Introduction: The Other Voice

The Missing Profile: Portrait of Women as Israeli Writers

Lily Rattok



    Israeli women’s fiction has not yet reached the scope, variety, and independence of Israeli women’s poetry. One reason is the absence of an image of women as story-tellers. That is, though Hebrew poetry encompasses a consolidated, female “poetic I” that is different from the male “poetic I,” no image of a woman writer of fiction is available for the female author. The creator in Israeli fiction is almost always a man, just as the fictional protagonist is almost always a man. What force is responsible for this situation, and why have Israel’s women authors failed to invent an image of a woman creator that will give expression to their decision to write?

My basic position is that women’s literature can be understood as a systems crossroads: a meeting point between the system of literary production and the system of sexual belonging. When these two systems meet, tension arises between the conception of female identity on the one hand and the conception of creativity as a male realm on the other. Women’s literature often reflects the individual’s attempt to mediate between the commands of feminine identity (which she learns through her every interaction within society) and the dictates of the masculine literary system.

Women writers of Hebrew fiction did not aim to capture the literary territory of men, nor did they seek to revolutionize the production of literature. Instead, women writers sought only to join with their compatriots in the literary arena, and they emphasized the modesty of their demands. This modesty was forced on women by Jewish culture, claims Amalia Kahana-Carmon.1 Throughout history, women have been barred from the role of public representative in the synagogue. The private realm is assigned to the Jewish woman, while the Jewish man occupies the public realm. The woman writer internalizes the status demanded by religion, Kahana-Carmon argues, and consequently is unable to picture herself as a figure of central importance in the community. Unlike the male writer who, in the words of Amos Oz, assumes the role of “tribal magician ‘112 the female writer does not dare demand such a position of authority.

Devorah Baron-The First Birth of Women’s Hebrew Fiction


    Hebrew literature may be unique among world literature in that its women’s fiction was born twice, and more than fifty years separate the two births. The first birth occurred in 1902 with the publication of Devorah Baron’s first short stories in literary journals. Though Baron was forced to wait 25 years for the publication of her first book, the collection Stories, her earliest pieces had generated enormous excitement, with the literary community welcoming the young writer as if she were a wunderkind. Her embrace by the male establishment was indeed wonderful-and within a short time she had been granted a special status within Hebrew letters.

How do we account for this spectacular reception? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, secular Hebrew literature sought to include women. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, wrote, “the demand of the moment is that women penetrate Hebrew literature.”3 And in 1905 the critic M. M. Feitelson

wrote an article entitled “The Liberated Woman In Our Literature.” Hence, the Hebrew literary establishment took great pride in its first woman writer, who had-in addition to talent both beauty and a rabbinic lineage.’ She was adored as the token female presence.

    The young Devorah Baron was an independent personality, and she strove for the freedom that Jewish men were granted. She insisted on an education parallel to men’s, and she studied first in heder (religious school for younger children) and later in high school. She supported herself by teaching Hebrew, and she worked as a counselor for Zionist youth.

    In her early stories Baron dared to protest the neglect of women by Jewish religious law, and she did not shy away from erotic subjects. Though she knew the risks involved, she did not censor her fiction. Her only defenses against malicious gossip were her distant behavior and her exceedingly modest dress. Her nun-like image, however, did not protect her. One particularly suggestive passage in “A Quarreling Couple” led writers and editors to gossip that she was no virgin, and this gossip damaged her relationship with her fiancé, the writer Moshe Ben-Eliezer. But Baron did not let the gossip deter her from writing. Devorah Baron broke off her engagement in 1910, after five years, and left Russia for the land of Israel. She began working as the literary editor of the newspaper Hapoel Hatzair, and in 1911 she married the paper’s editor, Yosef Aharonovitch, already a renowned Zionist labor leader. They and their daughter were exiled to Egypt during World War I. Upon returning to Palestine, the couple resumed editing and writing, but Aharonovitch resigned in 1922 to become director of Bank HaPo’alim (The Workers’ Bank). Baron also resigned her position with the newspaper. For the next fifty years, no Israeli woman would work in literary editing.

