The Bible has functioned as a rich storehouse and echo chamber of narratives, characters, metaphors, genres, and language for Jewish writers and Jewish literature throughout the past 2,000 years. Though most of postbiblical exegesis including the Mishnah and Talmud (early anthologies of law and commentary), the liturgy, and works of mystical exegesis could rightly be deemed “Jewish literature,” this entry will primarily focus on self-consciously literary texts produced in Jewish modernity, that is to say, from the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), which began in the eighteenth century, until today. These texts are secular in the sense that they are not intended for liturgical use, though their authors are not themselves necessarily secular. While the Haskalah is primarily a European phenomenon, its secular reformulation of Jewish identity has influenced American literature and Israeli literature and has also reverberated in the literature of Arab and North African Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Defining Jewish Literature.

Jewish literature can be defined by ethnic or racial criteria, and thus all literature written by Jews is potentially “Jewish literature.” However, poets, essayists, and scholars continue to argue, sometimes quite vociferously, about the boundaries of Jewish literature, reflecting ongoing tensions regarding assimilation, secularization, and the possibility of shared Jewish culture. Could Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, a text focused on the Bible by an assimilated Jew, be deemed Jewish literature? Could Marx be deemed a Jewish writer in the prophetic tradition? How is it possible to classify poetry written by Jews who converted to Christianity, such as Heinrich Heine or Osip Mandelstam? Furthermore, what is the particular quality that makes literary works “Jewish?” Is it the grotesque humor in Franz Kafka’s astounding prose, his Midrashistic recasting of biblical narratives, or perhaps his sense of alienation that marks his texts as particularly Jewish? How is it possible to consider literature written in Hebrew by Palestinian authors such as Anton Shammas, Salman Masalha, and Naim Araidi, which utilizes what Lital Levy (2014) has called “Palestinian midrash,” language that is highly allusive to biblical and postbiblical Jewish texts?

Scholars such as Ruth Wisse argue for a specific Jewish canon that expresses and recognizes a specific collective experience and helps create a common future. Many have tried to isolate the unique formal or thematic concerns of Jewish literature. Cynthia Ozick, for example, speaks of a unique liturgical quality that is found in Jewish literature, “attentive to the implications of covenant and commandment” (Wirth-Nesher, 1994, p. 34). Jewish writers, she believes, must view their work as blowing into a shofar, the ram’s horn used in the Bible for war and ritual (see Exod 19:6; Lev 25:9; Josh 6:4). A limiting definition of Jewish literature, likened to the narrow opening of the shofar, will paradoxically allow writers to make a more powerful and enduring sound.

As in the case of the shofar, many of the definitions of Jewish literature are related to biblical texts or narratives. These types of definitions serve to emphasize a continuity between ancient Jewish texts and modern cultural production. Leslie Fiedler (1967) suggests that Jewish literature is modeled on the story of Joseph, the dreamer and interpreter of dreams, and that all Jewish writers are part of a doomed attempt to turn their dreams into reality. For Fiedler, the biblical Joseph epitomizes the figure of an outsider, translating between languages and cultures. In fact, Jewish writers are almost always bilingual, always aware of the presence of another idiom and worldview, perhaps never quite completely at home.

Another biblical passage that functions as a kind of emblem of Jewish literature is Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon,there we sat down, yea, we wept,when we remembered Zion.We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,Sing us one of the songs of Zion.How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

(Ps 137:1–4, KJV)

Jewish literature is essentially diasporic, sung “by the rivers of Babylon,” a place metonymic of all the foreign rivers, countries, and empires where Jews have lived, often as an oppressed minority. Charles Reznikoff, an American objectivist poet, names both his novel and collection of poetry, By the Waters of Manhattan, to allude to this exilic state. Sami Shalom Shitrit, a Mizraḥi Israeli poet, mixes secular and profane in his poem “And Thou Shalt Teach Them Diligently to Thy Children,” in which a father teaches his son to play soccer:

kicking a soccer ballback and forthas we remember Zion.

(Alcalay, 1996, p. 359)

The song of the Jews in Babylon is lachrymosal, expressing both loss and longing for a homeland. The singers’ double consciousness—who must “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”—is exilic, estranged, never quite comfortable in their own skin. There are advantages to this position: the singer/writer is the epitome of the cosmopolitan traveler and translator, a figure of modernity. The image of exilic singing has also been universalized, as a way to identify with all writers, who must have an alienated double consciousness. Thus the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva famously declared in her “Poem of the End”: “in this most Christian of worlds, all poets are Jews.” In Tsvetaeva’s understanding, the particular position of the Jewish writer becomes a universal metaphor for all writers. Similarly, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes:

Of three or four in a roomthere is always one who stands beside the window.He must see the evil among thornsand the fires on the hill.

(2013, p. 12)

For Amichai the position of the outsider, the poet-observer, is also an ethical position. A writer of what he calls “wandering language” may be less blinded by nationalist loyalty and can thus become a witness.

