All Things Must Pass: Negotiating Identity/Difference in Modern Hebrew Literature
My dissertation, titled “This Too Shall Pass: Negotiating Identity/Difference in Modern Hebrew Literature,” introduces the concept of passing to the literary criticism of Israeli fiction, rethinking the identity shifts of Jewish immigrants, Holocaust survivors and minority groups, in relation to integration demands of the Zionist narrative.
The introduction engages with Natalie Melas’ methodological assessment of the comparative study. I clarify that my research is not about the comparison of equivalence but the opposite: it is about looking at that which cannot be compared. The first chapter offers a reading of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, looking at Harlem through the Zionist narrative. I establish the act of passing as an exemplifier of the fluidity of identity and the self, to argue that the tragic ending of Larsen's novel is anchored in the empty promise of middle-class integrationists and the reluctance of a white-capitalist-centered bourgeois-culture to accept threatening non-contingent identities. The second and third chapters offer a close examination of the negotiation of identity/difference in Israel through the life and work of Dahn Ben-Amotz (1923-1989), the prolific novelist, humorist, journalist, artist, linguist, infamous bon-vivant and polygamist. Ben-Amotz played a crucial role in creating and shaping Israeli popular culture, and in establishing the legitimacy of spoken Hebrew as a literary and cultural signifier. To date, however, scholarship on Ben-Amotz is virtually non-existent. Returning to Ben-Amotz’s literary and artistic oeuvre fills that void in Hebrew literary criticism, while providing a glimpse into a unique intersection of Jewish past and present, and of the relationship between the formation of the State of Israel and the immigration narratives of Diaspora Jewry. The fourth chapter focuses on Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 novel Adam Ben-Kelev, criticizing the systematic categorization of structured identities and the failure of this approach to overcome notions of otherness, while paradoxically supporting the hegemony of mega-identity-groups and the creation of stigmatized, “undesired” personality traits. I argue that this novel functions as a prophetic warning sign: it is not blindness to the suffering of others that infects Israeli society, but the continuous divisive toxicity of its group politics.