A Short History of Hebrew Literature, From Genesis to Etgar Keret

It's Hebrew Book Week, and the perfect time to glance back at Hebrew writing from biblical times to the post-modernist escapists.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

This week is Hebrew Book Week, Shvua HaSefer HaIvri, a celebration of Hebrew literature throughout Israel. Cities hold book fairs; and bookstores, which still exist, give discounts.

To mark this fine tradition, here is a brief history of Hebrew literature from the earliest known to this day.

The books of the Bible

Clearly, the earliest and most important, not to mention the most commercially successful, works of Hebrew literature are the books of the Bible, 24 or 36 in number, depending on how one counts.

These were written over centuries, starting some 3,000 years ago, by numerous different authors, mostly anonymous: some of the books of the prophets may have been written by the prophets whose names they bear.

Over the ages, the biblical books underwent various revisions until their final codification, sometime during the early first millennium C.E.

The books of the Bible vary enormously in genre, starting with creation and historic myths and moving onto histories, legal codes, wisdom literature, and poetry.

Apocryphal books – that is, Hebrew books from the same period that didn't make it into the Bible – are of the same general themes. For example the Book of Ben Sira (dating from around 180 B.C.E.) conveys wisdom in the vein of Ecclesiastes.

Among the more intriguing of the apocrypha is the Book of Judith, which some consider to be the earliest historical novel. It appears in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of biblical texts, and in Catholic versions of the Old Testament – but not in the Hebrew bible as we know it today.

Apocalypse soon

The Book of Daniel is an early version of the apocalyptic literature that became popular in the last two centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. and the first C.E. This end-of-days theme generally has God destroying the planet, eliminating the wicked and elevating the righteous. The fate of animals in this scenario is generally neglected.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 135 C.E., fond expectations of imminent messianic salvation were tempered by serial false messiahs. Apocalyptic literature gave way to legal writing, codified in the Mishnah by Judah HaNasi in about 220 C.E., and its accompanying Tosafot (addendums). This literature concerns how a Jewish life is to be lived in the here and now: it is practical, not poetic, philosophical or literary.

In addition to these legal halakhic texts, the late classical-early medieval period saw the birth of Midrash, a fanciful interpretation of the Bible, supposedly revealing the texts true hidden meanings. Another form of Hebrew writing to flower in this period is piyut, religious poetry, written in incredibly obscure Hebrew.

With these exceptions, other Jewish writings of this period were written nearly exclusively in Aramaic, which gradually pushed out Hebrew as the language of the Jews. The commentary in the Mishnah, the Talmud and Gemara is almost entirely in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

The rise of Jewish writing in Arabic

But with the rise of Islam in the 7th century C.E., Aramaic began to disappear. Jews in the prosperous communities that thrived under Islam, in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and most prominently in Moorish Spain took to writing in Arabic.

It was in this period – the 9th to 12th centuries – that Jewish secular literature blossomed. Jewish writers addressed medicine, science, philosophy, linguistics and more – in Arabic. An exception to this rule was poetry, which was written in Hebrew, and for the first time touched on non-religious subjects including wine, love and sex.

Arguably the greatest of these medieval poets was Judah HaLevi, writing in Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries, who is famous for his moving non-liturgical eulogies, one offering the tribute to friends: "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love."

But Muslim Spain was about to disappear. As the Moors were pushed out of Iberia, local Jews found themselves persecuted by Christians even before the Great Expulsion of 1492. Many emigrated to North Africa, but some went elsewhere in Europe, where they joined Ashkenazi communities.

These Sephardic Jews found that the Ashkenazim had no comparable secular literature and that their new neighbors could not read the Arabic books written by the likes of Maimonides, Judah HaLevi and other important Jewish writers. Thus a massive translation project began, most notably by the Ibn Tibbon family.

Among the books translated in this time are the great works of Maimonides on philosophy and medicine and Ibn Janah’s books on the Hebrew language, as well as many other tomes on a wide range of subjects never before discussed in Hebrew, such as astronomy.

This sudden boom in non-liturgical Hebrew texts didn’t change the general trend, though: throughout the Middle Ages Hebrew writing continued to center almost entirely on reinterpreting Jewish law, a trend that continued until the modern era.