    Baron continued writing fiction and translating literary works into Hebrew, but in 1936 suffered an illness which was to keep her bedridden until her death in 1956. She broke off almost every physical contact with the outside world, participated in no public activity, gave no interviews, and met only a small number of people. She did not even attend the funeral of her husband. Dov Sadan, a contemporary literary critic, wrote that on the day of Aharonovitch’s funeral he saw Baron take three steps outside the house, and then return inside.Baron apparently imprisoned herself in her home willingly, giving up freedom of movement and the enjoyment of physical life, in order to win spiritual freedom and the right to create literature with absolute dedication to her craft. Her reclusive life released her from women’s customary roles. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in the ground-breaking The Madwoman in the Attic argue that illness expresses women’s social weakness in a world whose rules are created by men, yet this weakness gives a woman the only power available to her: the power of refusal.’ Devorah Baron did indeed refuse with all her strength: she refused to eat regular food and she starved herself; she refused to move freely and she stayed in bed; and she especially refused to meet the world as it was.

Gilbert and Gubar emphasize that self-starvation (anorexia), confinement to the home (agoraphobia), and other predominantly female illnesses, are in fact more than protests or refusals. They are also desperate expressions of the woman’s desire to control her life.

    Though she has only the power to refuse, she has one realm where she remains in control: her body. This results in the paradoxical situation whereby women hurt their bodies to prove their power. The other reason why women damage their bodies is to conquer female physicality. The woman is thus able to attain transcendentalism and to rise to spiritual spheres. Gilbert and Gubar make clear that a woman recoils from the physical because patriarchal society views the female body as tempting, provocative, and monstrous .6

    Devorah Baron may in fact have recoiled from her body when she took away from it almost every physical enjoyment. Nonetheless, she made sure to maintain her body at the level required to carry out her spiritual mission. In effect, Baron enslaved her body for one aim-artistic creation. Only by removing herself from mundane existence could Baron create an alternative reality, where she alone would dictate the rules. Baron lived in this closed world mainly with her daughter, Zipporah, and various housemaids. Her world, therefore, was a women’s world, and male strictures were outside its boundaries.

     Devorah Baron’s rules were similar to those of a monastic order: sexual withdrawal, the lack of any bodily enjoyment, dedication to literary/spiritual creation, and the abandonment of selfhood. Nurit Govrin describes the writer as someone who “while still alive became a fairy tale-the tale of the captured princess.” Baron, though, was not a tender heroine of romance, and only death rescued her from her self-imposed prison.


The Second Birth of Women’s Hebrew Fiction


The second birth of women’s Hebrew fiction occurred in 1956 with the publication of Amalia Kahana-Carmon’s first short story. Her acceptance as a central Israeli writer, however, alongside the men who were members of her literary generation like Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, took place ten years later with the publication of her first book. The entrance by Amalia Kahana-Carmon into the literary community took place in an era that differed radically from Devorah Baron’s. By mid-century, women poets writing in Hebrew were relatively commonplace, with Rachel, Yokheved Bat-Miriam, and Leah Goldberg among the most renowned, so there was no need for a token representative of womanhood. In addition, Israel was a young country and its existence was in danger, so it valued its masculine foundations-wartime bravery, independence, aggressiveness, self-reliance (all seen as male traits)-and as a corollary devalued women’s achievements. Therefore no publishers knocked on Amalia Kahana-Carmon’s door in 1956. On the contrary, her unusual works inspired great opposition. A number of editors refused to publish her collection of stories, even though she had won the prestigious Amot prize for “N’ima Sassoon Writes Poems.” Only after many rejections were the pieces accepted for publication. The collection, Under One Roof, won outstanding praise from the critics, and in the late sixties Kahana-Carmon assumed her place among the central creators of Israeli fiction.7

    Yet the mid-century retreat from earlier demands for female equality does not adequately explain why so few women between the turn of the century and the late fifties published Hebrew fiction. If Jewish women of 1900 had really been granted the historic opportunity to join with Jewish men in the Hebrew literary re-awakening, why were almost no women fiction writers published except for Devorah Baron? If at the first birth of Hebrew women’s fiction the only voices were those of supporters and admirers, why was a second birth necessary?

    The answer to these questions is complicated. The Jewish literary establishment of the early twentieth century indeed wanted to accept women, but the openness was toward the writer herself rather than toward her work. In other words, beautiful slogans of equal opportunity misled Jewish women writers, who believed that their stories would find wide acceptance, but who found the reality to be entirely different. The Hebrew literary establishment was no more open to the feminine voice than was the English, French, Russian, or any other literary establishment. Male rejection was hidden behind a facade of admiration for women.

