What’s Jewish writing?

Jewish writers from around the world gather in Jerusalem to agonize over their calling

Novelist David Grossman (photo credit: REUTERS)
Novelist David Grossman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WHEN IS writing, Jewish writing? Does it depend on the identity of the writer (or the reader for that matter)? Does it depend on the language the writer uses? Is there a standard by which the Jewishness of the writing can be measured – and by whom?
These and similar questions were raised over the course of the fourth Kisufim Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets, held in Jerusalem over four days at the end of November. The formidable international gathering included renowned Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Mexican poet Myriam Moscona. Most of the sessions were accompanied by batteries of translators to mediate between the babel of languages spoken there – the days when Hebrew or Yiddish or Ladino connected Jews from different countries have long gone.
The theme of the conference was “Identity and Otherness” and, in a sense, it explains the underlying tensions of many, if not most, of contemporary Jews. On the one hand, the human need to identify with others – whether that need is ethnic, religious, geographic, linguistic, or emotional – is very strong, perhaps fundamental. On the other hand, the experience of being on the outside – of a host non-Jewish community, of the Jewish tradition, of a host language – even Hebrew – is very pervasive, too. In the last couple of centuries especially, the Jews (and not only they) have experienced the extremes of these two polarities.
Many of the discussions pointed to the major dichotomy in the Jewish world, namely between those who define “Jewish” as a function of the Jewish religion, and those – including the majority of the speakers and participants at the conference – who look on Jewishness as a culture. This was hardly surprising. The majority of those at the conference came from outside Israel, wrote only in the languages of the countries in which they lived, and were often searching for their Jewish roots.
These roots are extremely difficult to locate, let alone possess. When one of the leading Israeli writers there, David Grossman, declared “I have no God,” he seems to undermine the very language in which he writes so elegantly. Hebrew is, after all, a language whose roots are founded in a tradition that has been handed down over centuries, and which is deeply entrenched in a community of believers.
Opposed to this view was one that came from another major Israeli writer, Haim Be’er. “When I stand in front of my library,” he said, “I feel I am standing in front of the God of my ancestors.”
Be’er in some ways presents the paradox of Israeli-Jewish writing in that he both looks at Judaism as a culture, which contains religion, and yet also draws on the rich tradition that Judaism as a religion affords him. In fact, he is deeply critical of Hebrew-speaking Israelis – including the writers. “The present generation of writers lack a sense of the tradition, whether or not they believe in it. In this way, the writers reflect many Israelis who speak Hebrew superficially, with little or no sense of the deeper meanings and associations the language carries with it.”
Be’er expresses some pessimism about the immediate future of Jewish literature precisely because it seems to have lost its bearings. “We talk about a ‘Jewish bookshelf,’” he says, “but where is it?” It seems that even in Israel the sense of a unified tradition or destiny has gone, or at least is weakening considerably. Be’er despairs at the growing marginalization of the Hebrew Bible, its content, language, and history, in the Israeli school curriculum. His own grandchildren learn little about it in the classroom.
THE CAUSE of this decline can be traced back to the Enlightenment movement of which Zionism is a major expression. As Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum, founding chairperson of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Hebrew Culture Studies, explained, in the closing session, “Zionism was a Jewish rebellion against heaven.”
He sympathized with these sentiments because “Jews were fed up with exile.”
At the same time “Zionism didn’t invent the Jewish people. The people preceded Zionism by thousands of years.”
In a sense this was the challenge that Hava Pinhas-Cohen, an Israeli poet and the conference’s artistic director, set herself when she organized the conference. It was “an attempt to create a new Jewish library,” as she put it, one presumably not beholden to earlier forms of literary expression.
One of the writers who has taken her at her word is Marcia Falk, a US-based poet and painter (“I intended to make aliya but personal stuff got in the way”), who has written both poetry and prose, and translated into English both a book of Hebrew poems by the Jerusalem poetess Zelda, and Yiddish poems written by the modernist writer, Malka Heifetz Tussman.
From the very beginning of her career, Falk found herself “as an outsider to the patriarchy of traditional Judaism.” This led her to create a “Book of Blessings,” which is an alternative prayer book in Hebrew and English, with much greater emphasis given to the feminine aspects of the tradition. She has followed this up with “The Days Between” – a compilation for the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In this book, too, she includes both meditations and poems, not as a substitute for the original mahzor (festival prayer book), for which she has an abiding affection, but rather as a complement for modern people who are looking for something more personal. Both these books are used in congregations open to experiment and change.
