Watzman on Jewish Literature

Haim Watzman

What should Jewish literature try to achieve? My essay in the current issue of The Jewish Chronicle of London offers some thoughts on the subject:

A wistful passage from the final chapter of the Mishnah’s Sotah tractate states, in poetic Hebrew: Nifteru ziknei Yerushalayim ve-halchu lahen. In more prosaic English, it might be rendered: “The elders of Jerusalem got up and left.” The departure of the elders of Jerusalem, when examined in the context of this hauntingly literary tractate, signifies the relationship to past, present, and future that I seek in Jewish literature.

A nation with a past as rich and traumatic as ours, and with a present as complicated and diverse, offers the Jewish writer a plethora of material. And we have many talented and imaginative writers. Why is it, then, that I often feel something important is missing when I pick up the latest Holocaust fiction (say Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) or novel of contemporary Tel Aviv (say Yael Hedaya’s Accidents)? What is the thing I seek but do not find in most Jewish memoirs (say Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit), in the tales of Israeli encounters with Arabs, in the soldiers’ memoirs and war stories (say Yossi Cedar’s film Beaufort, based on Ron Leshem’s novel)?

These are all fine works, but they lack the absent elders — the elders whose presence is signified by the fact that they have departed. What I seek are books that, without being bound by conventions of religion and history, nevertheless use familiarity with and respect for the past as an instrument for thinking about the future of the Jewish people and what it means to be part of that collective. I believe that the authors of some of our classic ancient texts — for example, the Sotah tractate — were able to do so in a way that can be instructive for writers today.

Read the whole essay here.

7 thoughts on “Watzman on Jewish Literature”

  1. Steven, thanks for your comment. I wasn’t able, in the space I had available to me in the Jewish Chronicle, to offer examples of books that engage the Jewish past and future in the way I suggest. But two recent books that do so, if in very different ways, are Ilana Blumberg’s “Houses of Study” (which I reviewed here) and Amos Oz’s “Tale of Love of Darkness.” I’d also mention, for example, the poetry of Avraham Halfi (see my Nextbook essay at http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=384).
    Regarding the republication of S. Yizhar, see my essay on Yizhar, also on Nextbook, at http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=445, and in The Jerusalem Report of Nov. 26, 2007, which I unfortunately can’t locate on their website.

  2. Thanks for the reply, and especially the essay on Avraham Halfi. I’m not familiar with his work — with one exception. That’s the poem and song “Atur Mitzchech” as sung by Arik Einstein, who cites Halfi at the beginning of this presentation:


    I don’t know how this old song sounds to Israeli ears — does it seem cliched by now? — but to me the words and music (by Yoni Rechter) are spine-tingling and mood-altering.

  3. I recently finished Ilana Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”, and I definitely feel the distinctive difference you describe. Her experiences are deeply felt and powerful. Thanks for the review, which led me to pick up the book to begin with.

  4. I understand your view and respect the intention to connect the writer of the present moment to history, place, and nationhood, through texts and story But I am very wary of words to or about writers that seem to approve of one choice, one set of specifics over another. The elders should be present in one book and should not in another..Literature is both rebellion and connection. Individual writers with their own voices will form a chain around our experience without being cajoled or following a particular instruction. I like my writers completely free to listen to their own sounds- some will be from within the tradition and some will be without: as are we.

  5. Anne —

    I appreciate your response. I agree with you that writers must write according to their own muses and not according to program or manifesto. We certainly don’t want all literature, even all Jewish literature, to follow a single pattern. I do think, however, that modern Jewish literature is the poorer for not having more writers who engage and contend with our tradition and our rich ancient literature. It’s a sign of poverty of knowledge and imagination that for so many Jewish writers the history of their people begins with the Holocaust and its literature with, at best, Shalom Aleichem.

    And Steve — Arik Einstein did a whole album of Halfi songs with Rechter. Two of them, “Atur Mitzeich” and “Tza’ar Li” made it on to his greatest hits album, so you hear them all the time. Both songs get my spine tingling.

  6. Haim, you are a bit confused. You have conflated the Rabbinic culture and its sedimented discourse with “Judaism.” In reality, “Judaism” is practiced or claimed to be practiced by many people with little knowledge or fealty to this elite discourse. Truthfully, one must realize that you go farther and delegitimize the claim to a “past” on the part of those not conversant with this language. Preserving the hegemony of rabbinic historiography, you take the profound sense of loss one might get out of the Mishnah’s haunting lines and make it a proscriptive statement. One way to approach this Mishnah might be as a polemic against those interests that represented the past. The temple cult has been eclipsed and now we are in a new era of Mishnaic codification as a way of serving God. The past is valued but only inasmuch as it has passed; those Jewish gastronomes who nostalgically seek out shtetl foods in New York are ready to give up neither their Ossobucco the next night nor their running water, even if they ape respect for the culinary treats of Berdichev. So too the Rabbis were not going back to the past, in their very nostalgia they were a living breathing effacement of that past.
    Going back to the lacunae in our own literature, your mode of misreading presents us with a mode of understanding what you see as the lack of situation in a tradition in modern Jewish literature. In fact, the world has changed, metaphysics has closed up shop, and someone with less hesitation than I have might say that the Mishnaic Rabbis of our time are philandering in Tel Aviv or Williamsburg, churning out that great novel, as the case may be.
    Self conscious situation in a tradition is an aping of that tradition; the lowest form of mimesis that shows you a tradition is dead. Looking at Haredi melitzah, one hears less the echoes of that exalted Baroque art (love it or hate it) then people desperate to establish legitimacy through strategic mining and depletion of those same rhetorical resources. I love Ovadia Yosef, but isn’t it pathetic how he must pretend to restore a Maran who never was, and bring back an Atarah which never rested on the Sephardic world? Is this not like Al Qaeda, who, dropped in the al Andalus they want to reclaim, would be confused by the wine parties and even more so by the fact that the Islamic State of Almighty Allah would employ perfidious Jew folk as its accountants, landowners, and even high ministers? I cannot address your misplaced nostalgia for some literature that exists in some completely explicit oedipal realm (I would call such a book bad literature). But I would suggest that the melancholy reframing of such an idealized past as trophies hanging on the wall hides deeper and more pervasive anxieties about the future which you have already written off. Perhaps what you are really saying is that Judaism is over?

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