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Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

YEHUDIT HENDEL: WRITING ON THE FRINGE


DINA RIPSMAN EYLON, PH.D. Yehudit Hendel was the first female Israeli writer to achieve acclaim in the decade following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. However, very few of her works have been translated into English from the original Hebrew, and she is little known outside of Israel. Hendels body of work deals with themes of traumatic loss of a homeland, mother tongue, community, family members and loved ones in wars and other calamities. Hendels heartrending characters struggle with their ordeals using various escape mechanisms: denial, amnesia and mental illness. Thematically, several of her early stories deal with the aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence and the social conflicts of that era. As a member of Dor HaPalmakh, the first generation of Israeli writers that composed literature that was distinctively Israeli, her initial writings followed the conventions of the period. They ignored issues of gender equality and the lack of a need for a specific female voice. Only in mid-career did Hendel find a voice of her own and her work began to exhibit feminist characteristics. Yehudit Hendel was born in 1926 in Warsaw, Poland to a Hasidic family, descendents of Rabbi Yehezkiel of Kazmir. In 1925, Hendels grandfather sold his large estate in Poland and along with his sons and daughters immigrated to pre-state Israel and settled in Tivon. Afterward, her grandfather became one of the founders of Kfar Hasidim, a small religious farming community near Haifa. In 1930, Hendels family joined their relatives, settling in Tivon and later moving to the neighborhood of Nesher on the slopes of Mount Carmel. When Hendel was a young girl, her mother died of typhoid fever. The effects of this devastating event were to resurface continually in her writings. (In "A Story with No Address" from her collection of short stories Small Change, the dead mothers spirit hovers over the daughters fiction and reverberates in many of the daughters protagonists.) Hendels family next moved to Haifa, where she attended the prestigious Reali High School. After graduating, she enrolled at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv. 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 1

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

In 1946, Hendel began publishing short stories in Hebrew dailies like Haaretz and Davar. Even in these modest efforts, notes Dan Miron, the notable literary scholar and critic, Hendel distinguished herself from her contemporaries by her inimitable writing style and choice of subject matter. Miron suggests that whereas many of her contemporaries focused on the mainstream of Israeli society, Hendel preferred to show life on its periphery. This divergence would forever be her hallmark as a writer. On several occasions, Hendel indicated that she agreed with this assessment. In an interview for the weekly Dvar HaShavua in January 29, 1988, she admitted:
I wrote about the people on the fringe [of society] and not the heroes of the wars. I was always attracted to the marginal aspects of life and to the people who lived on the fringe. I wrote about the iceman from Nesher, and I wrote about the redheaded paralyzed young woman, asking to be seated under a speck of sun, in the light.

In 1947, while seeking shelter from a heavy rain at a caf in Haifa, she met the Israeli modernist painter Zvi Mairovich. Fifteen years her senior, he became the most influential figure in her life. They married the following year in front of strangers. They had two children: Dorit (1950-2007) and Yehoshua (Shuki, 1962). From 1949 to 1950, the young couple lived in Paris. From 1950 until Mairovichs death in 1974, Hendel lived in Haifa, where much of her fiction takes place. In 1950, Hendel published her first collection of short stories, Anashim Aherim Hem (They Are Different). The book went out of print quickly, but remarkably, fifty years later in 2000, was revised and re-printed. In the prologue of the enlarged second edition, Hendel recalls her frustrating experience with the editing of the 1950 edition. Without consulting, her editor changed the ending of one of the stories, "Kever-Banim" (Unmarked Communal Grave), which deals with a father who loses his son in the War of Independence. In the original ending the grieving father visits his sons communal grave on a stormy day. Upon leaving the cemetery, he numbly takes off his coat and places it, along with a small rock, on the grave to protect it from the torrential rain. The story was inspired by Hendels aunt, Pesia, who lost her son in the war and kept watch for him at her window for two years until she died of a broken heart. Written just a year after the war, this ending represented a radical notion that ran contrary to the norm where grieving families endured and saw war casualties as heroic acts.

2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission.

