Silent Speech and Gender in Hebrew Culture

Oct 28, 2018 | 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM | Studio Theatre

Orian Zakai, PhD George Washington University

The New Hebrew Woman

Hebrew is a gendered language in which every word is categorized as either male or female. This restrictive system of gender reflects much deeper forms of gendered power relations. Indeed, the project of “reviving” the Hebrew language, namely, transforming it from a language of religious use only into the language of the nation, was a gendered project, that coincided with the construction of Zionist masculinity. Our panel is interested in exploring the intersection of gender, language and power in Hebrew culture. By focusing on Hebrew literature, Israeli cinema, and Rabbinic literature, this panel explores how language shapes gendered hierarchies of power in the Hebrew, Israeli, and Zionist context. At the same time, the panel is interested in ways in which women respond to their forced inferiority and in the ways in which they shape a new social discourse.

I will address the construction of “The New Hebrew Woman” through the story of the two sisters Dvora and Hemda Ben-Yehuda (Jonas), who were both married to the well-known reviver of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. In 1881, Dvora Jonas, a young educated Russian-Jewish woman, followed her charismatic husband Eliezer to Jerusalem, where he will pursue the revival of the Hebrew language. Suffering greatly from Eliezer’s insistence on a purely Hebrew speaking household, and having contracted tuberculosis from him, Dvora died exhausted and wretched ten years later. Immediately after her death, Eliezer wrote to her younger sister Hemda, and asked her to marry him and come to Jerusalem to take her sister’s place in the management of his household. Like her older sister, Hemda was completely alienated from the Zionist project, and yet she accepted Eliezer’s proposal, and in 1892 traveled to Jerusalem as well. In contrast to her sister, Hemda would go on to live a successful public professional life as her husband’s right hand as well as a writer on her own right.

While Hemda left a large amount of published and unpublished stories, essays, and biographical writings, including an unpublished biography of her sister, Dvora, in contrast, left almost no writings. Yet, arguably, Dvora occupies a more significant role than Hemda in the collective memory, glorified and commemorated as “The First Hebrew Mother,” a pure selfless feminine figure, who sacrificed herself on the altar of the nation. Professor Zakai’s talk, entitled “A Tale of Two Sisters: The New Hebrew Woman between Speech and Silence,” argues that the Ben-Yehuda sisters embody two facets of the New Hebrew Woman as a cultural construct. On the one hand, a dynamic subjectivity eagerly participating in the making of the nation as a space for women’s emancipation, and on the other, a silent object of commemoration and glorification, a pure “korban,” which in Hebrew means both victim and sacrifice.

Ilana Szobel, PhD   Brandeis University

I will discuss memoirs of incest victims, published in Israel over the last two decades. The memoirs reveal women’s voices that have hardly been heard in Israel before. Her talk, “Israeli Memoirs of Incest Survivors,” reveals the rhizomatic nature of the texts as one which enables victims to express that which might evade detection in direct descriptions. Hybrid writing defies any immediate, one-dimensional, and monotonous message about incest and enables the writers to fluctuate on emotional and psychological borders, to engage with the constant friction dwelling within the edges of their experience and language, and to conduct a dialogue with the personal and social unconscious. Moreover, this talk explores the ways in which the rhizomatic structure of the memoirs constructs a kind of de facto alliance between the writers and their readers, an alliance that aims to communicate the harm while creating an environment of joint exploration and mutual influence. The memoirs, thus, reflect insights about—and bring awareness to—the emotional and social needs of the writers, as well as to the challenges and barriers of the readers, and they generate creative spaces that enable them to communicate their world and to have a lasting social impact.

Yigal S. Nizri, PhD  University of Toronto

By focusing on the film “Gett―The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (Israel, 2014), I examine the notions of speech, silence and testimony in the rabbinical court. The plot of “Gett” revolves around Viviane’s persistent struggle to secure a get (writ of divorce) from her husband Elisha, and it takes place entirely within the walls of Haifa District Rabbinical Court. Viviane’s journey transcended the confinements of cinematic representation, since it was featured in actual social debates led by organizations dedicated to the plight of Jewish women whose husbands, Israeli Department of Justice personnel and the Rabbinical Courts, refuse to grant them Gett. Professor Nizri’s talk, “’We Speak Hebrew in This Court’: Speech, Silence and Testimony in the Film Gett,” examines the spoken testimonies dictated by the court’s interrogation, and explores the choreography of speech/silence as a linguistic event that is integral to concepts of “justice” “authority,” and “tradition.”


Orian Zakai, PhD

Dr. Orian Zakai is an Assistant Professor of Modern Hebrew/Israeli Literature and Culture at The George Washington University. She completed her PhD at the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan in 2012. Her research and teaching interests include women and gender in Modern Hebrew literature, the interrelations between Hebrew literature and nationalism, intersections of gender, nationality and ethnicity in contemporary Israeli culture, and post-colonial and feminist theories. Prof. Zakai has published articles on gender and nationalism including “Entering The Records: Suffrage, Difference and the Autobiography of the New Hebrew Woman,” in Nashim: Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, and “A Uniform of a Writer: Literature, Ideology and Sexual Violence in the Writings of Rivka Alper,” in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. Her collection of short fiction Hashlem et he-haser (fill in the blanks) was published in Hebrew in 2010 by Keter Books.

Ilana Szobel, PhD

Dr. Ilana Szobel is an Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and a core faculty at the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Brandeis University. Last year she was a Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley. Her book, A Poetics of Trauma: The Work of Dahlia Ravikovitch was published in 2013 by Brandeis University Press. This book is the first comprehensive study of the renowned Israeli poet, translator, peace activist, and 1998 Israel Prize laureate Dahlia Ravikovitch. Professor Szobel is currently working on a second book project, Flesh of My Flesh: Sexual Violence in Hebrew Literature and Israeli Culture. This book explores the literary history of sexual assault in Hebrew literature, and situates the rhetorics of sexual aggression within the context of gender, disability, race, and national identity.

Yigal S. Nizri, PhD

Dr. Yigal S. Nizri is an Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, where he teaches Hebrew language and Jewish history. His academic interests lie in cultures and histories of Jews of the Arabic-speaking lands and Mizrahi history and culture in Israel. He is currently working on a monograph on the emergence of a Jewish Moroccan scribal culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the context of trans-Mediterranean Maghribi-Jewish diasporic networks. His recent publications includes ‘My Heart is in the Maghrib’: Aspects of Cultural Revival of the Moroccan Diaspora in Israel, (co-authored with Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli), Hespéris-Tamuda 51:3, 2017 (published in Rabat, Morocco), and: “In her Image: Towards an Artistic Biography of Ronit Elkabetz,” in "Je T’aime, Ronit Elkabetz,” edited by Ya’ara Keydar (Design Museum Holon, 2017).