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European Modernism, in Hebrew

With a rediscovered 1930s novel, Viennese Romance, Austrian writer David Vogel becomes a key figure in the creation of Modern Hebrew literature

Joseph Dana
April 27, 2012
A postcard written by David Vogel from Paris, 1925.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos P K/Flickr and Kedem Auction House)
A postcard written by David Vogel from Paris, 1925.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos P K/Flickr and Kedem Auction House)

The development of Modern Hebrew literature is full of contradictory and competing narratives of national identity. The bespectacled Jewish writer, carrying with him the traditions of biblical Hebrew literature as he negotiates the fast-paced capitals of Europe, narrowly avoiding anti-Semitism lurking around every corner, is thinking of Palestine. The Modern Hebrew novel features protagonists who address themes steeped in land, sun, sweat; literature is understood as an extension of the project of building a new state.

Yet, there are Hebrew writers who kept their focus on Europe, or even the United States, and in the process modernized the ancient language for use in the secular world. One writer in particular, David Vogel, who has largely remained invisible in the United States, developed an Austro-Viennese literature in the Hebrew language free of nationalist themes and connotations: He is now credited by some in Israeli academia as playing a crucial role in the development of secular Hebrew literature—a pioneer of a modern Hebrew language unmoored from nationalism.

Two years ago, an Israeli scholar named Lilach Nethanel was riffling through the stuffy spaces of the Genazim, the archive of the Hebrew Writer’s Association in Tel Aviv. Researching a thesis about Vogel, Nethanel stumbled across what appeared to be an innocuous manuscript of Vogel’s classic 1934 novella Facing the Sea. The book, written in Paris in the early 1930s, tells of a young couple’s summer on the French Rivera. Awash in sun, sand, and sea, the book highlights Vogel’s lyrical talents as one of the 20th century’s greatest Hebrew poets while tackling the eternal complexities of romantic relationships.

As Nethanel inspected the handwritten manuscript, the descriptions of street lamps, a typical fixture of Vogel’s other novels set in Vienna, caught her attention. Struggling to decipher the tiny script, which lacked margins and required a magnifying glass to read, Nethanel realized that she was not reading Facing the Sea but an entirely new manuscript, one that scholars had speculated about but had actually never seen. An entirely original unpublished novel has been found in the quiet Genazim archive. Left untitled, the manuscript has just been published in Israel to much fanfare under the title Viennese Romance.


David Vogel was born in May 1891, in the city of Satanov, in what was then part of the Russian Pale of Settlement. Like others, he made his way to Vienna, where the smoke-filled cafés and anonymous bustling streets became a home for his largely futile writing habit. A former yeshiva student in Vilna, Vogel barely made a living by tutoring Hebrew in Vienna. While he had command of German, he was never able to write fluently in the language of his adopted home and was thus pushed to an existence on the periphery of the dominant cultural circles in the city.

The influence of European modernism on Hebrew literature has not received the proper treatment it deserves in Israel and the academic establishment, but this is changing. While Europe played a crucial role in the fermentation of Hebrew literature, most, if not all of the continent’s Hebrew-language writers ended up moving to pre-state Palestine. For some this was an ideological choice, while others fled to Palestine a step ahead of the Nazis. Yet it was in Europe that the first Hebrew-language novels addressing overtly sexual and psychological issues first began to appear. Free from Hebrew’s burden as a standard-bearer of Jewish nationalism, Jewish writers used the language as if it was German or French to create works exploring the individual’s place in the modern world.

In his recent book Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, Shachar Pinsker, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Michigan, describes how Hebrew functioned for young writers’ mobility in Europe. What emerges from Pinkser’s research is a Hebrew literary canon free from ideology and infused with the Diaspora Jewish experience. David Vogel played a leading role in this development.

“In some ways, Vogel is like an early Woody Allen,” Pinkser told me recently at a windy outdoor Jerusalem café. “He was introverted, consumed with sexual hang-ups and lived as a perpetual outsider, a character closer to an American Jew than a Zionist pioneer.”

In 1929, Vogel was invited to Tel Aviv at the request of the Zionist federation with the special attention of the famed Hebrew writer and poet Uri Zwi Greenberg. So keen was Greenberg to have Vogel in Mandate-era Palestine that he had the federation take care of all of Vogel’s visas, not a small task at the time, and set him up with a comfortable position teaching Hebrew at the Herzliya Gymnasium, the most prestigious school of the period. Yet Vogel left Palestine after only a year, noting that the climate was too harsh for his taste.

