Literary Criticism / The Mother Lode

A professor of Hebrew literature analyzes the changing role of the mother figure in contemporary Israeli fiction.

Tesha Imahot Ve'ima (Nine Mothers and a Mother: Representations of Motherhood in Modern Hebrew Fiction ) by Avraham Balaban. Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew), 192 pages, NIS 84

Daniel Tchetchik

S.Y. Agnon's wondrous novella "In the Prime of Her Life," which opens with the famous words "My mother died in the prime of her life," tells of the angelic mother, Leah, whose illness and death shape the life of her daughter, Tirza. A mother's death is also the opening event of Agnon's "A Simple Story," which begins, "The widow Mirl lay ill for many days .... God in heaven saw how she suffered and took her from this world" (English translation by Hillel Halkin, Syracuse University Press, 2000 ).

In the latter story, however, the fate of the daughter, Blume, is shaped not only by her dead mother but also by Tsirl, the live, healthy mother of Hirshl, the man she loves. Tsirl is controlling and cunning, a wily shopkeeper who imposes her will on anyone who comes within her reach, particularly her son and her husband.

So which is the "typical" Jewish mother? Is it melancholy Leah? Is it beautiful Mirl, who died a miserable pauper's death and left her daughter a destitute orphan? Or is it rich, overbearing Tsirl? The stereotype of the "Jewish mother" as a woman who devotes all her time and energy to her children, ignoring her own needs in her all-consuming desire to see them settled down and happy, apparently did not make an appearance even in the writings of Agnon, who subjected every possible Jewish myth to close scrutiny, undermined it and then reaffirmed it. The same myth has understandably also failed to appear in the bulk of Israeli fiction of the last decades, a literature that has assimilated many of the tenets of feminism.

An overview of the Hebrew fiction produced in the last decades reveals a growing gap between the mothers found in it and the prevalent stereotype of the martyred Jewish mother. In fact, as Avraham Balaban shows in "Nine Mothers and a Mother," the "good-enough mother" (to use the term coined by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott ) barely appears in modern Hebrew fiction. (In American fiction, the Jewish mother is more likely to be smothering and guilt-inducing than a slave to her children. ) Balaban's new book follows the maternal figure in highly regarded fictional works of the past 40 years and offers detailed analyses of nine of them, from Amos Oz's "The Hill of Evil Counsel" to the most recent novels by David Grossman ("To the End of the Land" ) and Ronit Matalon ("The Sound of Our Steps" ).

Unsound or estranged

In his introduction, Balaban, an Israeli who is a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida, notes that the typical mothers of modern Israeli fiction include the mentally unsound woman who has trouble caring for her children (as in the works of Oz and of Ruth Almog ), the mother estranged from her children (as in the works of Amalia Kahana-Carmon ), and the anxious, smothering mother familiar from Grossman's novels.

Interestingly, the wave of new women's fiction that began to appear in the mid-1980s only intensified this trend in Hebrew literature: "Over and over this fiction presents mothers who view motherhood as a burden, mothers who abandon or neglect their children as they pursue a life with a new partner, mothers who cooperate with a father who sexually abuses his daughters, and also abandoned or rejected daughters trying to understand why their mothers committed suicide," Balaban writes. If we consider the conventional analogy between the mother and the motherland - an analogy found in Israeli culture and in many others - the significance of what Balaban describes becomes even more striking.

For further reading:

Hebrew Fiction / Sleight of hand
The thin line between fiction and autobiography in Israeli novels
Mixed media

By way of explaining this phenomenon of the de-idealization of motherhood, Balaban cites in his introduction general factors rooted in the essential tension between mothers and children, as well as reasons that are more specific to the Israeli context - Israel's nature as a country of immigrants, rebellion against the Israeli idealization of parenthood in general and of the mythic "good mother" in particular. He also provides some literary explanations: a good, devoted mother, after all, is simply not a very interesting fictional character.

The bulk of the book consists of seven chapters that demonstrate the thesis outlined in the opening. Each of these chapters offers a new, unexpected interpretation of the novels and stories Balaban has chosen, an interpretation focused on the figure of the mother. In his discussion of "The Hill of Evil Counsel" (1976 ), for example, Balaban suggests that the novella holds the key to understanding the betraying-mother archetype in Oz's oeuvre. Her betrayal can take the shape of escaping from her husband with different lovers, but also with her remaining physically within the family, though closed off and no longer participating in its collective life. Balaban is a leading Oz scholar (his book "Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz's Prose" was published by Pennsylvania State University Press in 1993 ). His analyses of the treacherous mother and the hero with a double paternity (two father figures, with the child unable to know which one is his biological father ) in other works by Oz support and enrich his reading of "The Hill of Evil Counsel."

