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Israel: The Writers’ Writer

Midnight Convoy and Other Stories

by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Misha Louvish and others, with an introduction by Dan Miron
Toby Press, 283 pp., $14.95 (paper)


by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, with an introduction by Dan Miron
Toby Press, 305 pp., $24.95

Khirbet Khizeh

by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, with an afterword by David Shulman
Jerusalem: Ibis, 131 pp., $16.95 (paper)

A story used to circulate among members of the Russian intelligentsia: boxing contests in Hamburg, it was said, were rigged so that the popular boxers would win, thus pleasing the public. Yet the boxers were keen to know who the real champion was, and once a year they used to meet in a secret cellar for a serious match, to which only the professionals were invited. Similarly, in an avant-garde secret poetry contest, the story had it, Velimir Khlebnikov was the champion, not the more popular Vladimir Mayakovsky. He was the true choice of the poets: the poets’ poet.

S. Yizhar, a native Israeli writer (1916–2006), is the native Israeli writers’ writer, the champion of the literary cellars of Israel, even though writers more popular than he are much better known to the public. With the appearance of some remarkable translations of his works into English, there is a chance for him to be more widely known not only as a powerful writer but also as an incarnation of the spirit of Israel’s birth sixty years ago—an event that Israeli Jews celebrate and Palestinian Arabs lament.

S. Yizhar is the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, the name he used to publish his precocious first short novel, Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa, in 1938. At the time, no one suspected that the novel was written by a young man of twenty-two. But all of Yizhar’s distinctive characteristics were there—a vast Hebrew vocabulary, rich with references to flora and fauna, an unhurried, expansive syntax, powerful descriptions of open landscapes, long inner dialogues, and the ever-present theme of the individual vs. the collective, in which young members of the Labor Zionist aristocracy were the main characters.

There is not much plot in this novel, or in any that followed. It is about a kibbutz meeting that deals with the request of a longtime member, Ephraim, to switch from working in the alfalfa fields to working in the orange grove. The kibbutz turns him down.

And why is the orange grove better than the alfalfa?” asks Nehama, the woman with whom Ephraim is in love and who is supposed to be sympathetic to him. (“Nehama” in Hebrew means comfort, consolation, even redemption.)

Well, Nehama, what can I say? I don’t know, whether it’s better or not, but all the same…”

…But all the same, the sun again stood high in the sky, glowing with a luster dimmed by the heat, and the ends of the fields quivered by themselves.

It may very well be because of the sun that Ephraim wants to switch to the shade of the orange grove. “Orange grove” in Hebrew is pardes, and from it, the word “paradise” derives. Yizhar’s great-uncle, Moshe Smilansky, a well-known writer, was also an agricultural entrepreneur who owned large orange groves in Palestine. Yizhar’s childhood, in the little colony of Rehovot, was spent in the shade of his uncle’s trees. Orange groves were Yizhar’s childhood Eden, from which he was expelled as he became an adult. For Ephraim, being assigned to cultivate alfalfa is to be told that there is no return to the lost paradise of childhood.

Yizhar believed with Rousseau that corrupt society grinds down and betrays the individual, yet in his story society is not corrupt but one of the most virtuous communities imaginable—the kibbutz. But Ephraim finds himself diminished there. His request to switch jobs causes tumult at the meeting, and his friends respond with condescension:

Short, sharp comments were being tossed from every side…. Quite a few were talking with great seriousness and deep sincerity about some “heroic enterprise” in which they were engaged.

Rousseau was among the originators of the idea of the intensely subjective “beautiful soul.” Ephraim torments himself for being yefe nefesh: a Hebrew expression whose literal meaning is “of beautiful soul.” The English translation renders it “fine fellow”: a possible rendering of the Hebrew, since it captures Ephraim’s fear of being seen as fastidious and haughtily aloof in a fanatically egalitarian community. But the beautiful soul is a recurrent theme in Yizhar’s writings and seems to me a better translation. It is not the general conflict between the individual and the collective that is at the center of Yizhar’s concerns but rather the more specific clash between the beautiful soul stirred by aesthetic and moral impulses and the demands of the egalitarian community for complete adherence to its rules.

Several themes stand out in Yizhar’s writings about Zionist revolution in the life of the Jews: the revival of the Hebrew language; the landscape as part of the new geography created by the Zionists; and the fate of the beautiful soul in the conflict with the Arabs.

Hebrew, as a written language, was never dead. Jewish culture has been centered on Hebrew and Aramaic religious texts throughout its history.1 But spoken Hebrew was almost a dead language, which the Zionist revolution indeed succeeded in resurrecting and reviving. For a very long time—just how long is not clear—there was no continuous use of spoken Hebrew among Jews (though there was already in the sixteenth century a tiny Hebrew-speaking community in Jerusalem). Zionism created in Palestine, and later in the State of Israel, a community of native speakers of Hebrew. When S. Yizhar’s father first landed in Palestine in 1891 at the age of eighteen, he found that Hebrew was spoken badly in the first Zionist settlements (called the Yishuv). As he put it at the time:

Even the few fanatics, who devoted themselves with excitement to the revival of Hebrew speech in the new Yishuv, were mostly stammering and speaking with utmost effort…. Their talk was not natural and fluent, and often, in the middle of a sentence, with lips still moving, one had to stop to think and find the proper word, or it was altogether lost in the speaker’s memory.2

This was not true of Yizhar’s own family. His father and all his uncles and great-uncles were among the small number of Zionists who wrote and spoke Hebrew.

