In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modern Hebrew Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographic and Reference Works
  • Short-Fiction Anthologies in Translation
  • Poetry Anthologies in Translation
  • Mixed-Genre Anthologies
  • Poetry in Translation
  • Critical Issues in Poetry
  • Critical Issues in Prose
  • Critical Issues in Drama
  • Haskalah
  • Modernism
  • Gender
  • Zionism and Israel
  • Shoah
  • Geography
  • Jews and Arabs
  • American Hebrew Writing

Jewish Studies Modern Hebrew Literature
Barbara Mann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0069


Modern Hebrew literature emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in European centers of Jewish life, such as Berlin, Vilna, and Warsaw. Often considered as part of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), its various themes and genres were acutely attuned to historical change and may be understood in relation to the modernization of large segments of eastern and central Europe’s Jewish population. Early typical themes of the techiya (revival or renaissance) treated the evolving structure and tenor of traditional Jewish societies as they experienced the physical and psychological pressures of secularization. Hebrew writing often expressly addressed the tension between the individual and the community and the ethical bond between writer and nation while depicting the social and geographic upheavals in traditional Jewish life and the encounter of small-town values with the chaos and opportunity of cosmopolitan urban centers. These transformations were reflected in a new range of attitudes toward the body and the natural landscape as well as the worlds of secular learning and aesthetics. Though historically influential, this newly revived audience of Hebrew writers and readers was a minority, an educated elite constituting a literary republic that by the early 20th century stretched from London to New York to Jerusalem. Modern Hebrew belles lettres maintained a close if tense relation to the ancient Hebrew sources, including biblical texts and the two thousand–year gamut of legal and aphoristic writing in Hebrew. The presence of intertextual allusions to sacred texts in ostensibly “profane” genres, such as the lyric and prose fiction, made modern Hebrew literature a paradoxical amalgam both of the familiar and the new, pointing simultaneously toward an ancient, illustrious past, the uncertainties of the present, and the possibilities of the future. At the same time, Hebrew literature was also intensely shaped by aesthetic trends, such as romanticism, modernism, and the avant-garde. While always produced in relation to the languages of the surrounding host cultures, including Slavic tongues, German, Arabic, Ladino, and English, Hebrew has had a special relationship with Yiddish, which shares its orthography and many of its thematic and ideological preoccupations. With the advent of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine in the early 20th century, Hebrew became a spoken vernacular, a condition that influenced its literary production. The existence of normative literary groupings or generations, such as the moderna (modernism), Palmach, and state generation—all coexisting during a period of just several decades—indicates the tremendous velocity with which Hebrew literature has evolved since its early modern origins. In contemporary Israel, Hebrew writing is an increasingly multicultural endeavor, one that often reflects the cultural, political, and psychological tensions inhering in territorial sovereignty.

General Overviews

Overviews of modern Hebrew literature describe its generic evolution in relation to the historical circumstances of its production and its antecedents in traditional Jewish culture. Abramson and Parfitt 1985 and Alter 1988 focus on the significance of its European origins, while Harshav 1993 more directly treats the challenge of creating a new literary vernacular as Hebrew literary centers moved to Palestine.

  • Abramson, Glenda, and Tudor Parfitt. The Great Transition: The Recovery of the Lost Centers of Modern Hebrew Literature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985.

    Collection of essays charting the geographic trajectory of modern Hebrew literature from eastern and central European cities (Berlin, Odessa, Vilna) and provinces to the early stages of its evolution in Palestine.

  • Alter, Robert. The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

    Lucid and accessible account of how Hebrew writers began to “think European,” this elegant little book delineates the biography of a generation of Hebrew writers. Originally a series of lectures, this is an ideal introduction for general readers and undergraduate courses, especially the chapters on S. Y. Abramovitch and David Fogel.

  • Harshav, Benjamin. Language in Time of Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520079588.001.0001

    Translations of two Hebrew essays. The first is a sociological, cultural account of the evolution of literature and its role in secular revolutions of modern Jewish experience; the second chronicles the Hebrew revival from a sociolinguistic point of view, with a focus on Palestine. Short chapters and a fascinating selection of original source documents about the revival in translation make this a good reference work.

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