This essay examines the ways in which Yiddish—as a language, a set of literary traditions and practices, and a “postvernacular”—operates within the context of Israeli, Hebrew-dominated literature. After establishing the subject’s poetic, historical, and political framework, I present two examples of how Yiddish exerted a (largely unacknowledged) influence on Israeli literature. The first concerns the striking similarities and intersections between two literary groups active in Israel during the 1950s: a famous Hebrew group (Likrat) and a little-known Yiddish group (Yung Yisroel). The second example consists in the parallels and intertwined literary histories of two writers, Yossl Birshtein (who was a member of Yung Yisroel) and the Hebrew writer Ya’acov Shabtai, in order to demonstrate the presence of Yiddish in Shabtai’s poetic work and to discover an untold story in the history of modern Hebrew literature.
Yaakov Shabtai’s novel Past Continuous is often considered one of the greatest achievements of Israeli fiction, earning Shabtai a prominent place in Hebrew literature and potential canonization as part of world literature. Often compared to the work of Marcel Proust, the novel, with its difficult style and sentence structure, is viewed as a work of complex reflective nostalgia, articulating a post-Zionist lament for a society that did not live up to its original ideological goals. Past Continuous has been read as a positive contribution to the wave of nostalgia that many argue characterizes Israeli culture of the late 1970s and 1980s, and the comparison to Proust allowed such a project also to appear universal to world audiences.
However, as compelling as this nostalgic reading is and as much as it reflects the novel’s reception history, it greatly simplifies the politics of memory that determine the very building blocks of Shabtai’s prose. The associative leaps and breathless rhythm of Shabtai’s writing do not merely lead the reader into a reconstructed past, but also compel the reader to never dwell there and, in anticipation of the next comma or period, to be pushed ever-forward into the present. This article argues that a reexamination of Shabtai’s prose style in Past Continuous can reveal a current in the text that is antipodal to a nostalgic reading. In opposition to an idealized return to a forgotten past, the novel also demonstrates how the past, with all its monumental and ineluctable traumas, constantly presses into the living present.