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What’s a Jewish Writer? Writers Gather to Debate

Among those jostling for room in crowded conference halls in downtown Jerusalem were a Serbian novelist, a Russian short story writer, an Israeli poet and a German playwright.

They were among some 100 writers who gathered from across the world to begin a conversation on what it means to be a Jewish writer.

Polish-born writer Eva Hoffman spoke of how Jewish identity intertwines with her writing life.

“I started writing out of the Diaspora [experience] — the great rupture of emigration, the loss of my first language and finding a second language,” she said during a panel discussion. “Being inside and outside this is the classic Jewish and writer’s position.”

Kissufim, the Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers, was the first gathering of its kind in Israel. The four-day event, which ended April 19, featured readings and roundtable discussions on topics ranging from memory and the Holocaust to Nobel winner S.Y. Agnon to the variety of languages in Jewish literature. It was hosted by Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, The Academic Center for Jewish Studies and Leadership.

Central to the gathering’s goals was to expose Israeli Jewish writers and Diapora Jewish writers to each other.

At a panel discussion on what defines a Jewish writer, Israeli author Aharon Megged said using Hebrew was central to his writing experience.

“In Hebrew, every letter has meaning,” he said. “It is the language of the Bible, a language with layers of history there is something Jewish deep inside it that you cannot distance yourself from.”

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a New York novelist and literary critic, asked if the glorification of Hebrew was not in some ways an attempt to disenfranchise other languages.

Prize-winning writer Maya Kaganskaya, who immigrated to Israel from Kiev and writes exclusively in Russian, said that despite many years in Israel it’s still the Russian language and its great authors with whom she connects most deeply.

Such debate was among the aims of the conference, organizers said. The idea was not that participants should agree on every topic but rather — because this was a unique encounter between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish writers — they would start debating the same themes and topics.

“There is sometimes a sense that there is a Diaspora-Israel break, that some Israelis have a very strong sense that Israel is the center of the Jewish world and some people in the Diapsora feel very uncomfortable with that, as if it is some sort of denigration of their own lives,” said Michael Kramer, a conference organizer and director of the graduate creative writing program in Bar-Ilan University’s English Department.

“One of the things we were trying to do was get beyond that sense of a break,” Kramer said. “We invited people to speak and read in their own languages, trying to get things translated not just in the linguistic sense, but also the larger sense to get a sense of their world translated.”

Jonathan Rosen, a New York author and editor, said the conference provided important insights.

“It’s unusual to have a conference like this in Israel, where Jewish identity plays a different role in the cultural imagination than it does in the United States,” he told JTA.

Rosen said the conference dealt with those differences but also underscored the emerging understanding among Israeli writers that there’s a vibrant Diaspora, just as it allows Diaspora writers a chance to contemplate the vital role Israel plays in Jewish life.

“We all need each other,” Rosen said.

Another theme that emerged was a return by some American Jewish writers to the role of r! eligion in their lives. Rosen himself wrote a novel, “Joy Comes in the Morning,” that features a woman rabbi as its main character.

Rosen said that stands in contrast to the older generation of Jewish writers, who wrote of moving away from their religious and immigrant origins to embrace American culture, even viewing Ellis Island as the new Mount Sinai.

Now, he said, there’s a “journey back toward Jewish identity and consciousness rather than self-consciousness. It is a journey that is equally heroic, fruitful and exhilarating and is even quintessentially American, because without an individual identity one cannot have an American identity.”

Rosen traces the trend to the 1960s, when Jewish studies began to make inroads at American universities, the Six-Day War boosted Jewish self-confidence and genteel American anti-Semitism went into eclipse.

Nessa Rapoport, a Canadian-born memoirist and writer who now lives in New York City and long has dealt with Jewish themes, also sees Jewish writing taking a turn toward its religious roots.

“Once I felt considerable solitude as a writer in my passion for the Jewish literary tradition,” she said. “Now I see an increasing number of Jewish American writers as engaged as I am by the eloquence of our shared literary inheritance.”

Rapoport said she sometimes is overwhelmed by how much writing there is on Jewish themes.

“I used to be able to read most of what was published in American Jewish writing,” she said. “Now I cannot possibly keep up.”

The conference was an opportunity for the writers to network and begin to create a kind of community. Plans are under way for another gathering in two years.

Carolyn Hessel, head of the Jewish Book Council, was among those attending the conference. Considered among the most powerful voices in North American Jewish literature, she has been delighted by the recent surge of high-quality literary fiction ! produced by the younger generation.

“It’s like a Renaissance of Jewish literature,” she said.

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