The chapter on Lea Aini's "Sdommel" (2001 ) sees the book as a feminist work that challenges the biblical view of motherhood. Sarah is depicted as a silent mother. If in the biblical text, she keeps silent when Abraham takes Jacob to sacrifice him, in Aini's work, she keeps quiet when the father rapes their daughter. The daughter avenges that silence by way of a woman's weapon: an iron, whose heat is reminiscent of the fire by which Abraham would have offered up his sacrificed son. In "Sdommel," then, we have a reverse version of the Binding of Jacob, in which the daughter binds her mother, and in which Sarah is not only the silent mother, but also the mother who is offered as a sacrifice. Likewise, in his discussion of Avirama Golan's "The Ravens" (2004 ), Balaban shows that the book presents motherhood not as a desirable, happy, natural state, but rather as an institution involving irresolvable tensions and conflicts.

The strength of Balaban's analyses is rooted in his ability to read long novels with the same intensity usually found in critical discussions of short stories. And so he is able to shed new light, for example, on Grossman's 1991 "The Book of Intimate Grammar," which has been the subject of so many articles that it seemed as though nothing more could be said about it. Balaban here exposes the novel's subtle allusions to Greek mythology, and especially the monstrous, Gorgon-like face of Hinda, the hero's mother. Hinda accuses her son of intentionally failing to grow, but the author implicitly accuses her of stunting his growth. The conflict between the mother, concerned only with the body, and the son, who is all mind and spirit, is presented in a highly convincing way.

Twelve minutes of dread

Judging by the works Balaban has chosen for discussion here, the women who joined the ranks of Hebrew novelists in the last decades have only deepened these characteristics of the Israeli mother. However, the chapters dealing with Grossman's "To the End of the Land" and Matalon's "The Sound of Our Steps" (both from 2008) seem to indicate a change in the trend and the beginnings of a reconciliation with the mother. Unlike in previous Grossman novels, motherhood in "Until the End of the Land" means great love, devotion and loyalty. The mother in Matalon's novel is, Balaban claims, a violent, capricious woman given to sudden rages, and her children are terrified of her; and yet, the terror, scorn and shame that the narrator experiences as a child give way, as she matures, to understanding, compassion and identification. No wonder, then, that Matalon's novel, as Balaban describes it, is structured as an arabesque, a pattern that preserves a central facet of the Egyptian-born mother's legacy.

But it is also in Matalon's novel, I would suggest, that we might actually find the stereotype of the Jewish mother reiterated. "The Sound of Our Steps" opens with a description of the mother's return home. Twelve minutes pass between 11:30 at night, when the children hear the sound of the bus stopping, as their mother returns from work, and the moment when she appears at the door. Twelve minutes during which they know that she is on her way, and the footsteps they are unable to hear fill them with dread and horrified anticipation. The mother is struggling to subsist under difficult conditions, and her hard work and frustration make her prone to outbursts of violence. And yet somehow, evasively, implicitly, Matalon makes her a symbol of motherhood, a mother who will not allow life to knock her down, who continues to love her husband despite many disappointments, but will not let him hurt her or her children. She raises her children to live a life of dignity and industry and to overcome the obstacles in their path.

Balaban's book is structured as a kind of disguised personal narrative. Its Hebrew title, "Tesha Imahot Ve'ima," uses the familiar term "ima" ("mom" ) over the more formal "em" ("mother" ), in referring to the 10th mother figure it describes, and clearly this intimate word refers to his own mother, Shprintza Balaban (1918-2006 ), to whom the book is dedicated.

Some feminist scholars vehemently reject what they see as a male incursion into their territory, and might consider Balaban's book a kind of trespass. To me, it is entirely welcome. It is a detailed, insightful study with a powerful personal dimension that fully explains the author's special interest in the subject, while also adding a unique and moving aspect to the textual analyses.

Motherhood is one of the dominant themes of contemporary Hebrew fiction. Several issues raised briefly in Balaban's introduction require further elaboration and may be the subject of future studies in their own right. More work remains to be done on the figure of the mother in the fiction of Orly Castel-Bloom, Judith Rotem, Savyon Liebrecht, Meir Shalev and others.

Balaban's pioneering study has thrown open the door to other researchers, enticing them to follow in his footsteps and further analyze the maternal role in Israeli literature. Frustrated mothers will find kindred spirits here, along with highly interesting discussions of motherhood, particularly the Israeli variety.

Nitza Ben-Dov is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Haifa. Her most recent book, "Vehi Tehilatekha" ("And It Is Your Praise: Studies in the Writings of S. Y. Agnon, A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz" ), was published in Hebrew by Schocken.