    In the case of Devorah Baron, the early twentieth-century male literary world relished the existence of a female writer in its midst, but male editors directed her stories to a separate and marginal place within the publishing hierarchy, and male writers never perceived her as a worthy competitor.’ Her contemporaries’ fascination with the writer as a woman did not result in a corresponding fascination with the vision expressed in her works. Male authors expected that the female author would stay modestly to one side, not challenging the world view created by men. Indeed, as Kahana-Carmon argues in her essays, the literary establishment defined the female writer as a support to the male writer, much as the wife was defined as a support to her husband. The woman writer was to describe reality from the feminine angle, accepting women’s limited place and her marginality. Attempting to change the accepted, male-centered world view by means of her work was the unpardonable sin of the woman creator.

    Thus, from the start, women’s fiction was considered peripheral to the nascent Hebrew literary enterprise. Literary authority was the exclusive domain of the Jewish male. In this domain the spiritual world view of the entire Israeli public was created, but that world view did not incorporate Jewish female vision. Permission to enter Hebrew literary territory was conditional on a woman’s willingness to describe the world, and especially herself, in terms of men.

    The trap into which the woman writer fell was a double trap. First, her work was judged to be of limited and secondary importance, and she as a writer had to accept this as a proper judgment. In other words, she herself had to assign her work a secondary role. Second, the male literary establishment required the woman creator to write as a woman, but she herself was absolutely forbidden to define womanhood. That is, the woman writer was required to create heroines and write in a feminine way, but this femininity was defined according to men’s terms.


Amalia Kahana-Carmon-Creation of the Alternative Model


Amalia Kahana-Carmon’s development as a writer differed greatly from that of her predecessor, Devorah Baron. Devorah Baron began writing as a girl of fifteen, when she lacked self-confidence as an artist and her education was incomplete. She was often willing to revise her work based upon comments from her editors, whose encouragement she needed. Furthermore, Baron wrote in the “new process” style common in the late nineteenth century,9 and only after many years did she adopt an idiosyncratic personal style. Amalia Kahana-Carmon, in contrast, began writing and publishing in her late twenties-after she had fought as a signaler in the War of Independence, attended college, traveled to London, worked, and married. As she was beginning her professional career, she was also caring for her three young children. Furthermore, in her first four years. as a professional writer, Kahana-Carmon and her family moved, as a result of her husband’s career, from England to Switzerland to Germany and back to Israel.

    The early stories of Kahana-Carmon hence reflect a mature, unique voice, and her originality is immediately evident. Moreover, she fought for strict control of the content and the form of her work. She was unwilling to revise based on recommendations by editors. Her aggressive refusal to write according to others’ directions was indeed one factor in the long delay between the publication of her first short stories and the publication of her first book, and also resulted in a lengthy legal struggle.

    Kahana-Carmon, however, succeeded in defining a new model of Hebrew women’s fiction. Though her independence prevented her from gaining quick acceptance, she ultimately gained a more central position within the Hebrew literary world than was achieved by Devorah Baron. Kahana-Carmon’s first stories appeared almost unchanged in Under One Roof (1966). The novel And A Moon In The Valley Of Ayalon (1971) was remarkable for formal innovation, as were the two collections Magnetic Fields (1977) and Up In Montifer (1984). The novel With Her On Her Way Home (1991) was also notable for its artistic daring, and was a testament to the author’s independence and self-confidence.

    Kahana-Carmon, again unlike Devorah Baron, benefited from the prior literary achievements of women writing in Hebrew. In addition, she benefited from the work of European women writers who had preceded her. Possibly her long stay in Great Britain afforded her knowledge of women’s rich achievements in English fiction, and a number of critics have pointed to the similarities between the works of Kahana-Carmon and Virginia Woolf.

