It wasn't a dark and stormy night, but a dark and stormy time, when pulp fiction started to rear its purple-prose head in the pristine Zionist culture of prestate Israel.
In the 1930s, no one knew that World War II was waiting in the wings and the effects the horror of that war eventually would have on the Zionist project, but modern Tel Aviv was starting to look like a real city and, despite the high-minded aspirations of Zionist intellectual leaders, began developing low-brow culture as well.
In the United States, pulp fiction titles were cheap and plentiful - ranging from jungle adventures to westerns to science fiction to romance and all points in between. American pulp fiction produced writers as notable as science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov; Western writer Louis Lamour; detective writer Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade); and fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan). The American pulps provided a fictional world populated by the likes of The Shadow, Conan the Barbarian and Doc Savage, a zillion bug-eyed monsters and damsels in distress.
Although pulp fiction features plenty of pulping - as in beating heroes and villains alike to a pulp, the term actually comes from the coarse paper - high in wood-pulp content - that these cheap magazines were printed on.
And although pulps in America were considered low culture, there was huge market for such entertainment. Big sellers like The Shadow would cross over and become even bigger pop-culture phenomena on radio and movie screens.
Israel's pulps were also popular entertainment from the 1930s through the coming of television in the 1960s, says Rachel Leket-Mor, Jewish Studies librarian at Arizona State University, but they were treated more like a dark, dirty secret.
"Because of the educational aspirations of the Zionist culture, (the cultural and political leadership) wouldn't admit it," Leket-Mor says. What they wouldn't admit was that Hebrew, which Zionists were reviving as a modern language for the incipient Jewish state, could be the vehicle for telling detective stories and espionage tales, which dominated the Israeli pulps from the 1930s through the 1940s, or for western, superhero and other genre fiction, which dominated the Israeli pulps from the 1950s through the mid-1970s.
"After all, owing to the momentous efforts to revive the language, original fiction was granted a superior status within Hebrew culture and it became a key instrument in this ideological campaign," as Leket-Mor notes in a scholarly article she wrote for Judaica Librarianship.
Israeli pulp fiction was "not listed or individually reviewed in official channels - such as literary periodicals, magazines, newspapers, educational bulletins, or library guides. These mass-produced texts, distributed in kiosks and newspaper stands, were perceived as lowbrow products. As such, they did not play any historical role in the creation of the national narrative about the New Hebrew culture, and hence they were neither intentionally collected nor properly preserved in libraries."
It's clear that Leket-Mor considers that attitude a mistake, telling Jewish News that an "authentic representation of the real culture" needs to take pulp fiction into account.
To that end, she has worked to build the IsraPulp Collection at ASU's Hayden Library. It is the only collection in the United States that documents the Israeli pulps. In fact, because these materials (usually "chapbooks" about the size of a DVD case) were published on pulp paper (which deteriorates quickly), extensively passed around from reader to reader (which adds to the deterioration) and essentially thrown away rather than collected, the IsraPulp Collection contains rarities found nowhere else.
Leket-Mor sums up the case for collecting them in her article: "However, these original Hebrew texts, including their plots, characters, language, and illustrations, provide a wealth of primary source materials for undocumented aspects of the social and cultural life of Hebrew readers in Israel."
The collection was established in 2004, with the purchase of a dozen booklets, and contains more than 350 items today, with more being added. Leket-Mor has worked to acquire these materials from Israeli collectors over the years in her effort to preserve them for academic research into the culture of Israel in those times.
In fact, just a surface examination of the popularity of different genres over the decades gives a street-level portrait of the changing Israeli scene.
For instance, the detective stories of the 1930s and '40s focused on detectives and crime in Tel Aviv, then a new urban center. In the 1950s, Leket-Mor says, "Westerns were huge." There were hundreds of western titles published, many of them staring Buk G'ons (Buck Jones, but pronounced "Book Jones").
As their love for westerns demonstrated, Israeli pulp readers were fond of American pop culture. Exploiting that fondness, publishers presented many Hebrew-language stories as translations of stories originally published in the U.S. Both real translations and Hebrew-language originals posing as translations, starring such characters as Tarzan and British secret agent James Bond, were very popular, she says.
In the early 1960s, a distinctly Israeli genre called Stalagim appeared. They had much in common with what were known as "men's sweat magazines," like Argosy, published in the United States, but the Israeli variation, as Leket-Mor describes it, focused on American prisoners of war in Nazi Stalags, as their POW camps were known. Usually, they were victims of sexual torture by sadistic female guards. She calls them "revenge stories," and says they were very popular during the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. He was captured by Mossad agents in 1960, brought to trial in Israel, convicted and hanged in 1962. As the Stalag angle lost its novelty, the same plots were transported to prison camps in Asia and North Africa, she says.
"The Stalags gained immense success among teenagers, many of them the offspring of Holocaust survivors," she writes. Some commentators believe that the stories served as a means for these young people to cope with the Holocaust, since many survivors did not talk about their experiences and mainstream literature "did not allow yet for a real discussion about the topic."
The materials in the IsraPulp collection are located in the Special Collections at ASU's Hayden Library and may be viewed in the Luhrs Reading Room. They can also be searched online in the ASU Libraries catalogue under the keywords "popular literature Israel 20th century."