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'When Aharon Appelfeld and I open the second Kisufim conference in Jerusalem," Romanian author Norman Manea told poet and artistic director Hava Pinhas-Cohen, "I will speak in English, and he will answer me in Hebrew, even though we were both born in the same place - Bucovina - survived the Shoah and share the same mother tongue, German."
That conversation took place in Istanbul, where the two met a few months ago to settle on Manea's participation in the second biannual international conference of Jewish writers, which begins on Monday at Mishkenot Sha'ananim and Beit Avi Chai.
Manea, who has been living in New York for the past 20 years but still writes in Romanian, is one of the writers who will gather in Jerusalem for the four-day conference dedicated to language and exile - probably two of the most essential aspects of Jewish life.
"The debate on the existential aspects of Jewish life has always been a major way for Jews to communicate. Centuries ago, the focus was mainly on religious and ritual issues. Since religion doesn't hold the same place anymore, we had to find something else. In any case, debates, interaction and exchange are the way intellectuals express themselves and their concerns," explains Pinhas-Cohen, who founded the conference three years ago.
"As editor of a literary review, Dimui, that deals with Jewish and Israeli intellectual issues, I have been confronted with the fact that Jewish writers, some of them quite famous in their countries, have not been translated into Hebrew and thus remain unknown in Israel, despite the common interest and topics raised. I couldn't understand why, and it took me a while to realize that we Israelis just don't care enough, or worse, don't really want to feel close or involved in any way with anything that reminds us of our common past - namely our Jewish side," she says. "But there is more, and this is perhaps far more important: I have found that the Holocaust comes up again and again as a major theme in Jewish writings, including - and that's the most striking - writers who are too young or do not come from places where the Shoah occurred. And I ask myself - and I believe we should all ask ourselves - has the Holocaust become the new glue that keeps us Jews together?"
There are quite a few examples of this. Pinhas-Cohen says that Marcel Ben-Abou, born in Morocco and currently living in France (after a short stay in Israel), writes a lot about exile in families and about the Shoah experience that hovers over these families. Marcello Birmacher, a writer from Argentina in his early 40s, writes extensively about it. Pinhas-Cohen also mentions poet Angelina Muniz-Huberman, whose family has been living in Mexico for a few generations, yet she refers to the Holocaust often in her poetry.
"It is as if the Shoah experience and its aftermath have become a gene in the Jewish DNA. It's not that there are no Jewish writers who do not mention it; it's that there are so many, including quite a few who don't understand why, who go back to it time and again, and it raises many questions. I think it is time that academics in Israel took it seriously and that local scholars did research on this."
One of the issues Pinhas-Cohen wanted to include in the conference program is what she considers the patronizing attitude of the Israeli intelligentsia toward Jewish writers abroad. "It's as if people here feel they don't have to care about these shtetl issues. They think, 'Why do we need these Jewish things here? We're Israelis, we're beyond this, we've made another choice and this is no longer our business.' Of course, this is a generalization, but I am convinced this is the situation here, and I think something has to be done."
Kisufim will take place on December 7 to 10 at Mishkenot Sha'ananim and Beit Avi Chai and will host 60 authors from South America, France, Britain, Bulgaria, Hungary, the US and Israel.