Dror Mishani: What Makes Hebrew Literature Unique and Who Dunnit?

The intimate connections between Hebrew writers and the languages of their surroundings is no marginal fact.

Ofer Vaknin

Being the representative of Hebrew literature at an evening like this is not easy. Certainly not easy for a writer like me, an author of crime novels, meaning an author who writes outside the traditional boundaries of modern Hebrew literature.

But still, one should try.

What is unique in the history of Hebrew literature is that it was created, almost from its beginnings to the present day, in linguistic and literary environments that weren’t Hebrew, or at least weren’t only Hebrew.

An observer from the outside will find it hard to believe. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in Seville, Shakespeare invented modern English literature in Stratford and London, and Balzac wrote “The Human Comedy” in Paris. However, most of the major works in the history of Hebrew literature were created in geographical and cultural environments that weren’t Hebrew-speaking, and by writers for whom Hebrew wasn’t their native tongue.

The Bible was composed and edited in these parts, but just as Hebrew wasn’t the only language spoken here then (just as it is not today), this was also a multi-ethnic and multicultural region. The redacting of the Bible was a long process of borrowing and internalizing, adapting and changing, the myths and legends of ancient peoples and cultures that lived in the area.

Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages was composed in Muslim Andalusia, borrowing forms and themes from Arabic poetry of the period. For his part, Maimonides frequently wrote in Hebrew, but his major philosophical work, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” was written in Arabic in Cairo, and was influenced by Muslim philosophers of the time.

The first Hebrew autobiography, “Aviezer,” was written by Mordechai Aharon Ginzburg in Lithuania in the mid-19th century, in the confessional style prevalent in Europe after Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And Lithuania is also the birthplace of the first Hebrew novel, “Love of Zion,” by Abraham Mapu, which was written in biblical Hebrew and set in Samaria, but drew its plot and structure from the European adventure novel and the roman d’intrigue.

Even most of the work of Israel’s national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, was composed in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, before his arrival in Palestine. When he came to Tel Aviv, Bialik almost stopped writing poetry, as if his creative imagination had suddenly dried up.

Like Bialik, most of the greatest modern Hebrew writers and poets also translated works from the languages of their surroundings. Translation was a means for wielding literary influence in the places in which they were born and raised: Mendele Mokher Sforim, the father of the Hebrew novel, translated the first science books published in Hebrew; Yosef Haim Brenner translated Dostoevsky; Uri Nissan Gnessin, the stories of Chekhov; and Leah Goldberg brought “War and Peace” to Hebrew.

These intimate connections between Hebrew writers and the languages and literatures within which they created are not a marginal fact in the history of Hebrew literature. Rather they constitute a unique part of its identity, one that had a decisive impact on its development as well as its accomplishments. One might even say that Hebrew authors were among the first in the world to recognize the benefits of what is now called in universities “global literature.”

All this, of course, has changed greatly in recent decades.

There still live among us important literary figures in Israel, whose mother tongue, or even the primary language of writing, is not Hebrew: Shimon Ballas and Natan Zach, Aharon Appelfeld, Sami Michael and Erez Biton. Nevertheless, during the last few decades, Hebrew literature has been created, for the first time, by writers for whom Hebrew is indeed their mother tongue. And it is created in an almost exclusively Hebrew cultural sphere, which isolates itself from the languages that surround it.

There are, of course, quite a few advantages to that.

A writer of Hebrew novels can finally create, for the first time in history, a beautiful page in spoken Hebrew, with authentic dialogues, for example, that resonate with the different registers of Hebrew – that of the poor and of the rich, of Tel Aviv and of Ashdod, of a police inspector and a criminal.

But there are drawbacks too.

More and more, Hebrew literature is being created from itself, within itself, contrary to the way that it has been created over the centuries – with too little dialogue with foreign literatures – and even turning its back to languages and literatures around and inside it.

I know there are quite a few writers and scholars who think that this is the way it should be. That Hebrew literature is rich and historically deep enough to keep reinventing itself from within itself, alone. I read critics who even think that writers of my generation are not Hebrew enough, meaning they do not borrow enough from the rich history of Hebrew writing.

I think the opposite.

I think that Hebrew literature cannot reside on its own, by itself, between the walls of the nation and the national language. And I think that the case of the detective story, the literary genre in which I write, proves this.

Mutual borrowing

Hebrew literature knows very little about the glorious history of the detective story, which began with E.T.A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe, and continued with writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, James Ellroy and Fred Vargas.

The detective story, perhaps the most universal of all literary genres written today, evolved exactly from the mutual borrowing of writers from around the world, each changing or adding something, like a painter adding a single line to a painting that was started before him: Poe drew the first murder; next to that, Conan Doyle drew the outlines of the genius detective; Agatha Christie added the mustache; Simenon added the pipe; Chandler, the glass of whiskey; and Henning Mankell spread soft Scandinavian snow all around.

And if before we met our detectives mainly in Paris, New York and London, and then in Stockholm and Oslo, now they’re coming from Cape Town and Tokyo, Cairo and Marrakech.

Anyone who thinks you can write a detective story in Hebrew without addressing this rich global tradition – and not be in constant dialogue with it – is wrong.

And I think this is true not only for the detective story.

Obviously, this dialogue between literatures and authors can be done through translations. It can also be done through events like the Jerusalem International Writers Festival, in which writers from around the world meet to ask each other the same questions they ask themselves, about form and content – and, most importantly, how to conceal the killer until the last page.

And this is an opportunity to thank the organizers of this festival for making these meetings possible.

But this is obviously not enough. It is not enough because for the first time in its history, Hebrew literature in recent years is being written in almost-total detachment, detachment out of choice, from the cultural environment around and inside it.

We almost don’t translate literature from Arabic. More than that, we even put up with a law that effectively prohibits the import of books from Arab countries.

I belong to a generation of writers and authors who cannot even conduct a dialogue with the languages and literatures that surround them, and in their very midst.

Until a generation or two ago, this was not the case.

My grandfather, Rafael Mishani, was born in 1921 in Aleppo, not far from Syria’s border with Turkey. He was a clerk and not a writer, but he loved to tell his grandchildren stories of Aleppo of his childhood. If he had written them down, if he could write today a lament of ruined Aleppo, perhaps he would have written it in Arabic.

My father, Mordechai Mishani, was born in Tel Aviv in 1945.

His first language was Hebrew, but he understood Arabic. He wasn’t a man of many words, but if he had been a poet, I’m sure the secret music of Arabic would have been heard through his verse, just as it was heard in his spoken Hebrew. When my father died, exactly one year ago, I realized my family’s conversation with this place might stop.

I do not know Arabic.

I don’t speak Arabic and I don’t understand it.

Ninety-eight percent of Israeli Jews don’t understand it.

I decided to start learning Arabic, and, hopefully, within a few years, I’ll be able to translate Arabic literature to Hebrew, especially detective novels, which, jus as here, have also recently begun to sprout in the Arabic world.

For me it is a very personal task, related to the loss of my grandfather and my father, but I think it could also be the task of Hebrew literature: to go back to doing what it has always known how to do, to take its place again within the languages and cultures it’s surrounded by, to borrow from and lend to them, to create itself within them, next to them, without walls.

For Hebrew literature’s sake, I think we should all stop being only Hebrew.

The above is a translation of a speech presented at the opening ceremony of this week’s Jerusalem International Writers Festival. D.A. Mishani’s first novel, “The Missing File,” was published last year by HarperCollins.

Kobi Bohadana and Naama Garson
Courtesy of the Mishani family