    Like Woolf, Amalia Kahana-Carmon made a conscious decision “to be a woman writer.”10 She was not forced to deny her physicality or her femininity, as was Devorah Baron; instead she increasingly emphasized the feminine as her work developed.  In the eighties, Kahana-Carmon published five essays on female writers in Hebrew, and protested the neglect of women’s work. This neglect occurs, she argued, because women’s experience is seen as marginal. In a 1988 article she stated, “The problems in the world of women, as they know them, do not always and do not everywhere overlap with the problems in the world of men, as they know them. In wide areas of the very same reality, a woman finds herself experienc­ing the events according to a code, and/or from a point of view, and/ or according to a list of priorities, that are not identical to a man’s.” Therefore, the female writer who remains the most faithful to her experience and is the least willing to imitate male experience is the writer who is most neglected Kahana-Carmon stated that the neglect of women writers parallels the position of women in Judaism. Just as a woman is not allowed to serve as the public’s representative in the synagogue, she is not allowed to represent the Jewish nation in her work, “because Hebrew literature, even if it is secular, is seen both by author and readers as the national synagogue of the spirit.” Women have a secondary role in both synagogue and literature, because their experiences are defined as personal and private. “The [male] person from Israel,” wrote Kahana-Carmon in 1989, “cannot identify with the collective ‘I’ which the female writer uses. Her ‘I’ cannot express him.” Therefore, the more the woman writer’s work is endowed with “vision” or “momentum” or “imagination”--the more it is considered “peripheral” or “abnormal.” Her work is seen as “lacking seriousness”; it is “the fruit of weak logic ... capricious, self-obsessed, hysterical.” Kahana-Carmon concluded that the woman writer in Hebrew can choose between “rape within the framework of marriage”-that is, accept being forced into the male mold-and the status of a “rebel­lious woman”--that is, she can remain true to her values. The woman writer is always “the other,” and the most that her work can aspire to is being the “undermining presence” within literature while expressing “the truth of desire.” Neither by accepting nor by rebelling does the woman writer have the opportunity to be the central artist of her generation.”

Kahana-Carmon refuses to accept the status of “the other” or, in her words, the status of one who “happens to sit in the women’s section of that synagogue of the spirit which is called Hebrew fiction .... All authors strive, and are convinced, that their words carry universal, objective truths.”

In her famous story “N’ima Sassoon Writes Poetry” (1963), Amalia Kahana-Carmon portrays the artist as a young woman. The work was perhaps influenced by Leah Goldberg’s novel, And It Is The Light (1946). The two plots are similar: a young woman is in love with an older man, who responds to her somewhat, but finally cuts off their relationship. The failure of her first love leads the heroine to self knowledge and she dedicates herself to creative work.

    N’ima Sassoon is aware of being a creative artist at a very young age, and sees in this a religious destiny: “But I, please God, when I grow up, will find out how to say this miracle, all the miracles, in writing. I have to. Otherwise, my life is no life.” In relations with her beloved teacher she strives to understand “the secret that makes the faint-hearted heroic.” N’ ima comes to understand this secret when the teacher refuses her love; rejection thus brings her a powerful insight and a rare inner strength. The secret is the religious-like legality that exists in our world and the ability of humans to willingly obey the demands of the world’s legal system. N’ima dedicates herself to artistic destiny, so that she finds meaning in life through writing instead of through love.


Subverting the Romantic Myth


The romantic myth is one of the most efficient means of making women accept their low social status. At the center of the myth is a young, beautiful woman. At her service is a dedicated and enraptured knight who is willing to sacrifice his life for her. As it turns but, the knight is required to perform only one act of bravery, in which he saves the heroine from a grave difficulty. The heroine, of course, falls in love with her savior and marries him, and they both live happily ever after. The romantic myth is, in effect, a story of courtship, a story that has no connection with the rest of the heroine’s life. The story instead focuses on the one period when a woman has power over a man. During this period, she can respond to her knight’s love or reject it, and in this she causes him happiness or misery. Immediately after she responds to the knight’s love, the heroine will, of course, lose the power which the courtship period had granted her, but the romantic myth deliberately refrains from describing her life following court­ship.

      Women readers are captivated by the romantic myth because it conceals the painful reality of unequal power that characterizes their lives. Shulamith Firestone explains that the societal role of the romantic myth is to distract women’s minds from their second-class status. ‘2 She argues that romance is a cultural tool in the hands of male authority, a tool that is used to prevent women from understanding their true social status. And as patriarchy’s direct control over women diminishes (through legal reform of property rights, voting rights, etc., and other societal changes such as women’s educational ad­vancement), the power of the romantic myth within popular culture increases.

