Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Language Politics: The Boundaries of Homeland and Translingual Israeli Literature

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Language Politics: The Boundaries of Homeland and Translingual Israeli Literature

Article excerpt

This year, the Hebrew writer Ruby Namdar was awarded the Sapir Prize for Hebrew literature for his novel HaBayit Asher Nekhrav (The Ruined House), making him the first recipient of the award who was not a resident of Israel. While written in rich, resonant Hebrew, Namdar's novel takes place in New York and focuses on an American Jewish professor, making its setting and themes uniquely diasporic. A few months after Namdar was awarded the Sapir, the prize rules were changed to exclude from eligibility writers who reside outside Israel. Although the prevailing argument of the prize committee was that the change was made because of the difficult economic conditions for writers living in Israel, it is hard to see the modification of rules as anything other than a response, even a backlash, to Namdar's win.

The controversy over the Sapir Prize raises old questions about the relationship of language to territory and the relationship of homeland and diaspora in Israeli culture and Zionist mythology, questions that are very much at the fore of current conversations about Israeli literature at a time when there are many prominent Hebrew writers living abroad--in addition to Namdar, there are Maya Arad, Admiel Kosman, and Ola Groisman, among others--and an increasing number of Israeli writers publishing literature written in non-Jewish languages, whether or not they live in Israel. (1) Moreover, at a strained moment in Diaspora-Israel relations, language and literature may have something important to convey about how we understand and negotiate coexistent ideas of homeland and diaspora.

While questions about the suitability and admissibility of contemporary diaspora Hebrew literature into the Israeli canon address one side of this issue, contemporary Israeli writers who use English as their literary language have approached the tension between homeland and diaspora from the other direction. In a recent article on Hebrew writers who live outside of Israel, Beth Kissileff asks, referring to Cynthia Ozick's claim that only literature that is in some way "centrally Jewish" has survived in the diaspora, "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?" With regard to Israeli literature written in non-Jewish languages like English, we might modify this question slightly to ask whether language is the only defining factor in literary and cultural identity, and whether this literature itself might contain the answer to a redefinition of the linguistic, literary, and cultural relationship between homeland and exile.

Translingualism and "Hebrewness"

Israeli literature in English falls into the category of what Steven Kellman calls translingualism; that is, it is authored by writers who have consciously chosen to write in a language other than their native one. As Kellman notes, by "refusing to be constrained by the structures of any single language, translinguals seem both to acknowledge and to defy the claims of linguistic determinism" (24). This linguistic fluidity denies the unitary identification of language with a particular state or territory and rather produces a transcultural model for literary production and consumption (Gilsenan Nordin, Hansen, and Zamorano Llena x). For Israeli writers, this is a particularly fraught movement across boundaries because of the conscious territorializing of Hebrew and its exclusive identification with the land (and later state) of Israel in Zionist ideology and historiography. Motti Regev has pointed to the particular importance of culture, and specifically literature, to the construction of what he calls "Israeliness" and its differentiation from its assumed other, the denigrated (Ashkenazi) Jewish culture of the diaspora. He notes that:

Zionism, as a set of cultural practices, evolved around two
interrelated themes: the rejection of diaspora culture (the galut) and
the invention of a 'new Jew,' the Israeli. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.