The people of the book

What defines Jewish authors as such in generations after collosi of literature like Agnon and Bialik?

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
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Two thoughts were uppermost in poet and editor Hava Pinhas-Cohen's mind last week: Would her ambitious project, the long-planned Kisufim writers' conference, succeed and when would she finally be able to get some sleep? "The conference is happening, it is already a part of the achievement," she told In Jerusalem this week. "It's here, there's no way back. But I would like to see the academic world in Israel rising to the challenge and perhaps creating a special comparative literature course dedicated to Jewish writing. It's about time we start to investigate and study it in a specific academic discipline." One thing she has discovered is that Diaspora literature does not detail places. "The vivid descriptions of the natural environment in Israeli literature are not found [in Diaspora Jewish writing]. The pages that S. Yizhar dedicated to the look of wheat fields, or even to one wheat stalk, don't have their counterpart in Jewish writings in the Diaspora. [Franz] Kafka, for example, told us about a castle in his city. Which castle? What kind of castle? What surrounded that castle? We don't know, it's not important, since any castle is playing the part - it's virtual, we would say today," says Pinhas-Cohen, founder and editor-in-chief of the literature, arts and cultural journal Dimui. "In Israel, you pay attention to every flower, every plant, every valley and every hill. It's important and Yizhar, and after him Meir Shalev, gave us this materialistic contact with the earth, the real land we can touch, we are connected to. I think it deserves real academic research and there is no better place to conduct this investigation than here." "Kisufim," the Hebrew word for longing and yearning, is the title of the first Jerusalem conference of Jewish writers, which took place this week. The conference focused on being a Jewish writer in the Diaspora and in Israel after the Holocaust and the creation of the state. "No one I approached refused to take part, except a few for technical reasons," says Pinhas-Cohen, adding, "It was as if if I proposed something that was in the back of everyone's minds, but never came out until I decided to do it." The three-day conference, deliberately scheduled to begin on Holocaust Remembrance Day, was a great success. On the first day, the large auditorium at Beit Avi Hai was so crowded, including people sitting on the stairs, that the organizers opened an additional room equipped for video conferencing. Hebrew literature, Jewish prose and poetry, modern Israeli writing, ancient and contemporary texts are the natural environment of Pinhas-Cohen's life. She seems at ease both with talmudic texts and modern poetry, Diaspora writing and local prose. Erudite, observant, feminist and socially and politically engaged, the mother of four daughters sees in Jewish words, even when they are written in foreign languages, the litmus paper of the modern Jewish era. For her, this conference is not just about words and books and their authors. It is much more and she expects that it will be perceived as such, and not only in the participants' eyes. "I wanted it to be really a meeting between writers and the public. That is why I decided right from the beginning that the three-day conference would be open to the public free of charge. I didn't want to imagine that a few shekels would decide if someone would attend or not." The main question that hovered over the opening evening was: "Is there such a thing as a Jewish writer and what makes a text, no matter in which language, a Jewish text?" The shortest answer proposed was, "A Jewish writer is a writer whose mother is Jewish." The proposer added, "Any text that deals with Jewish issues is, of course, a good candidate, but if the mother is Jewish, you can safely assume it's a Jewish writer." "If you say that [Shmuel Yosef] Agnon and [Haim Nahman] Bialik were Jewish authors, you're safe. But after them, you're in trouble," said poet and sociologist Zali Gurevitch. "For example, are [Yosef Haim] Brenner and Yizhar Jewish writers? You might step in troubled waters then." While Brenner and Yizhar were staunch Zionists, unlike Agnon and Bialik they renounced their ties with religion. "Is there such a thing as a Jewish writer?" asked young poet and writer Gilad Meiri, and answered, "I'm not sure, I'm not even sure what it means. One thing I know: I am a Hebrew writer." Agnes Heller, born in Hungary and a Holocaust survivor, says it all depends on the what rather than the who. "If a woman writes a story, that doesn't make it feminist writing. But if she treats the feminine condition, that might turn it into feminist writing and thus make her a feminist author. It's the same with the issue of Jewish writers. Being Jewish and a writer doesn't make you a Jewish writer. But, of course, if a Jewish writer deals with Jewish issues, then you can say it's a Jewish author." Prof. Michael Kramer, director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing in the English Department of Bar-Ilan University, suggested that a difference should be made between language and tongue. "You can write in English, which is not a Jewish tongue, and express things that form a Jewish language. The lashon hakodesh, as we call it, is not only Hebrew in my opinion, it is above all the messages and ideas that are conveyed. From that perspective, being a Jewish writer in America or in Europe has something in common with an Israeli Jewish writer and not only because the latter writes in Hebrew." One of the issues on the agenda was translations. Jonathan Rosen came from New York especially to talk about his feelings and memories from his encounter as a Jewish reader with a translated Agnon. Rosen, well aware of what he might be missing because of the limits imposed by the use of the English language, made it clear that the greatness of the Israeli Nobel Prize winner overcame this obstacle. His colleague on the same panel, Israeli writer Haim Be'er, demonstrated how deep and complex Agnon's language was, something no translation could transfer: The use of multiple sources - biblical, mishnaic, talmudic, Hebrew and Aramaic, historical and cultural, besides religious connotations and contexts. "No doubt," remarked my neighbor, "you must be Jewish to write such a text," to which I added in my heart: "And Jewish you apparently must be in order to explain it."