Anita Norich (2011) divides Jewish literature into two basic categories. She identifies the cosmopolitan, multilingual nature of Jewish literature with “Yiddishism,” which marks a worldview more than a language. Yiddishism is embedded in different cultures and different languages and values cultural borrowing and synthesis. In contrast, a “Hebraistic” worldview (also not exclusively limited to texts in Hebrew) sees itself as independent, native, continuous with a canonized tradition from which it derives its authority. Thus, the “Hebraistic” worldview has a tendency to obscure its connections to non-Jewish, European literature and emphasize its direct connection to canonical texts such as the Bible. More generally, in recent years, scholars have emphasized the plurality and intersectionality of Jewish literature, or Jewish literatures. The Israeli scholar Dan Miron (2010) has called for a reading of Jewish literature based on contiguity, which implies a loose association of texts and concerns, rather than an essential and unitary identity of Jewish literature.

The Secular Invention of the Bible in Jewish Modernity.

In Rabbinic Judaism, the Torah is not merely a single text but a kind of divine mythological force, binding together the world. For example, The Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of Rabbinic maxims from the Mishnaic period, states that the world is established on three things: Torah, worship, and good deeds. Rabbinic Judaism does not make a firm distinction between the Pentateuch, sometimes referred to as torah, the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, referred to as torah she-bikhtav (written torah), and extrabiblical commentary, which includes texts such as the Mishnah or Talmud, sometimes referred to as torah she-be-al pe (oral torah). In medieval and early modern Judaism, the notion of the Torah was expanded to include mystical kabbalistic works such as the Zohar, and vernacular Bibles, loose translations and anthologies of commentary that were intended for nonscholarly audiences. The most popular of the vernacular Bibles that are still published today are the sixteenth-century Yiddish Tseno ureno (Go Out and See; cf. Song 3:11), a compendium of biblical and postbiblical material addressed to women, and the eighteenth-century Me’am Lo’ez (From a Strange Tongue; cf. Ps 114:1), originally written in Ladino for Turkish readers.

The first major rupture in this sense of unity and cohesion between the text and the world can be traced back to the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who systematically argued against the divine provenance of the Bible. However, secular moments of rupture continued to reverberate throughout European Jewish communities from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, touching the lives of poets and writers, as well as philosophers and scholars. From the Haskalah onward, Jewish writers struggled with a sense that the once unitary Torah had become strange, defamiliarized.

H. N. Bialik, known as the Hebrew “national poet,” left the religious world of his boyhood to become a secular intellectual in the urban center of Odessa. In “Li-fne aron ha-sfarim” (Before the Bookcase, 1910) he writes about the defamiliarization of the once familiar Jewish texts. The letters and scrolls he encounters upon return to the study-house as an adult are characterized as torn, ancient, unfamiliar. He characterizes the Torah as a necklace of black pearls whose string has snapped. Furthermore, as a secular adult he considers each of the letters of the Torah as orphaned.

Similarly, Osip Mandelstam describes his Jewish education in St. Petersburg by focusing on “the hooked calligraphy of the illegible books of Genesis, cast into the dust on the bottom bookshelf, below Goethe and Schiller, and with the scraps of the ritual black-and-yellow” (Glaser, 2011, p. 77). Like Bialik, Mandelstam speaks of scraps and fragments of Jewish culture and of Genesis as a text of dubious literary value, “below Goethe and Schiller.” For these two poets with very different trajectories, the traditional Jewish text is characterized by a sense of loss and diminishment. However, paradoxically, the loss of the traditional, unitary sense of the Torah is the very site of the creation of the notion of “the Bible” in modern Jewish literature.

Gil Anidjar observes that “the demand for the new requires a sharp distancing from the past, an interruption made in the name of a past said to have already been there and that must be revisited, appropriated by the new as its past” (2008, p. 72). While modern Hebrew and Jewish literature may draw a sharp distinction between itself and traditional Jewish literature, it also invents the Bible as a discursive object separate from Jewish tradition and practice. Thus the Bible of modern Jewish literature is not to be identified with the Torah, or even the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. It includes surprising chapters, such as the narratives of Jesus and Mary, emphasizes hitherto forgotten episodes and beliefs, ventriloquizes the text to speak for Zionism, feminism, and neo-paganism, and sides with villains rather than heroes. It expands the boundaries of the Rabbinic Torah, but it also cuts out entire sections and witnesses a text torn into tiny fragments.

For example, rather than hearing the Pentateuch or the Prophets chanted at the synagogue, Rachel Bluwstein, one of the first modern Hebrew women poets, begins a poem with the line “my tanakh (Bible) is open to the book of Job” (my translation). Her reading of the Bible is imagined as flipping through its pages for solace or inspiration. It recalls Protestant reading habits modeled on Martin Luther’s dictum sola scriptura. Rather than a metaphysical force, in modern Jewish literature the Bible is both a material and metaphoric object. In Ludwig Börne, the German Heinrich Heine calls the Bible the “portable fatherland” of the Jews, a book instead of a country, an idea that George Steiner expands in his famous essay “Our Homeland, the Text.” The portable homeland is shrunk down in the Egyptian-French poet Edmond Jabès’s 1989 Un Étranger avec, sous le bras, un livre de petit format (A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book), perhaps to figure the vulnerability of the foreigner/Jew and his fragile and limited guiding text.

Biblical Outsiders and Countertraditions.

