Israel Has an Amazing Literary Diaspora

Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff

Freelance writer, editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2015).

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Beth Kissileff ~

From the Blog

Across Europe and on both American coasts, Israeli expat writers are revolutionizing Hebrew literature while—or perhaps because—they are separated from the country where their language is spoken.

The French Roast on 85th and Broadway is a standard Upper West Side diner, with a big plate-glass window looking out onto Broadway, tables too small to fit both a laptop and a plate, lots of coffee and fried food on offer, and the sound of Hebrew being spoken inside.

The day writer Reuven “Ruby” Namdar asked me to meet him at French Roast turned out to be a fateful one for him, since he had found out that day that his latest work was nominated for Israel’s coveted Sapir Prize. He came in and introduced himself, but then excused himself to say hello to someone: Pazit Levitan, the organizer of Moatza, a cultural group that serves a population of New York-based Israelis it estimates at 150,000.

When he sat down again, I told him that our meeting would bring him good luck, since I had recently interviewed the winner of last year’s prize, Noa Yedlin. For our interview, Yedlin asked me to meet her at another café near her Tel Aviv apartment. When I arrived, I looked for a woman sitting by herself and didn’t see one. I asked a waitress, who pointed to a table where Yedlin was sitting with a friend. The waitress asked if I knew that Yedlin was nominated for the Sapir Prize, and I answered in the affirmative. After Yedlin won, she told me that, because the ceremony was broadcast on Israeli TV, “here and there people recognize me … you feel that everyone knows about it. My mother told me, half-joking, ‘Now you have to get dressed up even when you go to the store.’”

The Sapir Prize-nominated writer Ruby Namdar is based in New York. Photo courtesy of Ruby Namdar

The Sapir Prize-nominated writer Ruby Namdar is based in New York. Photo courtesy of Ruby Namdar

My meetings with Namdar and Yedlin illustrated the pluses and minuses of being an expatriate writer. Once Levitan and her friends left French Roast, there was no one who recognized Namdar, and probably no one who read his work. The expatriate, in other words, doesn’t have to worry about becoming a celebrity. On the other hand, the writer misses the celebration. When the Sapir Prize foundation announced that his name was on the long list for 2014, Namdar was unable to attend the nominees’ party for the twelve writers on the long list for the prize that followed.

In fact, because of the time difference between Israel and New York, Namdar didn’t even find out about the nomination in real time. Nor was he immediately congratulated by friends, family, or even his editor. “I wake up on a Tuesday morning,” he told me, “to discover I got this news in Israel seven hours earlier.” He felt this was a “great metaphor” for his life as a Hebrew writer living in New York City.

Namdar is by no means the first or the only writer to live in one country and write in the language of another. As Hillel Halkin—an American-born writer, translator, and critic who has been living in Israel for over 40 years—told me, the tradition of the literary expatriate is long and distinguished, including luminaries like James Joyce, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Samuel Beckett. The difference, however, is that “no one in France gets upset” because Yourcenar decamped from her native Belgium to live most of her life in Maine. But where a writer lives, Halkin noted, is still “an issue in Israel in a way it isn’t in other countries.”

It’s an issue because of a simple question: What is the revival of the Hebrew language for? Is it cultural or territorial? The resurrection of Hebrew as a living spoken and written language was essential to the Zionist movement; and since the establishment of the State of Israel, the majority of Hebrew literature has been written with the intention of contributing to the culture of the new Jewish state. Now, for many different reasons, a younger generation is choosing to live and write outside the State of Israel while still making a contribution to Hebrew culture. What the ultimate outcome of these attempts will be, and whether it is good or bad for Israel, Zionism, and Hebrew literature in general, remains unknown.

