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Monday, 9 July 2012

Of The Responsibility Of (Jewish) Writers ….

The passing of Hollywood screenwriter, Nora Ephron has inspired much thought about the nature and substance of writing.

What is a writer and what distinguishes a scribbler from a polished professional?Nora.Ephron

Certainly the use of smut and sensationalism or an unending parade of fashionable neologisms is no substitute for excellence. But neither is false religiosity an excuse not to find a publisher for work that has taken many years to create. Would a religious person of any faith not believe their creation was a gift from God?

I wonder, for example, what Philip Roth would say to fellow American, Shira Zwebner (presently in Jerusalem) who has decided not to attempt to publish some short-stories because potential readers may dislike or misunderstand them, thus rendering their dissemination a Hillul Hashem – a desecration of God’s name?

Zwebner is a P.R. consultant so her open airing of the subject could be a crafty promotion ploy and I may have fallen into the trap of giving her book a free airing. However, as she has asked for the opinion of other Jewish writers “on the responsibilities they feel they have as Jewish writers” these are mine:

The writer’s responsibility is universal and has nothing to do with background, religion or culture although the content of what we produce  is quite naturally suffused with them all. Our life experience is the carapace shielding the creative spirit surging through our writerly veins. As artists, integrity and imagination are our core.

There are artistes of all disciplines who live shamelessly dissolute lives according to the rules of conventional morality but the truly great ones are professionally chaste. Does Zwebner keep the faith?

These musings bring me to two matters Israeli – one ineffably beautiful, the other almost distressingly sad. I will discuss the unhappy one first.

As a volunteer English language mentor  to Israeli teenagers working towards their Oral Bagrut (Matriculation) exams, I have discovered a painful hole in the heart of their education. Who was Einstein, I asked a 14-year-old lad. “A genius!”, he replied! But he could not outline even his best-known  achievements as a physicist and was unaware that he had been invited to become a President of Israel.

Chaim.BialikKids I meet at local high schools have only the barest knowledge of Western culture while of some I see at home, one could name Israel’s national poet, Chaim Bialik but knew nothing of his work. I found this most strange as one poem became a popular Chanucah song and  inspired the name of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Israel’s invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

Moreover, none knew of the ultra modern writer, Etgar Keret, although his work is on Israel’s national school curriculum. Now I come to Bialik’s friend and younger colleague, S.Y. (‘Shai’) Agnon. This is quite painful as Agnon, Israel’s first Nobel laureate, is also considered one of the State’s greatest figures and there have been events this year marking the centenary of the  publication of his first book, And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight. Have the schools not even mentioned him or his book?  Etgar.Keret

So I’m ending this reflection with some personal thoughts on Agnon, most particularly his exquisite piece, With My Heart which concludes the  English language translation of his short-story collection, A Dwelling Place of My People *. Those who know me will say I have a chutzpah attempting to tackle Agnon as my knowledge of Hebrew is ridiculously poor and that I know hardly more of Agnon himself or modern Israeli literature.

S.Y.AgnonYet I dare to do this because I adore this book, most especially the story and I am beginning to use the English version as a teaching tool because it may be read on  many different levels.

The translators,  J Weinberg and H Russell describe the story as an ‘essay’. They say this surely because they are brilliant academics with a profound knowledge of Hebrew and Agnon’s work. Their instinct therefore is not poetic.  I’m going to call it a fantastic example of ‘flash fiction’ (ha!)  or better still, a  ‘prose-poem’, as it bears all the hallmarks of the genre. For my own lowly, ignorant part, I believe it to be a distillation of Agnon’s complex imagination, finely-wrought artistry and sincere devotion to strictly Orthodox Judaism. Enjoy!




* A Dwelling Place of My People by A J Agnon was published by the Scottish Academic Press in 1983 for the princely sum of £5.50! I hope Agnon’s centenary literary year will induce someone to finance a reprint.


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