Yes­ter­day, D. A. Mis­hani won­dered why it’s so dif­fi­cult to write a detec­tive in Hebrew. His first detec­tive nov­el, The Miss­ing File, was pub­lished by Harp­er. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

So why is it so dif­fi­cult to write a detec­tive nov­el in Israel? Aren’t we sup­posed to be a lit­er­ary cul­ture that appre­ci­ates a sharp char­ac­ter who knows how to solve a rid­dle? And did­n’t we pro­duce one of the first record­ed mur­der cas­es (that of Cain and Abel) and one of the first thrillers about an attempt­ed mur­der pre­vent­ed at the last moment (that of the Ake­da)? As all detec­tives do, in order to solve the mys­tery I had to turn to his­to­ry for some answers. And, in this case, it was the his­to­ry of mod­ern Hebrew literature. 

I knew that mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture (i.e., lit­er­a­ture in the mod­ern and Euro­pean sense, writ­ten not with­in litur­gi­cal or oth­er reli­gious con­texts) began in the 18th cen­tu­ry, in cen­tral and east­ern Europe, main­ly in what is today Ger­many, Poland, Ukraine and Rus­sia. Dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry many of the new­ly-born mod­ern Euro­pean lit­er­ary forms immi­grat­ed into Hebrew lit­er­ary writ­ing. And, although from its begin­nings it under­stood and described itself as a nation­al lit­er­a­ture — like the Ger­man or the French — mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture has devel­oped under unique cir­cum­stances, unfa­mil­iar to most oth­er nation­al literatures. 

First and fore­most, it devel­oped out of an unspo­ken lan­guage, mean­ing a lan­guage that was not used for dai­ly pur­pos­es and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Jews in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe in the 19th cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry main­ly used local lan­guages and the dif­fer­ent local ver­sions of Yid­dish, the lan­guage of Euro­pean Jew­ish Dias­po­ra. Hebrew was the sacred lan­guage of the Bible and some of the Tal­mu­dic texts, a lan­guage of Midrash (study) and of prayer, and there­fore a lan­guage known to a lim­it­ed social stratum.

Sec­ond­ly, and part­ly because of this unique lin­guis­tic con­di­tion, mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture has devel­oped in spe­cial eco­nom­i­cal cir­cum­stances. Hebrew read­er­ship, mean­ing the num­ber of read­ers who could read Hebrew and were also inter­est­ed in mod­ern or enlight­ened” Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, con­sist­ed of just a few thou­sands of readers. 

Third­ly, the devel­op­ment of mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture can not be under­stood sep­a­rate­ly from the Jew­ish nation­al project, mean­ing from the birth and evo­lu­tion of Zion­ist thought and action.

Those unique con­di­tions, with­in which mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture has evolved, had con­sid­er­able effects on the evo­lu­tion of pop­u­lar lit­er­ary gen­res in Hebrew, notably on the detec­tive sto­ry. Hebrew lit­er­a­ture — defin­ing itself as cul­tur­al and ide­o­log­i­cal avant-garde, against the pop­u­lar and not always Zion­ist lit­er­ary writ­ing in Yid­dish lan­guage — has reject­ed any form of writ­ing that was­n’t nation­al as unim­por­tant and some­times even destructive. 

And the fate of the detec­tive was­n’t dif­fer­ent. Very pow­er­ful peo­ple did­n’t want it writ­ten at all. 

Read the third install­ment of D. A. Mis­hani’s The Mys­tery of the Hebrew Detec­tive” here.

D. A. Mis­hani | Jew­ish Book Coun­cilD. A. Mis­hani is an Israeli crime writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar, spe­cial­iz­ing in the his­to­ry of detec­tive fic­tion. His first detec­tive nov­el, The Miss­ing File, the first in a lit­er­ary detec­tive series fea­tur­ing police Inspec­tor Avra­ham Avra­ham, was pub­lished in the U.S. by Harper­Collins. The sec­ond nov­el in the series, A Pos­si­bil­i­ty of Vio­lence, will be pub­lished in the US in 2014.