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

The first edition of Anashim Aherim Hem included seven short stories. Four dealt exclusively with the aftermath of the 1948 war. Loss of loved ones and the disabilities incurred during the various battles are themes frequently revisited. "Zikhrono nifga, (He Lost His Memory) one of the stories written in 1948 and added to the 2000 revised edition, is a delicate, touching narrative about a young man who suffers a head wound during the war and consequently loses his memory. The story is told from the point of view of his live-in girlfriend, whose reality becomes completely shattered as a result of the young mans injury. Although composed in the same year, this story differs significantly in theme and style from the title story, Anashim aherim hem (They Are Different) in which Hendel exposes the social inequality between new immigrants and native-born Israelis. Told from the point of view of the immigrants, the underdogs, Hendel depicts the prejudice and stereotypical attitudes held by the native-born Israelis toward the newcomers, whom they regard as their social inferiors. In a similar fashion, the author sides with the victims of war, the disabled and the displaced, becoming their champion, even though Hendel herself was a member of the Palmakh and performed military related activities. In 1955, Hendel published her first novel, Rehov Ha-Madregot (translated as Street of Steps in 1963). Unlike Anashim Aherim Hem, which went out of print quickly and was essentially ignored by the critics, Rehov Ha-Madregot became an instant bestseller. It won the Asher Barash Award, saw several editions, and was adapted for the stage in 1958. A story of love in modern Israel, the novel portrays discrimination and alienation between Jews of different ethnic backgrounds in the early years of the State. Against the backdrop of the hills of Haifa, two young people, Avram "Ram" Bekhar, a Sephardic Jew, and Erella "Ella" Dagan, from an Ashkenazi background, fall in love. From the outset it is obvious that their romance is ill-fated, largely due to strong opposition from Erellas father. Hendels artistic talent intertwines a sophisticated narrative using both dynamic and one-dimensional characters. The protagonists social status is echoed in the ascending and descending of the hundreds of steps leading from Haifas coast to the top of Mount Carmel. After a long period of silence, Hendel published her second novel, Ha-Hatzer Shel Momo Ha-Gdola (The Yard of Momo the Great) in 1969. Also known in its revised 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 3

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

edition as Ha-Hamsin Ha-Aharon (The Last Hamsin, published in 1993), it was adapted in 1971 as a television screenplay by the Israeli film director Yehuda Jud Neeman. Like her earlier works, this psychological novel is set in Bat-Galim, a small seaside neighborhood in Haifa, where Momo the Great rents out a room to Shaul, a Holocaust survivor in his thirties. Hendel traces six hot summer weeks in which Shauls world is to crumble. He starts an affair with Tamara, another tenant, who is depressed and confounded by the loss of her baby girl and by two previous divorces. Her third husband, Yoakhim, is practically unavailable and oblivious to his wifes affair. The tale is replete with obsession, loneliness and the psychological disintegration of three lost souls, and ends with Yoakhims suicide. Menachem Perry, the books editor, noted that: "with her fantastic realism, which combines restraint with restlessness, Hendel writes about people who live carelessly yet try to hold onto life." In April 1971, Hendels husband the artist Mairovich suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. Several weeks later, he started painting with his left hand but needed constant care. On November 11, 1974, in the middle of a conversation with his wife, Zvi Mairovich suddenly collapsed and diedthree and a half years after suffering a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body after which Hendel nursed him devotedly. After her husbands death, Hendel decided against ever publishing the manuscript she had been working onthough the movie Ztelilah Hozeret (Repeated Dive, 1980, written and directed by Shimon Dotan) is based on this story. Six years later, Hendel moved to Tel-Aviv, determined never to write again. Yet, in 1976 she started to work on a semi-autobiographical piece, Ha-Koah Ha-Aher (The Other Power), in which she revealed many aspects of her life with her painter-husband. The book was published in 1984. In 1999 it was subsequently included in an exhibition of Mairovichs paintings in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Marking a turning-point in Hendels writing career, Ha-Koah Ha-Aher is an intricate work centered on Mairovichs creative life, work and death. The various texts which compose the book were first published in the kibbutz movement literary journal Siman Kriah during 1977-1983. The intimate subject matter might be seen as an illustration of how Hendel created a coping device to deal with the crisis she underwent after Mairovichs death. In these poetic and highly personal reconstructions of the painters career, she uncovers the meaning of 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 4