There are Israeli writers living all over the United States and Europe today. Besides Ruby Namdar, acclaimed authors Maya Arad, Gon Ben Ari, and Ari Lieberman are also living and working in the U.S. Others include Dorit Abusch in Ithaca, NY, Sayed Kashua in Illinois and Anton Shammas in Ann Arbor, MI. But they are by no means the first. Their predecessors include Yoram Kaniuk, who spent a decade of his life in New York during the 1950s and early ‘60s. This time abroad produced Life on Sandpaper (2003, English translation 2011), a Hebrew novel about life in New York. Rachel Eytan also lived in New York for the last 20 years of her life, during which she wrote the 1974 novel Drawer and Drawers (also translated as The Pleasures of Man).

The tradition goes even further back than this. The revival of Hebrew partially began, after all, in the Diaspora, and according to Alan Mintz, the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, there were already 110 Hebrew writers living in America in 1927. This number comes from a column in the American Hebrew-language newspaper Hadoar, founded in 1922.

Mintz makes a distinction between Zionism and “Hebrew nationalism” in regard to this group of writers, distinguishing between the national revival of “territory” and that of “language.” As he writes in the Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, “By the first decade of the 20th century, when there were but a few motley colonies in Palestine, Hebrew literature had already brought forth the sophisticated achievements of Abramowitch (Mendele Mocher Seforim), Bialik, Tchernichovsky, Berdichevsky, and Brenner, to name but a few.” The advantage of using language as the engine of this revival, he says, is that it is “portable.”

Among the young generation of Hebrew writers are many who agree that language is “portable,” and feel their location is irrelevant to the language they use. All they need are their ideas and their writing devices. Ophir Touche Gafla, the author of five novels, lives in Israel but is currently teaching for a semester at the University of Texas at Austin. Gafla told The Tower,

Writing in Hebrew outside of Israel means the same to me as writing Hebrew in Israel. One’s mother tongue is so deeply ingrained in the soul and the psyche that I never even think about it. Perhaps it depends where you are. In the U.S., where you see so many different faces betraying a myriad of cultures at any given moment, I feel just like another drop in a human ocean comprised of a vortex of tongues. And since writing is such an intensely intimate experience, it mostly feels like scuba diving inside my private ocean. Perhaps if I stayed somewhere else, less diverse and more idiosyncratic ethnographically, I would feel as if writing in my mother tongue is a secret of sorts, a confidential activity that serves as a mental buffer between me and my surroundings.

This sense of doing something that is “secret,” not shared by those in one’s day-to-day life, and sometimes not even by other family members, is one of the great differences between Hebrew writers in Israel and those outside it.

This is deeply connected to what kind of community they seek to be part of and how they view writing. Israeli writer Gadi Taub spoke to me by phone from his favorite Tel Aviv café, Movie-ing, and told me that he prefers to write in cafés because he needs to hear “colloquial Hebrew.” This is because he can “hear the music [of the language] changing, capture it right,” so it “survives time and indicates the period.” His experience writing in cafés produced a novel called Allenby that was adapted into a successful Israeli TV show. Though Taub spent four years in the U.S. getting his doctorate in American history at Rutgers, he values the ability to hear the language around him and its changes, something that is only possible in Israel.

For Ruby Namdar, the opposite is the case. For him, colloquial Hebrew is less important than the language’s eternal qualities. He sees himself as a “cultural translator,” saying, “I see my work as part of the sacred Jewish canon and I feel in my very contemporary unholy way I am contributing.” He believes he is “channeling the entire Hebrew canon” and that because Hebrew is not his day-to-day language, it has “returned to la’shon ha’kodesh [the holy tongue]” for him. Nonetheless, he says, “I see my work as a great contribution to Zionism and Hebrew culture,” since his novel is both Hebrew and American but “not necessarily very Israeli.”

Among the young generation of Hebrew writers are many who agree that language is “portable,” and feel their location is irrelevant to the language they use. All they need are their ideas and their writing devices.