    One of the central tasks of women’s fiction has been exposing the truth behind the romantic myth. At times women authors have refused to focus on romance, and at times they have re-examined the courtship story in order to reveal the truths that have been concealed. One effective way to debunk the romantic myth is through reconnecting the courtship period to the rest of the heroine’s life. By restoring continuity, the artificial isolation of the courtship episode--which results in its idealization--is undone. Furthermore, by reconnecting courtship to the rest of a woman’s life (usually to her childhood and adolescence, occasionally to her subsequent married life), the author challenges the conception that all of a woman’s early life prepares her for the courtship and wedding, and that all of her later life is eternal happiness.


From Passivity to Activism


    Devorah Baron refuses to fuel the romantic myth, and chooses in nearly all of her stories to describe young girls or married women. She hardly ever depicts a young woman in love, and the fate of those few who do fall in love is bitter and unhappy. Baron’s rejection of the romantic myth accounts for the repudiation of romantic motifs within her work; instead she uses naturalistic descriptions of desire or of barren conjugal life.

    The Zionist movement, which proclaimed the cause of women’s emancipation, caused intriguing changes for Jewish women. Eastern European women, who had been passive and accepting, as in Devorah Baron’s “Excision” (1943), are the same Jewish women who made aliyah to Israel, became activists, and worked for women’s equality.

    The struggle by women of the first aliyah (1880 to 1904) to gain the right to vote is depicted in Hannah Trager’s story. The young women succeed in mobilizing their male friends and their mothers, and together they triumph over conservative, sexist opposition to change.

Eastern European women strongly influenced their Middle East­ern sisters, as Nehama Pukhachevsky illustrates in “Aphia’s Plight” (1925). Aphia learns to read and write with the assistance of her Ashkenazic employer, and, absorbing European values, she refuses to let her husband beat her and runs away from him.

In these two early stories about women pioneers in the land of Israel, power clearly lies in male hands, but women recognize their rights as human beings and demand changes in both their personal and family lives and their political and communal lives.

Like Devorah Baron, these women writing in Hebrew in the early years of the century avoid the romantic myth. They forsake the courtship idyll and instead document the everyday difficulties of the women who are realizing the Zionist vision. For many early Hebrew women authors, their “feminist” protest is transferred onto a heroine who is outside the writer’s own economic class or ethnic group. Nehama Pukhachevsky chooses a Yemenite woman, as does Hanna Bolotin in “The Mother and Daughter” (1911). Both authors examine a community that differs greatly from the writers’ own Ashkenazic community in its attitudes and its treatment of women, and they thereby avoid direct criticism of the Zionist pioneers. Elaine Show­alter shows how British women authors of the nineteenth-century, through identification with poor and dispossessed women, thereby indirectly protest against the existing social order-whose victims are women.” A similar identification with the neglected Jewish wom­an-and a similar protest-occurs in Devorah Baron’s work and in the work of women writers of the first aliyah.

    A radical departure from stereotypical Eastern European wom­anhood and from the stereotypical courtship episode is presented by Esther Ra’ab in “Wedding” (1934). One young woman from the village takes upon herself the job of savior. With the inspiration of the biblical leaders Deborah and Judith, Ziva rides out to appeal to the British army. At the hour of her mission’s fulfillment, she is wounded. Nonetheless, she is the model for the Israeli warrior heroine, ready to sacrifice her life for her homeland.


Fantasy and Delusion-Substitutes for Creation and Authority


    That the romantic myth is a delusion which makes women miserable is the subject of Elisheva’s stories. In these stories, and in the novel Alleyways (1929), the writer presents heroines who fall in love with love, women who are willing to give all for love, as literature has taught them. One of them confesses, “With my love I fell in love and no more.” The protagonist of Alleyways, Liudmila, falls in love with the poet Galwitz, just as Nina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” falls in love with the writer Trigorin. Liudmila knows Chekhov’s play well, yet she is unable to stop herself from falling into Nina’s trap.

    Elisheva also attacks the romantic myth in “The Truth” (1928). The protagonist is a young woman, unattractive and lonely, who enthusiastically watches plays and movies. Under the influence of these creations, she writes in her diary of her imagined loves. The ironic title sharpens the point that these romantic interludes are purely fantasy-indeed they are lies. Elisheva emphasizes the character’s desperate need to give her life the only meaning that matters-­romantic meaning. In effect, patriarchal society does not offer women any source of satisfaction except romantic love-or, more accurately, the delusion of romantic love. In “The Truth” Elisheva presents the delusion as a means by which women escape from the emptiness and disappointment of their lives. The writer also makes clear how all the arts serve the existing patriarchal order, disguising emotional manipulation within poetic truth.

