It may seem obvious that women’s roles in Israeli society have changed greatly in recent decades. The patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture could have dictated a domestic and publicly secondary role for women in the new society and State. On the other hand, the shift in the West toward acceptance of feminist ideology could have pushed them into different, more public functions. However, the true picture is considerably more complex than this.

Zionism was not a continuation of the traditional Jewish way of life: on the contrary, it considered itself a reaction to it. Consequently, many of the assumptions underpinning that life – including women’s role – did not pass into the various streams of Zionism that created the basis of the new society. Religious Zionism also rejected the traditional role, creating a much more active, assertive role for women in the community. This is best exemplified by women in the religious kibbutzim.

In theory, therefore, Israel should have aligned itself clearly with other socialist and revolutionary societies around the world, which attempted to define a new role for women in the economic, social and political spheres of public life.

It is possible to analyze the character of pre-State society more deeply, however, and to demonstrate that, in fact, there was always a gap between the ideology of the Zionist movement and reality – even in the kibbutzim. Despite a notable change in women’s roles in Yishuv society and the contributions of some remarkable women in public life, the years following the establishment of the State witnessed a general retreat from the advances of that earlier period.

In practical terms, this has meant that the major change developing in recent years is, indeed, due to the rise of feminism and feminist consciousness. This phenomenon will be dealt with in a separate framework. Only a number of the significant aspects relating to women’s place in Israeli culture will be mentioned here.

In the years preceding and immediately following the establishment of the State of Israel, feminine voices were lacking in various creative fields. A few played a minor role – and often a respected one – but the men remained the central figures.

This is evident in the world of literature. Rachel, Dvora Baron and Elisheva were all considered significant – to different degrees – in the early literary life of the Yishuv. All three were part of the Zionist milieu of the early decades of the 20th century and made particular contributions. Indeed, it is possible to use their work to argue for a specifically feminine voice in literature: quieter, smaller, more questioning and less confident than most of their more famous male counterparts. The women’s work dealt with more intimate, personal canvasses. They wrote no epics and commented less on the great national movement that was developing around them and in which they nonetheless played a part. Even Rachel – in many ways the one among the three whose work most reflected the larger issues of Halutziut and nation-building – always reflected on these subjects from an autobiographical viewpoint. “I only know how to tell of myself” she begins one famous poem, and this is largely true. She made no attempt to disguise the intensely personal nature of her poetry. The men did so very well.

There were few women writers, either, in the early years of the State. Amelia Kahane Carmon was a significant voice but she stood almost alone among the profusion of talented male writers and poets who filled the literary press. It seems that society was not encouraging its potential women writers. The trend has only begun to be reversed in the recent decades: a large group of extremely successful, talented women have come to the fore in different literary genres. Most of the novels now published in Israel are by women. Shulamit Hareven, Savyon Liebrecht, Orly Castel Bloom and Yehudit Katzir are just some of the names that have gained popularity not only in Israel, but also internationally (in translation). They and the other women who have come to the center of Israel’s literary scene, are both the product and the cause of a social revolution that has been taking place in recent years. Women have now claimed center-stage unapologetically in an arena that was formerly mainly reserved for men.

A particularly significant aspect of this phenomenon is the work of women writers who express the agenda or worldview of specific sectors of Israeli society. This was related to above regarding both the new Mizrahi voices’ expression of a sectoral outlook influenced by their ethnic background and those that have begun to depict religious Orthodoxy to the outside world. These two trends have produced significant women writers. In fact, the latter – relating to Orthodoxy – is largely spearheaded by women. Apart from the fact that they are opening up aspects of the world of Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy to the general public, the very appearance of these writers demonstrates a significant change within Orthodox society. It is likely that other sectors of the population will also start to develop their own literary voices, and that women will be a part of it.

This trend is far less pronounced in other spheres. For example, women’s voices have always been part of the popular music field, as in many Western-oriented practices. Until recently, however, most of them were part of a product created by a male-dominated music industry. Women were important as singers and performers, but generally were interpreting songs that had been written by men; furthermore, their music was arranged and produced by men.

In the popular music scene of today, while most of the production, arrangement and actual playing of instruments are still being done by men, the number of women who write many or even most of their own songs has increased significantly over the last twenty-odd years. Using very different styles, women such as Yehudit Ravitz, Si Heiman and Ahinoam Nini have taken a large degree of control over what they produce and have much more of a say as to what musical sound they produce. This important new direction is likely to grow much stronger in the future.

The trends discussed here in relation to literature and popular music are beginning to appear in almost all spheres of cultural creativity. Women artists and sculptors, theater directors and playwrights, architects and photographers are increasingly influencing the fields in which they work. Even the field of film direction –which is notoriously difficult for women to break into in many parts of the world – now includes a number of women. They have produced only a small number of ‘women’s films.’ One example was Idit Shehori’sCircles(1980), a celebration of the intimate, intense and sometimes complicated interaction between a group of women. While not a great film, it was still an interesting example of a woman director’s treatment of the subject of women’s lives. It was not immediately followed up, but the time may well come when it will be.



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16 Apr 2015 / 27 Nisan 5775 0