This chapter focuses on a few literary directions that former Russians have chosen. Following an introduction on the nature of the intercultural dialogue between the Israeli and the Russian culture, I present a detailed analysis of the Israeli-Russian literary scene. In this discussion I explore the nature of Israeli literature written in the Russian language. Israeli literature written in Russian has gained worldwide recognition and enjoys a rich relationship in other Russianspeaking communities across the world, but since it generally has not been translated into Hebrew, it remains unknown to Hebrew readers. Later in the chapter, I focus on the case of Gesher—an Israeli-Russian theater that suggests an interesting model of inter-culturalism. The final part of the chapter analyzes major novels and poetry written in Hebrew by authors who immigrated as children or teenagers from the FSU: Boris Zaidman and Ola Groisman, with their discussions of memory; Alona Kimhi’s combination of the hybrid and the grotesque; Sivan Baskin’s return to structured poetry; and Alex Epstein’s cosmic nomadism. Introduction The two waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union, in the 1970s and 1990s, created one of the largest ethnic groups ever to arrive in the state of Israel...


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