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Despite efforts to promote the work of marginalized writers working in languages such as Russian and Arabic, creative English writers feel culturally invisible Tel Aviv University recently held its first conference on American Aliya in Literature and Research.
Wednesday October 25 marked a sad day for the gathering of poets and creative writers attending Tel Aviv University's (TAU) first conference on American Aliya (immigration) in Literature and Research. Late in the afternoon, after a full day of readings, conference organizer, poet, professor and performer Karen Alkalay-Gut shared the news that the Israeli-American author Robert Rosenberg, her dear friend, had passed away.
The group of about 60, who had come to hear readings and celebrate the experience of writing in English in Israel, gasped collectively over the loss of the man who, besides being an accomplished writer and journalist, had paved the way for Israeli peace activism on the Internet with his Web site Ariga (www.ariga.com/peace).
Rosenberg's life highlights the importance of Americans' contribution to the canon of written work in English coming out of Israel. And as the conference speakers shared themselves personally and professionally, it resonated throughout the room that Americans living and writing in Israel are faced with a special set of challenges.
The experience of confronting violence and war in one's backyard and leaving loved ones behind in America were two common grievances shared by the writers. And despite efforts to promote the work of marginalized writers in Israel working in languages such as Russian and Arabic, creative English writers are feeling culturally invisible.
As an example, last weekend (November 2-4), an international poet's festival, Sha'ar (gate), was held in both Jaffa and Jerusalem. While participants were invited from abroad, event organizers from the Israeli literary journal Helicon failed to invite a single English writer living in Israel to present their work.
Although the Hebrew-speaking Israeli population is mesmerized by American MTV culture and adept at conversational English, the creative word written by Israeli-Americans is just not being embraced, complained Alkalay-Gut, who hopes that this year's conference will become an annual event and help change this situation.
"I think we [writers] shoot ourselves in the foot because we don't work together," she said. "And there is another factor: For many years, the American and British embassies took the role of organizing plays and cultural events. They have stopped seeing themselves in that role, and no one is doing it now. Israel isn't getting visits anymore from the English Shakespearean theater. Western culture is being downplayed. English was once the sophisticated group, considered to be made up of people from the world outside who would open up dialogue."
Those were the feelings Alkalay-Gut first experienced when she came to Israel in 1972 from Rochester, New York. There were only about half a dozen writers from America in Israel at the time, she said, and they would give readings to packed halls. Until 1985, Israel was a good place for English [creative] writers, she added.
Based on writers' reactions to the conference, Alkalay-Gut reasoned that another golden period for English creative writers may be underway.
Hana Wirth-Nesher, chair of the English and American Studies Department at TAU, voiced her thoughts: "Writers of short stories and poems find themselves in an interesting place culturally, as a sort of bridge between the Israeli literature community and writing in the English world. English is a global language and has such an enormous impact on everyday Israeli life, that nobody thinks about it being a minority."
Certain stereotypes are in play, believes Wirth-Nesher. "Israeli and American Jewry is highly vexed due to the philanthropy of those who give and those who take. It is not a cultural exchange but [based on] practical help," she told Metro.
"Aliya has been the most defining act in my life," admitted author and biographer Haim Chertok, one of the speakers at the afternoon session, who read from The Life of James Parkes, a biography he wrote about a maverick Anglican priest who was a guardian to Jewish lives. "All of us who have made aliya are prone to myth-making," said Chertok, a teacher at Ben-Gurion University. "Had I not come to Israel, I would not be the writer that I am today. Coming here forced me to explain myself to me. And that process continues. I am still up against my experience, and I try to explain that again and again. In America I knew who I was. I knew who I would vote for. It was fixed. Here my relationship is more fluid. More uncertain."
Shirley Kaufman, 83, kept guests on the edge of their seats while reading poems from her book From One Life to Another. Kaufman was one of five recipients of this year's President's Prize for Literature, awarded in conjunction with the Hebrew University.
Kaufman is well known for her Hebrew-to-English poetry translations and her poetry on women in the Hebrew culture. Since leaving Seattle in 1973, at age 50, she has continued to write and win poetry prizes in America and Israel. "Winning this prize for writing in English in Israel has given me a boost that the country is big enough to recognize other languages," noted Kaufman. "This is a sign that Israel has come out of all provinciality and is acknowledging that people in Israel represent a potpourri of cultures that have come from the ends of the earth."
She recalled her impressions of aliya: "Pure idealism wasn't enough. You needed something special driving you so you know this is where you have to be. I know a lot of people who didn't last, who couldn't take all the strangeness."
Kaufman recounted the early days and the difficulties of starting out in Israel, feeling as though she were an imposter when hired to translate the poetry of Hebrew writers.
"I was a little bit ashamed, but over time was getting more confidence. It takes a poet to translate poetry," said Kaufman, who has translated the works of poets such as Amir Gilboa and, more recently, Meir Wieseltier.
"He would come over and asphyxiate me with his chain smoking and we sat together and did a large book, brought it out and it was successful," said Kaufman. "I decided I haven't got much time left. I don't really want to translate anymore. There are a lot of poems in me still. I think poets are closer to their feelings. It's all mixed up together, and we have to live with all the separate pieces somehow and make life with itâ€¦ I am hyphenated, crossing a bridge all the time."
Other guests of the conference included Efraim Bauch, chair of Israel Federation of Writers' Union; Danny Oberman from Nefesh B'Nefesh; and Michael P. Kramer, editor of the Jewish literary journal Maggid. The Fred Simmons Fund from the US sponsored the conference.
"Only American Anglos came here [to Israel] because they wanted to, because they had that choice," summed up Alkalay-Gut. "The person who works in English can return to another country. Every day is a reaffirmation to live here."