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7 Fragments about Melancholy and Zionism.


In a telephone conversation we had in 2011, the author and poet Nurit Zarchi told me that her father's writings had been ignored for many years. "I think he was misunderstood," she said. After a short exchange about his books, I asked whether there was much unpublished material. "I had a suitcase with many papers and some letters for many years," she told me. "I usually kept them under my bed, but the suitcase started to rot. My mother told me to turn it over to the archive, but I didn't want to. It was hard for me to separate from it, I guess. This was the last thing I had from him, from my father." Then Nurit told me a story that sounded as if it had been taken from one of her books and, in fact, was later printed in her autobiographical novel, In the Shadow of Our Lady:
The municipality did not sit idly, and seeing the cracks in the wall,
which were growing and growing, took out a demolition order for our
block. I browsed through the accumulation of mail. The date for the
demolition was marked in red. I took a day off from school;... the
suitcase alone was left lying at the center of the house.... Tomorrow,
before they come to destroy the house, we will take it to the
designated location.

Morning, the sky is still low. Our Lady [i.e., Nurit's mother] and I
exit the new house and take the old route in order to pick up the
suitcase. ... As we approach the neighborhood, the morning birdsong
increases. The neighbor's chicken coop was destroyed last week. But
where is our house? The eye loses its anchor point. Frozen in place,
Our Lady looks at me and I look back at her. The pile of rocks where
our house used to be brings us back to reality. We can't hear what the
other is saying because of the ruckus of the bulldozers. The air above
our heads is completely white. What is this? Egrets? Snow? The
bulldozers have come a day early. In front of my face swirls a
whirlwind of my dad's pages. I run with my arms extended. I rise on my
toes, trying to grasp the tips of the floating pages. My hands come
back empty, as if I were trying to grasp snowflakes. As if I were
chasing after the dead. (1)

"That was the end of what was left of my father," she concluded, without clarifying if she means the lost papers or her memory of running with extended arms, clasping nothing in the air. (2)


My conversation with Nurit--herself the winner of many literary prizes--did not lead to the discovery of new material beyond what I had already found at the archive, but it did offer me the framework for the story I want to tell, a story within a story. Nurit's "chasing after the dead," in the form of the lost memories of her father, has extended her own life story to the story of a whole generation and the generations that followed. It is a story about negation, suppression, and remains, or what the German Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin identified as melancholy in the service of the forgotten and marginalized. (3) The story I tell below traces the marks left by the defeated and the disregarded, the ones untold by history and the agents of triumphant memory. It is a biographical story about Israel Zarchi, but even more so a story about why he was forgotten, and why his unique melancholic interpretation vanished from the history of Israeli culture as a whole, and the history of Hebrew literature in particular. In biographical and psychological terms, it is a tale about the image of "snapped roots" that preoccupies the heart of Zarchi's own novellas, and "A plant in a pot, whose root does not reach the soil," (4) images that somehow connect with his daughter's description, set down many years later, of scattered papers flying in the air. (5) Both images suggest a failure to move from the possible to the practical, the ideal to reality, the potential to realization. The lost papers will never be read, and the plant will never grow. Israel Zarchi's life and writing exemplify this gap between a promise and its materialization. His story examines this failed movement in the context of the early Zionist settlement of Palestine. Like Nurit Zarchi's tale, it tells a retrospective story about lost opportunities, oblivion, and what remains.


During the 1930s and 1940s Zarchi wrote six novels and several collections of short stories. All of them revolved around the central themes of his life: uprooting, melancholy, and missed opportunities. Near the end of his short life, already terminally ill, he offered an autobiographical sketch in a letter to a friend. In the first section below, he provides a glimpse of the primary aspects of his writings that I will discuss:
I was born on the seventh day of Sukkot [October 6, 1909] in the city
of Jedrzejow, Poland. I received a liberal education; my language was
Polish (by the time I learned Yiddish, I was already a big fellow). At
first I went to a public Polish school, and later to a Jewish school.
That school also offered courses in the Hebrew language, but since I
excelled in all subjects (except Hebrew), I was exempted from all
classes related to Judaism, and for years I did not speak our language.
At the age of fifteen and sixteen I spent time in northern Italy (in
Tyrol), and I learned German because I was staying with an Ashkenazi
Jewish family from Vienna. From Tyrol I came back to Poland and was
awakened to the study of Hebrew. ... In 1929 I came to eretz Israel
[the land of Israel] as a halutz [pioneer]. At first I lived in the
pioneers' huts... and worked paving the new road. For personal reasons
I moved to the Giva'at HaShelosha Kibbutz, where I stayed for over a
year. There I worked mostly in the orchards and with livestock. I
prepared the land managed by the painter Reuven and his brother; they
were going to plant citrus trees. One day I learned that the first
seedling had been planted at a gala event by [the celebrated poet H.
N.] Bialik. I was not present at this gathering because who was I, just
a working boy taking care of the livestock. I only found out the next
day, when I came to work in the orchard, and my heart ached with
regret. (6)


