March 15, 2007
Home and Jerusalem
Israel according to Hollywood:
Click the BIG ARROW for the trailer from "Exodus" (1960)
The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; they founded Israel to help Jews escape the world.
Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century -- Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Dylan -- but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.
One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn't, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise.
But both these grand inventions have something very important in common: Jewish writers.
Jewish writers created the movies that defined Hollywood. And other Jewish writers, a world away, created the movement that defined Israel. These thoughts wandered through my head as I dipped in an out of a rare offering this week, an international conference in Los Angeles on Israeli literature. Held under the auspices of the relatively new UCLA Israel Studies Program, "History as Reflected in Israeli Literature" brought together several dozen of the world's top scholars in a surprisingly rich field.
Actually, as the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua made clear in his keynote address Sunday evening, the importance of the literary imagination to Israel should surprise no one.
"Zionism was founded by writers," he said.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a popular journalist and aspiring playwright.
"Herzl was a failed dramatist," Yehoshua said. "Perhaps if he was a more successful dramatist...." His voice trailed off as the audience laughed, imagining Herzl forsaking his life's mission for a three-play deal on the Ringstrasse. "We are perhaps one of his plays."
But Herzl forsook plays and instead wrote books, bad fiction and good nonfiction, outlining his vision of a Jewish state. That tradition continued after Israel's founding in 1948, though the quality of the fiction greatly improved. Those early works, as Ben Gurion University of the Negev's Yigal Schwartz said at one panel, mostly wrestled with the basic questions of identity.
"Most Hebrew literature dealt with trying to make a new nation through literature," he told conferees. These works created, "the Zionist religion of Nationhood."
But on their heels, in the 1950s, came novels challenging the hard-won status quo.
"The major subject of this literature is the disappointment with the state," said professor Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University. "There wasn't any writer who didn't express disappointment."
Holtzman pointed out that the early Soviet literature evinced the same kind of post-revolutionary letdown.
The difference was, of course, that the Soviets killed their disappointed novelists. Israel lauded hers. Another generation -- Yehoshua's -- blossomed, and its literature was still more complex, combining political themes with the personal and historical. And as these Israeli writers gained fame, something extraordinary happened -- Israelis continued to listen to them.
As professor Robert Alter pointed out in a presentation with Yehoshua, this attention marks a great divide between Israeli and American novelists. Israel has a tradition of novelists and writers engaged in the public square.
"How different this is from the American writer," Alter said. "I think very few practicing American novelists today feel any impulse to comment on political matters, and even more crucially, if they did, if Phillip Roth did comment on American politics, nobody would pay attention to him."
In fact, Roth denies that his book, "The Plot Against America," is a direct critique of the Bush administration, despite the fact that many have read it as such.
When Yehoshua gave a press conference last summer alongside novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman calling for an end to the recent war against Hezbollah -- Yehoshua supported it but believed it was going on too long -- it made national headlines. When Yehoshua declared that in the Diaspora being Jewish "is a jacket you take on or off," while in Israel it is "a skin," the outcry made international headlines. (He repeated the charges Sunday night, with considerably less shock value.)
In fact, the importance of the artistic imagination to the Israeli endeavor should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into L.A. culture these days. The Israel Film Festival is at the Laemmle theatres, featuring a slate of cutting-edge movies from Hollywood-on-HaYarkon. This May, a vast exchange is in the works bringing Tel Aviv fine artists to galleries in L.A. Musicians from David Broza to the entire Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have played to large audiences recently.
And last week's literary conference was, according to professor David Myers of UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies, which co-sponsored the event, the first of its kind in Los Angeles.
In America, it's fair to say, Hollywood's writers have more power than novelists over the public political and cultural consciousness. But in Israel the lions of literature still have an impact, and that, Yehoshua said, is not by chance.
"The others," he said, going back to the beginnings of that other Jewish invention, "the rabbis, the leaders of the community, they could not foresee what was happening, what will happen to the Jewish people. It was only by a certain imagination, an audacity, that these writers could understand what has to be done in order to avoid the catastrophe."
"My feeling is that we continue this certain tradition of writers, this vision for Zionism of seeing clearly what is to be done," he continued. "I don't say we have seen always the right thing, that our analysis was always correct. But the fact is that this is a certain tradition of Zionism, that writers and intellectuals are important and the public is hearing us. Maybe they were thinking we were perhaps na?ve, perhaps stupid, but there is a place for the intellectual to say his words. In this sense I am always grateful to Israel for the way in which it never persecuted us, and always gave us attention."
Would you expect anything else from a great Jewish invention?