Writers Without Borders


Just after the attacks of 9-11, as the intifada simmered outside, Peter Cole, a poet and publisher living in Jerusalem, sat down at the breakfast table to read the morning e-mail from New York. One message contained a verse by the great scholar Gershom Scholem, and it represented one of the first translations of Scholem’s poetry into any language.

Titled "The Sirens" and rendered into English from the German original by Richard Sieburth, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, the poem read in part: "There are days when seeing your life/resume its normal placid course,/you hear their unexpected cry/arise in lamentation, deep and hoarse … and suddenly all the streets are thick/with the interminable sounds of groans … until one final monotonous moan/at last releases you from their power."

Although penned over a half-century earlier, the poem and others Sieburth translated at Cole’s request were "so powerful and so shockingly relevant to the current Israeli scene" that they might have been printed in the day’s edition of Haaretz, Cole said in an e-mail interview. "But no, this was Scholem’s take on what he was seeing in the pre-state Palestine of the ’20s, and the ’30s and the ’40s. Sobering to say the least, and very moving."

Scholem (1897-1982), who was born in Berlin and settled in Jerusalem in 1923, is known for founding the modern study of Jewish mysticism. He also wrote poetry from early adulthood, and his archives in Jerusalem contain 45 mostly unpublished poems that were reputedly weak work.

In Cole, Scholem’s verse found a champion. A selection of Scholem’s simple, intimate poems, translated by Sieburth, constitute "The Fullness of Time." The book – edited by Steven Wasserstrom, the author of "Religion After Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos" (Princeton University Press, 1999) – is the latest of 14 titles from Ibis Editions, the Jerusalem-based imprint Cole runs with the writers Adina Hoffman and Gabriel Levin.

Founded in 1998, Ibis is dedicated to "Levant-related literature" prone to neglect by more profit-minded houses. "There were plenty of other publishers dealing with Jewish work or with Arabic work, but no one else, so far as we know, puts them side by side by design, or is so explicitly interested in the way these literatures relate to one another," Hoffman, who is married to Cole, said in an e-mail from Jerusalem.

Ibis Editions output are uniformly designed small, handsome volumes – Hoffman said they were aiming for a "French" look – but their diverse catalogue attests to an appreciation of the Levant as more than a corner of the Eastern Mediterranean.

"Our view is pan-historical and includes all the people who live now or have passed through the region over the centuries – Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Copts," Hoffman said. "The linguistic range is even wider – with French and German and English and Aramaic and Italian all swirling around the more obvious Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish."

Early publications included a group of stories about 19th-century European travelers by the British-born, Jerusalem-based poet Dennis Silk and the work of a "once-well-known, now-forgotten French-language Egyptian modernist" named Ahmed Rassim.

Later, the Ibis catalogue matched love elegies by the medieval Muslim author Ibn Arabi with essays by the Israeli literary giant Haim Nahman Bialik. Last fall’s list featured a collection of verse by Esther Raab, the first native-born Israeli woman poet.

"The idea is not just to publish this work, but to place each of these writers in relation to the others and thereby eliminate – if only in the space of the imagination – the borders that separate these vital cultures from one another today," Hoffman said from her home-office in Musrara, the mostly Moroccan neighborhood abutting East Jerusalem that was the subject of her 2002 book "House of Windows."

Upcoming releases include a novel by the Palestinian writer and Israeli Communist party founder Emile Habiby and the poetic oeuvre – 11 total – of the Galician-born Israeli Avraham Ben Yitzhak, also known as Sonne.

The Ibis budget does not afford its founders a salary, and the work of editing, production, promotion and fund-raising is more than full-time. Cole received a 2003 Guggenheim fellowship, which he is using to prepare an anthology of Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain. Hoffman, a former film critic for the Jerusalem Post, is at work on a new book.

Still, the pair recently escorted one of their authors, the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali on a national tour with the Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. One stop on the odyssey last fall was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, which made headlines because of Amiri Baraka’s reading of a poem that some listeners deemed anti-Semitic.

In a touching essay about the tour, Hoffman instead focused on poetry’s enlightening power. Taha’s hometown had been razed by Israel in 1948, yet he "had managed to distill from that devastating experience not slogans, not hatred, but art of the highest order," Hoffman wrote in the Boston Sunday Globe.

In his book "Never Mind," Taha – an autodidact who spent the last 50 years selling trinkets to Christians tourists in Nazareth – writes: "And so/it has taken me/all of sixty years/to understand/that water is the finest drink,/and bread the most delicious food,/and that all art is worthless/unless it plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts."

A reading and discussion of "The Fullness of Time" featuring Richard Sieburth, Steven Wasserstrom, and Elliot Wolfson, a leading contemporary authority on Jewish mysticism, takes place at Deutsches Haus at NYU, 42 Washington Mews, Manhattan. (212) 998-8660. Thurs., March 27, 7 p.m. For information about Ibis Editions or to order publications, visit www.ibiseditions.com.