In creating a community of Hebrew speakers in Palestine, the Zionists changed a “holy tongue” into the workable and expressive language of a modern secular society. When Yizhar was a child, only 20 percent of Jews in Palestine had mastered Hebrew. When he wrote his first novel in 1938, some 70 percent of the Jews surveyed in the census of the British mandate said that they primarily spoke Hebrew. For many Jews this creation of a community of Hebrew speakers was as marvelous as the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, and Yizhar conveys a sense of wonder that so rich a language has become alive.

As for the landscape, Zionism was based on the idea of a return to the historical land of the Jewish people—a claim that presented problems for Zionist geography. The Bible tells the story of the Israelites arriving in the land of the Canaanites from the east and settling mostly on the Judean and Samarian mountain ridge, which is closer to the Jordan River than to the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean is called in the Bible the Sea of the Philistines (Exodus 23:31), and the seashore and the adjoining plateau were predominantly populated by the Philistines on the southern shore and by the Phoenicians on the northern shore. The Philistines, unlike the Israelites, arrived from the west—perhaps from Greece. The Bible of course promises the whole land to the Israelites, but the biblical story is one of an unfulfilled promise. The Israelites hardly ever lived on the Mediterranean shore of Palestine.

The Zionist immigrants to Palestine were mainly from the west, and they settled largely in the land of the Philistines. Even in the Israel of today, almost 70 percent of the Jewish population resides along the Mediterranean shore. Yet the Zionist settlers felt they were close enough to the ancient land of Israel.

There were many reasons why this peculiar idea of a “return” to the historical land did not entail actually settling in it. Chief among them was that immigration to Eretz Israel, as Palestine is traditionally called by Jews, was thought by the early settlers to be not just a return to the historical land, but a process of national rebirth, creating a new Jewish society very different from the communities of Jews in the Diaspora. This in effect meant avoiding the historic “holy towns” like Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, in which there were already ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that the largely secular Zionists shunned. The idea, in short, was to settle in an “Old-New Land” (or Altneuland, as Theodor Herzl called his Zionist Utopia).

Thus Tel Aviv, the first all-Jewish city—fourteen miles from the town of Rehovot, where Yizhar was raised—was built on the sands of the coastal central plain, and it, not Jerusalem, became the visible symbol of the Zionist settlements. “Tel Aviv” is indeed an ingenious Hebrew translation of the German Altneuland, since tel in Hebrew is an ancient mound, and aviv is spring: hence, the old land and the new.

All of this changed utterly after 1967. The good judgment of the Old Zionists who chose not to live within the ancient lands themselves, which were populated by Arabs, but rather near them, was overwhelmed by a crazed wave of Zionist fundamentalists settling at the heart of the ancient homeland. This was the move that created the most explosive friction with the Palestinian population, epitomized as it was by the aggressive behavior toward Arabs of the Jewish settlement inside Hebron.

Many Zionists were, and still often are, caught in “landscape schizophrenia”; they have a strong symbolic bond to the land, and very little concrete attachment to it. When Israelis use such terms as “eternal” and “indivisible” about Jerusalem they have the heavenly city in mind, thus making sure that no political solution for the earthly Jerusalem will be possible.

Yizhar is the greatest landscape artist to write in modern Hebrew. It was, however, the paradoxical Zionist geography that he depicted, the geography of “the land of the Philistines”—not the dramatic Judean Mountains but the leveled landscape of the coastal plain and the low hills of the inner plateau. Here Yizhar describes a desert settlement where he spent some years as a child:

Here at the edge of this plot in this field, in the shade of the trunk of the ancient carob tree, one of the solitary survivors standing spherical even if harried by dust, all the other carobs having just been planted, still clinging precariously to the lumpy soil, with the form of the irrigation dish still visible at their base, for the tender sapling to be watered once, maybe twice, as there is not enough water for more, besides the fact that it has to be carried from the bottom of the hill, from that bottomless well with a rope and a bucket, in which, for all its dark, secretive depth, the leeches are not slow to swarm and squirm, disgusting and obscene, so that it is impossible to drink without first straining the water through a piece of cloth on which there always remain some tatters of slimy moss from the depths, lying there as though in a state of utter prostration, or maybe like fish spewed up on dry land, in this patch of land that is no more than a few dunams, on the dividing line between the land that is gradually being ploughed up and that which has been hardened by time immemorial….

  1. 1

    The first evidence we have is the Gezer calendar of the tenth century BC.

  2. 2

    Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (University of California Press, 1993), p. 108.

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