Ex-pat authors and poets at a conference in Cambridge explore whether the language can thrive and develop outside of Israel.
The invited writers to the conference in Cambridge, England, on Hebrew in the Diaspora, were all Israeli citizens.
Four out of five were born in Israel, and four out of five now make their homes outside the Jewish state. Four out five were also Jews.
The only one who lives in Israel now? Ironically, Vaan Nguyen, a Jaffa-based Hebrew poet born in Israel to Vietnamese parents granted asylum by Menachem Begin in 1979.
The conference was put together by Cambridge-based literary historian Yaron Peleg, the Kennedy Leigh Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Studies and Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge University, who says he is “keenly interested in contemporary Israeli culture.” Sixty-seven years into the statehood of modern Israel, the idea of convening a conference on the Hebrew culture that exists in the Diaspora remains anathema to many.
As Peleg noted in an email to The Jerusalem Post, this is a concept “which really goes against Zionist dogma.”
Peleg himself left the Jewish state to get an education at Emerson College and then a PhD at Brandeis University, both in Massachusetts, going on to teach in the US at Brandeis and George Washington University; he has now been living outside of Israel for longer than the duration of his childhood and army service in Israel. In regard to the concept of “Diaspora in Modern Hebrew Literature,” the title of the conference, he asserted, “Most Jews – and I include myself in this as well – have grown to accept this vision as natural as well, even though it is unprecedented in Jewish history. “ What was unique about the two-day conference – beyond its radical premise that the language and culture of Hebrew might be unmoored from the Land of Israel, and revert to pre-state conception of what Hebraic language and culture might embrace – was its blend of the academic and creative.
The five creative types, both writers and poets, held a group reading at the culmination of the conference on the evening of May 5, but participated in the more academic discussions of writers as varied as S.Y. Agnon, Lea Goldberg and Avot Yeshurun, alongside modern wordsmiths such as Leonid Peterovsky and Nguyen. The forum’s academic segments were not meant to be strictly academic; by design, the conference opened with a multicourse banquet in the Prioress’s Room at Jesus College (where Peleg is a fellow) and was the setting for opening statements by Peleg; Alan Mintz of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Admiel Kosman, both a poet and professor of rabbinic studies at Berlin’s University of Potsdam, and the academic director of its Abraham Geiger College.
In a place like Cambridge, where a clear hierarchy and sense of distinctions between classes of people is enforced in the fact that only fellows are permitted to tread on the grass in most colleges, the casual nature of this conference’s interactions was striking. Only those speaking (and this reporter) were in attendance, so the total of 15 attendees enabled a much less formal interaction than may occur at larger events.
The only writer to speak at the opening session, Kosman spoke of the value of the Diaspora as a chance to dialogue with the other, the non-Jew, and how significant this is; he also emphasized the values of Zionism and the way modern Israel has risen like a phoenix from ashes. Mintz suggested that perhaps in a republic of literature, language itself creates an environment.
The two scholars in attendance who currently live in Israel, Roee Greenwald and Ezrahi, departed at times from some of the statements.
Greenwald, who holds a position in Eastern European Jewish culture at Ben-Gurion University’s Hebrew department and spoke about “Diaspora in the Poetry of Avot Yeshurun,” objected to some of the ideas voiced, saying, “I am an ish Ivri,” a “Hebrew man,” and that he doesn’t want to live anywhere other than Israel.
Ezrahi, whose work is concerned with what homecoming means and how the “poetics of Diaspora inform and undermine the poetics of homecoming,” spoke of these themes in Agnon and poet Yehuda Amichai – who lived with the views of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City facing his Yemin Moshe home.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the writers to live in the Diaspora is to imbibe a different type of creative energy than they would find in Israel. Maya Arad of Palo Alto, California, author of seven novels and a play – and both a short- and long-listed nominee for the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award – said she started writing when she was in England to obtain her education.
She could not have written fiction had she stayed in Israel, she averred, because everything was “too close”; the distance allowed her to develop as a writer.
Reuven Namdar of New York, author of a book of short stories and a novel that won this year’s Sapir Prize, said his experience living his life in English (he speaks the language with his American wife and daughters) allows him to preserve Hebrew as a “lashon hakodesh,” a holy language, for himself; his novel in Hebrew is an “homage to Jewish-American writers.”
Kosman noted that in living his day-to-day life in German, he feels he is “seeing the light in Hebrew when drowning in German.” This is something that assists him in writing poetry in Hebrew; his sense of the strength of the language.
Peleg explained that the origin of his idea to hold a conference on such a radical subject, one many would be afraid to even broach, came from a number of places.
One is the Israeli expat community in Berlin, which speaks, as Peleg said, “about an Israeli Diaspora for the first time.” He finds the distinction between “Israeli” and “Jewish” important.
Other inspirations for the conference were in his conversations with writer Ola Groisman, an immigrant from Russia to Israel and Israel to England, who struggles with what being an expat Israeli writer living in Cambridge means; the work of Tal Hever-Chybowski of the Paris Yiddish Center- Medem Library, who works on the question of “What is Diasporic Hebrew;” the work of Cambridge PhD student Zehavit Zaslansky, on Diasporic Hebrew poetry between the two World Wars; the visit of writer Arad to Cambridge; and the joint work Peleg is doing with Mintz on American Hebrew literature and its place in the Hebrew literary canon.
Peleg affirms the need to look to the past of Diaspora Hebrew as “an attempt to historicize the present, so to speak. In the Jewish context,
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