One of the primary modes of response to the biblical text in Jewish tradition is Midrash, the work of embroidery on the sometimes laconic biblical text, by filling in gaps with flights of narrative fancy. Ancient and medieval works of biblical Jewish exegesis are resplendent with Midrash; the poets and prose writers of Jewish modernity take up the mantle of Jewish Midrash and carry it into new and surprising directions. One of the main characteristics of the modern Midrash is its tendency to turn the biblical text on its head, exposing as well as inventing countertraditions that challenge assumptions about gender, theology, and nation.

Female countertraditions.

In Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach, Ilana Pardes shows “how one can find antithetical female voices by paying attention to the underexamined fragments on the margins of biblical historiography” (1992, p. 11). Pardes takes up this quest as a scholar, but her quest also describes much of the way that Jewish women creative writers excavated and reinvented the biblical text. There was a virtual explosion of Jewish women writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and many of these writers struggled to find their place in patriarchal tradition through a return to biblical themes. As the American poet Alicia Ostriker describes it, alluding to the biblical story of Jacob: “Like many another Jew, I wrestle with the text for reasons I cannot wholly explain. … As a woman, as a seeker, as an old leftist, as a feminist, as a poet, I attempt to wrestle a blessing from it. It resists; I persist” (2010, p. 186). Women writers have tried to retrieve and recreate marginal characters such as Miriam, Dina, and Hagar from the biblical text, restoring them to value and centrality. Poets such as Rachel Morpurgo, Rachel Bluwstein, and Yochevet Bat-Miriam tried to forge special connections with their eponymous ancestors. Anita Diamant’s bestselling 1997 novel The Red Tent retells the tales of the patriarchs of Genesis from Dina’s perspective, imagining a rich set of female rituals that comprise a kind of sensual and polytheistic countertradition to the monotheism praised in the biblical text.

Giving voice to polytheistic traditions.

Just as writers reimagined the women of the Bible, revealing or inventing their complexity and power, refashioning their own modern sense of roots and ancestry in the process, writers have also reconsidered the Bible’s prohibitions against polytheism. The Canaanite religious practices, which are often deplored by legal and prophetic texts, are discovered as a positive “countertradition” by many modern Jewish writers. The polytheistic religious practices that peek out from under the biblical condemnations have been especially celebrated by writers who want to “heal” the sickness of the Jewish diaspora. Shaul Tchernichovsky, an early Zionist poet and doctor, wrote Hebrew poems that utilized biblical language in the service of a neo-pagan aesthetic. For example, in “My Astarte,” Tchernichovsky casts biblical language into the voice of a woman worshipping a figurine of the goddess Astarte.

The Canaanites, a literary, artistic, and political movement active in the 1930s and 1940s among Jews in Palestine, renounced Jewish identity in favor of a return to a “Canaanite” sensibility and aesthetic. Key figures included Benjamin Tammuz, Yonatan Ratosh, and Yitzhak Danziger. The Canaanites are an extreme example of the negation of Rabbinic Judaism in favor of a return to the Hebrew of the Bible and to the land of the Bible. Danziger’s 1939 sculpture, Nimrod, for example, celebrates the hunting prowess of the great Nimrod, son of Cush, recounted in Genesis 10:8–10. The handsome and naked sandstone figure was part of Zionist reimagining of the “New Jew,” as strong, fierce, and rooted in the landscape.

Jesus and the Jewish Bible.

One of the most peculiar ways in which the Bible imagined by modern Jewish literature differs from the Torah of the synagogue and study-house is its inclusion of Jesus. In fact, the often positive literary portrayal of Jesus, so at odds with the negative depictions of Christ in Rabbinic and medieval Jewish texts, could be said to be the most defining feature of secular Jewish culture. Both Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the twentieth century were almost obsessively preoccupied with Jesus as an ambivalent figure of identification and ironic gaze. The literary depictions of Jesus follow in the footsteps of a vibrant Jewish conversation about Jesus conducted by rabbis, theologians, historians, biblical scholars, and other public intellectuals going back to the eighteenth-century thinker Moses Mendelsohn and the Berlin Haskalah. For Jewish writers, Jesus became a multivalent figure who could represent the martyrdom and suffering of individuals and collectivities as well as traits of leadership, bravery, and nationalism. Part of Jesus’s appeal to these writers lay in their ambivalent perception of the figure. On the one hand, Jesus was negatively associated with the Christian persecution of Jews in Europe. On the other hand, Jesus could be reclaimed as a positive figure in Jewish literature, as an authentic Jewish figure misunderstood by Christianity, or as a representation of universal moral values, which were now embraced by secular Jewish writers.