One fascinating forum for Namdar’s approach is expressed by, as he puts it, his gratitude to “Mr. Zuckerberg,” referring to the founder of Facebook. “Facebook and the Internet is a lifeline” he told me, and a “main anchor in my life,” because “today the Israeli cultural sphere happens on Facebook.” Namdar calls the social networking site the “new city square” and a “common place” that enables “Hebrew culture to expand past the boundary of and limits of Israeli culture to become global.” He does not think this threatens Israel or Hebrew but rather “enriches” them. In fact, Namdar said, “I don’t think Hebrew culture can survive without the cultural center of Israel, but that doesn’t mean that every laboratory of Hebrew culture must be on Israeli soil.”

Part of Namdar’s life is very much in English, however. His wife is American and they raise their daughters in an English-speaking household. He made a conscious choice that he and his wife would speak English at home and admits there are “prices to living outside Israel.” One of which is that, though his Hebrew-speaking mother has read his books in the original, his children probably won’t. He believes, however, that his story is one of “immigration without tragedy.” In the course of our conversation, Namdar tells me what brought him to New York originally: to learn about his heritage. His mother is from Mashhad in Iran. Mashhadi Jews were a unique group, hiding their Judaism for many years. When the community left, portions went to Israel and portions to New York, so Namdar came here after his army service in Israel and worked in the diamond industry for a few years. He told me he wasn’t interested, like most Israelis at that age, in going to India or the Far East but only in New York and his heritage.

A younger writer in America is Gon Ben Ari. Ben Ari has already published two novels, Nursery’s Residents (2006) and The Sequoia Children (2010), as well as Hebrew journalism in Yediot Aharonot and English journalism in The Forward. He has a short story, “Clear Recent History”—his first in English—in the recent Tel Aviv Noir anthology edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron. He has another story, “Interview with a Mirror,” coming out in 2015 in the Jews and Aliens volume edited by Lavie Tidhar. Ben Ari is also the author of a screenplay called Der Mensch, which he calls a “Yiddish-language Western.”

The Israeli writer Gon Ben Ari is based in New York. Photo: Goni Riskin

The Israeli writer Gon Ben Ari is based in New York. Photo: Goni Riskin

Ben Ari met me at a café in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. He had just moved apartments and was about to depart for MacDowell Colony, a residency program for writers and artists in New Hampshire. Ben Ari was raised in Nahalal, one of Israel’s oldest worker’s settlements founded in 1921, and for him, being in New York means opportunities, such as MacDowell. He joked that they accepted him because he was a penniless writer from a Third World country.

For writer Ari Lieberman, the question of a “mother tongue” is a much more complicated one: He was born in Mexico City to an American mother and Mexican father; his household spoke both Spanish and English. When he was eight, his parents divorced and he moved to Israel with his mother, adding Hebrew to the list. After the army, he went to school in Vancouver, British Columbia; returned to Israel, where he worked as a translator for the International Herald Tribune; and finally went back to the U.S. in order to study for an MFA at Cornell, followed by studies at Princeton. He is currently an undergraduate advisor in comparative literature and teaches two courses a semester at the University of Georgia at Athens.

Lieberman tried writing in English, and though he had some success with writing stories and criticism, he couldn’t get a book published. He switched to Hebrew, he told me, “as an exercise,” and “just ran with it.” This resulted in his first published novel, Out of the Blue.” Lieberman calls the book’s language a unique hybrid of “vernacular contemporary Hebrew with Biblical language.” He describes the plot as “Don Quixote in contemporary Israel” with an IDF general as the Quixote figure.

Lieberman says the book is about “fantasy clashing with reality,” because “Israel is a perfect setting for disillusionment.” This sense of disillusionment lies in his views on Israel’s future, which he believes has strong implications for Hebrew literature.

Secular Israeli Jews are quickly and surely being displaced by the ultra-Orthodox and the National Religious, both of which communities, but especially the former, are multiplying at a lagomorphic rate [i.e., like rabbits]. Within a generation, the dosim, as we call them, will be the majority of the Jewish population in Israel, which will become another Iran, or at best another Turkey. I therefore expect that Diaspora Hebrew literature will continue to thrive.

