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