The interest in Jesus among Hebrew writers was probably sparked by Joseph Klausner’s groundbreaking polemic work on Jesus in Hebrew, Yeshu ha-Notsri: zmano, hayav, ve-torato (Jesus of Nazereth: His Life, Times, and Teachings), published as a book in 1922, though serialized earlier. According to Neta Stahl, for Klausner, as for the many Hebrew writers to follow, “the figure of Jesus was removed from its original religious context and presented as part of the national narrative of Zionism” (2013, p. 29). Natan Bistritsky’s 1921 play Yeshu mi-Natseret haggada dramatit (Jesus from Nazareth: A Dramatic Tale) dramatizes the elusiveness of the figure of the historical Jesus, as well as the unreliable processes of mythologization, as his story is told retrospectively by characters who cannot quite recall him. Aharon Avraham Kabak’s historical novel regarding the life of Jesus, Ba-mish’ol ha-tsar (The Narrow Path), published in 1937, is influenced by Klausner’s study, though Kabak’s Jesus turns away from the “narrow path” of nationalism toward a universalist message and values. Haim Hazaz had an ongoing engagement with the figure of Jesus, from his 1925 story “Shmuel Frankfurter” to his unfinished novel on the life of Jesus, serialized in Davar in 1947. The novel depicts Jesus as a Jew with messianic nationalistic ideals, who disapproves of his misuse by Pauline Christianity and intends his teachings exclusively for Jews. The figure of Jesus also reappears in Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s complex and elusive tales, which critically examine the Jewish fascination with Jesus. The Nobel Prize winner’s 1923 story “Ma’agelei tsedek” (Paths of Righteousness), the 1925 story “Nifla’ot shammash beit ha-midrash ha-yashan” (The wonders of the caretaker of the old study hall), and the 1943 story “Ha-adonit ve-ha-rokhel”(The Lady and the Peddler) all depict the ambivalent, dualistic figure of Jesus. Sholem Asch, a prominent Yiddish writer who emigrated from Poland to America evoked Jewish ire in his treatment of Christian themes, especially in his trilogy of novels dramatizing the life of Jesus—The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949)—which synthesized Jewish and Christian traditions.

Poets writing in Hebrew and in Yiddish in the first part of the twentieth century often employed Jesus as a modernist figure of rebellion against Jewish tradition. Prominent Hebrew poets such as Abraham Shlonsky and Zalman Shneur used Jesus as a mythological symbol. Jesus was also a prominent figure in avant-garde Yiddish poetry in Europe and in America, especially in the works of Itsik Manger and Moshe Leib Halpern. Perhaps the most prominent ambivalent identification with Jesus, though, occurred in the poetry of Uri Tsvi Greenberg, who wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew. His Yiddish “Uri Tzvi Farn Tzelem INRI” (Uri Tsvi in front of the cross) is typographically arranged to resemble a cross. Woman poets such Anna Margolin, writing in Yiddish, and Leah Goldberg, writing in Hebrew, also made complex allusions to Christian narratives and images, figuring Jesus as well as Mary and Mary Magdalene. In the second part of the century, the theme of Jesus was revisited by many Israeli writers such as Pinchas Sadeh, Avot Yeshurun, Yona Wallach, and Yoel Hoffman, though after the Holocaust the figure waned in popularity in European and American circles. The theme of the crucifixion also played a major role in Jewish art in the first part of the twentieth century. Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion depicts Jesus being crucified wearing a prayer shawl as a comment on the suffering of European Jewry. The Jewish artist’s struggle with aversion and identification with Jesus is depicted in Chaim Potok’s popular 1972 novel, My Name Is Asher Lev. The climax of the novel is when its protagonist, an artist from a Hasidic New York background, paints his mother in Brooklyn Crucifixion.

The Influence of Biblical Genre.

Biblical narratives, metaphors, themes, and characters are interwoven throughout both religious and secular Jewish literature in all its languages. The development of modern Jewish genres and forms is also tied to the complex processes of reception of biblical texts in Europe. Below are two prominent examples.

Biblical genre: The prophetic mode.

The use of the prophetic mode in Modern Hebrew poetry at the turn of the twentieth century combined the figure of the Romantic poet-prophet and the biblical prophetic text through the medium of the newly “revived” Hebrew language. While the Hebrew poet-prophets of the early twentieth century, such as Shaul Tchernichovsky, Zalman Shneur, and especially H. N. Bialik, were at times naively portrayed as returning to a purely biblical mode, many scholars have since traced the affinities between the new Hebrew poetry and the European romantic tradition of the poet-prophet, specifically coming to the Hebrew poets through Polish and Russian literary traditions. Thus, the prophetic mode of modern Hebrew literature is constructed through a dense system of biblical, Rabbinic and European Romantic intertextuality.

Biblical genre: The purim-shpil and Yiddish theater.

The relation between the biblical Scroll of Esther, medieval Jewish Purim plays, and modern Yiddish theater is a rich example of the continuities and discontinuities between the Bible and modern Jewish literature with regard to genre. The biblical Scroll of Esther describes the near annihilation of the Jews in the Persian diaspora and the redemptive reversal of the disaster, including the revenge of the Jews on their enemies. The festival of Purim is celebrated by the public reading of the scroll, festive banquets, an obligation to drunkenness, and other forms of revelry. As Daniel Boyarin puts it, because Purim is “the only Jewish holiday that celebrates an event which took place in Diaspora … it is a key symbol of Jewish culture, for Diaspora has been the primary cultural feature of Jewish existence for more than two thousand years” (1994, p. 2). One of the important cultural practices that developed around the holiday in Europe is the purim-shpil, a folk play drawn from biblical narratives, primarily the Scroll of Esther. Purim-shpil traditions are well documented from the sixteenth century onward, but oral, improvised plays may have been performed for centuries earlier. The purim-shpil is often performed by amateurs, in domestic settings. Staged throughout the Middle Ages, it is still part of the holiday celebration in contemporary Jewish communities, especially in the Hasidic world. The purim-shpil has been compared to the English Mummers’ Play and to European carnival traditions.