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

living side-by-side with an artist who views art as an uncontrollable spiritual force, which Hendel dubs "the other power." Although they were married for twenty-eight years, Hendel always referred to her husband by his last name, and does so in the book: "For many years I called him Mairovich. The move to call him Zvi was difficult After all I was his wife it seems to me that just a few called him Zvi" As evident from the book, Mairovich was obsessed with death. He suffered from insomnia, phobias and constant headaches, but had a mesmerizing personality and a vivid sense of humor. When asked how she found the courage to live with a man who talked incessantly about death, Hendel explained that her real life began when she first met Mairovich. And her life, she continued, ended with his sudden death. Throughout the book, Hendel describes living in the shadow of Mairovich and uses the phrase "living beside him" as opposed to "living with him" when she refers to their relationship. Vehemently, she writes: "No. Life beside him wasnt easy, but also that which is beyond all predicaments. Today too I still wonder what reality means and what the meaning of the weak[er] power is." In an interview with the Israeli magazine Ha-ir (February 18, 1985), Hendel partly explained her identification with this weaker power: "I decided to place myself on the side, in the rear, in the other room, in the corridor. I wanted to convey his [Mairovichs] spiritual world as a painter A person who reads the book would not know anything about me. One of Mairovichs statements that are more outrageous epitomizes the message of this atypical work: "To work is to submit to the domination or the will of some superior power, while being assailed every morning by a nameless despair." In 1985, Hendel began broadcasting a radio show called "Beguf Rishon" (In the First Person). In its second year it featured Hendels popular recollections from a trip to her birthplace and the remains of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland. The same year, these radio talks were published as a book, Leyad Kefarim Shketim (Near Quiet Places.) In 1988 Hendel published another collection of short stories, Kesef Katan, (translated into English as Small Change in 2002) which is considered one of her best works and is second only to Street of Steps in the amount of attention it attracted from both critics and the general public. The English translation of Small Change contained 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 5

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

five short stories from the original and three from Aruhat Boker Temimah (An Innocent Breakfast). In the Forward, (a Jewish publication, September 19, 2003), Naomi Sokolof stated: "The selections illustrate many of the authors trademark qualities: her subtle rendering of inner worlds, her sensitivity to womens perceptions and fluctuating emotional states, her attention to the minutiae of passing moments." The title story, Kesef katan ("Small Change"), is a horrific psychological account of a father-daughter relationship. The father is a bus driver who has compulsively squirreled away small change accumulated from his fares. The daughter tells her story to a narrator after her return from a Swiss jail, where she had been incarcerated for illegally exchanging her fathers coins. The recurrent symbol of the father obsessively collecting and stacking his small change signifies the trivial things in life: actions humans do compulsively without any kind of deliberation. The narrator spends a considerable time observing and watching the pair through her apartment window. The immediate impression is that the protagonists live alongside the narrator. The close relationship between the narrator, the protagonists, and the reader illustrates Hendels rare statement during a later radio interview shortly after she had been awarded the Israel Prize for Literature. She admitted reluctantly that writing had been an existential necessity she could not pass a day without writing and it has been the only thing that kept her alive. Whenever she would reach a deeper stage of the writing process, Hendel related, she felt as if the characters of the story were indeed practically living in her home. Another typical Hendel story in Kesef Katan is "The Letter that Came in Late." A new widow, despite keeping up normal appearances after her husbands funeral, commits suicide. She leaves behind a meticulous home, labeled belongings and a farewell letter that must reach her family at a particular time. The fuzzy line between life and death is a familiar territory for Hendel. In the last paragraph of "Small Change," the narrator says: "I would say to myself then something I learned a long time ago, that just as life carries in it death so death carries in it life." The story "My Friends Bs Feast" follows a similar theme. In this tale, a woman dying of cancer invites her friends and relatives to a final supper. As the party proceeds, it becomes apparent that the husband has already replaced his wife with a new lover. In the story "Low, Close to the Floor," a dying man cannot decide with which of his two deceased wives he should be buried. In these macabre 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 6

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

scenes, Small Change offers a glimpse into the broad showcase of contemporary Israeli womens writing. A new edition of her first novel, Rehov Ha-Madregot was published in 1998, and a newly revised edition of her first collection of short stories, Anashim Aherim Hem, appeared in print in 2000. Hendels latest novel, Terufo Shel Rofe Ha-Nefesh, (Crack Up) appeared in 2002. It is another complicated psychological work in which a psychiatrist slowly loses his mind. Another novella, Har Ha-To`im (The Mountain of Losses), came out in 1991. Once again Hendel writes about bereavement and demise as a result of war, as she describes a group of grieving parents and wives visiting the graves of their loved ones sixteen years after the Yom Kippur war. In 1996 another collection of short stories, Aruhat Boker Temimah (An Innocent Breakfast), appeared. In this compilation the author asserts her feminist voice: all the stories deal with women haunted by revelations and memories from their past. In 2007, Hendel published a short story collection entitled HaMakom Ha-Reik (The Empty Place). The collections synopsis states that [by] the side of Hendel`s protagonists crouches imminent death, devoid of any romanticism. Yet, the obsessive characters that Hendel depicts here, and the ones that most fire the imagination, are the most realistic she has ever createdthe man who watches over his wifes empty place on the park bench; Rimona whose lover died while they were making love; the man who dances incessantly in Dubnov Garden, for he will die the moment he stops; and Arnona, in a superbly grotesque story, who is dragged unwillingly to a party at the end of which Yonatan does not know whether she is in the emergency room or the morgue. Hendel contributed many essays and articles to Israeli newspapers, journals, and magazines. Her stories were translated into many languages and are part of the curriculum of many schools of higher education. Hendels early writing career was marked by long periods of silence. The gap between her first novel, Rehov Ha-Madregot, and her second, Ha-Hatzer Shel Momo Ha-Gdola, is close to fifteen years. The same is true for her next book, Ha-Koah Ha-Aher, which appeared sixteen years after her second novel. It appears that after the death of her husband, these gaps closed and Hendel became more prolific. Furthermore, some critics claim that at this particular juncture her poetics changed and turned to literary impressionism. Borrowed from the visual arts, the

