From My Bookshelf: World Literature Today’s “New Hebrew Writing” Issue

may15cover_thumbIt isn’t every day that I’m inspired to purchase a single issue of a magazine, journal, or newspaper. I subscribe to a sufficient abundance of periodicals such that the tower of books on my nightstand at any moment is equaled by a nearly equally tall stack of periodicals.

But when I saw that World Literature Today‘s special May-August 2015 double issue included a feature on “New Hebrew Writing”–only a small sampling of which was available online–I went ahead and ordered a copy. And I’m glad that I did so.

For the most part.

The section opens with an introduction from three guest editors: Jessica Cohen, whose name is familiar to me (and possibly to you) as a translator of works by David Grossman and Amir Gutfreund, among others; Adriana X. Jacobs, who teaches at the University of Oxford; and Adam Rovner, an associate professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver. The introduction is essential reading.

Noting that “the readership for Hebrew literature, in the original and in translation, remains limited,” the editors ask, “What kind of audience exists for Hebrew literature in translation?”

In America at least, we may assume a primary Jewish readership that seeks to better understand Israel, a secondary audience made up of readers particularly attentive to the fraught politics of the Middle East, and a tertiary audience that includes avid readers of world literature more broadly. Translated Hebrew literature possesses a cultural function for the majority of its readership that far outstrips a casual interest in a given text’s narrative, linguistic expression, or vision of the world. Given a presumed readership that comprises mainly diaspora Jews and those passionate about the Middle East, Hebrew literature that does not represent a recognizable Israeli sociopolitical reality, and that does not even obliquely treat the Arab-Israel conflict, rarely finds its way into translation.

Arguing further that “resistance to nonpolitically engaged works in translation exposes a widespread refusal to accept the universal aspects of Israeli culture as well as a reluctance to embrace the rich variety of genres—detective fiction, digital poetry, micro fiction, sincere fiction, and fantasy—present in contemporary Hebrew literature. Hebrew works that do not fixate on the matzav [the political “situation”] commit what we might call the heresy of normalcy, by expressing what Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg referred to as ‘the courage of the ordinary.'”

Count me among those guilty as charged—a diaspora Jew passionate(ly concerned) about the Middle East, seeking to “educate” myself on the “matzav” in part via translated Israeli literature. Thus chastened, I prepared myself for the “heretical” works contextualized by the editors’ introduction, selected texts that (in prose) “showcase either a formal inventiveness or a thematic focus on the art of narrative itself—in some cases, both simultaneously” by authors largely “unknown in the US” and (in poetry) “challenge perceptions of what Israeli literature is and should be.” Despite my own writing efforts in both prose and poetry, my reading attention here focused largely on the former.

In some cases, I was delighted. The prose selections dealing with the art of narrative, in particular, appealed to me especially as a fan of “writing on writing” and metafictional (often comic) takes on literary culture. I was captivated, for instance, by the excerpt from Maya Arad’s Master of the Short Story (I need others to check it out so I can ask if they, too, had the name “ETGAR KERET” blaring in their minds throughout their reading experience). And Roy Chen’s “Mosquito,” introduced as a “playful metafiction” that “will be familiar to any reader who has attended a literary evening and found himself consumed by loathing for self and others,” similarly reeled me in. (Guest-editor Cohen translated both pieces.)

Also compelling to me—and, I’d argue, at least partially “political” though not focused on the matzav—were works by and conversations with Israeli writers who come from what we might call “underrepresented” voices within Jewish literature. Notable here: Almog Behar’s “Alas, Baghdad Sits Solitary” (translated by Lisa Katz) and Dinah Assouline Stillman’s conversation with Ronit Matalon, another writer of Mizrahi background (translated, in this case from the French, by Stillman).

Among the prose selections, however, I found that two pieces did, in fact, deal substantively with the matzav. And,  I couldn’t help concluding that they were utterly “unheretical” in ways that I’m not sure the guest editors fully anticipated.

To begin: If you perhaps thought it problematic that the only part of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land most (non-synagogue/JCC members) would be likely to read was the guilt-infused “Lydda” chapter that ran in The New Yorker, and if you happened to read and find resonance in Matti Friedman’s recent Mosaic article on “Israel and the Moral Striptease,” you may also struggle with Tomer Gardi’s “Rock, Paper’ (again, translated by Cohen). Suffice to say that it’s not exactly a tribute to the Jewish state. Another powerful piece, Ayman Sikseck’s “To Jaffa” (translated by Evan Fallenberg, with whom I have a friendly acquaintance), depicts the anxiety of living with the anticipation of a Palestinian terror attack; the narrator, however, is an Arab Israeli, not a Jew.

Now, I’m not that naive. I hardly expect to find outright sympathy for, say, the residents of Sderot or the families of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, let alone any remote appreciation for anything about the Jewish state, in the pages of a literary magazine published by an American university (even when a publisher’s note, as in this case, acknowledges subventions from a Center for Judaic Studies in one instance and a Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies in another). And I don’t claim to be nearly as educated about the matzav, or Israeli history and literature, as the guest editors are.

But if they were, in fact, going to include writing about war and terrorism in their feature after all, would it have been so very difficult to include something to counterbalance Gardi’s “self-flagellation” (to borrow Friedman’s term)? Or to acknowledge that Palestinian terrorists are typically aiming to kill Jews?  For that matter, wouldn’t it have been possible, perhaps, to contextualize the references to Jewish emigration from Arab countries between 1948 and the early 1970s, as alluded to in the Behar and Stillman/Matalon pieces? The dismal truth is that for too many readers in the United States today—including, I’m sorry to say, many ostensibly well-educated readers among the American literati—that would be the most heretical reading of all.

