Caf? culture

Tsila Hayun brings together famous and lesser-known authors for the Literary Caf? events at the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

tsila hayun (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
tsila hayun
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Tsila Hayun is dressed in an elegant thigh-length green kaftan over gray leggings when we meet in a Jerusalem café. Her blonde hair is styled in a fashionable bob. She smiles often as we talk and gestures with her hands. It is not hard to imagine the 45-year-old in her capacity as director of the literary café at the 24th biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair (which runs February 15-20 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center) introducing authors with warm accolades and mediating their discussions with a familiar air, or directing audience members to vacant couches and providing them with their choice of hot beverage. But despite the welcoming and relaxed atmosphere Hayun no doubt facilitates, planning the literary café, which serves as a discussion forum for Israeli and foreign authors, is far from effortless, she explains. "We begin working on the program about five months before the fair," Hayun says. "We go through the list of the foreign authors invited by embassies and publishing companies and decide which Israeli authors to pair them with in discussions by considering the themes and topics their books have in common that would make for interesting dialogues. Then we invite the Israeli authors and notify them as to whom they will be paired with and ensure that the participants are up to date with each other's material," she says. "As we draw closer to the date of the fair, I begin finalizing the program and preparing press releases." Hayun is well versed in this routine, having run the café twice before in her capacity of director of Chotam, a non-profit organization that promotes cultural education, which is hired by the municipality to run the café. Besides the café, Hayun's organization is currently responsible for a number of cultural events and initiatives. "Chotam's philosophy is that everyone should have access to culture, and my job is to coordinate projects aimed at encouraging this ideal," she explains. Each of her projects holds a special place in her heart, Hayun says, and for her the appeal of the literary café lies in the fact that despite being a long-standing project, it continues to surprise. "The sessions comprise discussions between two or more authors, so by definition they are unscripted," she says. "You never know where the conversations will lead and what stories and insights into different people's worlds will be provided," she notes. As an example, she cites the following anecdote. A few years ago, a Polish author named Pavel Hiller was speaking at the café, and the author he was in conversation with asked him how he came to be at the book fair. He explained that he'd been driving to a conference in Russia when his car broke down in a small town and he was told he'd have to spend a day there waiting for it to be repaired. He asked if there was anything to do in the town and was told that many people came to visit the grave of a famous rabbi, who turned out to be Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. He went to visit the grave and put a note by it asking to be invited to the Jerusalem International Book Fair. The next day, he got a call from his agent saying he'd been invited to the fair. Another aspect of the café that Hayun especially enjoys is the interaction between the authors and audience members. "The literary café is the meeting point between authors and their readers, and in that sense it's where the books come alive to the readers," she says. "It's wonderful to watch the audience's enthusiasm.... the Jerusalem audiences I encounter are often intellectual and culturally aware, and their questions tend to be well thought out and insightful. I also appreciate the audiences' interest in the wide range of authors we feature, rather than just those whose books are more well known," she says. All too often, she comments, readers are only exposed to a small number of well-known authors, and that is especially true of the Israeli public when it comes to foreign authors, as it is only the more famous authors whose books are translated. "At the book fair, and especially at the literary café, we aim to expose the public to a wide variety of talented authors, some of them relatively new and some lesser known, but who are writing about topics that are gaining relevance in the contemporary literary world in Israel and abroad," she says. "With that in mind, we seek the guidance of scholars, literary professors and critics when deciding on the themes of discussions." This year's discussion forums include a meeting between Meir Shalev and Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen, who will consider the impact of earlier generations' experiences on the lives of their descendants, a topic which Hayun says features heavily in both of their recent books. American Catholic author Mary Gordon and Israelis Michal Govrin and Haviva Pedaya will engage in a discussion entitled "Literature Inspired by Religion and Faith," exploring the role of religion in each of the three women's writings. Aharon Appelfeld will discuss with Spanish author Adolfo Garcia Ortega his book entitled The Man Who Bought Birthdays. Ortega's book centers on the fictional life of Hurbinek, a three-year-old child mentioned briefly in Primo Levi's book The Reawakening. Levi says that the child occupied the bed next to him in the hospital at Auschwitz and died just days after liberation. Ortega fleshes out the life that Hurbinek might have led had he survived. While doing research for the book, Ortega traveled to Germany, where he was involved in a car accident and ended up in a hospital there. "While lying in a hospital bed listening to the German voices all around him, he was able to put himself in the place of this young child, to gain more of an insight into what his experience may have been like, and no doubt the descriptions in his book were all the more powerful because of it," says Hayun. "For me, this story underlines the significance of literature," she continues. "I think books provide a window into other people's worlds, the opportunity to compare your own experiences with those you encounter in other people's writings and to expand your frame of reference in doing so." Hayun is currently reading Robert Hughes's Goya, a biography of the painter that focuses on his changing painting styles at different stages in his life. "I am a big fan of Goya," says Hayun. "His imagery of war and destruction is considered to be some of the most poignant an emotive painting of conflicts. When looking at these paintings, you are transported to the world they depict. It is the ability to experience this existence beyond your own that draws me to art as it does to literature. That is where I believe the richness of books lies, and that is the message I try to impart through the sessions at the literary café.