A common language?

Hava Pinhas-Cohen, founder and director of the Kisufim writers’ conference, talks about why some authors don’t like to be categorized as Jewish and how Israelis are not embracing Diaspora literature.

Hava Pinhas-Cohen 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hava Pinhas-Cohen 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
T he city of Czernowitz, Bukovina (today part of Ukraine and Romania) produced three Jewish writers: Norman Manea, Paul Celan and Aharon Appelfeld. Like thousands of other Jews from that city, famous for its German culture, the three fled the Nazi extermination machine, each ending up in a different place. The three shared a background and a culture – they spoke German at home and Romanian in the street, and they all knew Yiddish.
Appelfeld finally made it to Israel and became a writer, working in Hebrew. Celan moved to Paris, where he wrote in German, in fact becoming the most important German-language poet of the second part of the 20th century. As for Manea, he first tried to become a communist writer in Romania, where he remained until the late ’80s, before fleeing to the West. Today, he lives in New Jersey, where he writes only in Romanian. Spread out over the world, each writing in a different language, these three can be considered to represent the Jewish literary condition today. But interestingly enough, Manea, who writes exclusively about Jewish identity and culture, who is a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature and whose works have been translated into 20 languages, has never been translated into Hebrew and remains almost unknown to Israeli readers.
What connects these three writers and hundreds of others globally who write in different languages and probably do not share the same opinions on most issues? For poet and essayist Hava Pinhas-Cohen, it is their Jewishness that bridges them, whether they are aware of it or not. This is what she wants to open to public debate, for scholars and aficionados of literature at the Kisufim conference.
“Language and Memory” is the main theme of this year’s Kisufim Conference, devoted to Jewish writers and thinkers from both Israel and abroad, and to the various languages they use. For three and a half days, from February 5 to 8, 65 Jewish authors, poets and essayists will meet at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Beit Avi Chai and the Van Leer Institute during the first week of February. Together, they will try to define the boundaries of their shared Jewish memory, despite their differing languages, cultures and personal experiences.
PINHAS-COHEN, THE woman who conceived this ambitious endeavor and made it happen, moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem years ago. In the late 1980s, she created the first literary review focusing on the need for – and the first buds of – a Jewish cultural renewal, and its clear and major ties with the renaissance of the modern Hebrew language.
Dimui, the monthly review, was way ahead of its time, she admits today, but the seed survived and developed, and as she points out, “today nobody asks anymore why we should deal with these issues of language and renewal, but rather what should be brought to the public’s attention and how.”
Kisufim is Hebrew for “yearning,” and is also an acronym for “conference of writers and poets in Jerusalem,” and Pinhas-Cohen insists that “this is not just another writers’ festival, where people show their works to one another. Kisufim is the only venue where the works of the participants are the stones with which we build a bridge between Jewish writers from all points of the world and their languages, and the Israeli writers and the works written here in Hebrew.”
That’s far from an easy task. Beyond the expected bureaucracy and budgetary difficulties, she says the biggest obstacle is bringing writers to the same place at the same time – not only in terms of organization, but in terms of the writers’ capacity to make room for another mode of expression.
THE WRITERS who participate in Kisufim soon realize that they will not be talking about their works, but about how their Jewishness can serve as a meeting point for the different cultures, languages and experiences they bring to the table in their writing.
“Think about it,” says Pinhas-Cohen. “We are talking about a Jewish civilization that is scattered all over the world, and the writers I invite on this particular journey at Kisufim are not invited because they are Americans or French or Finnish or anything; they are invited only because they are Jewish – besides, of course, their achievements in their field – and as such, they share something in common that lies beyond their own immediate cultural environment. In fact, I am telling them they are all writing the same story.”
Asked if that approach is always well received, she gives a short laugh and answers that here and there, not at all.
“For this year’s conference, we approached the American writer Shalom Auslander [for example,] but he refused to participate; he did not want to be singled out as a ‘Jewish writer.’ We of course respected his wishes, but I can tell you, as a scholar in Jewish literature, that in any research on contemporary Jewish writers in America, I would have included him – there is no question about that, because he is exactly that: a writer that tells the Jewish story in his work.”
According to her findings – she has done extensive research into language’s capacity to bridge and dismantle connections between people and cultures – language is certainly a means of distinguishing cultures, “but it is clear that there is a common consciousness that lies below these variations and differences.”
“It is the Jewish consciousness that we all share – the issue is reaching the most precise definition of what it means to share a common Jewish consciousness through poetry and literature and thought,” she says.
“It is about history, culture, tradition and above all, the Jewish eternal quest for the roots of all this.”
THIS YEAR, for the first time, Kisufim will award a special prize for promising young Jewish writers and poets, funded by the Matanel Foundation. The prize will be shared by Israeli poet Eli Eliyahu and American poet Joshua Cohen, who, incidentally, had never been translated into Hebrew.
The academic committee of Kisufim approached a few professional translators, but “none of them could translate him” says Pinhas-Cohen. She decided to do it herself, together with the editor of the English-speakers’ section of the conference, Michael Kramer.
This topic brings Pinhas-Cohen to another aspect of the conference: what she says is the unbearable lack of interest, generally speaking, of Israeli writers and scholars in the work of Jewish writers outside the country.
“Israelis have difficulties being part of this quest in search of the roots of our Jewishness,” she says with more than a hint of bitterness.
She finds that Israeli literature and writers give the cold shoulder to non-Israeli but deeply Jewish (a description not particularly connected to their degree of religious observance) writers outside Israel – an attitude she says is evident in the remarkably small number of translations into Hebrew done here.
“If you except the best-sellers, you realize that there is almost total indifference here toward all Jewish writers, whether American or European. They are almost totally ignored, and the reason is clear: Their focus on Jewish issues is interpreted here as an attempt, or a yearning, to return to the old Jewish towns of eastern Europe. It’s ‘Diaspora,’ it’s ‘too Jewish’ to be tackled here.”
She does not try to hide her concern, even anger, about this situation.
“I think there is more than a hint of provincialism in the Israeli attitude, which stems from a hidden – or perhaps not so hidden – fear of connecting with the Jew of the Diaspora, the ancient Jew who hasn’t become an Israeli. It is as if there is a fear that any such contact would drag us back to the shtetl. We are only interested in becoming part of the world out there, and this is quite ridiculous, since obviously, today, the world accepts Jewish literature and the quest for Jewish identity expressed in it with high interest and respect. The news hasn’t yet reached us here.”
Asked what the larger purposes of the Kisufim project are, she says that in her view it should lead to a dialogue between Hebrew and the other languages Jews use throughout the world.
“This is a dialogue that, once established, should be continuous, and not recurring once every two years for each new Kisufim Conference,” she says.
She proposes having a publishing house in Israel for all these works, both in their original languages and translated into Hebrew, and many more.
“This dialogue between Jewish writers from all over the world and Israeli writers writing in Hebrew is in fact the new halachic [Jewish legal] discourse. After the Bible, the Mishna and the Gemara [the Talmud] and the philosophers and the religious literature, it is time for a new discourse – still completely Jewish, and yet adapted to our era: poetry, literature, essays and thoughts – on our Jewishness. And this is what Kisufim is aiming for.” •