Elisheva creates the image of a woman fleeing to a world of written fantasy rather than the image of a woman as a creative author and authoritative creator. The protagonist of “The Truth” (1924) writes only for herself. In her imagination, she gives form and life to men whom, in reality, she only sees from afar. After her death, when her friends discover the notebook containing her collection of stories, they believe that her inventions were actual occurrences, and the women are jealous of her beautiful and meaningful life. The story concludes with exposure of the delusion: “So all the words of the old book were a fabrication .... The words were a poor absurd figment, her friends envied her in vain, for her life was as deprived, boring, and uneventful as were all their lives in the long lonely evenings.” The principal character is shown to be a liar, but the beauty of her writing leads readers to believe that she could have been an author of fiction if support had been given to women in her day.

    Elisheva as author distances herself from her creation, arousing the reader’s pity. In contrast, Haya Ester identifies with the principal character in “Liar” (1983). Sheindel, who is also a potential writer, does not produce works of fiction because her ultra-Orthodox community condemns secular literature (and views writing religious literature as the province solely of men). Sheindel’s marvelous stories, which capture the hearts of children, are the cause of her nickname: the liar. The narrator describes Sheindel’s almost hypnotic influence: “Her lies were colorful. Her thoughts sinuous. She would let things slip which we never even saw. We were taken in by her. We got ourselves mixed up in her lies. We saw.” Perhaps it is possible


The Hidden Story-Daughters and Mothers


    One of the hidden stories in a patriarchal culture is the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. In Western culture motherhood is primarily viewed as the relationship between a son and his mother; the most notable example is the Christian relationship of the Madonna and child. The story of a woman and her mother has only recently begun to be explored in women’s literature. Adrienne Rich states that a rupture between mother and daughter is not accorded the same tragic dimensions as a rupture between mother and son (as in Hamlet and Oedipus Rex) or as a rupture between father and daughter (as in King Lear).” Neither love between mother and daughter nor division between mother and daughter are recognized and validated in Western literature. Though the daughter’s loss of her mother and the mother’s loss of her daughter are the essence of human tragedy, patriarchal society effectively hides that tragedy from view.

    In ancient Greece, however, the rupture between mother and daughter was recognized and respected. The myth of the mother, Demeter, searching for her lost daughter, Persephone,” was the basis for the ritual mysteries at Eleusis, a key element of ancient Greek religious life. Phyllis Chesler postulates that subsequent Western civilization, by denying the Demeter-Persephone myth, relegated the mother-daughter relationship to the margins of cultural conscious­ness. ‘6 Because women share no cultural myth in which they act together independently of men, Chesler states, women are not al­lowed to “become heroines” of their own stories, and hence are sentenced to helplessness, passivity, naivete, and weakness. Mothers then transmit these qualities to their daughters.

    This accounts for the ambivalent relationships between daugh­ters and mothers. The daughter feels fury because the mother has neglected her in favor of nurturing the father and the sons, and also because the mother is not capable of providing her with strength. Adrienne Rich asserts that a daughter may remain angry with her mother all of her life because of the mother’s passive acceptance of “whatever happens.”” The daughter thereby degrades the mother by placing her in the role of accepting victim, and she also distorts her own soul as she follows her mother in a search for clues to the meaning of womanhood. Rich argues that the self-hate and the low expectations of the mother are the ropes that bind the soul of the daughter.

Since the daughter can draw no strength from the mother, she turns to the father. This causes a rupture between mother and daughter, as they compete for the father. This competition, however, is denied by both mother and daughter, because it is taboo. The competition is made clear, though, in symbolic sources such as fairy tales, where the mother is often transformed into an evil stepmother. In “Snow White” the battle between the Queen and Snow White is conducted by means of a magic mirror, which tells the Queen of her unsurpassed beauty. According to Gilbert and Gubar, the mirror speaks with the voice of patriarchy, determining the status of women according to their external attractions. With beauty as women’s only basis for attaining power, competition and bitter jealousy are inevitable. All women are forced to compete with one another, and harmony is impossible. Even within the family, women are sentenced to solitude and struggle.

