Biblical Midrash in Contemporary Israeli Literature
Art and the Artist in the Contemporary Israeli Novel By Joseph Lowin (Lexington Books, 194 pp. $90)
In Art and the Artist in the Contemporary Israeli Novel, Joseph Lowin, an astute literary critic and longtime advocate of Hebrew language and culture, analyzes eight contemporary Israeli writers through the books they have written over the past four decades. He seeks to understand their literary techniques and aesthetic vision, their sense of themselves as writers, as Israelis and as Jews.
Through close readings of Israeli fiction (and with the same good humor Lowin exhibits in his column on Hebrew language in Hadassah Magazine), he reveals that, although these Israeli writers are, first and foremost, unique, they also see themselves as continuing the Hebrew textual tradition by structuring biblical characters, themes and patterns into their fiction.
He describes Meir Shalev’s idiosyncratic use of biblical figures in the novel Esau. In a twist on the biblical text, the protagonist renounces his “birthright,” a family bakery, not for a bowl of lentils as did the biblical Esau, but out of disappointment that he has lost the beautiful Leah to his twin brother, Jacob.
Biblical references abound in Amos Oz’s novel Panther in the Basement but they come from an unlikely source—a Bible-loving British soldier, Sergeant Stephen Dunlop, who befriends a young Jewish boy during the British Mandate. Ironically, the boy called Proffy fantasizes about joining the Jewish underground that will expel British soldiers like his friend. Yet, it is the non-Jewish Dunlop who provides the prophetic voice that foresees the renewal of the Hebrew commonwealth.
In addition to a biblical template embedded in many Israeli novels, Lowin perceives, especially in Oz’s novel, the “midrashic mode.” It is not, he says, the same classical rabbinic method “of adding an interpretive texture to a narrative text,” but a rewriting and adapting of previous texts. “The writer comments on the narrative by rewriting it,“ explains Lowin, letting the imagination take off in different directions.
In The Zig Zag Kid, David Grossman flips the traditional Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony on its head. Amnon “Nonny” Feuerberg’s grandfather kidnaps him to go on a wild escapade, fulfilling the promise he made to his deceased daughter that he’ll tell her story to Nonny before his bar mitzvah. A notorious criminal, the grandfather thus keeps an aesthetic rather than religious dictate.
The midrashic mode also structures A.B. Yehoshua’s haunting family saga Mr. Mani. Various members of a clan are recorded in conversations at different stages of Jewish history, but only one side of each conversation is captured. The reader must imagine what the other side is saying in this unsettling vision of Jewish continuity.
Lowin also follows the biblical structures and the threads of the midrashic mode in Ronit Matalon’s The One Facing Us, Zeruya Shalev’s The Remains of Love, Aharon Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders and Aharon Megged’s Mandrakes from the Holy Land.
Lowin’s analyses are weighted with literary concepts, but they go beyond academic scholarship. Deeply sensitive, his work is inspired by a love of Israeli fiction and its connection to the Jewish text tradition, an echo chamber of Jewish culture.
Rochelle Furstenberg, a Jerusalem-based writer, has written extensively on Israeli literature.