The historian of psychology Eran Rolnik wrote of the Jewish pioneer, the halutz, that he was "unconsciously torn between his commitment to realizing Zionist ideals and his yearning for his parents," a crack in his idealistic world that made "the young pioneer... fight a 'terrible battle' with himself." (7) One of the first psychoanalysts of the Yishuv, who declared that the pioneers stood in urgent need of mental care, wrote that the halutz struggled "with an easily comprehensible longing that has been sacrificed to his [Zionist] ideal." (8) In Zarchi's stories the "terrible battle" has resulted in the pioneer losing all sense of direction.

This loss makes Zarchi's writing relevant to our time. While he presents Zionist settlement activities as a series of struggles with a desert wilderness, his poetics emphasizes, within this conventional discourse, the presence of creaturely life and temporal boundaries. In the midst of youth--at the peak of bodily energy, erotic drive, and idealism--Zarchi gives us apathy and stagnancy, the frustration of all eros.

In his first novel, Youth (1932), the lack of motion implies loss and an open, confusing, unoccupied space. In the opening scene the Utopian hopes of the protagonist, Uri, encounter the conditions of the setting: "Deep sand covered the road, the sand dripped between the wheels, and it was impossible to urge the animals on." (9) Having gone to Palestine in order to cultivate a land of milk and honey, by the end of the story Uri is driven to suicide; if the beginning promises a fulfillment of erotic passion, the end shows his wife aborting their child and leaving him. Never able to find a place of his own, he spends his time wandering. Other characters in the novel experience hunger, unemployment, boredom, and frustration, displaying a continuous sense of drifting without a goal.

At the center of the novel, mirroring this helplessness, is the diatribe with which an anarchist in Uri's group of pioneers exposes the discursive assumptions made by the idealistic settlers in their struggles: "As I've said more than once, you laugh at every serious subject. You dismiss and ridicule everything. Rather than look for an escape, rather than even revealing the reality for all to see, you cover it up with trivia. ... Thousands of fresh young lives are suffocating and withering because of hypocrisy." (10) The protagonist merely records these trenchant comments, which are instantly dismissed by the settlers. Whereas the opening of the novel follows "a [new] road, meaning: a hop, a jump, a fast connection to the world, the discovery of new horizons and grand potential for action," (11) it concludes with Uri crying in his desperation: "to the mountains, to the open space, to wander along unpaved roads, climb on the standing rocks." (12)


In late December 1934 and early 1935, Zarchi reported intensive work on his new novel, And the Oil Flows to the Mediterranean. Much like its predecessors, the novel tells the story of a man who wanders without a clear aim. When we first meet Gideon Barkai he descends from the settlement, after his attempt to grow crops on a rocky mountainside has just failed. And his failure is not unique: it seems as though most of the inhabitants of Iliya ("up high"), a small village in the Galilee, are on the brink of starvation. People work hard to survive, but the younger generation is heading off to the city, leaving both the land and the idealistic discourse behind. After Barkai also fails to win the love of Nurit, he decamps for Haifa, replacing one hardship with another and swapping one mountain (Galilee) for another (Karmel) and the language of idealism for the language of materialism. Unable to reconcile himself with either, he is left hanging between two worlds and leaves to the deserts of Iraq, where he meets rebellious anarchists and Bedouins who teach: "To approach the king, spit in his face, curse him, and say to him: And who are you really? A king? You are a wretched dog," (13) and, "One must not live a tranquil life in a warm little corner, as whole worlds shatter." (14)