Although writers are by nature very individual, the conference showed that there are many themes that draw them together – one is Israel, the other is the Holocaust. Even on these topics, there are questions that they express in their writings. Grossman, for example, addressed an issue, which found an echo in the works of many of the participants.
“How can a person live after the Holocaust?” he asked.
He himself has written very eloquently about the Shoah in his fiction (“See Under: Love”), and his view of Israel is deeply colored by his understanding of it. Despite his criticisms, which are often harsh, he confesses, “It’s important to me that Israel exists as the home for the Jewish people. A place where we can feel at home. I don’t think the Arab world as yet understands the deep connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.”
Michael Kramer, a professor of literature at Bar-Ilan University, who chaired a meeting of poets discussing the boundaries of language from a place of otherness, spoke of the Jew as “the Other,” as an alienated individual, who because of his unique position is able to see what others don’t see. “This can be very dangerous, if you’re a writer,” he observed wryly.
ONE OF the writers who falls into this category is Sami Michael. Born in Iraq, he fled the country at the age of 19 and found himself in the alien Europeanleaning culture of the fledgling State of Israel. Even when he switched to writing in Hebrew, at the age of 45, he felt like an outsider in the Ashkenazi-centered literary world. A secular communist by conviction, his novels and other writings eventually received recognition and popularity.
His protagonists are always “the other” – Arabs, women, refugees, and immigrants.
Never an establishment writer, remaining true to his Marxist convictions and to his support for the Arab people and culture, he has nevertheless received many prizes and has been mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate. But he is happy in Israel. “When I sit in my home in Haifa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, I feel that I am in paradise.”
Perhaps because he reads no newspapers, but only listens once a day to the news, Michael is affected less than others by the political situation.
According to Pinhas-Cohen, most of the writers who came to the conference, in fact, were not worried by “the situation,” to use the common Israeli expression denoting the fraught state of affairs in the country. “They were more concerned with their own situation as writers.”
However, some of the regular visitors to Israel, such as Falk, were deeply disturbed by what has overcome the country. “I’ve been coming to Israel since 1962,” she recalls. “In Berkeley, where I live, I feel estranged from the environment. I can’t be away from Israel for too long. All my connections are here. But it’s extremely painful to come back right now. What has happened here politically is just awful.”
Grossman, who suffered the loss of his son Uri in the 2006 war against Hezbollah, said more bluntly, “I am appalled at the increase in violence in society. Both sides, Arabs and Israeli, have become more violent, and the violence has become a value in and of itself.”
In such an environment, Michael, for one, cannot write. “It’s not possible to write in this situation.” Even his muse, which he feels writes through him, has deserted him.
Is there any hope for a future for Jewish writers? Be’er thinks there is, although he admits it’s a long shot. He tells of his grandparents who had eight children.
“Four stayed in Israel and four emigrated to the US. While my grandmother was alive, the children stayed in constant contact. When she died, the contacts became less and less.
“A few years ago, I hosted one of my cousins from the States, an extremely rich man who had been appointed ambassador to Israel. I took him for a trip around the country. But it soon became apparent that whereas I was an Israeli patriot, he was an American patriot. What I’m saying is that a conference like this gives me some encouragement for the future. I am happy that in times of stress, as Israel is under at the moment, people can come and talk about literature. The very existence of the conference is a good thing. This way I can get to talk to other Jewish writers.”
NOT EVERYONE was so optimistic. In his closing speech, Prof. Lorberbaum discussed the situation of the Jews in today’s world. “The idea of exile, of Diaspora, was so deeply ingrained in us that it took the Zionist revolution to extricate ourselves from it. The question this raises is at what price?” Then he asked the most radical question of the event: “Are we Jews anymore?” An interesting point of view, which probably deserves a fuller treatment by itself, but it does suggest that being a Jewish writer means that you are an endangered species.
The conference was by its very nature a smaller affair than, say, the biennial high-profile Jerusalem International Book Fair. Its purpose was different.
The focus was on the creators, the wordsmiths, the authors. The audience, too, was more focused; it drew people who were intensely concerned with writing and particularly its Jewish aspects.
The importance of the conference was reflected in the financial support it received from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others.
It was perhaps no surprise that all the writers – regardless of where they came from – were struggling to make sense of the world in which they live. Marcela Sulak, a poet from the US, who directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, expressed this well when she averred that she writes poetry “as a way of organizing chaos.”
To be a Jewish writer would, indeed, seem to be a chaotic calling.