The purim-shpil is founded on a dynamics of reversal, from disaster to redemption, from high seriousness to low comedy, from holy to profane. The Scroll of Esther, with its scenes of drunken revelry, identity swaps, as well as its blood, gore, and finery, lends itself well to this comic theater. The topsy-turvy Purim world mocks and parodies the rich and powerful, yeshiva students cross-dress and wander drunk through the streets, and a Purim rov is appointed to preside over the festivities. The purim-shpil is also closely linked to the klezmer tradition, in its reliance on song, dance, costume, and mime. The struggle between the good Mordechai and the evil Haman, who is cathartically hung from a tree at the end of the play, often echoed contemporary concerns. For example, in purim-shpiln performed in ghettoes during the Holocaust, Hitler was cast as Haman.

Premodern Jewish theater is a historically underdeveloped genre due to Rabbinic injunctions associated with Roman plays and Christian mystery plays. Consequently, the popular purim-shpil tradition was an important cultural source for modern Yiddish theater, which thrived in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century in the Jewish centers of eastern Europe, such as Warsaw, Vilna, and Moscow, as well as in New York and, later, Tel Aviv. The purim-shpil tradition allowed Jewish writers and artists to draw on a uniquely native carnivalesque tradition. In interwar Poland, for example, sophisticated puppet and marionette theater developed that was linked to Purim traditions as well as broader trends in European puppet theater. According to Jean Baumgarten (2010), the purim-shpil was the foundation of modern Jewish theater, which she traces from Yiddish theater to the American Broadway musical. The father of Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfaden (1840–1908), who organized the first Yiddish theater troupe, acted in purim-shpiln in his youth, and many critics trace an influence from the folk play tradition to Goldfaden’s original compositions. One of his most famous plays, Der fanatik oder beyde Kuni-Lemls (The Fanatic or The Two Kuni-Lemels) is based on a marriage plot and complex identity swaps. The backward Kuni-Lemel, a half-blind, limping, lisping yeshiva student, is to be married to Carolina, and her suitor Max must pose as Kuni-Lemel to woo her.

While the parodic, burlesque-like tradition of the purim-shpil continued to be associated with popular Yiddish theater, a kind of high theater culture developed at the turn of the century that shunned the grotesque and parodic elements of the popular theater and lowbrow novels, described as shund, or trash. S. An-ski’s 1914 play Der dibuk oder tsvishn tsvey veltn (The Dybuk, or Between Two Worlds), long held to be the gem of Yiddish and Hebrew theater, moved away from the modes of popular Yiddish theater into solemnity and high art. It was meant to be a Yiddish expressionist version of a mystery play, interweaving folklore and Hasidic legend. In its Warsaw premiere in 1920, the play ended with the voices of the dead and the living singing an ethereal version of the Song of Songs, exemplifying the new Yiddish theater’s shift away from its association with the comedy of Purim.

Today, critics like Zehavit Stern have questioned the perceived continuity between the medieval purim-shpil and modern Yiddish theater, arguing that this narrative was constructed for ideological reasons during the interwar period. In this sense, the link between the purim-shpil and Yiddish theater is deemed to be constructed and imaginary, rather than historical.

The Bible in Holocaust Literature.

Jewish writers have often used biblical allusions to interpret and give theological and literary shape to Jewish history and theology. Yet, after the Holocaust, Jewish writers often wrote against the grain of Jewish tradition, and the Bible that they constructed was sometimes radically discontinuous with earlier Jewish usages.

The different words used to refer to the Nazi genocide in Yiddish, Hebrew, and in most European languages, all rooted in the biblical text, are examples of the almost inescapable tendency to interpret historical events through biblical language, though each concept carries a different conceptual framework. Yiddish speakers refer to ḥurbn (destruction), which associates it with the historical destruction of the first and second Temples, the traumatic climax of many prophetic warnings. Elie Wiesel’s novels and Edmond Jabès’s poems about the Holocaust sometimes resemble fragments of Rabbinic Midrash composed in the shadow of the destruction of the Temple, making the connection between the two historical events explicit. The Hebrew word “Shoah” refers to a more general disaster in the biblical text, often associated with cosmic forces, and does not have the same historical connotation. Finally, “Holocaust” is a Greek word literally meaning “whole-burnt,” which referred to sacrifices to the gods in the ancient Greek world and was also the way that the Septuagint translated the korban olah of the Hebrew Bible. The disturbing implication is that the Jews of Europe, “whole-burnt,” functioned as a kind of allegorical sacrifice, consistent with Christian understandings of Jewish history.

