The Gay Man's Guide to Zionist Literature

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

"This book couldn't have been written by a straight man," says Michael Gluzman. "Not a chance. Masculinity is a topic that I thought about a lot during the years when my identity was being formed. When you are a teenager and you realize that you are gay, the immediate cultural association is that your masculinity is flawed. That you aren't a man. This stimulated me to think about what in fact masculinity is."

A professor of literature and a popular lecturer in the literature department at Tel Aviv University, Gluzman is the author of "The Zionist Body: Nationalism, Gender and Sexuality in Modern Hebrew Literature" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad). The book examines the history of Hebrew literature through the male Diaspora and the Zionist body. In it, Gluzman presents the male Jewish body as a plot axis around which Hebrew literature revolves. By his telling, the rise of Jewish nationalism at the end of the 19th century, and the formation of Zionism, also engendered the aspiration to create the type of the "new Jew," who is endowed with power and physical strength, in contrast to the old Diaspora Jew, whose body is perceived as weak and flawed.

According to Gluzman, Hebrew literature has in various ways reflected the flawed Diaspora masculinity, and the attempt to replace it with a new, Zionist masculinity. In "The Zionist Body," he analyzes texts by Theodor Herzl, Haim Nahman Bialik, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Yosef Haim Brenner, Moshe Shamir, Yehoshua Kenaz, David Grossman and Etgar Keret. He examines in these works moments of male crisis, of ambivalence.

In what sense is the book a "disguised autobiography?"

Gluzman: "I read Hebrew literature through an issue that engages me in my personal life. For me, masculinity is a riddle etched into my skin. I look at it both from within, because I am a man, and also from without because I always feel that I don't entirely understand it."

The politics of the canon

Gluzman, 45, was born in Haifa in 1962, and grew up in Herzliya and Tel Aviv. For the past 20 years, his partner has been chef Erez Komorovsky. Last September, the couple moved to Mattat, a communal settlement in the Upper Galilee, and Gluzman divides his time between there and Tel Aviv. He did his doctorate in literature at Berkeley, where he was very much influenced by gender and queer theories in the study of literature. He taught at Tel Aviv University, leaving it in high dudgeon in 1997 for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, only to return four years later to Tel Aviv, again in a storm. "I'm a stormy person," he says.

Gluzman has been practicing yoga for many years and in recent years he has also been teaching it. As he sees it, there is a direct connection between yoga and his literary research. "All my life I have engaged in physical activity," he relates. "I studied tai chi here in Israel and I continued with it at Berkeley as well. I did it with the same seriousness as I did my doctorate. I was attracted to the body practices of the East because there isn't a dialogue between the body and the mind there - they in fact connect the two. Jewish society splits the body and the mind. I have always looked for ways to overcome this split, which has interested me spiritually. After an injury I started doing Iyengar yoga, and I was smitten."

His doctoral thesis, and in its wake his first book, dealt with the politics of the canon - how the standard body of Hebrew literature developed. After that Gluzman wanted to examine the main subject that the Hebrew canon deals with, and thus arrived at the connection between masculinity and nationalism.

Then, in 1991, David Grossman's "The Book of Internal Grammar" was published. "I read it," says Gluzman, "and I was hypnotized. I realized that the protagonist of the book, Aharon Kleinfeld, is a boy who does not want to grow up and become a man. I read the book as a refusal of the Zionist command to have an impressive body. I was astounded by how the body of Aharon, a kid of 12 who hasn't grown, is perceived not as an individual problem but rather as a blot on the entire society. I was interested in understanding what society marks as the correct body. Today we are living in a post-modern era, in which the body is shaped by plastic surgery and fitness clubs and nearly every one of us has an engineered body. But I wanted to go back 100 years and look at the discourse that shaped the body."

Gluzman's thesis changed during the course of the writing. Initially he thought that the authors of what became the Hebrew canon were definitely committed to reflecting a new and muscular Zionist body, but gradually he realized that this was not the case: "In the canonical Hebrew literature there was tremendous ambivalence right from the outset concerning this image," he says. "Even the writers who exalted the character of the new, muscular Jew very often pulled the rug out from under this character's feet, ridiculed him and pointed out the huge price entailed in his establishment."

The change in the masculine ideal, he says, was sudden. "When Avraham Shlonsky, for example, worked as a pioneer in the Jezreel Valley and paved roads, he hid his notebook of poems, because this could have damaged his pioneering image. He wrote in his diary that crying is forbidden in a poem, that 'Crying is the vomit of the soul.' This is amazing - for Bialik, just one literary generation before him, the tear was so central, the mother's tear that falls into the dough and the poet swallows it, and it is the source of his poetry. Just 20 years after that, Shlonsky sees the tear as the vomit of the soul. This is a huge cultural transformation. These questions throb in the discourse to this day."

It appears that the bodily inferiority complex has remained with Israelis to this day and is expressed especially in the Israeli sports world. It is as though something went wrong on the way to the national aspiration.

"We are completely schizophrenic on this issue: We are even an atomic power, in the last war we destroyed Beirut's international airport without batting an eyelash, we employ disproportionate force and enjoy it, and at the same time we feel like weak victims. We are a majority that always has the consciousness of a minority. Some of our identity problems really have not been solved and physicality is part of this. The issue of strength is not solved for us.

"It is completely clear to me that the continuing crisis at the universities is part of this. There is scorn here for the intellect, for anything that isn't productive. Though this trend is connected to global processes of rapacious capitalism, in the Israeli context it also links up with subterranean currents, with the ambivalence toward yeshiva students. I don't share the prevailing hatred for the ultra-Orthodox here. It's not that I'm crazy about ultra-Orthodox society, but in the discourse of the liberal left, there is something auto-anti-Semitic. I am definitely in favor of ultra-Orthodox society being more productive, but I think the ideal of sitting and learning Torah - I'm talking about the truly brilliant students - is amazing and I wish that it applied to every student of the humanities. Israeliness suffers from the total loss of this characteristic, of dying in the tent of Torah."

Never in the closet

Gluzman grew up in a home where being like everyone else was a disgrace. His mother, a social worker and an activist in Machsom Watch (an organization that monitors human-rights abuses in the territories), was born in Ecuador; his late father, who was a construction engineer, was born in Argentina. Both of them belonged to the Communist left. "This was a home that existed on the political margins," he relates. "My parents were unconventional people. This made my life a lot easier. I realized that I was a homosexual in my teens, and in fact I was never in the closet. It was alright to be different; it was even almost a privileged position."

Despite his intensive interest in post-Zionist stances in Hebrew literature, Gluzman defines his own political position as - wonder of wonders - Zionist leftist. "When you read Brenner, for example, you see that his criticism of Zionism is far more acute than that of a lot of post-Zionists today, but he perceived himself as part of the Zionist discourse. I am very critical of many Zionist phenomena, but I still see myself as part of the camp. I think that Jews are also entitled to self-definition. Nevertheless, nationalism is sometimes a dangerous emotion."

Next year Gluzman will become chair of Tel Aviv University's literature department, replacing legendary department head Prof. Menachem Perry. The position challenges him, despite the faculty's budgetary constraints. He plans to establish a new journal in the department and workshops that will closely accompany the young doctoral candidates.

Nonetheless, he is worried. "They are strangling the humanities," he says. "When a lecturer retires and they don't bring in someone in his stead, an entire field is eradicated. We are a country that is committing suicide intellectually; we don't know how to absorb young faculty at the university. This is very much connected to my book. Values of the spirit and studiousness are no longer esteemed in Israeli society; it is much more estimable to be a general than to be a philosopher. This is most regrettable and above all it isn't proving itself."