Sadness in Palestine
Kafka couldn't stand modern national Jewish culture and the literature that cultivated and promoted it, especially the Hebrew-Zionist brand. Not only did he outright say he had no interest in this kind of literature, but he was totally opposed to it. Franz Kafka, who was supposedly interested in Zionism and its cultural manifestations, and who lived in the eye of the storm, so to speak, never wrote a single word about Hebrew literature. It was as if he didn't know it existed. Neither did he have anything to say about the Hebrew play performed at the 11th Zionist Congress, in 1913, by Nahum Zemach, later the founding father of Habimah Theater in Moscow.
Kafka, who had been so enchanted by the Yiddish theater two years earlier, evinced no interest whatsoever in seeing a play whose actors spoke the language of the Bible on a Viennese stage, even though he had always expressed a desire to learn Hebrew and declared himself jealous of those who were able to master it. When Felice Bauer, later his fiancee, claimed she knew Hebrew, when they first met at the home of Max Brod's parents, he took perverse pleasure in her inability to translate or explain the name "Tel Aviv" - which did not stop him from proposing that same evening that he and Felice travel to Palestine together.
His silence encompassed all the heroes of the Hebrew literary renaissance and the new Hebrew literature as a whole. While Kafka took great pains to read the French dissertation of Meir Pines on Yiddish literature (and even jotted down notes in his diary to help him remember key points), it never occurred to him to read Nahum Sluschz's dissertation on modern Hebrew literature, also submitted to the Sorbonne as a doctoral thesis and published in French in 1903.
In his diary, Kafka frequently mentions Yiddish writers, naming both well-known figures (Mendele Moycher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Mordecai Spektor, Morris Rosenfeld) and complete unknowns, as if there were no difference between the canonic and the non-canonic in Yiddish literature. He speaks respectfully of Jacob Adler, aka the Great Eagle of New York, one of the leading Yiddish actors of the time (also noting the rumors that Adler had become a millionaire). On the other hand, there is not one word about Hebrew writers and intellectuals, whose work he could have read in German and presumably heard about from his Zionist friends: Ahad Ha'am, for example, whom Martin Buber spoke about at length, albeit not without criticism, in his first lecture on Judaism at the Bar Kochba club (Kafka attended the lecture but was not impressed with Buber's remarks, which he describes as an eclectic and unconvincing hodgepodge of ideas); and Micha Josef Berdichevsky, who not only published stories and articles in German, but even a whole book on the social and cultural world of the Jews of Eastern Europe (1918), as well as two collections of legends and folktales (a subject Kafka was supposedly very interested in), which went on to become classics (one is "Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales," translated into English by I.M. Lask).
The search for some hint of the work of this Hebrew author, who was so close to German culture and so accessible to someone who grew up on the writings of Nietzsche, is a search in vain. The same is true for the stories of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, several of which were translated into German during Kafka's lifetime. Kafka does, however, mention one famous Hebrew writer: Yosef Haim Brenner, the author of "Breakdown and Bereavement," a novel that Kafka tried to wade through in an attempt to learn Hebrew.
Kafka brought the book with him from Prague to Berlin, and began to read it under the tutelage of Pua Bat-Tovim, a university student from Palestine. Using Brenner as a tool for learning the language seems to have been a pedagogic innovation of Bat-Tovim, who thought that an educated person with refined literary tastes like Kafka would progress more quickly when given a serious and challenging piece of literature to read, instead of some inane text from a Hebrew reader. Brenner's novel, which was the "last word" in artistic Hebrew prose back in the early 1920s (it was first published in New York in 1920), seemed fitting to her, also, perhaps, on account of Brenner's reputation as a poet of suffering, self-doubt and sadness.
Bat-Tovim assumed that Kafka would "identify" with him (later, in her memoirs, she did, in fact, write that Kafka empathized with the pain of Yehezkel Hefetz, the book's protagonist). These were also days of shock: Brenner had been murdered on the outskirts of Jaffa in the riots of May 1921, and elevated into a kind of "Zionist saint."
Bat-Tovim was greatly mistaken if she thought that Kafka liked the book. He found it extremely hard to read and boring. Kafka, with his genteel European manners, did not tell his young, enthusiastic tutor (whom he liked) what he told his friends Max Brod and Robert Klopstock (the latter a medical student from Budapest who became so attached to Kafka that he quit his studies to be at his side and nurse him through his final illness; Klopstock was the one who gave in to Kafka's demands and injected him with the fatal dose of morphine that put an end to his suffering).