A final biblical association of key significance to representations of the Holocaust, especially in Israeli literature, is the description of Jewish victims as “lambs to slaughter.” A blend of Isaiah 53:7 and Psalm 44:23, the phrase is first used as a modern critique in Yosef Haim Brenner’s Misaviv la-nekudah (Around the Dot), which asks if the Jewish victims of the Kishinev Pogrom (1902) went like “lambs to slaughter.” The critique of the defenseless Jews became an insulting cliché used to refer to Holocaust victims in Israeli literature and culture.

Ancient and modern Jewish responses to catastrophe.

Modern responses to catastrophe in Jewish literature, beginning with the early Zionist Hebrew literature of the Tehiyah (revival; 1881–1948) and including responses to the Holocaust, veer away from two important biblical positions in response to catastrophe. As Alan Mintz (1984) describes, the first body of texts, which we could call Deuteronomic or prophetic, blames the Israelites for their own disaster and reads disaster as divine punishment for sin, appropriate to transgressions. The same sense of just punishment appears in Rabbinic literature and in Sephardic depictions of catastrophes. A second position, more dominant in Ashkenazi tradition, draws heavily on the text of the book of Lamentations to represent the horror of destruction and create a literature of martyrology, in which collective suffering is divorced from sin and is rather a loving sacrifice to God. Another important biblical text in this tradition is the sacrifice of Isaac, and a poem such as the twelfth-century Ashkenazi poet Ephraim of Bonn’s “Et avotay ani mazkir” (“The Slaughter of Isaac and His Revival”) ties the sacrifice of Isaac to Jewish martyrology during the Crusades.

Rather than utilize these long-standing Jewish traditions to explain and contextualize suffering, Jewish writers experienced the Holocaust as a gap, a rupture, a tear in the fabric of the scriptural frames for history. Kadya Molodovsky’s Yiddish poem “God of Mercy,” published in 1945, expresses this discontinuity with the lament tradition.

There are no more lamentationsNor Songs of woeIn the ancient texts.

(Curzon, 1994, p. 167)

Aharon Appelfeld’s novels of the Holocaust express perhaps the height of this gap, as they are written in a bare, denuded Hebrew that contains no allusions to Jewish texts, silencing the echo chamber of Jewish literature. Dan Pagis writes in the voice of Abel in “Autobiography,”

My brother invented murder,my parents invented grief,I invented silence.

(Curzon, 1994, p. 93)

Instead of utilizing the language of biblical destruction and suffering, Jewish literature about the Holocaust paradoxically makes use of “positive” biblical texts from Genesis, Exodus, and even the Song of Songs, emptying them out and leaving them bereft. Rather than turning to scenes of biblical destruction, which are seen as almost insufficient to describe the horrors or seem to give reasons and patterns to catastrophe, writers often turn to narratives of creation and origin to express this negative sense that the world has been created anew. This sense of a negative origin is evident in Paul Celan’s “Psalm,” which returns to the creation story of Genesis 2, only to drain it of theological significance.

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,No one summons our dust,No one.

(Curzon, 1994, p. 53)

In one of the most famous Israeli poems on the Holocaust, “Scrawled in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar,” Dan Pagis depicts the Jews taken to the concentration camp as the first humans, and their testimony as a torn fragment from the book of Genesis. The Yiddish American poet Jacob Glatstein’s “Dead Men Don’t Praise God” returns to the revelation at Sinai. The poem imagines that in receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jews also agreed to their future death in a concentration camp:

And just as we all stood togetherAt the giving of the Torah,So did we all die together in Lublin.

(Curzon, 1994, p. 165)

One of the most striking uses of the Bible in literature of the Holocaust is the use of the most erotic, sensual, and life-affirming text of the Song of Songs. Perhaps the immense gap between the experience of the biblical lovers and the twentieth-century victims dramatizes the impossibility of using biblical texts to frame the Holocaust. Iakovos Kambanellis, a Greek (non-Jewish) survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, and also a noted playwright and filmmaker, imagines the female concentration camp inmates as the “Daughters of Jerusalem” in his poem “Song of Songs.”

Girls of AuschwitzGirls of DachauHave you seen the one I love?

(Curzon, 1994, p. 322)

Perhaps the most iconic of Holocaust poems, Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) compares the Song of Songs’ Shulamith to Marguerite, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust. The two women, who emerge from Jewish and German textual tradition, respectively, are referred to metonymically, through their hair: “your golden hair Marguerite / your ashen hair Shulamith” (Curzon, 1994, p. 321). The beautiful Shulamith seems tragically preordained to be burned, as opposed to Marguerite, who remains an object of desire for the German commandant of the concentration camp. Through the allusion to the Song of Songs, Celan is able to compare two different literary, aesthetic, and ethical traditions, though ultimately, the beauty of the language and of the allusions serves to underline the horror at the heart of the poem.

The Bible in the Jewish Literature of Arab and Muslim Lands.