Tamar Merin has written in Haaretz that Out of the Blue’s virtues appear to be due to its origins outside of Israel. “Choosing to write in Hebrew—and about Israel—while living in exile has given rise to some daring creations,” she wrote, “more experimental both in form and content than the literature issuing from the mainstream of the local literary scene.”

Assaf Gavron, author of six novels and translator of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Safran Foer among others, occupies a middle ground. He was born and raised in Israel to English parents and spent large portions of his adult life living abroad. He is currently teaching courses on Israeli war literature and American Jewish fiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While living in London, he wrote three short stories about the same character and realized they could be a novel. Gavron believes his work is not dependent on location. “I am a writer,” he says, “I write wherever I am.” His work “eventually” comes down to “me and my computer—my head.” Nonetheless, he says, “most of my life I lived in Israel” and it is “important to know what you write about” even if it is “nice to be away.”

Gavron’s most recent novel, The Hilltop, concerns an illegal settlement, an adjacent Arab village, and the political ramifications of what can happen even in a tiny place. The novel takes on a large swath of current Israeli society and has been well received in English, with one reviewer going so far as to call it a “great Israeli novel.” Gavron is now thinking about a book set in America, but says, “I can’t imagine writing a book, even if it is all outside of Israel,” that is not “always related somehow to Israeli matters. The same way I don’t think I’ll ever write in English, I’m not comfortable writing a book with no Israeli characters and issues.” I ask why, and he replies, “It is who I am and my world.” He does not foresee the possibility of Hebrew “becoming a language without a territory.” Israel, he says, is a “homeland” for the language.

Though New York has the largest concentration of Israelis outside Israel, there are many other centers as well, many of them outside the United States. Haaretz recently ran an infographic mapping out populations of Israeli expatriates. As of 2010, the last year statistics are available, there were about 14,000 Israelis in Germany and 13,500 in Britain, with 70,000 in Europe as a whole.

Berlin has recently become a noted destination for expatriate Israelis, who attracted by the low cost of living compared to their home country. Mati Shemoelof, a poet, journalist, short story writer, and community organizer, has lived there for a year and a half. His move to Germany has been good for his career. Previously, he published short stories and poetry in Haaretz, but he now has a regular column about his life in Berlin. People who didn’t speak to him in Israel now call him and beg for meetings when they visit Germany. Shemoelof told me that “one of the reasons I am in Berlin is to experience normality” and to “break the boundaries of Israeli thought.” He says, “to be here and speak Hebrew is something new.”

Shemoelof is the author of five books of poetry and the short story collection Remnants of the Cursed Book, and editor of two anthologies of Sephardi poetry. He also edited a number of very successful anthologies via the “Guerilla Tarbut” (“Guerilla Culture”) movement, including “Red” (2007), written by 66 Arab and Jewish poets, “Out Now” (2009), on poetry related to the conflict with Gaza, and “Poetry Dismantles a Wall” (2011).

A large number of Israeli expatriate writers are now based in Germany, keeping in line with broader emigration trends.

Shemoelof explains that the “Guerilla Culture” movement began with a waiters’ strike at a coffee shop near Tel Aviv University, during which poets read poems next to the striking waiters. The strike was successful, so the group “did other acts” in solidarity with striking workers in Dimona and Yeruham. His inspiration was the American Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He said the movement succeeded in “politicizing the poetry scene” and he is “proud” of being able to “really move the culture” in Israel.

He says he will “always be Israeli” and is “not trying to run away from that.” Nonetheless, Shemoelof had “never lived abroad,” and being in Germany is “new, a new adventure.” He finds life in Berlin like “a time machine. You can be with Lebanese and Palestinians and Germans and Italians and Spanish and Greeks” and there is still “normal life.” For him, the move was part of a search for a “new artistic vision.” He wanted a “new horizon” for his “move to writing prose.”