“I think that he was not a Zionist but he was not an anti-Zionist,” Nethanel told me during a break from research at Tel Aviv University. “One of the modernist components of writers is that they were always one step removed. This is Vogel in virtually all aspects of his life, politically, theoretically, and in his love-life. He hated regular work and preferred to be poor than hold a steady job.” Upon returning to Europe, he was granted an Austrian passport that listed his profession as “writer.” With it, Vogel moved to Paris and continued writing until he was caught by French authorities at the outbreak of World War II. His story ends in a Nazi death camp sometime in 1944.


Vogel’s best-known novel, Married Life, is a snapshot of a tragic relationship in 1920s Vienna. Rudolf Gurdweill, a poor Jewish writer accustomed to spending his days writing in one of Vienna’s many literary cafés, marries Thea von Takow, an Austrian baroness. From the very start of their tortured relationship, von Takow showers Gurdweill with insults, sleeps with his friends, and attempts to have Gurdweill believe that their son was conceived with another man. Yet, Gurdweill deals with the abuse by finding solace walking the streets of Vienna with no sense of purpose or destination. Isolated in his sadomasochistic relationship and connection to Vienna, he barely takes note of Lotte Budenheim, a young Jewish woman who has fallen desperately in love with the aspiring writer. Consumed with her love of Gurdweill, Budenheim commits suicide after attempts to capture his attention. Death is a theme throughout the novel, which opens with Gurdweill passing the scene of a suicide and ends with the protagonist killing his wife.

Vogel’s newly discovered manuscript is also marked by suicide and death. Yet, unlike Married Life, the protagonist, Michael Rost, is a writer with a wealthy patron; he frequents Yiddish-speaking restaurants, and the objects of his desire, a mother and daughter, live with financial uncertainty. Focusing on the sexual, the book explores Rost’s passions in a shockingly blunt way. “Vogel made Rost completely unreflective,” Nethanel recently told Haaretz. “He cast him as a hedonistic type, which he himself wanted to be.” She believes that the manuscript was an early autobiographical work—Vogel was himself involved in a mother-daughter romance—that was likely shelved in the mid-1920s.

For Vogel—the Jew in Europe, the non-Zionist in Tel Aviv, the Russian in Vienna, the Austrian in Paris—tortuous relationships are a literary device to explore his existence as an outsider. Taken together, Married Life and Viennese Romance demonstrate Vogel’s perspective on otherness. In Married Life, the alienated Vogel is content with an abusive relationship because of his ability to conceal himself in the enormity of 1920s Vienna and his writing. In Viennese Romance, Vogel casts himself in a comfortable financial position and in control of not one but two relationships.

His books lack strong Jewish markers, but, given their obsession with the outsider, they are incredibly Jewish novels. In Viennese Romance, the protagonist notes an encounter with a group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants on their way to Palestine. Vogel described their destination as a “barren wasteland in the Near East” and apparently made an attempt to erase the passage in his manuscript. This passage is clearly legible and made it to the final edited version of the book sold in Israel.

While Vogel’s work remains in print, it has always been one step removed from the larger trends in the development of Hebrew literature. In the late 1990s, a group of Israeli scholars at Berkeley and the Hebrew University re-engaged with Vogel’s work. This act of revisionism, as Pinkser put it, has led to a fuller debate about the existence of a Modern Hebrew literature free of nationalist connotations.

“He refused to be read in the context of nationalist Hebrew,” Nethanel told me. “He was always in a position of withdrawal. He lived in various cities—Vienna, Tel Aviv, Paris—but was always one step removed, never a full participant in the life of his given context. But more importantly, he understood how Hebrew would develop and he wrote for the future.”

Above all else, David Vogel was a writer whose work gave him the ability to transcend the nationalist passions consuming Europe and the Middle East at the time that he died. The discovery of an unknown Vogel manuscript serves as an eerie reminder that the regeneration of the Hebrew language was rooted in the life of the Diaspora.


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Joseph Dana, Monocle’s former Istanbul bureau chief, is a writer living in South Africa.

Joseph Dana is a writer living in Cape Town, South Africa.