With time it seems that the lesson has been learned: Zarchi wrote the short story "Sambatyon" in 1947, the last year of his life, and it carries his distinct poetic marks. In his retelling of the legendary myth of the ten tribes and the return to Zion, Zarchi framed the hopeless call for unity in the context of two other Jewish symbols that carry a distinct melancholic tone: the Jewish mother who mourns her dead sons and the mysterious appearance of a black dog as a signifier of collective destruction in Jerusalem. Long pages detail the poverty and gloom of Jerusalem: "A small, wretched town, a heap of demolished stones, its houses damaged, its alleyways in disarray, neglect and emptiness in all its courtyards." (15)


Melancholy is a well-known theme in Hebrew literature, and some have used it to define the connections between that tradition and modern literature more generally. (16) Other authors of the early Yishuv period--of whom Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921) and Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon (1880-1970) are only the most well-known--used melancholy to portray antiheroic protagonists. Brenner and Agnon, like H. N. Bialik, or Zarchi's other favorite writer, S. Ben-Zion, were committed to a narrative that was Utopian revivalist, socialist, and collectivist. (17) The path Israel Zarchi took, and that his daughter chose nearly a century later, to characterize those times was somewhat different from these other authors: it thematized melancholy itself, rather than offering a melancholic protagonist. This makes it possible to explore hidden hopes and wishes, spatial and temporal boundaries more explicitly and opens up a path beyond them. The repeated failure of every protagonist, next to the failure of every attempt to settle on the land, implies a political and a discursive message beyond the literary aspects of the work.

After describing her father shut up in his study, slaving day and night over his writing, Nurit Zarchi recalled what phantasm connected them, as well as her own sense of identity. Leaving the house after noticing her father's absorption in his work, she recalls: "One day, during a game of hide-and-seek, I arrive at a part of the world beyond the world. My heart stops for a moment. Behind the house stands a huge black dog, just like the one I saw yesterday in a dream. A sort of primordial beast, above its eyes tightened brows, its extended tongue dangling from its mouth." She asks, "Is this really happening, or am I imagining it?" Immediately she replies: "The question is meaningless. It's no longer an accident; it's me." (18)


(*) This essay was adapted from the forthcoming On Zionism and Melancholy: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (Indiana University Press, 2019), with the kind agreement of the editors at Indiana University Press.

(1.) Nurit Zarchi, Be-tsel gevirtenu, 33-34.

(2.) Nurit Zarchi, Be-tsel gevirtenu, 33-34. Israel Zarchi (1909-1947) was born in Jedrzjow, Poland. He studied in a Polish elementary school and then at a Jewish high school. When he was fifteen he traveled for year to south Italy as a tutor with a German-speaking family and returned fluent in German. Upon his return he started the study of Hebrew, which he completed successfully before his immigration to Palestine in 1929. After his immigration he worked as a pioneer in building roads and as a farmer. During this period he wrote his first novel, Youth. In 1932, encouraged by the father of modern Hebrew poetry, H. N. Bialik, he started his studies at the Hebrew University. He completed his first degree studies in 1937 in literature, philosophy, and history. Zarchi died from cancer in the age of thirty-eight, when his daughter, Nurit (b. 1941)--nowadays a well-known prize-winning author herself--was six years old. From 1929 to the day of his death eighteen years later, Zarchi published six novels and seven collections of stories, and translated Kleist (he was the first translator of von Kleist's Michael Kolhaas), Joseph Conrad, and Janusz Korczak to Hebrew. His name is usually absent from the histories of Hebrew literature. In the very few cases Zarchi is mentioned--one could count them on one hand--it is due to his late novel, Eretz Lo Zrua'a (1946) [Unsown Land], which won the Jerusalem Prize in 1947.

(3.) See Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," 391. Benjamin writes, "that acedia which despairs or appropriating the genuine historical image as it briefly flashes up. ... The nature of this sadness becomes clearer if we ask: With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: With the Victor."

(4.) See Zarchi's 1947 short story, "Sambatyon."

(5.) Israel Zarchi, "Sambatyon," 99. For "The Guesthouse," see Zarchi, Bet Savta Shecharav: Sipurim.