An interesting aspect of his life as an immigrant is that he now understands the experiences of former generations of immigrants in a different way. In particular, that of his parents: His mother is from Iraq and his father was born in Israel to an Iranian family. Now that he is outside Israel, he is more aware of how integration and assimilation affected his parents and their generation. Many Sephardi Jews in Israel, he says, often wonder how their parents allowed their culture to weaken over time. He has a more thorough understanding of this process now.

To be in Berlin, Shemoelof says, represents something of historical significance: “Jews should be here on the soil where Jews were persecuted, to rewrite the context.” Others agree, such as Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a professor at the University of Haifa and daughter of legendary Israeli writer Amos Oz. She has written about Israelis in Berlin today, asking, “Is national memory and creativity best served by the patriot, the nationalist, the warrior? Why not the exile, the nomad? If Israel did not have Diasporas, it would be a self-consuming black hole rather than a modern country.” She sees Shemoelof and his counterparts as “legitimate heirs” to the “cultural achievements” of modern Hebrew culture.

Like Shemoelof, poet Admiel Kosman came to Germany for the opportunities it presented. Oddly enough, the teaching position Kosman found was something he was unable to find in his native Israel. He teaches Jewish studies at both the University of Potsdam and the Reform movement-sponsored rabbinical school, Abraham Geiger College. It is the first seminary in Germany since the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin was shut down by the Nazis in 1942.

Kosman had taught in the Talmud department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and felt “quietly strangled by the very Orthodox robe on my neck all the time.” When he applied for his current position, there were people who were “academically speaking better than me,” but the committee was looking for someone who would not just “be interested in writing articles.” They wanted someone to give a “contribution from the educational side” who was also interested in the “spirit of Judaism.” This, he notes, was the only time he was asked to send samples of his poetry along with a CV. Taking the job was “quite a good option for me. I came out of my own closet as a liberal Jew.” He admits that “when I looked for an option, I was not particularly interested in being abroad” and “Germany is a very tough place for a Jew to live.” He also acknowledges, “In Europe you feel insecure because of latent anti-Semitism.” On a personal level, being far from his father, mother, and four children from his first marriage is difficult for him.

Nonetheless, he says that living abroad has brought “a fresh look on modern Judaism that I liked” and that “being in this platform” has been “a present sent to me.” It has given him the opportunity for “dialogue with other religions,” as he is personally interested in Far Eastern faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism. Three years ago, he went on a lecture tour in the U.S. that began at Harvard and ended with Mormons in Salt Lake City. The trip “mixed discussion for research and spiritual questions and poetry.” All these topics were “boiled together.” He has since been to Montevideo, Uruguay, in order to teach rabbis from South America.

In relation to his writing, hearing a foreign language all the time has made him “sensitive to the language of Hebrew.” He has started collecting “street language” from Israel and has written about it humorously for Haaretz. He says it “reflects aggressiveness in a very Israeli way that you can’t understand if you are not Israeli.” Through this experience, he has also returned to Judaism through a philosophy of “dialogue” based on the philosophy of Martin Buber. His ambition is to “fulfill what Buber did not” by “finding in stories from the Talmud a theology of in-between.” This is evident in his book’s titular poem, “Approaching You in English,” translated by Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naim-Naor:

Please, won’t You be so kind and understand me this once
In a broken foreign tongue.
I’m breaking up the words for You. Slicing the sentence as if it were a communion wafer.
Large slices, for two.