To Brod, he wrote that reading 30 or so pages of Brenner's work was more effort than it was worth, and he did not enjoy the book. "Sadness in Palestine?!" he wrote, challenging the cliches about Brenner's sadness. He found the book tiresome, off-putting and altogether not very good. There is not a word about it in his diaries.
Brenner, tedious bore
Neither is there any hint that Kafka ever discussed Brenner with his last lover, Dora Diamant, a fervent Zionist and a lover of Hebrew and Yiddish national culture, who was quizzed by Bat-Tovim when she visited their apartment in Steglitz on the outskirts of Berlin and pronounced knowledgeable enough in Hebrew to help Kafka read the book. While Diamant and Kafka may have read a few pages together, she makes no mention in her diaries or interviews of Kafka's response to the book, despite the fact that she was completely attuned to every thought and feeling projected by the man she loved and admired. Reading Brenner's novel was evidently a tedious bore, but it was something they refused to stop because learning Hebrew was part of their dream of a shared life in Palestine. At the same time, they saw no need to spoil their talks with discussions of a book of which neither of them was enamored. Indeed, only a casual observer would say there was any real affinity between the worlds of Brenner and Kafka, and think it possible to place them side by side on some hypothetical map of the modern Jewish "canon."
Kafka's connection to Zionism is too complex and multi-faceted to discuss here. It seems that those who claim that there was such a connection and that Zionism played a central role in his life and literary work, and those who deny the connection altogether or dismiss its importance, are both wrong. The truth lies in some very elusive place between these two simplistic poles.
There is no question that Kafka found Zionism, as a political and social option for the Jews, very interesting, and even exciting, despite his aversion to the organized Zionist establishment. Kafka may have been uncomplimentary and mocking in his description of the 11th Zionist Congress but he was curious enough to give up a whole week of holiday for it, although it was a holiday he badly needed after his break-up with Felice Bauer.
Dreams of visiting and eventually settling in Palestine remained with Kafka for years, although he never did anything to make them come true (apart from his feeble attempts to learn Hebrew). They were an inseparable part of his desire to escape from the claws of witchy Prague and his fantasy of a strong and practical woman rescuing him from the labyrinth in which he was trapped. His sense was that such a woman would mean the end of his writing career, so while, on the one hand, it was imperative to establish such a relationship, it was also necessary to do everything possible to break it up. In much the same way, he revived his dream of going to Palestine from time to time, but also made sure it would never materialize.
That being the case, some of Kafka's most important stories, among them "A Report to the Academy" and "Investigations of a Dog," might be legitimately interpreted from a Zionist perspective (along with other equally valid interpretations).
Obviously one might also see these stories as a satiric comment on Zionism. For example, "A Report to the Academy," first published in Martin Buber's Der Jude and interpreted by Kafka's Zionist friends as a Zionist satire on assimilated Judaism, could also be read as a brutal lampoon of the Zionist concept of "norma¬lization."
The tale, about Red Peter, an ape who delivers a report to the academy (in another version of the story he is interviewed by a journalist) and finds that the only way he can get out of his cage is to make friends with his captors and become more and more like them, might be seen as a metaphor for the assimilated Jew, for whom there is no "way out" (of the cage, i.e., the ghetto), unless he transforms himself into a German or Frenchman of the Mosaic faith.
But Red Peter could also represent the Herzlian Jew, who is forced to adopt the dubious solution of collective existence in a nation-state "like all other nations" as the only way of escaping from the cage of anti-Semitism and the humiliation of not being socially accepted into the non-Jewish society he wants to join.
This interpretation illuminates the story as a brutal parody not only of Herzl's "Altneuland," but of "Der Weg ins Freie," the only novel written by the Austrian Jewish playwright Arthur Schnitzler (whose work Kafka detested), which describes the stifling atmosphere in which Jewish Viennese intellectuals and artists lived, and proposes Zionism as a solution to their emotional and social distress. The same is true of the farmer motif (how to promote faster growth of food crops) that plays such a central role in "Investigations of a Dog." Kafka did indeed read the reports of the Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine with great interest, but the motif might also be comic or grotesque in the context of a satire on the Zionists, devotees of the return to the soil, to agriculture, to the "simple" life of the farmer, who brought to the task their Talmudic brain and have turned farming into a pseudo-theological-philosophical exercise with an inquisitive dog to represent them.
