At home and abroad

At home and abroad

December 17, 2009 12:46


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Ordering coffee in Hebrew and taking in the view of Jerusalem's Old City from Mishkenot Sha'ananim's restaurant, Jonathan Rosen appears comfortable in Israel. But his leisurely posture doesn't reflect his emotions - Rosen, 46, who is happy to call himself a Zionist, doesn't feel entirely at ease. "I feel cut off by the language," the American Jewish writer and editorial director of Nextbook confesses. Despite Hebrew school, two years of Hebrew as an undergraduate at Yale and additional study while a grad student at Berkeley, his Hebrew, in his own words, "stinks." Here to participate in Kisufim, the Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers, which was held from December 7 to 10 at Beit Avi Chai and Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Rosen seems the embodiment of this year's theme - exile, language and the Jewish writer. Although Rosen lives in New York City with his wife, a Conservative rabbi, and their two daughters, 10 and six, he feels a deep connection with the country. "Israel is central to the survival of Judaism," he says. And because his paternal grandfather died in Buchenwald and his paternal grandmother was shot to death by the Nazis, Rosen was "aware of the precariousness of Jewish existence from an early age." His maternal line, on the other hand, offers that classic Ellis Island tale of Jewish immigrants who realize the American dream. Rosen recalls that he always felt the "presence of two grandmothers" - one born in New York, the other "a ghost." Rosen's first nonfiction book, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, published in 2000, was "an attempt to a build a house" for both women. And he calls this work "the most overtly autobiographical" of his four books. The Talmud and the Internet also bridges two things that, like Rosen's grandmothers, seem to be very different from each other. But dig a little and the commonalities become apparent, he says, explaining that throughout history, and particularly during exile, "the Talmud knitted people together wherever they were." Today, the Internet fulfills a similar function. Unlike Judaism's sacred text, however, the World Wide Web lacks a "moral center." A VERSATILE writer, Rosen has also produced two novels - Eve's Apple (1997) and Joy Comes in the Morning (2004). Eve's Apple, his first book, revolves around a 20-something couple in New York City, Ruth Simon and Joseph Zimmerman. Ruth is haunted by a teenage struggle with anorexia; Joseph is consumed by his obsession with Ruth's disease. Though it wasn't intentional, Rosen now sees a link between Ruth's eating disorder and issues facing Israel today. "It wasn't an analogy for the Jewish people when I wrote the novel," he remarks, but "Jewish anti-Zionists are like anorexics." Israel, Rosen explains, is the physical place of the Jewish people. The land takes up space, and has needs and functions, just as a human does. To deny Israel is akin to self-starvation - it's an attempt to ignore and get rid of the body. Joy Comes in the Morning is more obviously focused on Judaism. The reader follows a female rabbi, Deborah Green, as she attempts to lift a suicidal Holocaust survivor, Henry Friedman, out of his depression and slips into a crisis of faith of her own. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Art Winslow offered the praise: "Not since E.L. Doctorow's City of God have we seen such a literary effort to plumb the nature of belief - in Jewish American culture, in talmudic study, in prayer, in sexual relations, in the very soundness of one's own mind." Winslow goes on to compare Rosen's narrative to that of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth, legendary men in the world of Jewish American letters. Jewish authors, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, play a unique role in the world's imagination. "One of the challenges facing Jewish writers is that we Jews are inscribed in others' sacred literature in villainous ways," says Rosen. Authors bear the burden of confronting these depictions and reshaping these images. But Rosen notes that the face of anti-Semitism continues to change, as well. "The anti-Zionism of Europe is transmuted anti-Semitism," he remarks. To some people, it remains "intolerable to see Jews as normal and autonomous." For Jewish and Israeli writers, then, creating is "not just literary, it is an act of self-assertion that has metaphysical meaning." A CURSORY glance at Rosen's most recent book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, released in 2008, might lead a reader to believe that the author has taken a sudden departure away from Jewish characters and themes. This is not so. "Birds are emblems of exile," Rosen says. Regarding their constant migration, he muses, "Are they birds of America? Or are they in a state of transition?" These are familiar questions for the Jewish people. "Exile is the history of the Jewish world," he remarks. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As the name ascribed to the Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers, Kisufim - literary Hebrew for longing - suggests, this feeling is an intrinsic part of the Jewish experience. Kisufim was first held in 2007 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of S.Y. Agnon's receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature. Rosen, who participated in the 2007 event, notes that Agnon's work is marked by a constant "yearning for an opposite place." It is a sentiment that Rosen has dealt with throughout his career - both as a writer and during his decade-long tenure as the editor of The Jewish Daily Forward's culture pages. "The Yiddish Forward was all about ushering immigrants into American life," Rosen reflects. "This was the generation that made the journey into American culture." But during Rosen's time at The Forward, which, by that point, had become an English-language publication, readers were making "the journey back toward a kind of identity, affiliation, an awareness of roots." Like exile and longing, this adaptability is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture, according to Rosen. "After the destruction of the First Temple, Jews experienced an exile from which they returned. But they returned transformed, inoculated in some sense against an aspect of dispersion, since God became portable, universal." Today, Judaism is still evolving and changing, Rosen says, offering his wife's affiliation as a rabbi as proof positive. When asked if he, too, is religious, Rosen responds: "I do consider myself religious, but I don't equate 'religious' with strictness of observance." Additionally, Rosen's home is shomer Shabbat and his daughters attend Jewish day school. And although Rosen and his wife have no immediate plans to move to Israel, they gave their girls Hebrew names. "I hope that their names will allow them to feel at home in Israel," he says, "and, hopefully, not in exile in America."

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