(6.) Israel Zarchi to Haim Toren, 7 May 1946.

(7.) Rolnik, Freud in Zion, 45.

(8.) Rolnik, Freud in Zion, 45. See also Zalashik, "Psychiatry, Ethnicity and Migration," 412.

(9.) Israel Zarchi, Alumim, 3. All translations are mine.

(10.) Israel Zarchi, Alumim, 77-78.

(11.) Israel Zarchi, Alumim, 12.

(12.) Israel Zarchi, Alumim, 178.

(13.) Israel Zarchi, Ha-Neft Zorem, 186. All translations are mine.

(14.) Israel Zarchi, Ha-Neft Zorem, 200.

(15.) The passage refers to Midrash Kabbah: Ecclesiastes, Parasha 3:11.

(16.) For the political analyses of the melancholic topoi in modern Hebrew literature, see Laor, "Sipur al Ahava," 67-90; Naftali, Al Ha'Prisbut; and Gluzman, "Sovereignty and Melancholia," 164-79.

(17.) As I was completing my book and article, I had the opportunity to review a new book that, to my great surprise and delight, dedicated some fascinating pages to Zarchi as an example of the 1920s/1930s realism and "the tension between Utopian aspiration and the lives of the workers." According to the author, who adopts a neo-Marxist lens to reconsider modern Hebrew literature, "Zarchi draws our attention to a common argument in the Marxist analysis of modernism, namely, that the feeling of alienation and loveliness so prevalent in modernist art... is not simply a matter of subjective artistic taste or personal belief. Rather these are aesthetic expressions of the increasing objective alienation of subjects from the forces that produce their world." See Nir, Signatures of Struggle, 49.

(18.) Nurit Zarchi, Mischakei B'didut, 21.


Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings. Vol. 4:1938-40. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Ben Naftali, Michal. Al Ha'Prisbut [On Asceticism]. Tel Aviv: Resling, 2009.

Gluzman, Michael. "Sovereignty and Melancholia: Israeli Poetry after 1948." Jewish Social Studies 18, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2012): 164-79.

Laor, Itzhak. "Sipur al Ahava veChoschech: Taamula, Narkicism veHamaarav." Mitaam 7 (Sept. 2006): 67-90.

Midrash Kabbah: Ecclesiastes. Translated by A. Cohen. New York: Soncino, 1983.

Nir, Oded. Signatures of Struggle: The Figuration of Collectivity in Israeli Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018.

Rolnik, Eran. Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity. Translated by Haim Watzman. London: Karnak, 2012.

Zalashik, Rakefet. "Psychiatry, Ethnicity and Migration: The Case of Palestine, 1920-1948." Dynamis 25 (2005): 403-22.

Zarchi, Israel. Alumim [Youth], Tel Aviv: Mitzpe, 1933.

--. Bet Savta Shecharav: Sipurim [The Destroyed House of My Grandmother]. Tel Aviv: Misrad Habitachon, 1988.

--. Correspondence from Israel Zarchi to Haim Toren, 7 May 1946, Israel Zarchi Archive, file 171, section A: 69577-586, Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv.

--. Ve-Ha-Neft Zorem la-Yam ha-Tikhon [And the Oil Flows to the Mediterranean]. Jerusalem: Israeli Publishing, 1937

--. Yalkut sipurim [A Collection of Stories]. Tel Aviv: Yachdav, 1983.

Zarchi, Nurit. Be-tsel gevirtenu [In the Shadow of Our Lady]. Tel Aviv: Yedi'ot Aharonot: Sifre Hemed, 2013.

--. Mischakei B'didut [Games of Loneliness]. Tel Aviv: Yediot Ahronot, 1999.


Nitzan Lebovic is an associate professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust studies and ethical values at Lehigh University. His other publications include Zionism and Melancholia: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (in Hebrew, 2015; Indiana University Press, 2019), The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (coeditor, Bloomsbury, 2014), Catastrophe: A. History and Theory of an Operative Concept (coeditor, Walter De Gruyter, 2014), and special issues of Rethinking History (Nihilism), Zmanim (Religion and Power), and The New German Critique (Political Theology).
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Date:Jun 22, 2019
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