The issues, as we have said, are complex. Kafka's narratives can be interpreted in so many contradictory ways that the questions raised by his work will probably never receive a clear answer.
And yet we can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that Kafka's gut reaction to the modern national-cultural Jewish enterprise, whether or not he was a Zionist, was one of distaste. Proof can be found across the spectrum, from his almost roaring silence to a variety of criticisms, some harsher in tone than others, such as his remark that Bialik's poetry "exploited" the Kishinev pogrom to promote a certain agenda.
To put it bluntly, Kafka couldn't stand modern national Jewish culture and the literature that cultivated and promoted it, especially the Hebrew-Zionist brand. Not only did he say outright on several occasions that he had no interest in this kind of literature (as opposed to Talmudic legends and mainly Hasidic tales, which he probably read in Buber's famous adaptations), but he was totally opposed to it. Not that this opposition simplifies the matter or clarifies Kafka's attitude to Zionism: It actually makes things even more complicated.
Because how could Kafka be positive toward the Zionist enterprise in Palestine to any degree at all while "opposing" the literature and culture that articulated the desire for a "new Jewish future"? Was a Zionist or national renaissance possible without the literature and culture that promoted its aims? Of course, this is not the only question that goes unanswered here, although it could be that Kafka, if asked, would say that there must be a total separation between political trends, which one may or may not support, and art and literature, whose authenticity depends solely on a desperate and unrelenting search for pure existential truth, free of all utilitarian considerations or desire to promote social agendas. Literature must strive for what Heinrich von Kleist sought in "Michael Kohlhass" and "Die Marquise von O," or what Flaubert achieved in "Sentimental Education." It must not be guided by the kind of goal that Kafka ascribes to Bialik in his poem "In the City of Slaughter."
Indeed, this comment on Bialik's poem is fascinating because of the seeming contradiction it contains. The phrase "Jewish future" has positive connotations. On the other hand, Kafka's claim that Bialik used the Kishinev pogrom to promote this future is clearly negative. But is this necessarily contradictory? It is not the future of the Jews he objects to, but the fact that the poet is making ideological-literary hay from the suffering of the weak and downtrodden. In fact, the same duality can be seen in Mendele Moycher Sforim's harsh criticism of the poem: "Hear this tale and gasp in disbelief! Brutes, beasts, the dregs of human society, have attacked me and my wife and children. They have murdered and massacred and committed repulsive deeds of every kind, and then this man gets up and preaches to me, pouring salt on my wounds ... I writhe in the dust and he stands over me, whip in hand, lashing and lashing ... "
Kafka also mocked Bialik for "disgracing" himself by descending from the heights of Hebrew to the lows of Yiddish. Kafka's positive attitude toward Yiddish and Yiddish literature would seem to challenge our assumption that he was critical of the entire modern Jewish national-literary enterprise. There is no question that Kafka was sympathetic and even warm toward Yiddish, despite the fact that he did not speak the language and never tried to learn it. In fact, it was much closer to his heart than modern Hebrew, which he made an effort to learn but without success.
When an intelligent and determined person like Kafka fails to learn the basics of a foreign language after several years of trying, and cannot accomplish what any schoolchild can do with the proper instruction and effort, one begins to ask why. There must be some psychological explanation (although Kafka himself was not at all a fan of psychology).
It looks very much like a subconscious or semi¬conscious attempt at self-defeating behavior. Why should Kafka "allow" himself to master Hebrew if it would lead to undesirable contact with texts like "In the City of Slaughter" or "Breakdown and Bereavement"? True, becoming proficient in Hebrew would also give him access to the "ancient sources" and the Bible, in which Kafka was certainly interested (he derived great pleasure in the last year of his life from the Bible and Talmud lectures he attended, when his health permitted it, at the Leo Baeck Jewish Studies Institute in Berlin; the Bible lectures were delivered by the philologist N. H. Torczyner, later Prof. Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
For this reason, along with his dream of settling in Palestine, Kafka persisted in his Hebrew studies until the very last months of his life. At the same time, he "took pains" to make very slow progress, balk at his lessons and treat the whole matter as boring. His on-and-off relationship with Felice Bauer fits in quite well with this theory. In any case, Kafka's remarks about Hebrew in his letters and diary show not a trace of the warmth with which he wrote about Yiddish, whose cadence and inflections he associated with the "Jewish temperament."
Dan Miron holds the Leonard Kaye chair for Hebrew and comparative literature at Columbia University, and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University.