Come the philosophers

By volume, the greatest corpus of Hebrew until modern times is responsa – questions and answers on Jewish law written to and from rabbis. Yet the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period did see several important Hebrew firsts, inspired by the Arabic translations. Among the genres that began to appear in Hebrew during this period are travel books such as the influential 12th-century book by Benjamin of Tudela, “The Travels of Benjamin," meticulously describing his journeys to Europe, Africa and Asia.

Philosophy books also began appearing in Hebrew, many in response Maimonides’s "Guide for the Perplexed," which was translated by Samuel ibn Tibbon. The greatest number of Hebrew philosophy books at this time was in the field of ethics, featuring ethical wills written by fathers to sons, explaining how one should live his life. An early example of these is one written by Eliezer of Worms in the 11th century.

This period also gave rise to a great deal of mystical literature, including the famous Zohar, the foundational work of kabbalah, written by Leon of Modena in the 17th century.

The first Hebrew fiction

This period also saw first steps towards Hebrew fiction. Arguably the first of these was “Sefer HaSha’ashuim,” written by Joseph Ibn Zabara in the 12th century. It is a weird tale of a man conversing with the devil on a variety of subjects including folktales, philosophy and science.

Another early example is Brachia Ben Naturai Hanakdan’s “Animal Fables” and Immanuel the Roman’s collection of poetry known as Makhbarot.

The Italian Renaissance also produced the first Hebrew play – “A Comedy of Betrothal” by Leone de' Sommi, who is also credited with inventing the art of stage direction.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment began to shine on the Jewish people, as the French Revolution and later the Napoleonic Code emancipated Europe’s Jews, enabling them to venture outside their communities and become exposed to non-Jewish texts and ways. This led to an adoption of new literary forms and the formation of an intellectual movement, which mirrored the Enlightenment, or Haskalah. This movement is traditionally considered to have began the day the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn entered Berlin in 1743. Mendelssohn himself however wrote mostly in German.

Despite not writing much in Hebrew, Mendelssohn was involved in founding Me’asef, the first Hebrew periodical in 1783. At first it appeared monthly but by the end of the century its circulation and frequency of publication had declined. The most notable literary products of this short-lived German Haskalah were a number of epic poems, of which the most highly regarded is “Nir David” by Shalom Cohen. German Jews were assimilating rapidly and preferred to read and write in German. But the Haskalah Movement traveled east, where it was adopted by Galician Jews. (Galicia – Eastern Europe, not Spain).

This Galician Haskalah led to the birth of academic Jewish studies, with the important works of Nachman Krochmal, as well as the development of Hebrew satire to new heights with the work of Josef Perl, notably "The Revealer of Secrets" (1819). As the 19th century progressed, the Haskalah continued to press east into the Russian Empire, mostly in the heavily Jewish Lithuania and Belarus and later in what is today the Ukraine. It was here that modern Hebrew literature and poetry began to flower, with the works of the poets Adam HaCohen Lebensohn and his son Micah Joseph Lebensohn (“Michal”) and most importantly Judah Leib Gordon, whose poems have had an enormous effect on Hebrew poetry to this very day.

The first Hebrew novelist

This was also the setting for the first Hebrew novelist, Abraham Mapu, who published "Ahavat Zion" in 1853. He was followed by other Hebrew novelists, most notably Peretz Smolenskin and Reuben Asher Braudes.

The end of the century saw Odessa turn into the main center of Hebrew culture. At the head of this movement stood the essayist Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginzberg), editor of the most important Hebrew publication of the day – the Shiloach.

Also working in Odessa was Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovich), who not only revolutionized Hebrew prose by writing in a natural mix of Biblical Hebrew and rabbinic Hebrew, but is also considered the grandfather of Yiddish literature.

Mendele Mocher Sforim’s writing is characterized by a crude realism, which is often caustically critical of Jewish life in the Diaspora, without turning to idealism, either Zionist or Socialist. This is evident in perhaps his greatest work, “The Travels of Benjamin the Third.” He had two major followers, Shalom Aleichem in Yiddish and Hayim Nahman Bialik in Hebrew.

Bialik’s traditional Jewish education and phenomenal memory gave him perhaps the greatest command of Hebrew language ever. His work, both in poetry and prose, draws from idioms and language, and alludes to every single strata of Hebrew discussed here. Arguably his greatest piece of fiction is “Behind the Fence,” though he is more known for his poetry.

Other important writers of the period include David Frishman and Micha Berdyczewski, both from Warsaw, and the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, with his flair for epic poetry. But this flowering of Hebrew writing came to an end with World War I and the Russian Revolution. Hebrew was declared counterrevolutionary and several writers, including Bialik himself, were thrown in prison, only to be released shortly thereafter.

Still, they had to find another home. In the early 20th century they emigrated to British Mandate Palestine, joining the smaller literary community that had been active there from the 1880s. Key figures of this early Palestinian literary school were Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a pioneer of Hebrew journalism and important lexicographer, as well as Ze’ev Yavetz, a rabbi, writer and publisher.

Once Bialik arrived in Tel Aviv in 1924 though, his supremacy was accepted by all. He set up the Dvir publishing house and the Hebrew Writers Association.

Rebellion against Bialik

Bialik cast a great shadow over Hebrew poetry and much of the poetry of the age is frankly an imitation of his work. That is until, the next generation of writers revolted against Bialik's supremacy. Taking over the Hebrew Writers Association journal Ktuvim, Avraham Shlonsky brought a modernist style drawing from Russian revolutionary poets and French symbolists of the period. Shlonsky’s disciples, Nathan Alterman and Lea Goldberg, continued this trend in the realm of poetry.

In opposition to this strand of Hebrew poetry, this period also saw Uri Tzvi Greenberg’s mystical and nationalistic poetry, which was highly influenced by the work of Walt Whitman. Another important development in this period was the work of Yonathan Ratush, who drew on Ugaritic poetry and religion in attempt to recreate a long-lost Canaanite culture.

A comparable flowering also occurred in this period in the field of prose, with writers such as Dvora Baron, Gershon Shofman, Isaac Dov Berkowitz, and Yosef Haim Brenner, though these are hardly read today, as the Hebrew they wrote is foreign and difficult for the modern reader. The only writer of the period that still enjoys steady readership is S. Y. Agnon, possibly because he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1966 for his work. Perhaps his greatest novel and arguably the greatest Hebrew novel of all times is "Tmol Shilshom" (“Yesteryear”).

The next generation of writers, usually called the Palmach generation after the underground Jewish militia to which many belonged, worked from the 1940s until the state’s early years. Most prominent of these were the novelist S. Yizhar, with his masterpiece “Days of Ziklag” and the poet Haim Guri.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of writers exploded onto the scene. They were highly influenced by the French artistic movement “Nouvelle Vague” and the French philosophic school of Existentialism. This generation, usually referred to as the “State Generation” as they grew up with the new state of Israel, includes the novelists Amos Oz, whose “Black Box” is particularly excellent and A. B. Yehoshua, whose “The Lover” is a staple of Hebrew literature.

This period was the zenith of Hebrew poetry, with a flurry of greats including Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, Yona Wallach, Dahlia Ravikovitch, and David Avidan.

The following generation, that of the 70s and 80s, is sometimes called the “disillusioned wave” in contrast with the previous “New Wave.” These writers tended to reject Israeli narrative and its themes and focused on either universal themes or Jewish themes viewed from a non-Zionist point of view. The best known of these writers are David Grossman, Meir Shalev and Yaacov Shabtai.

The 1990s and the aughts brought with them a postmodern twist in Israeli writing as well as experimentation with new forms and themes. The writing of this generation is often characterized by escapism and in some cases is critical of or even hostile to Zionism. Leading writers in this generation are Etgar Keret, Uzi Weill and Orly Castel-Bloom.

Inevitably, Hebrew writing will continue to evolve, and like all evolution, no-one can say what path it will take. Perhaps the next master of Hebrew prose is currently searching for a publisher of his magnus opus – the great Israeli novel.

Hebrew Book Week in Tel Aviv has for many years been a major event drawing as many as a million Israelis of all ages.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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