Yizhar Smilansky, a Tribute


Yizhar Smilansky, a Tribute
photo © courtesy of Hayim Goldgraber


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S. Yizhar; (1916-2006) a Tribute

By Menachem D. Rotstein

Israeli literture has lost the voice of its moral conscience and Modern Hebrew one of its most gifted virtuosos, with the passing on August 21 of Yizhar Smilansky, who died one month short of his 90th birthday. Since the age of twenty two, when he burst upon the literary scene with the novella Efrayim Returns to the Alfalfa, Yizhar's capacity to challenge his readers has not diminished. As the first of the generation of Sabra writers, he succeeded in rendering the landscape of Eretz Israel using words as his palette and a deep commitment to justice and truth as his paintbrush.

Yizhar fashioned a syntax and a vocabulary which were decidedly unique; neither Biblical Hebrew nor fully contemporary. The fact that his major opus, the massive wartime epic Days of Ziklag, is regarded as esoteric and remains virtually inaccessible for most readers of Israeli fiction, does in no way diminish Yizhar's status and accomplishments.

Born into a literary family in the farming community of Rehovot in 1916, Smilansky studied education in Jerusalem and worked as a teacher for a number of years. He served as a member of the first Knesset, representing the original Labor party, and continued dabbling in politics until the Six Days War. In the Seventies he returned to academia, with his appointment as professor of education, and later of literature at Israel's leading universities.

Yizhar's body of literary work as well as his essays on domestic and political issues, published periodically in leading dailies, has never failed to generate heated debates; not all of his critics, however, were mindful of the distinction between fact, opinion and artistic imagination. Like other prominent representatives of his generation, such as Moshe Shamir, Hayim Gouri and Aharon Megged, much of Yizhar's attention became focused on the most urgent issues confronting Israeli society. In response to the debacle of the Yom Kippur war and the growing polarization within along religious, ethnic and political lines, Yizhar's voice conveyed an almost prophetic urgency and rang with an authenticity which earned him enormous respect; though his warnings were never heeded.

In almost every one of his works Yizhar displays unabashedly his love for the soil of his ancestral homeland, from the wellspring of such an attachment grew a tolerance and respect toward all others who inhabit that land. The twin stories which brought Yizhar notoriety and generated the most intense public debate, and which have become classics of Israeli literature, The Captive and Hirbet Hiz'ah, were both written in 1949. They grew directly out of their author's wartime experience and describe in graphic detail the callousness and cruelty displayed by a platoon of young Israeli soldiers toward some hapless Arab villagers caught in the middle of the hostilities.

The protagonists in some thirty short stories and novellas, just as the young soldiers of the novel, all tend to display the same general characteristics. He is a single male, who either resides or longs for life in a small rural community. He is highly sensitive and idealistic and takes with him wherever he goes the idealized image of a beautiful woman who must remain beyond his reach. The Yizharesque male guards his privacy jealously and is given to extended meditation and lengthy inner-discourses; critics have dubbed Smilansky the Joyce of Hebrew literature but have also hurled the charge of irredeemable romantic against him. Though never out of touch with his immediate reality, the protagonist is helplessly indecisive, emotionally vulnerable and ultimately unfulfilled.

A unique feature of Israeli literature, following a precedence established by the great European Hebrew writers, is children's literature composed by writers of the first rank. Y. Smilansky, who earned the highest literary prizes the state awards, including the prestigious Israel Prize, wrote a number of children's stories and saw his most controversial works made into theatrical and film versions. Against pressure exerted by his critics on the Right, The Captive and its companion story have also entered the curriculum of the secular education mainstream and are have been longtime standards in most anthologies of Israeli literature in translation.

By the Eighties it was generally assumed that the writer's literary career had peaked, given the fact that no new work of fiction had appeared in almost three decades. But in the early Nineties, Yizhar once again stunned the literary establishment by a burst of creativity that saw no fewer than half-a-dozen new novellas published in less than a decade.

Despite the pessimistic tone informing many of his works, Yizhar remained a teacher who believes in the innate capacity of his students to prevail over most difficulties not of their making. He pointed out faults and failings with unflinching candor, accusing corrupt politicians of selfishness, greed and short-sightedness. Above all he remained passionately in love with the natural beauty of Israel, and may have found consolation in the knowledge that many others share that feeling with him.

Dr. M.D.Rotstein teaches Hebrew language & literature at Concordia University in Mondreal.


from the January 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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