Since its official inception in 1948, modern Israel, officially known as the State of Israel, has been embroiled in constant conflict with its Palestinian neighbors. Serving as the culmination of the post-WWII Zionist Movement and the push for the creation of the Jewish homeland following the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel was the result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The tensions between the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs – and the resulting clash – have been a driving factor in Middle East relations for decades.
Given the tragedies and conflicts that underlie the creation of modern Israel, questions of identity and place have long been powerful and recurring themes throughout Israeli literature. The nation’s literary landscape is marked by a deep fascination with questions of independence and what it means to be Jewish, and rich with contemplations of grief and tragedy. The books below, most written by Israeli authors, offer a view into the many facets of Israeli culture and identity, and the complexities and trials inherent to life in Israel.
Three Floors Up by Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo offers an intriguing and layered view into life in Tel Aviv. The novel centers on three families living on separate floors of an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. Through the lives and interwoven stories of the three families, Nevo presents a broad and complex portrait of Israeli society.
Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem
In this fascinating combination of biography and memoir, George Prochnik traces the life of Israeli philosopher, theologian, and historian Gershom Scholem. Scholem is largely credited as the founder of the modern study of Jewish Mysticism. Prochnik deftly ties his own experiences in Jerusalem in the 1990s to his quest to understand Scholem and the problems facing modern Israel.
Etgar Keret is one Israel’s most influential and talented contemporary writers. In his memoir, The Seven Good Years, Keret takes the inimitable voice and dark humor that define his acclaimed short story collections to his own life. The result is a poignant, hilarious, and profound memoir chronicling not only the “seven good years” between the birth of Keret’s son and the death of Keret’s father, but also the day-to-day life in a nation under constant threat of war.
Amos Oz is one of the most celebrated Israeli writers of the latter twentieth century. His novels and nonfiction are often tinged with an autobiographical note and center on nuanced and elegiac portraits of Israel and its people. A Tale of Love and Darkness is itself an autobiographical coming-of-age tale chronicling Oz’s own childhood in Jerusalem.
Spanning two time periods, A Pigeon and a Boy is a moving tale of two love stories connected by one powerful act of devotion. Centering on two characters separated by half a century of time – one a pigeon handler who is mortally wounded in the 1948 War of Independence and the other a modern Israeli tour guide – Meir Shalev’s celebrated novel is a masterfully crafted rumination on love and fate set against a backdrop of both modern Israel’s earliest days and its tumultuous present.
Lea Goldberg was among Israel’s most beloved writers and one of its most celebrated poets. Selected Poetry and Drama provides a cross-section of her lyrical, quietly contemplative poetry as well as her only play, The Lady of the Castle. Goldberg was a seminal voice in Israel’s literary landscape and this collection is a strong introduction to her work.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who published under the name S. Y. Agnon, is a towering figure in Israeli literature. He was Israel’s first Nobel Laureate and currently the only Israeli to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His works chronicle the turbulent history of the Jewish people in the early to mid-twentieth century. Two Scholars Who Were in Our Town and Other Novellas is an excellent exploration of Agnon’s deeply influential work.
The works of Aharon Appelfeld are indelibly tied to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. As a nine-year-old, Appelfeld was deported to a Nazi concentration camp and his time there and eventual escape have proven the foundation for much of his writing. The Iron Tracks is one of Appelfeld’s most haunting novels, telling the tale of a man who forty years after his release from a concentration camp continues to suffer. His quest is one for meaning against vivid memories of torment and loss.
A. B. Yehoshua
Alongside writers like Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua has proven a leading voice in shaping Israel’s literary identity throughout the latter twentieth century. His most acclaimed novel, Mr. Mani, is a multigenerational saga that traces a family’s history from Greece to Israel and in doing so charts the arc of Jewish identity in the twentieth century.
The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
With My Promised Land, journalist Ari Shavit has created what is perhaps the definitive narrative history of the State of Israel. Drawing on interviews, diaries, historical documents and his own family history, Shavit presents a deeply personal but nonetheless kaleidoscopic view of modern Israel.