Russian-born Israeli Ola Groisman came to England with her husband, who teaches mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Unemployed and in a new country, she found herself at loose ends, and decided to start writing because the “time is now, now or never.” She thinks there is “something in being a foreigner, not part of the place” that “frees” her in her writing, that the “distance makes it possible.” Interestingly, she says that as a child in Moscow she was seen as a Jew; while in Israel, she was seen as a Russian. In England, she is simply seen as a generic “foreigner.” Being in England “provoked” her to “think about emigration, my first emigration” and “what was left behind.” At the same time, “Hebrew became my only language I can write in” and thus something precious, because due to her series of emigrations, “I am lucky to have any language to write in.”

Her first novel, A Suitcase on Snow (2009), was “about the experience of going back to Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed” in her twenties. It was only then, she says, that she realized what she had abandoned when she came to Israel at age seven and was told to “forget everything I came with and become Israeli as quickly as possible.” Her goal was “to capture the process, the importance of childhood, of being connected to the language.” The book was well received and became a bestseller in Israel.

Her second novel, The Misplaced (2014), is the story of Russian immigration to Israel and has been less well-received. When Groisman was in Israel this past spring for Book Week, she realized that “Israel as a society does not want to know about the Russians in their midst.” One reader came up to her and said, “I don’t want to read about Russians. I see them every day, I have enough of them.” Obviously, this “horrified” Groisman, and she feels quite alienated in Israel now. This was illustrated by the title of a recent talk she gave at Cambridge: “The psychosis of the Israeli émigré writer: Writing from the outside in.”

The Israeli writer Ola Groisman is based in the United Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Ola Groisman

The Israeli writer Ola Groisman is based in the United Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Ola Groisman

Nonetheless, she is “not losing her cultural connection to Israel.” Her children speak Hebrew and celebrate Jewish holidays like they did in Israel. Her daughter is with her in England and speaks Russian, Hebrew, and English; her son from her first marriage stayed in Israel with his Russian-born father. She says that though her son can read her work in Hebrew, her daughter cannot and “I don’t even know how I feel about that.”

The alienation that Groisman expresses is completely foreign to Maya Arad, who has been the Writer in Residence at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University since 2009. Arad holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of London and has taught at Harvard, Geneva, and Stanford. She is part of a burgeoning community of 30-40,000 Israelis living in the Bay Area, though some say the figure is closer to 50,000. When asked whether she misses speaking Hebrew at the grocery store, she answers in the affirmative, yet she still speaks Hebrew whenever she sees Israelis she knows. As a recent article about Israelis in the area puts it, “The trick is to live the California good life while sustaining Israeli identity and culture for themselves and their children.”

Arad’s Hebrew readings at a local JCC can attract audiences of a hundred or more. Audiences in Israel have also warmed to her work, some of which is about the situation of Israeli expatriates. Indeed, she has been told that people read her books in order to prepare for living abroad. Interestingly, Alan Mintz notes that from the beginning of Hebrew literature in America, what those in Palestine wanted from it was a “vibrant representation of the American milieu” much as Arad shows in her writing. She has written seven works of fiction, including a novel in verse, a play in verse, four prose novels, and a collection of novellas. Three of her works have been nominated for the Sapir Prize, and Mintz calls her “a major writer.”

In a statement about her writing, she said, “I find that many of my novels are either set away from Israel, or are literature-about-literature—one or the other. I have The Short Story Master, which is a very Israeli novel, but is all a statement about literature.” She added, “I always find that I need to achieve some kind of distance from Israeli literature to produce my Israeli literature. I had, as it were, not a room of my own, but a continent of my own.”

When asked to address the question of being a writer in Hebrew outside Israel, she responded,

Why do I write Hebrew in California? Because I live in California, and I write Hebrew, and it could not have been otherwise. My husband and I made the choice to live where we do. It’s a complicated thing, but I would not hide that among other things we feel very uncomfortable about the direction Israel is taking. And of course I write Hebrew. I can only write if I know precisely all the nuances of every gesture made in words, the precise sounds those words would carry when read in one’s mind. I work so hard to have this in my own language of Hebrew and of course shall never be able to have this kind of exact knowledge in an acquired language. So writing in English is simply out of the question. I do not mind this: I know I make a contribution to one of the great traditions of world literature, that of Hebrew, and that’s good enough for me.”

