Off the map? Israel’s English-language writers wonder where they fit in

Off the map? Israel’s English-language writers wonder where they fit in

A season of literary events highlights the curious place of wordsmiths who sometimes feel abroad at home

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Writer Meir Shalev entering the festival, with the iconic Mishkenot Sha'ananim windmill behind him (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Writer Meir Shalev entering the festival, with the iconic Mishkenot Sha'ananim windmill behind him (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Writer Meir Shalev entering the festival, with the iconic Mishkenot Sha'ananim windmill behind him (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Writer Meir Shalev entering the festival, with the iconic Mishkenot Sha'ananim windmill behind him (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

‘Tis the season for all things literary, as Israel hosts a festival and a conference that celebrate writers and book lovers.

Attendees of both Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and the recently concluded Bar-Ilan University biannual Creative Writing Conference offered by the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing were given a chance to ponder writers and their work, what motivates them and how they put thoughts into words.

Yet there’s a wide gully of language and culture separating the two programs. One — the Jerusalem writers festival — welcomes international writers to the world of Hebrew-language Israeli literature. The other — the Bar-Ilan creative writing program — works solely in English and caters to the large cadre of immigrant writers here. The only native Israeli writer at the Bar-Ilan conference was Etgar Keret, and he is a writer who tends to easily straddle the two spheres.

The worlds of English and Hebrew writers in Israel don’t tend to overlap, which is a state of affairs his festival wants to remedy in the future, said Uri Dromi, director general of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the cultural center that hosts it.

“We know there are Israeli writers here who work in English, who live here and write about the Israeli experience,” said Dromi, but “when the festival was first started, people worked with what they knew best” — that is, Hebrew literary circles.

Etgar Keret at the last Writers Festival (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Etgar Keret at the last Writers Festival (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The conundrum is obvious for those writers who are part of Israel’s English-speaking immigrant sector. They write in English and can publish primarily in the United States or England. Yet their home is in Israel and their work often remains unknown by the Israeli world in which they live.

Novelist Evan Fallenberg has been living in Israel for the last 27 years, writing, translating and teaching fiction. He has had two novels published in the last four years, is the director of fiction in the Bar Ilan creative writing program, and has translated several seminal Israeli novels, including Ron Leshem’s “Beaufort” and Batya Gur’s “Murder in Jerusalem.”

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives not in an English-speaking enclave but in one of the more native Israeli sections of the country’s center. And yet he still feels “off the map” in terms of the Israeli writing society, a situation that is “sometimes very frustrating.”

“If it weren’t for the English-language publications, I would have had no press whatsoever for any of my books,” he said. “You’d think that my translations would be an entree into Israeli writing society” — but that has not proved to be the case.

Writing from ‘out of the center’

That said, Fallenberg is far from bitter. In fact, he’s located a silver lining to his English-language-writer-in-Israel invisibility.

“If I lived in a place like New York, I don’t think I would be able to write anything because every third person there is a writer,” he said. “I don’t mind being out of the center of all that, and being left to do my own thing in my private place.”

It’s a sentiment that can be heard frequently from English-language writers in Israel. As writers in a language other than the country’s native Hebrew, they’re foreigners in the land, expressing themselves and their stories in the wrong tongue. Nevertheless, that lingual anonymity means they get to do what they want, with less recognition and the attendant fuss.

Joan Leegant (Courtesy)
Joan Leegant (Courtesy)

Joan Leegant, a Boston-based novelist who has been a visiting writer at the Bar-Ilan program for the last several years, commented that she can sympathize with English-language writers who live in Israel and get frustrated by the lack of integration into the culture. That said, she likes being alone to write, and notes as well that “there’s a stimulation that happens when you live in a different place.”

“I like that I’m anonymous in many different ways,” agreed Welsh-born Matt Rees, the former Time magazine Jerusalem bureau chief who is now an award-winning crime novelist thanks to the Omar Yussef Palestinian detective series. “I’m living here and don’t pay much attention to Israeli popular culture or culture in general, and it phases out a lot of the rubbish that would be infiltrating to me if I were living somewhere else. It protects me.”