Jewish writers throughout North Africa and the Middle East produced a rich body of literature primarily in Hebrew, Arabic, and various regional dialects of Judeo-Arabic. Jews in Muslim lands had the status of ahl-al-kitab, “The People of the Book,” a status not granted in Christian lands. The notion of the Bible in these literatures (hereto referred to as Arab-Jewish literature, and Mizraḥi literature in relation to Israeli literature) has a different trajectory than the European, Western secular Jewish Bible described above. This alternative trajectory can potentially expose many of the contradictions and paradoxes of secularism, Zionism, and continuity in relation to the biblical text. However, the scope of the discussion is currently limited because of the lack of extensive research on Arab-Jewish literature, especially from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

In addition, the discussion may be limited by scholars’ problematic categories of genre, themselves inflected by the Western dichotomy between religious and secular. Gil Anidjar, for example, imagines a new kind of non-European scholarship that could go beyond these categories, taking the example of Jewish mystical literature. “Were the Zohar and kabbalah as a whole … to be included in the history of literature, it would inevitably be seen as having long demanded a new division of literature, a reconsideration of that which separates poetry and prose, mysticism and literature, Hebrew and Arabic” (2008, p. 94).

Torah and Bible in Arab-Jewish literature.

The Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim lands were influenced and at times participated in processes of colonialism, nationalism, and communism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were also influenced by the literature of the Arab Nadha (renaissance), a movement of intellectual reform and modernization. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, books intended for readers throughout the Arab East had been primarily printed in Livorno, an Italian port city that functioned as a crossroad in the Ottoman Empire. In the nineteenth century, independent Jewish presses were established in Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia, Algiers, Bombay, and Calcutta, among others, which attests to a literary flowering of exegetical works, as well as translations, periodicals, and newspapers throughout the Arab world. However, the radical rupture between the theological and literary sense of the text, between the Torah and the Bible, did not generally occur in Arab Jewish literature. The modern Jewish literature produced in these centuries in Arab and Muslim lands had greater continuity both in form and content with the exegesis and poetry that preceded it. The creative work of midrashistic exegesis and homily continued to be an important part of the literature that was printed and read in these communities. Many of the Judeo-Arabic vernacular Bibles and commentaries were written under the influence of Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon’s translation (and commentary) of the Bible into Judeo-Arabic, the tenth-century tafsır. At the same time, these homiletic works responded to contemporary developments and technologies. The influence of European literature, especially as filtered through French literature and translations, could also be felt. For example, Rabbi David Danino’s biblical commentary, Sharvit Ha-zahav (The Golden Scepter), published in Casablanca in 1938, contains an imaginary journey to Hell and Heaven modeled after Dante.

Arab Jewish literature written between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the poetry, is also continuous with earlier forms and themes. The piyyut, a liturgical poem dense with biblical and postbiblical allusions (from the Talmud to early mystical texts) is one of the most stable forms of Jewish poetry, from its roots in Byzantine Palestine to its flowering in Al-Andalus and its subsequent popularity throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The piyyut is a poetic address to God, or about God. It was originally composed to function as part of the set public prayer service.

Over the centuries, piyyutim, especially in the Sephardic world, accompanied the community on numerous occasions. They were sung on sabbaths, holidays, and anniversaries of important historical events, as well as during life cycle events, pilgrimages to graves of holy men, or synagogue dedications. The early composers of piyyutim include the eighth-century Palestinian Eliezer Kalir, the tenth-century Sa’adia Gaon, and the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, such as Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi. After the expulsion from Spain, the tradition flourished among the Jews of Muslim lands; some of its most famous practitioners include the sixteenth-century Israel Najara (of Safed, Damascus, and Gaza) the eighteenth-century Moroccan David Ḥasin, and the twentieth-century David Buzaglo, who emigrated from Morocco to Israel.

A special form of Mi ka-mokha (Who Is Like You?) piyyutim, whose title alludes to the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:11, was often used to celebrate local historical triumphs. For example, a piyyut from 1795, written by Yitzhak Luzon, a rabbi and poet in Tripoli, celebrates the end of the cruel reign of the military leader Ali Burgul, who oppressed the Jews of Tripoli from 1793 to 1795. The piyyut alludes to the many biblical texts, including the story of Joseph, the Exodus from Egypt, and the Scroll of Esther, and is tied to a tradition of fixing minor Purim (purim ḳatan) holidays to mark historical events. In a more modern example, Mi ka-mokha poems were written by Yosef Mashash and David Ben Mas’ud Danino to celebrate Israel’s victory during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Immigration to Israel.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa underwent a drastic upheaval, as Mizraḥi Jews (as they came to be known) emigrated en masse, primarily to the newly formed state of Israel, but also to France and North America. While writers like Shimon Ballas and Sami Michael undertook the arduous task of shifting from writing in Arabic to Hebrew, some writers, the most prominent of which is Samir Naqqash, continued to write in Arabic throughout their lives in Israel. According to Ammiel Alcalay, “by remaining connected to the sources of their own particular pain and experience, these writers refuse to accept the universality of what has, ideologically, come to be construed as Jewish ‘fate,’ applicable to all Jews, in all places, at all times, sooner or later … this refusal is expressed through insisting on the fact of exile, both personal and collective, within the promised land, within the space of return itself” (1996, p. xi).

The contemporary writing of second- and third-generation Mizraḥim returns to postbiblical forms, reclaiming the continuity with biblical and postbiblical texts that exemplifies Arab Jewish literature. According to Ketzia Alon, Mizraḥi poetry can be characterized by an “epistemology of holiness.” For example, Almog Behar’s first novel, Chahla ve-Hezkel (Rachel and Ezekiel), uses the homiletic form to create a modern narrative.

