Hebrew Literature as Modern Literature. Jewish Writers as Critics of Enlightenment

Modern Hebrew literature, from its beginnings with the Haskalah movement, understood itself as fulfilling a mission: to civilize the Jews, 'improve' them and make them part of modern European culture. Herein lies a tension between literature as medium of the Enlightenment and its subject, which comes to the fore in Jewish life as found in the works of writers like Yosef Perl and S. J. Abramowitch. This tension continued to haunt Hebrew writers of later generations, such as Joseph Haim Brenner, Uri Nissan Gnessin and Gerschon Schofman among others. They were simultaneously enchanted and imprisoned by the Enlightenment paradigm, as they struggled to reconcile literature as a universal medium of Enlightenment with their state of exception and exclusion as Jews. These writers met this challenge by giving voice to modern Jewish existence, but moreover by using the literary medium to present the paradoxes engendered by the enlightened gaze. While numerous studies have examined and identified the main characteristics of the resulting Modern Hebrew literature, including self-contempt, tragic failures, melancholy and social detachment, this project emphasizes how these works present protagonists’ difficulties in assimilating and adapting to Enlightenment ideals together with their critique of the repressive nature of those very ideals vis-à-vis new forms of sovereignty, shifting social structures and of modernity in general.

Supported by the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University 2015–2018
Head researcher(s): Gal Hertz