    Release from the bonds of sexism through creation of mother­daughter unity is the story described by Savyon Liebrecht in “Apples From The Desert” (1986). The mother, who comes to identify with the daughter, is willing to oppose her husband so that the daughter can achieve happiness-and the mother thus achieves her own indepen­dence from male tyranny. The story centers on a confrontation between a traditional woman-Victoria Abravanel, from the Orthodox neighborhood Sha’arei Hesed in Jerusalem-and her daughter Rivka-who lives with a man without the legitimacy of marriage. The confrontation leads the mother to decide that her daughter’s fate will differ from her own, and this marks a turning point in Victoria’s life. For the first time, she is willing to undermine the authority of the father and the tradition. Victoria protects her daughter’s right to a life of love, a life which she herself has not had. The feminine covenant between mother and daughter does indeed overcome the patriarchal order. Rivka will not be, like her mother, a victim of matchmaking without love. The daughter’s independent deed, leaving the parental home to live together with a man who loves her, is an important step on the way to realizing her freedom, a step which wins the support and admiration of the mother. Because of the daughter, the mother is also liberated.


Prostitution as Metaphor


In “White Lines” (1985), Dorit Peleg presents the romantic myth as the means by which a woman can survive in a man’s world. Women’s economic dependence on men causes love to be a product that is sold for money. Only men can truly enjoy the emotional benefits of love, while women must stage the love experience in order to win financial benefits. In order to maintain the distorted relationship, the woman strives to bring enjoyment both emotional and sexual-to her partner and she denies her own needs. The man then believes that he is loved, desired, and wanted.

The narrator of “White Lines” finances herself through prostitution, but she sells much more than her body. She sells the magic of love. The narrator states: “I sell a dream. I deal in an illusion of tenderness. A delusion of intimacy.” In order to succeed, she must orchestrate every proceeding with great care, and forgo all spontane­ous reactions. The narrator does not allow herself to feel, to love, or to desire, because her body and her feelings are controlled by her intellect, which dictates the behavior that will result in satisfaction of the emotional and, physical needs of the man who is her target. Therefore, the narrator is completely estranged from herself, and acts with alarming, mechanical efficiency.

    The prostitute, who has rescued herself from the gutter, prefers the independence that her occupation affords to the dependence of married women on their husbands. In her eyes, she sells, cleverly and at a high price, what other women give away in exchange for the delusion of love. And as a result of her clear-sighted understanding of male-female relations, she wins privacy, a comfortable existence, and control. The prostitute thus holds a mirror to the exchange that takes place between respectable women and men within our society. Furthermore, the polarity between respectable women and prostitutes, hides from the former the price they must pay for their respectability.

    Although the narrator feels that she exercises control over her life, she herself is subject to the tyranny of a sexist society in which all women must compete for men’s support. Her hatred of other women reveals her subjugation. She hates all younger women, because they are destined to replace her, and she feels disgusted by all older and less beautiful women, because she knows that she will suffer their fate. Because she hates women and experiences only alienation in her relations with men, she remains totally alone in her room and her existence remains totally sterile. In other words, she achieves absolute control of her life because she forfeits it. The heroine is willing to exist in comfortable surroundings while living an empty life, because she seeks to escape from the weakness and helplessness that characterized her earlier life. She sticks to the rules that she has created, because she fears the chaotic reality of her past days, which she recalls with panic.

    In the world depicted by Dorit Peleg, men are all-powerful. Women, because they are economically and socially dependent on men, are unable to love. The wonderful loss of control that occurs when one loves is, according to the protagonist, the exclusive privi­lege of the powerful; the powerless cannot permit themselves any such indulgence. “His job is to lose control. Mine is to keep it,” the narrator says. Therefore women must divide themselves into a control center, on which their ability to survive depends, and into a body and soul which are subject to the control center and respond to its dictates absolutely. A woman who is carried away by her desires and feelings endangers her existence.


New Challenges in the State of Israel


    The stories written after statehood describe female assertiveness in different and unexplored areas: The 18-year-old soldier in Dahlia Ravikovitch’s “A Slight Delay” resolutely opposes sexual harassment by her superior officer, and she finds the inner resources to survive and come to terms with her experience.  The protagonist of Savyon Liebrecht’s “A Room on the Roof” is a young mother. She demonstrates an impressive independence when she takes upon herself-in opposition to the wishes of her husband and in his absence-the responsibility for building a room of her own, because supervising the Arab construction workers is indeed a dangerous task. Yet the young Jewish mother succeeds, and even reaches moments of closeness and identification with one of the workers. Though these moments do not ultimately lead the protagonist to a deeper understanding or to change, Liebrecht seems to say that in the assertiveness that leads to her identification with the Palestinian Arab man, the young mother has become worthy of commendation.