Haviva Pedaya, scholar, musician, and poet, utilizes the ancient liturgical piyyut form in her highly personal poem “Ana be-rokh” (Please with Gentleness). The intertext of her poem is an ancient Hebrew piyyut with a prominent place in traditional liturgy, ana be-koakh (Please with Strength). The anonymous author of the piyyut asks God to undo the knot of the suffering of exile, with the power of his right hand, itself an allusion to Exodus 15:6: “Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy” (KJV). In Pedaya’s poem, the suffering, bound state of the nation is replaced with the bound state of the individual soul, which must be unbound with both gentleness as well as strength, a kind of corrective to the militaristic biblical text. God is not directly addressed in the poem, but rather the word ana is repeated throughout the poem creating a multilingual pun between the biblical Hebrew “please” and the Arabic “I,” as Shaul Setter points out (2014).

These writers challenge the secularism of modern Jewish literature by reclaiming this lost, non-European line of continuity from the Bible and postbiblical exegesis to modern literature.



Primary Works

  • Amichai, Yehuda. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Excellent translations of Amichai’s poetry, which plays with many biblical themes.
  • Bialik, H. N. “Before the Bookcase.” 1910. The entire Ben Yehuda Project site is a good resource for modern Hebrew poetry and prose.
  • Bluwstein, Rachel. Be-gani netaʿtikha: Kol shire Raḥel [I Planted You in My Garden: The Complete Poems of Raḥel]. Tel Aviv: Tammuz, 1985.
  • Curzon, David, ed. Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994. A good place to start as it is organized by theme. Emphasis on Holocaust poetry and not a lot of non-Western voices.
  • Pedaya, Haviva. “Please with Gentleness.” Translated by Harvey Bock.

Secondary Works

  • Alcalay, Ammiel, ed. Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing. San Francisco: City Lights, 1996. An important and groundbreaking anthology of fiction and poetry.
  • Anidjar, Gil. Semites: Race, Religion, Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. The second part of this book is a thought-provoking attempt to rethink Arab and Jewish literature.
  • Baumgarten, Jean. “Purim-shpil.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2010.
  • Belkin, Ahuva. Ha-Purim shpil: iyunim ba-teaṭron ha-yehudi ha-amami [The Purim-shpil: Studies in Jewish Folk Theater]. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2002.
  • Boyarin, Daniel. “Introduction: Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism—Theorizing Diaspora.” Poetics Today 15, no. 1 (1994): 1–8. The entire issue should be of interest to scholars interested in Purim.
  • Fiedler, Leslie. “Master of Dreams: The Jew in a Gentile World.” Partisan Review 34 (1967): 339–356.
  • Glaser, Amelia. “The Merchant at the Threshold: Rashel Khin, Osip Mandelstam, and the Poetics of Apostasy.” In Modern Jewish Literatures, edited by Sheila E. Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lerner, pp. 66–82. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Hoffman, Matthew. From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Levy, Lital. Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Mintz, Alan L. Ḥurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
  • Miron, Dan. H. N. Bialik and the Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Poetry. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
  • Miron, Dan. From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010.
  • Norich, Anita. “Hebraism and Yiddishism: Paradigms of Modern Jewish Literary History.” In Modern Jewish Literatures, edited by Sheila E. Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lerner, pp. 327–342. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Ostriker, Alicia. “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed.” In Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris, pp. 184–198. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010. The entire collection is excellent and makes many important and provocative connections between “experimental” American poetry and Jewish forms.
  • Pardes, Ilana. Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Good discussions of the biblical text and of feminist biblical reception.
  • Setter, Shaul. “Voices of Transmission: Haviva Pedaya in the Face of ‘Modern Hebrew Poetry.’ ” Mikan, Journal of Hebrew and Israeli Literature and Culture Studies 14 (2014): 367–394. A dense and exciting article (in Hebrew) on Mizraḥ poetry and the lyrical tradition.
  • Stahl, Neta. Other and Brother: Jesus in the 20th-Century Jewish Literary Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Tobi, Yosef, and Tsvia Tobi. Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850–1950. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014. The first chapter gives a good overview of the field. See also Tobi’s article, “Literature, Judeo-Arabic”: Originally published as “Ha-sifrut ha-’aravit-ha-yehudit be-tunisia 1850–1950” in 1999.
  • Wirth-Nesher, Hana, ed. What Is Jewish Literature?? Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994. Contains reprints of many important essays, especially Ozick, Alter, Baal-Makhshoves (who develops the idea of a Jewish bilingualism), and Ratosh (a Canaanite poet).

Further Reading

  • Chametzky, Jules, ed. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • Cole, Peter, trans. and ed. The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Kaufman, Shirley, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Tamar S. Hess, eds. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present: A Bilingual Anthology. New York: Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1999.
  • Nizri, Yigal. “Sharifan Subjects, Rabbinic Texts: Halakhic Writing in Morocco, 1860–1918.” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2014. The third chapter of this dissertation, as well as its author, were particularly helpful in writing the section “The Bible in the Jewish Literature of Arab and Muslim Lands” in this entry.

Yosefa Raz