Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Beyond Marginality

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Beyond Marginality

Article excerpt

RECOGNIZING THAT WRITERS ARE AT THE FOREFRONT--THE cutting edge--of societal re-evaluation and change, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1998 convened "Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation," an international Jewish writers conference. "Writing the Jewish Future" provided an opportunity for novelists, playwrights, poets, critics--religiously-observant and secular, conservative and liberal, well-established and newly emerging--to engage in a full range of intellectual discourse. The papers in this special section of Judaism represent a slice of the fruitful and provocative discussion that emerged from the conference; they focus on Israel and the future of Jewish writing.

Ten years earlier, in 1988, the National Foundation convened a conference on "The Writer in the Jewish Community: An Israeli-North American Dialogue." The conference, a unique event at the time, featured some 30 writers from Israel and North America engaging in animated, intense, even heated discussion of a broad range of issues: from the contours of Jewish identity to the impact of assimilation on Jewish self-perception; from the role of religion in Jewish writing in the 1980 to the role of the writer in 1980s Jewish politics.

Ten years later, in 1998, the National Foundation realized that it was not talking about a reprise of "An Israeli-North American Dialogue." The enormous changes in Jewish life over the ten-year period--all reflected in one way or another in the literary enterprise--suggested that whatever discussion that would take place would need to have a broader, indeed international, profile and contour. Jewish writers around the world shared anew cluster of questions. The relationship of Israel to American Jews--the term of art has long been "Israel-Diaspora relations"--a new "margin" ten years ago when the American and Israeli writers met in San Francisco--may very well have been itself nudged over to the margins by the larger, transcendent question of the emergence of a trans-national Jewish culture. Whilst Israel-Diaspora relations, as an arena for discussion, is yet significant (witness continued wrestling over issues such as "Who is a Jew?" and priorities for Jewish communal fund-raising), there are larger questio ns: Is there a common substratum linking the Jewish cultural experience--and by extension the total Jewish experience--of Hungary, Mexico, Israel, the USA, Brazil, Germany, and France? Further, where do we go on the question of language? A few centuries ago, as Jews were responding to the tugs of the Enlightenment and Emancipation, the encounter of Jewish writers with surrounding societies was an encounter with language as well. Hebrew and Yiddish, to be sure, but also the language of the surrounding culture as a vehicle to negotiate the place of the writer in that culture. Seventy years ago, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jewish people; today, the lingua franca is English. Whither language--Jewish language--from the perspective often (and seventy) years?

Underlying the question of language is that of identity, that of the writer as he or she is a member of both majority and minority cultures. Again, harking back two-hundred-plus years, the development of a secular literature, mostly a modem development, is a profound expression of identity and, by extension, of the negotiation of the author with his or her environment. How do writers bridge the secular and the spiritual? How do we create both authentic religious and secular culture in an age that is marked by both fundamentalism and secularization?

With respect to Israel specifically, these writers were called upon to look at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel as a vehicle to consider contemporary questions bedeviling the State: Are we in an era of "Post-Zionism," or are we entering an age of "the new Chalutziut'?

It is clear that limiting the discussion to Israel and North America, and excluding other Jewish communities, is no longer defensible. …

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