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Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, by Shachar M. Pinsker.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.  487 pp.  $60.00.


Shachar Pinsker’s Literary Passports is a major study of early twentieth-century Hebrew fiction in the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires and the problems of urban experience, sexuality, and religiosity that framed its creation. It should be read not only by scholars of modern Hebrew literature, but by anyone interested in Jewish literary history generally, the history and theory of modernism, and the impact of the specific modernity of urban Europe on Jewish culture and consciousness.

Literary Passports focuses particularly on the famous “Homel group” of iconoclastic experimental writers Yosef Haim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnesin, and Gershon Shofman. Pinsker also examines the unlikely cultural lodestar of this group, the unorthodox orthodox religious writer Hillel Tsaytlin [Zeitlin] as well as figures outside this circle like David Fogel, Dvora Baron, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Eliezer Shteynman, and David Shimonovits/Shimoni. Literary Passports can be read for its compelling analyses of these and other figures, but it is organized not by author but around the three aforementioned cultural sites of the city, sexuality and gender, and religiosity.

Pinsker’s core contention is that the literary achievements of Brenner and his contemporaries should be understood above all as the fruit of an encounter between “young Jewish writers attempting to forge a sense-of-self in Hebrew and the shifting terrain of European modernity” (p. 8). How precisely Pinsker specifies this “terrain”—and the argument for the Europeanness of Hebrew modernism it grounds—is the key, and I will turn to this momentarily. However, we should first note a second dimension of his overarching argument: that the modernist sensibility he sees at work in this Hebrew prose is not a modernism of place but of placelessness, or more particularly, of “restive, dialectical movement between urban centers” where these writers were not at home (p. 7). Responding to Dan Miron’s Bodedim be-Moadam, which placed particular emphasis on the importance of Hebrew writers’ literary and social experience in major centers of East European Jewish modernity like Warsaw and Odessa, Pinsker argues that it is no accident that many of the innovative Hebrew modernist works of the early 20th century were created outside these Jewish centers, in secondary sites like Homel and Lvov or in Central and Western European metropoles—London, Vienna, Berlin—where Hebrew culture was marginal. Echoing Miron, Pinsker suggests that this displacement had something to do with the need of young, experimental writers to distance themselves from the dominant figures (Bialik, Peretz, Frishman, etc.) and literary modes associated with Warsaw and Odessa, but he also argues that displacement and marginality were essential to the literary creativity of these writers at a formal and intellectual level too. Perhaps the Hebrew translation of Pinsker’s book should be titled Nodedim be-moadam.

But Literary Passports is much more than an expansion of Miron’s classic literary history. Famously, there Miron relates the literary work of figures like Gnesin and Brenner first and foremost to a series of generative problems like the decline of readership for Hebrew literature, the suffocating authority of the previous literary generation and the potentially stultifying pressures of organized Zionism. Pinsker takes a different though by no means opposing tack and shows how this same Hebrew fiction was shaped more broadly in relation to three bundles of questions, cultural problems and anxieties, institutions, and forms of experience particular to the life of the fin-de-siècle European intelligentsia: the experience of city life with its particular pleasures and tensions; questions of sexuality and gender in the context of European Decadence; and the questions of religiosity that preoccupied the nominally secular East European intelligentsia.

Section 1, “The European Cities of Modernist Hebrew Fiction,” articulates the argument sketched above: that the experimental Hebrew fiction of Brenner, Shofman, et al. took part in the transnational early modernist exploration of the city as cognate to the representation of the unstable modern self precisely by leaving the great centers of East European Jewish modernity for sites where modernity loomed large but Hebrew was marginal.

Section 2, “Sexuality and Gender in Modern Hebrew Fiction,” begins from the recognition that the “inward turn” in Hebrew fiction was also a “sexual turn.” Pinsker examines the sustained concern of this literature with themes of masculinity, homoeroticism, the linkage between writing and sexual desire, and the issue of the “new woman.” Pinsker’s layered readings lead to an important revisionist argument against oft-repeated and widely accepted claims about masculinity and misogyny in Hebrew literature and more broadly in Zionism. Against the view that Hebrew writers uncritically absorbed Weiningerian sensibilities and that they crudely used their work to articulate a compensatory hyper-European nationalist hypermasculinity, Pinsker quietly but convincingly demonstrates that these writers “did not advance a masculine ideal for the emerging Jewish (or ‘Hebrew’) national identity—particularly not one grounded in the desire to extinguish Jewish difference” (p. 168 and cf. p. 184). Instead, they consciously and intelligently “engaged and explored” these questions in open-ended fashion (pp. 270, 268).

Section 3, “Tradition, Modernity, and Religious Experience in Modernist Hebrew Fiction,” traces how the same writers repeatedly thematized the “quest for religiosity and religious or mystical experience” (p. 307). This section may prove the most exciting for many readers given the rising interest across the humanities in the persistence of religiosity within (instead of?) modernity’s ostensible secularity. Pinsker’s treatment of religious themes in the texts is subtle and interesting. My one analytical reservation is that Pinsker arguably elides a critical distinction in his search for the religious within the secular: whereas Hillel Tsaytlin, who presides over this section, actually engaged in forms of religious exploration in his everyday life, Pinsker’s Hebrew modernists (with the signal exception of Agnon) seem to have confined their interest in religiosity to their texts. Such a resolute distinction between thematization and actual lived practice suggests that religiosity may not have had as irrepressible a power in Jewish secular culture as the current crisis of secularism might suggest.

There is much to value and little to criticize in Pinsker’s analysis. At times, some readers may wish for more sustained intellectual history; treatments of the thinkers these writers read, from Nietzsche to Lev Shestov, sometimes feel more like a listing than an analysis. Pinsker might also be arraigned for a somewhat uncritical participation in the now widespread effort to “save” Hebrew writers from Zionism. Against the ostensible orthodoxy (which no one has held in years) that “modern Hebrew literature in the last century [was] linked exclusively with the Zionist narrative,” Pinsker insists that his writers’ “cultural and literary horizon was and remained European” (p. 8). Leaving aside the obvious point that Zionism and Europeanness are not necessarily polar opposites (not least because both could mean a great many things), Pinsker’s own sources remind us that the absence of straightforward Zionist tropes in this Hebrew modernism is not a sign of indifference but a literary choice standing in a complex relationship to these writers’ other political and cultural commitments: as Pinsker himself notes without seeming to register the analytical tension, many other aspects of these writers’ lives exhibited a deeply felt if necessarily complicated relationship to the Zionist project of Jewish national reconstruction and self-help (see, e.g., pp. 57, 79). But these are minor criticisms of a major work in literary and cultural history.

Kenneth B. Moss

The Johns Hopkins University