I am a bookworm–always have been, always will be. I was that kid who would spend Saturdays snuggled in bed with a book, and the kid who, if I was reading in school, the teachers would have to shout my name in order to get my attention. Knowing this about me, it now makes sense to you that once I began getting interested in Israel, those books I read slowly became more and more focused on Israel, and often written by Israeli authors.
Understanding a country and its culture is a process, and we can accomplish it in several ways. Reading the literature is one of the best ways you can get an insight into that country, and as you can guess on of my favorite ways to do it. The minute I visit a country I fall in love with, I go searching for books written by its authors. So often, we hear about Israel on the News, but we don’t always hear about its culture. It’s my goal to share as much of the three-dimensional aspects as possible in my work because I believe that this is how we best form relationships with that country- whether it be through movies, art, books, or something else.
With that in mind, I want to share some of the Israeli authors–the faces behind Israeli literature–I believe can help bring the country to life.
A.B. Yehoshua was born to a fifth-generation Jerusalem family of Moroccan family.
It makes him an important part of Israeli literature, with a unique background of his Jerusalemite family. His first book of stories was published in 1962, at the end of his military service in the Paratroopers. He the author of eleven novels, three books of short stories, four plays, and four collections of essays. And for all of this work, he has won numerous awards, such as the Brenner Prize, the Bialik Prize for literature, the Israel Prize for Hebrew literature, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and others. His works have been published in translation in 28 countries, and many have been adapted for film, television, and theater.
What I love about his writing is that he is so descriptive in the scenes of his stories. It feels as if you are standing right in the middle of the story! You experience the story with the characters. It’s almost like entering an alternative universe! Because the stories take place in Jerusalem, Haifa, and other places in Israel, you can really get a feeling and understanding of what this country is really all about.
Haim Bialik is Israel’s national poet…
And therefore, a must read when looking to understand Israeli literature and culture. He was born in the Russian Empire in 1873. Bialik received a tradition Jewish religious education, but also actively explored European literature. He left for Odessa at 18, and made several trips to visit family in the United States before settling down in Tel Aviv in 1924. By the time he came to Tel Aviv, he was celebrated figure in Israeli society. Tel Aviv named a square after Bialik before he even arrived!
Israelis came to him to ask him about words in Hebrew, names for their children, and to settle fights between neighbors. He established a group called Oneg Shabbat, a group that would meet weekly on Fridays and discuss Jewish topics. In 1925, he delivered the address in the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was on the board of governers. In 1927, the Hebrew Writers Union appointed him as their head. He died on July 4, 1934. Without Haim Bialik, Israeli authors and the atmosphere they work in would not look like it does today.
Israelis still read his poems, essays, and papers today, long after his death. His home in Tel Aviv is now a museum. Schools, neighborhoods, and streets are named after him. If you want to understand Israeli literature and culture, you have to know a bit of Bialik!
Sayed Kashua shows an important part of Israeli literature as well.
He is among many Arab Israeli authors, who was born in Tira, Israel. Kashua studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and lived in both an Arab neighborhood and a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, before taking teaching positions in Champaign-Urbana and Chicago. He publishes a personal weekly column in Hebrew for the Haaretz newspaper, and a local Jerusalem weekly, HaIr. Often he talks about the issues about some of the issues Arab Israelis face today. His book, Dancing Arabs is a famous piece, and translators translated the book into English and other languages.
It is important to read Sayed Kashua not because you have to agree with him. If we want to get a different perspective about the country we MUST read Sayed Kashua. His writings give us a 3D, deeper understanding of what this country is all about. When we read as much as we can, we can get a fuller understanding of the literature and of the country. Books can help us understand what Israel is all about. And from there we can form ideas and opinions about it.
Etger Keret is internationally known for his short stories.
Etger Keret was born in Ramat Gan in 1967 to Holocaust survivors. He began publishing his work in 1992, but became more popular with his publication of Missing Kissinger in 1994. Keret doesn’t only write short stories, but also graphic novels, and scripts for film and television. People know his work for being odd, strange, and out-of-the-box. He has won numerous awards for his work.The Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation chose him as an “outstanding artist.” In 2016, he received the Charles Bronfman Prize for 2016.
The first time I heard one of Keret’s stories, I was in high school at a JCC teen cultural event. The ending of the story was so sudden, I was immediately drawn in. I wanted to know more about the story. I wanted to know more about the writer, Etger Keret. So I began reading more of his books. By reading Keret’s publications led me to understand Israeli culture already from high school into college, and even into when I moved to Israel. His short stories were some of the first writings I read in Hebrew. Keret is for sure one of my favorite Israeli authors.
Dvora Omer is a cornerstone of Israeli authors.
Dvora Omer was born in 1932 in Kibbutz Ma’oz Haim. Her parents were divorced, and her mother was killed in a Haganah training accident when Dvora was eleven. She began writing when she was a teacher, and wrote many books that reflect the Israel’s development and culture. Some of those books include children’s book about David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Theodore Herzl. Her work became so important, committees awarded her the Lamdan Prize for children’s literature in 1968, and in 2006, the Israel Prize for her “lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the State.” She died on May 2, 2013 at Kfar Ma’as.
I have used the books I mentioned above about some of Israel’s figures during my trips here in Israel. The pictures of the books helps us visualize the events and the stories surrounding these figures. Sometimes these stories are famous and well-known, but harder to imagine. Using these books can help put an actual image for these events. And having those images in our heads makes the places we are visiting all that more real. In the realm of reading, it makes Israeli culture all the more real as well.
As is Leah Goldberg.
Leah Goldberg was born in what is today Kaliningrad, Russia in on May 29, 1911. Her family further into the Russian Empire when World War I broke out. She earned her Ph.D. from the Universities of Berlin and Bonn in German and Semitic languages, and in 1935, she moved to Tel Aviv, and joined a rich scene of Israeli authors. She was part of Yachadav, a group Eastern European Hebrew writers. While she never married, she lived with her mother first in Tel Aviv and then in Jerusalem. In 1969, diagnosed her with breast cancer. She died in 1970, and posthumously received the Israel Prize.
These are only some of Israel’s important authors.
There are so many more. Their books add an extra deminsion to our understanding of Israeli culture. And they are a basis of Israeli culture. Without Israeli literature, our culture may not be what we have today. These figures, and others, are essential pillars of Israeli society. When we read Israeli books, listen to Israeli music, and taste Israeli food, we get a better understanding of the nuances and meanings of Israeli culture. Otherwise, what we hear in the News will be the only source of information we receive about this tiny little country, the size of New Jersey.
With the tools of a good Israeli library, a good Israeli kitchen, and a good Israeli playlist, we can gain a better understanding of the country. And with that, we can form more educated, informed opinions and theories.