12 thoughts on “From My Bookshelf: World Literature Today’s “New Hebrew Writing” Issue

  1. diana rosen says:

    Do hope you send something similar to the magazine staff, too.
    It is so easy to politicize anything related to Israel, such as its
    formal language, Hebrew. And, politicization can be so charged
    that no Jew might miss it but done in such ways that too many
    non-Jews totally miss it. The most common reference I read is
    calling that property Palestine when it is, in fact and in legal parlance,
    the State of Israel. It is done intentionally, I believe, and is a time-honored
    PR technique that is used to change minds not unlike the adage that if
    you repeat something often enough the general public will believe it to be
    true. Keep up your wonderful work, and PLEASE write the magazine.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Just to say, Diana, that I tweeted a link to this piece to the magazine’s attention, and to their credit, they RTd it. So, they’ve seen it. I appreciate your support.

  2. Nina says:

    Well done here, Erika. I’m glad to hear the magazine noted this piece and RT’d it.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thank you, Nina!

  3. Erika, Moved to be introduced to your sensibility by this review. Among many I could cite, the phrase “educated by the Matzav” jumps out: it begs for encounter with what the word education means in this context. It means resding widely and critically, even if you’re in a cafe on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Wherever you are, you’re an inspiring exemplar.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      David, thank you so much for the kind comment.

  4. ann b-d says:

    Erika, thank you once again for your thoughtful comments on this issue (particularly your last paragraph). Often I wonder why world-wide reportage on Israel is so perversely pinched and slanted. Often I wonder what other country and people has EVER been judged the way the Jews and Israel are. No matter what the “explanation”, as an Israeli I feel sad, frustrated and furious. And then, I read your comments and I think, “Well, at least SOMEONE out there gets it!”
    Thanks again.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Ann, thank you so much for this comment.

  5. Adam Rovner says:

    A Response to Erika Dreifus & “Mosaic”:

    Mosaic’s headline for Erika Dreifus’ review of the current issue of “World
    Literature Today” featuring new Hebrew writing claims that my co-editors
    (Adriana X. Jacobs and Jessica Cohen) and I “play dumb” about our aims. Dreifus
    herself insinuates that our choice to curate prose works that do not fixate on
    the Arab-Israeli conflict, the matzav, is merely a smokescreen for anti-Israel
    bias. Because the phrasing of our editorial prerogative was garbled (now corrected) in Mosaic’s posting of Dreifus’s review, I find it necessary to clarify for Mosaic’s
    readership that we intentionally selected prose works that in our words “commit
    the heresy of normalcy”; that is, we selected prose that does not take
    the matzav as its raison d’être. Ms. Dreifus claims that we violated our own policy by selecting two prose works (out of nine) that she believes to be politically unfavorable to Israel.

    The first selection Dreifus takes issue with is Ayman Sikseck’s “To Jaffa,” in which the protagonist fears a suicide bombing. The content of the story, however, focuses on the
    protagonist’s literary aspirations. Thus Dreifus is left to bemoan the fact
    that the character “is an Arab Israeli, not a Jew.” Ms. Dreifus regrets that we
    did not contextualize the story by “acknowledg[ing] that Palestinian terrorists
    are typically aiming to kill Jews.” I sincerely doubt whether anyone with even
    a passing familiarity with world events over the last 50 years needs this
    pointed out to them. More troublingly, Dreifus thereby implies that an Arab
    Israeli citizen’s perspective on terror is itself a political provocation. I
    can confidently assure her that in the mid-1990s and early 2000s the fear of
    suicide attacks was omnipresent in Israel, whatever identity one claimed.

    The second selection Dreifus critiques, Tomer Gardi’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” does indeed explore the Arab-Israeli conflict in ways readers may find uncomfortable. Still, I stand by the assertion made in our introduction that Gardi’s work of creative non-fiction broadly “provokes readers to consider how we make sense of history.” I am certain that Gardi’s remarkable exploration of history and memory possesses a power that extends beyond the particularities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I invite readers to peruse Gardi’s piece themselves and see whether
    my co-editors and I met the challenge of bringing formally inventive work that
    exposes “the universal aspects of Israeli culture” before an English-language readership.

    Dreifus’ refusal to accept that literature provides more than news-cycle spin rankles. Why does she maintain that we should have included a “counterbalance” of prose works depicting Hamas rockets falling on “the residents of Sderot,” or about the (Jewish) terror victims she names? Does Dreifus, an author of fiction herself, really think there is some kind of fair-and-balanced literary scale that corpses must be weighed upon? If so, that would truly be dumb.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      I, too, regret Mosaic’s choice of headline; it’s not one I would have chosen.

      As for the rest of the piece published on my personal blog, I stand by it. Although I appreciate the time and energy that Adam Rovner put into his response, I cannot and will not spend time today refuting the various elements that I find particularly troubling/reflecting a misreading of the original post. I will say that I’m sorry that Rovner is so evidently upset; I cannot help guessing that these emotions may have clouded some of his interpretations/assumptions about my post and perspective.

      Finally, I, too, encourage others to order the issue–as I did–and read for themselves. As indicated in my post, I think there’s much that will resonate for writers universally/metafictionally.

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