New Article: Katz, Niagara, Primitivism, and the Hebrew Literary Imagination

Katz, Stephen. “Power and Powerlessness: Niagara, Primitivism, and the Hebrew Literary Imagination.” Modern Judaism 34.2 (2014): 233-56.




Despite the impression of having attained tranquility and a stable existence, the Jews in Semel’s novel have not found their proper rest, not even on their IsraIsland by the Niagara River. The Falls, just a hop-skip-and-jump downstream, issue forth a foreboding mushroom-like pillar of vapor that rises into the air taking the form that evokes a nuclear explosion (pp. 80, 176, 203, 225–26), a force that threatens to annihilate all of humanity. The metaphor stands as a constant reminder of the violence lurking behind human affairs, from the destruction of Native American culture to the events of September 11, 2001. In addition, it is a threat to Jewish existence as its relatively pristine homogeneous culture gives rise to an Americanized hybridity, as is the life of all who reside in this place.

The image of the Falls resembling the mushroom-shaped aftermath of a nuclear explosion resembles an analogous image frequently applied to Israel. As opposed to life on the precipice of a torrential waterfall, Israel’s condition has often been likened to existence on the edge of a volcano. Nava Semel merely substitutes water for fire. The Falls, it turns out, become a harbinger for the devastations of September 11 as a mark of the end of things, and perhaps some new beginnings.


At the time when Jews migrating to Eretz Israel were occupied with learning the lay of the land (yedi‘at ha’aretz, knowledge of the land), Hebrew writers in America were also making the acquaintance of the Golden Land. Assimilation into America—whether by those dwelling in America literally, or figuratively for those Hebraists demonstrating their worldliness by writing of vistas other than their own—was also a process of yedi‘at ha’aretz for America’s Hebraists. Their writings testify to an act of inscribing America, of acculturation and internationalization, an adoption of the New World, its environment and myths. In this process, Niagara was but one of many sites of intersection, of American places introduced to the Hebrew reader. As we see, more than a few works in prose or verse were preoccupied with this project, either directly or as an incidental setting of the plot in a new milieu. In so doing, these poems and tales were making the American landscape part of the Jewish experience, fixing it within the reader’s conscience, as a “coming out” of Hebrew literature from the cocoon of self-absorption to an exploration and adaptation to the world.

We might even detect in these American-centered vistas a legacy of the haskalah, when Hebrew writing was praised for the attention devoted to the intricacies of nature and the natural world or was criticized for not doing so. In their fixation on Niagara, writers were inevitably challenged to add their own powers of observation, replication, and metaphorizing, when needed, to broaden it for the host of uses in the Hebrew literary canon.