Rees notes yet another advantage to living in a milieu where the majority speaks a language that is not your native tongue: you are free to “make your own rules about language, and to be free of cliche in spoken language.” He added: “In America, there’s a tendency to speak in cliche, and when you’re living here, and speaking Hebrew much of the time when out of the house, you’re not using those cliches and not learning new cliches. It’s a linguistically purer way to live.”

That said, Rees and his wife, writer Devorah Blachor, who recently e-published two novels under the pseudonym Jasmine Schwartz, admitted that their exposure to the greater Israeli world is limited for the moment as they struggle to balance working and raising two small children. Their mostly English-speaking circle is small, and they like it that way. At the same time, they choose to live in Jerusalem, a city that has “a creative energy… and serves us as artists,” said Blachor. “Jerusalem just has it.”

“The combination of immigrants and cultures coming together might be a factor,” she said. “The conflict may fuel a sense of energy if you don’t get absorbed by it. There’s something about a place that has problems which can feel vibrant.”

The motivations that led one to immigrate and the energies required to live in a land other than one’s birthplace can create a particular lens on life and work, particularly for English-language writers in Israel. It’s an angle that is brought to bear in Fallenberg and Rees’ work, as well as for Blachor, whose protagonist, Melissa Morris, is a New Yorker who finds herself living in different cultures, similar to Blachor’s prolonged expatriate existence in Israel.

There is a certain biculturalism that happens for people living in a bilingual society that can create richer prose for the writer, pointed out Fallenberg. As a teacher in the Bar Ilan creative writing program, he has found that the students, many of whom are immigrants from English-speaking countries, bring a wider range of “perspectives and perception and angle,” he said, “and I find that the stuff I‘m reading is always inherently interesting. Everyone who studies here is living lives between cultures or in a combination of cultures and their writing reflects that.”

There’s more at stake

The Anglo immigrant experience in Israel also helps foster writers, added Marcela Sulak, a poet who directs the Bar Ilan program, and who recently moved to Israel.

“What I’ve noticed is that there’s more that’s happened to our students in their lives, and they have more of an understanding of the power of words and language to narrate our lives and establish a perspective,” she said. “Why did they immigrate, why do they write in English, and in that sense, there’s more at stake for them.”

“Your English is a way of being in Israel without compromising your past,” added Judy Labensohn, a graduate of the Bar-Ilan writing program and its outgoing coordinator. “You keep your English, you keep your mother tongue. Rachel the poet came here already knowing Hebrew and wrote her poems in Hebrew. When I came, I was writing poetry in English and it was my only way of expressing myself.”

But, ultimately, will the work of English language writers resonate for Israelis and in Israel, the place these writers are choosing to live?

It may not, but Fallenberg isn’t sure that it matters.

“A writer recently lamented to me that if he’d stayed in the States, his career would be a lot better; I don’t know that that’s true,” he said. “I don’t walk around thinking that. But in terms of being part of the place where you live…there is this prejudice in this country, an ethos here, that until people here make big splashy successes of themselves, until you get to [American-Israeli] Naomi Ragen status, Israelis aren’t very interested.”

Sayed Kashua on the roof of his home in Tira (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Sayed Kashua on the roof of his home in Tira (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

Curiously, it isn’t only writers in English who struggle with their writing language and image, but Hebrew writers as well. Speaking at the Writers Festival, Arab novelist, columnist and television writer Sayed Kashua spoke about writing in Hebrew, his adopted language of choice, having grown up speaking in Arabic before encountering Hebrew literature during high school.

“Hebrew is my stepmother language, it’s my tool of choice, my language for writing,” he said. “It’s the language of the conquerer, but it’s the way I tell the ‘other’ [Israeli Jews] the story of their ‘other’ [Arabs in Israel.] I feel at home with it [Hebrew], but that doesn’t mean it’s a loving, warm home.”

He spoke about his own move from his hometown of Tira, in the country’s center, to Jerusalem, a transition he often writes about in his weekly Ha’aretz column, and as well as the migrations of his most recent protagonists in “Second Person Singular,” his third novel.

“Immigration makes you feel like a stranger,” he said, “and then you work to feel like you belong.”

Whether in Hebrew, or English.


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