When he begins writing poetry, Hezkel, one of the protagonists of Almog Behar’s novel Rachel and Ezekiel (2011), says to himself: “Perhaps if I add lines that I heard during prayers, and religious verse that I remember, and spice them up with some of my own words, I will be able to write words in the form of a poem, and call them my own.”
That philosophy of composition might belong to the author. Behar, a poet, fiction writer, political activist, and teacher, incorporates biblical roots and religious song into his writing, prompting comparisons to Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon. He also studies the Arabic roots of Jewish liturgy, which, Behar believes, helps Mizrahi Jews understand and preserve their identity.
Before she died, Behar’s Iraqi grandmother forgot her Hebrew and spoke only Arabic, which left her unable to communicate with her grandchildren. Saddened, Behar learned Arabic, then Ladino, another language in his family. Since then, he’s encouraged other Mizrahis to embrace their roots—for family and eventually, he hopes, for peace.
Watch Almog Behar read from his novel (in Hebrew!):