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Why Israel Is The Cultural Center Of The Jewish World

At the age of seventy, Israel is the cultural center of the Jewish world. Whether in the fields of literature or cinema, theater, dance, or food, Israel can no longer be described as one hub among many, equal in standing to that which continues to be produced in Europe or the United States. Rather, Hebrew culture — translated into English, French, or otherwise — is the lodestar that guides artistic and aesthetic taste.

As a matter of access, there is simply more Israeli culture available in English — translated, subtitled, staged — than ever before. Israeli authors are the star attractions of Jewish book festivals. Ha’aretz in English or The Times of Israel have become essential reading. And once marginal or non-existent, Israeli food and Israeli-trained chefs — Michael Solomonov, Assaf Granit, or Eyal Shani and his Miznon brand — have become a major presence in London and New York.

Israel at 70

Indeed, it is not uncommon now for successful works by Israelis to be written in English before they are translated back into Hebrew. Shani Boijaniu’s sensational and much-discussed debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” about three young women’s experience of military life, was born in English. In recent years, Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis, Ari Shavit, and Ronen Bergman have all published books about Israeli history and politics in English — in some cases, exclusively.

To compare the fates of American Jewish and Israeli literature specifically, however, is to see Israel’s newfound strength as a cultural powerhouse is more than merely a question of critical mass or something as seemingly superficial as what is on people’s plates (important in its own way though that is). Rather, Israel has become central to the Jewish novel itself, if recent efforts by the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss are any indication.

Previously, Philip Roth dropped in and out of Israel in his fiction, in “The Counterlife” and “Sabbath’s Theater.” Israel was key to Saul Bellow’s political identity, at the very least, and was the subject of his best-known work of non-fiction, “To Jerusalem and Back.” And it was an American, Leon Uris, who with “Exodus” in 1958 defined the noble image of Israel, at least for those in the Diaspora, for a generation.

Bellow’s novels though, as well as those of Roth and Bernard Malamud, were very much, as Martin Amis has argued, about the experience of the immigrant — of finding both a place and a voice for Jews in the United States. Those books are marked by an “anxiety of entitlement,” which is to say, “an anxiety about the right to pronounce, the right to judge — about the right to write.” Christopher Hitchens also wrote that to read Bellow is to see that “it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.”

But as Matti Friedman has rightly observed, the American Jewish novel is today a long way from those bright, punchy opening words of Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” “I am an American, Chicago born.” In the past year, Safran Foer’s “Here I Am,” Joshua Cohen’s “Moving Kings,” Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” and Krauss’s “Forest Dark” (not to mention Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman’s non-fiction compendium, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash”) all either feature Israel and Israelis as important plot devices or are set in Israel itself.

Though Dan Grossman argues that these novels are essentially heirs of Roth — that American Jewish literature “has always been de-centered, energized less by a unified voice than by doublings, conflicting impulses, and the comic madness of trying to be two people at once”—what Friedman sees is that the Israel of these novels, which has a strange or even magical quality exists to be leant on in order to support and ask questions about American Jewish identity. As he puts it, “These novels turn to Israel to shore up American lives that feel short on meaning”:

The immigrant fires of writers who once hit America like shtetl-launched ICBMs are now too cold to even toast a marshmallow. If you’re not a recent arrival from the Soviet Union, you’re not likely to have funny mannerisms, an ethnic chip on your shoulder, or much interesting history of your own. Yiddish nostalgia is stale, and with everyone in the suburbs, there is no American Jewish street. The broader American culture seems to offer little cohesion for a writer to either embrace or rebel against.

The Israeli novel itself has, at the same time, undergone something of an evolution. In “To Jerusalem and Back,” Bellow wrote, “Only the devout are satisfied with what they can obtain within Israel’s borders. The Israelis are great travellers. They need the world.” As a way of coping with the nerves and anxieties produced by the Six Day War, there was in the late 1960s and into the 1970s a discernable trend of Israeli novelists breaking out of the contemporary Israeli setting by moving the action elsewhere.

In 1973, Amos Oz would publish “Touch the Water, Touch the Wind,” a historical novel that moves between wartime Poland, Stalin’s Russia, and the shores of the Galilee as another conflict looms. In the 1960s and 1970s, Haim Gouri (“The Chocolate Deal”), Hanoch Bartov (“The Dissembler”), and Rachel Eytan (“Pleasures of Man”) all published novels either entirely or partly set in Europe. Perhaps more so than any other Israeli novelist, A.B. Yehoshua has written about the geographical and cultural relationship between Israel, Jewish identity, and either the Diaspora or the wider world, up to and including “The Retrospective.”

While this tendency towards escape has not gone away entirely — the characters in Dorit Rabinyan’s cross-cultural love story “All the Rivers” had to be set in New York for their relationship to exist in the first place — the novels that have resonated more so in recent years have tended to be those firmly planted in Israel itself: national in content if sometimes universal in its concern, which arguably is the best way to describe the most successful Israeli novel published in the past couple of years, David Grossman’s “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.”

Indeed, when Ora’s son, Ofer, is suddenly called up for military service in order to take part in a sudden offensive, terrified and overpowered by a fear of bereavement she decides to take flight, not overseas but, as the title of another Grossman novel would have it, “To The End of the Land.” Oz’s fiction retains its essential, beautiful provinciality, with recent novels moving between the kibbutz (“Between Friends”) and more-or-less one house and a few streets in 1950s Jerusalem (“Judas”). Eshkol Nevo’s “Three Floors Up,” written in a harried, confessional style, is confined to one anonymous apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv. As the American Jewish novel has found its legs, its Israeli cousin has settled back down.

In 2015, Israel’s Sapir Prize was awarded to the author of an acclaimed American Jewish novel, “The Ruined House” — about a professor of comparative culture at New York University whose descent is brought on by a series of strange and inexplicable visions. The author of this most American of novels was Ruby Namdar — an Israeli expatriate. Nothing is forever, but for now, Israel is helping to write the American Jewish novel — a land that opens up new possibilities, new ways of seeing and being.

Liam Hoare is a freelance critic and journalist based in the UK.


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