    Assertiveness is also apparent in Shulamith Hareven’s “Loneliness,” in which the sexual attraction that a mature woman feels for a teenage girl causes a lasting upheaval in her world. Sexual attraction outside the cultural norm characterizes “Shrinking” by Ruth Almog as well. Here a mature woman re-establishes a connection with a man who had been her student many years earlier, when she had just begun her teaching career. Although she ultimately recoils from sexual contact with the younger man, the possibility for fulfillment of their relationship testifies to the breakdown of the accepted societal phenomenon of “marrying up.”

    The stories that conclude the anthology describe four foci of pain within the Israeli community: the memory of the Holocaust in Michal Govrin’s “La Promenade, Triptych,” the unending fear of terrorism in Savyon Liebrecht’s “A Room on the Roof,” enduring social inequity in Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Ummi Fi Shurl,” and bereavement following war in Yehudit Hendel’s “Apples In Honey.” Great strength is demanded of the Jewish women who must live within this pain. Ultimately, Israeli women’s fiction reveals the country’s deep longing for peace-to heal the wounds of the past and to create a better future.

1.   Amalia Kahana-Carmon, “Songs of Bats as They Fly,” 1989 (Hebrew).

2.   Amos Oz, “In Bright Blue Light,” 1979 (Hebrew).

3.   Cited by Yaffa Berlovitz, “The Writings of the Daughters of the First Mph: 

Afterword,” Stories by Women: Daughters of the First Aliyah (Israel: Sifriat             Tarmil, 1984) (Hebrew).

4.   A detailed description of her reception by the literary world is found in Nurit Govrin, “The First Half: Devorah Baron and Her Work 1887-1923” (1988) (Hebrew).

5.   Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).

6.   Gilbert and Gubar note the instructive comment by Adrienne Rich that every thinking woman is liable to see herself as captured within her hideous body and to recoil from it.

7.   The critical reaction is surveyed in my book, Amalia Kahana-Carmon: Monograph, 1986 (Hebrew). In the winter of 1994, Kahana-Carmon was awarded the Bialik Prize, Israel’s most prestigious award.

8.   As mainstream Hebrew fiction writers turned increasingly to stories of Israel, Devorah Baron continued to explore the diaspora life she had known as a child. Unlike most men writing during the first half of the century, she avoids surrealistic

effects, interior monologue, and overt symbolism. Furthermore, she eschews the collective historical perspective of Zionist-socialism which many Hebrew literary critics of her day considered indispensable for serious fiction.

9.   The new process style flourished from 1891 to 1894 and was notable for its melodramatic plot structure, pathos, emotionalism, sentimentality, its simple sentence structure, and its clear, unadorned writing style.

10. Amalia Kahana-Carmon, “To Be A Woman Writer,” Yediot Aharonot, April 13, 1984 (Hebrew).

11. Amalia Kahana-Carmon is herself in this position. Although she is considered to be one of Israel’s major writers, neither the Israeli literary world nor the international critical community considers her to be Israel’s central artist. Furthermore, though she has been the recipient of Israel’s most significant literary awards, she is relatively little known among American Jewry-unlike her contertiporaries Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, or Nathan Shaham.

12. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Bantam, 1971, rev. ed.).

13. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Bronte to Lessing (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977).

to see in Haya Ester, the writer, the twin of Sheindel, the liar, the story inventor, who creates beauty in words.

14. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976).

15. Persephone is taken by Hades, the god of the underworld, to his home, and Demeter, the harvest goddess, mourns and searches for her daughter. While Demeter mourns, the land can produce no harvest. Demeter finds Persephone and brings her back up to the earth, but each year Persephone must descend to the underworld for six months. During those months, Demeter laments the absence of her child. The earth is cold and no crops grow.

16. Phyllis Chesler, Woman and Madness (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972).

17. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born.



Ribcage, Israeli Women’s Fiction, A Hadassah Anthology, edited by Carol Diament and Lily Rattok.