On the question of the future of Hebrew outside Israel, she wrote,

It’s likely that more and more Hebrew authors will work in the future outside of Israel. It is becoming common for educated Israelis to spend at least some of their formative years away from Israel; and once again, the way Israel is going, it would be very surprising if more educated Israelis do not decide to stay abroad. So I see myself as a member—a founding member?—of the Israeli Diaspora. I’m happy to be there. My daughters will be able to read me, and my grandchildren, probably not, and that’s simply the way it is. Hebrew will survive.
In her famous essay, “Toward a New Yiddish,” Cynthia Ozick stated, “Nothing thought or written in the Diaspora has ever been able to last unless it has been centrally Jewish.” If true, this raises the question: If something is in Hebrew and written in the Diaspora—and of the Diaspora—does that make it “centrally Jewish” by language alone? Or is a new definition needed? One that is wide enough to include this new group of writers?

Sapir Prize-winning Israeli novelist and poet Shimon Adaf echoed these questions to me, saying, “As for writers living outside of Israel—for me, Hebrew is a rapidly changing language. I can’t imagine myself writing in it and not living within a native Hebrew-speaking community. Yet, Jewish history proves otherwise. You can write beautifully and deeply in it as long as you’re versed in Jewish scriptures and teachings.”

The idea for this piece began over the summer, when acclaimed Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua—who writes in Hebrew—announced that he was moving to the U.S. and will never return to Israel. But the issue ended up being much more important and expansive than I imagined. Perhaps the most telling thing is that Kashua’s Haaretz column on his emigration will soon be reprinted in Yiddish translation by the New York-based magazine AufnShvel. The fact that Yiddish readers want to read the statements of a Hebrew writer of Arab origin demonstrates the linguistic hybridity of both languages. Will Hebrew eventually become Ozick’s “New Yiddish”? A Jewish language disconnected from a territory and a homeland?

In December, Ruby Namdar’s novel The Ruined House was placed on the Sapir Prize short list. When I asked what this meant to him, he replied,

What I have to say about entering the short list is that it only enhances the duality of the Israeli expat experience. I received the exciting news in bed, at 5 AM (which is noon in Israel). This time difference symbolizes for me this dual existence, a dual self really, split between my everyday life in New York and my other (I am almost tempted to say, “my secret”) life as a Hebrew author published in Israel. … Had I been living in Israel now my whole everyday life would have been transformed by this career step. But living in New York diminishes the effect of this incredible achievement and makes it hard even for me to believe it’s actually happening. Having said that, I am also aware of the fact that this book was written as a response to my exposure to my American experience and therefore I owe my success to my living here. I cannot but marvel at the irony of it all!

Professor Yaron Peleg of the University of Cambridge is sponsoring a conference in May about Israeli writers abroad. Namdar, Arad, Kosman, and Groisman will be speaking. Peleg says that a “look at Jewish history” makes the notion of Hebrew writers outside Israel “inevitable and predictable.” Even in Biblical times, he notes, there were “colonies of Jews” outside Israel. The call for papers that Peleg put out for the conference contains questions that this article also raises, but is incapable of answering.

Are we witnessing a new era in the annals of modern Hebrew literature and the emergence of an incipient new Hebrew Diasporic literature after a century of Zionism? If so, what are the implications of such developments for the Zionist project? How firm and how permanent is the notion of Diaspora in modern Hebrew letters and can a literature in Hebrew even exist without it and outside of it? Has the concept of Diaspora been romanticized and appropriated by varieties of postcolonial and cosmopolitan discourse for anti-Zionist purposes?

Perhaps, as with so many aspects of Jewish life, the issue of what it means for a literature to have many of its writers living outside the one country in which it is spoken will have to remain unresolved for now.

Banner Photo: Noam Rosenthal