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Three years ago, a question posed to local poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen by one of her colleagues became the impetus for the first Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers: Does an international umbrella organization for Jewish writers exist?
After speaking with Jewish authors and poets in Europe and the US, Pinhas-Cohen determined that there was a consensus need for such a body. "In our conversations, I noticed that despite disparate backgrounds, the writers were bound by similar questions of Jewish identity and destiny," she said.
However, "there was a sense that Jewish literature is limited to Hebrew and Israel," she continued. "I realized that Jewish literature wasn't translated enough, which isn't right. In our age, acquaintance with our civilization needs to be accessible."
It was then that Pinhas-Cohen, who edits the literature, arts and cultural journal Dimui, decided to take on the challenge of bringing these scattered writers together. "I realized that if I waited for it to happen, it wouldn't get done. Writers are too busy surviving and writing."
Beit Morasha quickly came on board, followed by the Rappaport Center at Bar-Ilan University, the Jewish Agency, Beth Hatefutsoth and the Culture Administration, among other donors.
With funds in place, Pinhas-Cohen began the "recruitment process." Thirty visiting poets and authors were culled from more than a dozen countries, spanning 14 languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, French, Ladino, Spanish, German, Italian, Serbian and Hungarian. Some she had met previously, some she connected to through literary critics and the rest through second- and third-hand acquaintances.
"Once trust was established, there was reciprocation," she said. "There wasn't anybody who turned me down [for reasons other than logistical conflicts]."
Joining the visiting writers will be some 30 Israeli writers in Hebrew and other languages and 20 special seminar guests, all converging around the conference's theme, "To Be a Jewish Writer."
"There's no way that a Jewish writer lives with only one identity," Pinhas-Cohen explained. "For example, a Jewish writer born to Polish immigrants living in England is not only British, but Jewish as well, with a Polish background. Investigating linguistic and identity transitions is the 'raw material' of writers."
She said the conference is structured along three prongs: Israeli-Hebrew literature, Jewish literature from abroad and Israeli literature in other languages.
"The conference is not a goal onto itself, rather a means to an end," she said. "It's an opportunity to assemble writers, to ask what stimulates them, what bothers them; to promote reciprocal translation; to meet and move something."
The interdisciplinary conference will feature a series of poetry and prose readings, master classes by poets and writers in various languages and encounters between writers and poets who write in the same languages from Israel and abroad. Participants include Melvin Jules Bukiet, Peter Cole, Shirley Kaufman, Eva Hoffman, Jonathan Rosen, Michal Govrin, Zeruya Shalev, A.B. Yehoshua and Norman Manea.
"There are a lot of writers expressing identity - to Israel, to Jews, to Judaism - which is complex and diverse, geographically and linguistically," said local English-language author Allen Hoffman (Kagan's Superfecta, Small Worlds). "There is a desire to discover who they are and how I relate. Also, for the future, how these contacts might be of interest - in locating oneself, in finding audiences and publishing houses.
"There may emerge powerful similarities where one might not expect to find them," Hoffman continued. "We seemingly start from the same place and end up in different and interesting places.
"I think, also, that for many writers, they are telling stories, whether in terms of the Jewish world or other things, at the same time as they are connecting. This paradox, of integrating these elements and themes and discovering in the process, can be somewhat of a singular and lonely pursuit."
Therefore, there is a "desire to discover who the community is; to perhaps celebrate and discover the potential that community can offer to participants, both as writers and readers."
The three-day conference will be held April 16-18 at the newly built Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. Entrance to all events is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.kisufim.org.