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Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

term literary impressionism denotes the attempt to describe sensory and emotional perceptions of a scene, instead of recreating the objective nature of the scene. Hendels inconsistent publishing record is mirrored in the reception she received as a writer, getting mixed reviews and capturing less attention than other female writers. While her first book, Rehov Ha-Madregot got rave reviews; her second novel was ignored and only saw a modest revival twenty-four years later in a newly revised edition and title, Ha-Hamsin Ha-Aharon (The Last Hamsin). As Jeff Green wrote in the Jerusalem Post (May 3, 1996): Hendel has been writing fiction on a high level for several decades, and she would probably figure on every knowledgeable critics list of significant Israeli writers, though she is not as well known as she might be. Yehudit Hendel has been honored with numerous literary prizes: the 1954 Asher Barash Prize for Literature, the Prime-Ministers Prize for Literature in 1975 and again in 1998, the 1976 ACUM Prize, the 1989 Agnon Prize, the 1995 Newman Prize, the 1996 Bialik Prize and the most prestigious, the Israel Prize for Literature, in 2003. Interestingly, after she received the Israel Prize in 2003 she disclosed in a television interview that she had lived as a virtual recluse in her home since her husbands death twenty-eight years earlier. The judges offered an accurate assessment as they awarded Hendel the Israel Prize. They credited her with "a distinctive, emotional, and powerful voice, imbued with psychological depths that resonate in Israeli literature." They said that "her understanding of the human soul and daily existence is manifested in a sharp analysis and awareness of the tragic fate of humans. Hendel is a pioneer in her divergence from the center of the social fabric to the periphery. She is a creative woman who combines genuine female and male experiences in her books." YEHUDIT HENDELS BOOKS Anashim Aherim Hem (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1950); Rehov Ha-Madregot (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1955); translated by Rachel Kats and David Segal as Street of Steps (New York: Herzl Press, 1963; London, Thomas Yoseloff, 1964); Ha-Hatzer Shel Momo Ha-Gdolah (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1969); revised and retitled as Ha-Hamsin Ha-Aharon (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1993); 2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. 8

Yehudit Hendel: Writing on the Fringe

Ha-Koah Ha-Aher (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1984); Leyad Kefarim Shketim (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1987); Kesef Katan (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1988); Har Ha-To`im (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1991); Aruhat Boker Temimah (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 1996); Terufo Shel Rofe Ha-Nefesh (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah, 2002). Editions in English Rehov Ha-Madregot (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1955); translated by Rachel Kats and David Segal as Street of Steps (New York: Herzl Press, 1963; London, Thomas Yoseloff, 1964); Small Change, translated by Barbara Harshav (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002). References: Jeffrey M. Green, Reading from Right to Left, Jerusalem Post, 3 May 1996, 26. Nurith Gertz, I Am Other: The Holocaust Survivors Point of View in Yehudit Hendels Short Story They Are Others. Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America, edited by Deborah Dash Moore and S. Ilan Toren (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 217-237. Dan Miron, Ha-koah ha-halah: iunim ba-siporet shel Yehudit Hendel (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2002). Matt Nesvisky, Missed Opportunity, Jerusalem Post, 19 April 1999, 13. Gila Ramras-Rauch, Six Israeli Novellas, World Literature Today, no. 73 (1999): 808. Pnina Shirav, Ketiva tamah: Emdat siah ve-yitzugai nashiut biytziratan shel Yehudit Hendel, Amaliah Kahana-Carmon ve-Ruth Almog (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1998), pp. 9-114. Naomi Sokoloff, Remembering the Woman: Combining the Macabre and the Everyday, One Writer Charts the Female Psychological Experience, review of Small Change: A Collection of Stories, by Yehudit Hendel. In Forward, 19 September 2003.

2011 Dina Ripsman Eylon and Sisterhood Press All rights reserved. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission.