Remembering Israel’s James Joyce
With the August 21 passing of Yizhar Smilansky, Israeli literature lost a voice of moral conscience and modern Hebrew lost one of its most gifted virtuosos. (He wrote under the name S. Yizhar, as he was and is universally known in common parlance as Samekh Yizhar.) Dubbed the James Joyce of Hebrew literature, Smilansky — who received numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Israel Prize — died one month shy of his 90th birthday.
Born in 1916 into a literary family in the farming community of Rehovot, Smilansky studied education in Jerusalem and worked as a teacher for a number of years. At the age of 22, he burst onto the literary scene with the novella “Efrayim Returns to the Alfalfa.” His capacity to challenge his readers never diminished. Later he served as a member of the first Knesset, representing the original Labor Party, and continued dabbling in politics until the Six Day War began. In the 1970s he returned to academia. He was hired by a number of Israel’s leading universities, first as a professor of education and later as one of literature.
Throughout his oeuvre of short stories and novellas, Smilansky’s protagonists tended to display the same general characteristics: single; male; resides or longs for life in a small, rural community; highly sensitive and idealistic, and takes with him wherever he goes the idealized image of a beautiful woman who must remain beyond his reach. The Yizharesque male guards his privacy jealously and is given to extended meditation and lengthy inner discourses; though never out of touch with immediate reality, he is helplessly indecisive, emotionally vulnerable and ultimately unfulfilled.
Part of the first generation of sabra writers, Smilansky portrayed both the beauty and the sins of his country. In 1949 he wrote two stories that would bring him notoriety and generate intense public debate, and that are now classics of Israeli literature: “The Captive” and “Hirbet Hiz’ah.” Both grew directly out of the author’s wartime experience and describe in graphic detail the callousness and cruelty displayed by a platoon of young Israeli soldiers toward hapless Arab villagers caught in the middle of the hostilities. Against pressure exerted by Smilansky’s critics on the right, “The Captive” and its companion story entered the curriculum of the secular education mainstream and have been longtime standards in most anthologies of Israeli literature in translation.
By the 1980s it was generally assumed that the writer’s literary career had peaked, given that no new work of fiction had appeared in almost three decades. But in the early 1990s, Smilansky once again stunned the literary establishment with a burst of creativity that saw no fewer than half-a-dozen new novellas published in less than a decade.
Menachem D. Rotstein teaches Hebrew language and literature at Montreal’s Concordia University.