Yizhar: a pioneering chronicler of Israel

By David Aberbach, January 14, 2009
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Midnight Convoy & Other stories
By S Yizhar
Toby Press, £9.99

Preliminaries
By S Yizhar
Toby Press, £14.99

S Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky) was born in 1916 in Rehovot. When he was one, the British conquered the land from the Turks and issued the Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish homeland. Over the next 30 years, British rule had momentous consequences not just in the evolution of the Jewish state but also in the revival of Hebrew language and literature.

In the 19th century, Hebrew literature had undergone remarkable development, but mostly in Europe. Yizhar’s generation returned Hebrew to its roots in the land of Israel. His lasting importance is as one of the first sabra (native) Israeli writers and the dominant Hebrew voice of the 1948 generation. Yizhar is the great poet and elegist of his country’s open spaces. Rarely since the Mishnah (c 200 CE) has the land of Israel been described in such loving detail.

Yizhar’s creative life was shaped by his socialist upbringing, the struggles of the yishuv and the war of 1948, the subject of his superb novella, Midnight Convoy. His professional life complemented his fiction: he was a prominent educator and, from 1948-67, a member of the Israeli Knesset, mostly in the Labour party.

Until Yizhar, most Hebrew writers, including Bialik and Agnon, did not speak Hebrew as their first language (this was true also of their readers). Yizhar was deeply influenced by the Hebrew writer Micah Yosef Berdichevsky and his disciples, UN Gnessin, JH Brenner and Gershon Shoffman. Hebrew writers, they argued, should escape the trap of collective Jewish concerns and, instead, explore the vagaries of individual experience and passion.

When Yizhar began writing in the 1930s, dozens of kibbutzim were springing up in British Palestine. They not only made the desert bloom, they were also seen as a moral force, producing a high percentage of leaders and thinkers. In Yizhar’s early stories, such as Ephraim Returns to Alfalfa, the provincial self-absorption and high moral standards of the kibbutz, as Yizhar describes them, seem at times almost an extension of the shtetl from which the chalutzim longed to escape.

By the time Preliminaries was published, in his mid-70s, he came to regard the one-time dream-society as a nightmare of urban sprawl, hedonism, ugly militarism and moral confusion.

Now, thanks to Toby Press, the English reader can, in these re-issued volumes, engage with such central questions in Yizhar’s writings as: how does one become an individual (and a creative artist) while being ideologically bound to strangers in a closed world of ideological fixities? Yizhar’s heroes want to let go and follow their instincts but are trapped by the need to conform.

The individual in Yizhar’s stories, however sensitive and gifted, tends to be blurred in the collective. Even a person’s private past history is not his own. In Preliminaries, for example, the story of a small Jewish child stung half to death by wasps soon after the British conquest of the land of Israel, in 1917-18, is enlisted retrospectively in a political allegory.

The conflict of individual and society is especially prominent in his landmark stories of Israel’s struggle to survive in the 1948-49 war: Midnight Convoy and The Days of Ziklag.

His stories The Prisoner and Hirbet Hizah, though critical of the fledgling Israeli army, present agonising moral questions relating to the treatment of enemy civilians in time of conflict.

For most readers, Yizhar is best approached in the short stories in Midnight Convoy (which, however, were done 40 years ago and need redoing).

Preliminaries is longer and more complex, but translated with such skill by Nicholas de Lange that the reader does not feel that the book is a translation but, rather, an original work in English.

David Aberbach is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at McGill University, Montreal. His most recent book is Jewish Cultural Nationalism: origins and influences (Routledge, 2008)

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011