Reporter's notebook'A Spanish spirit was fixed in the Jewish essence forever'

For the first time ever, Israel hosts a global symposium on Hispanic culture

Jews have had a profound impact on Spanish society over the centuries; now an Israeli has been voted into a three-year stint as head of the International Association of Hispanists

Students and staff of the Hebrew University Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. Dr. Ruth Fine, third from left, is the first Israeli president of the International Association of Hispanists, which held a five-day academic conference in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
Students and staff of the Hebrew University Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. Dr. Ruth Fine, third from left, is the first Israeli president of the International Association of Hispanists, which held a five-day academic conference in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

For those who missed it, every day last week was Hispanic Heritage Day in Jerusalem.

For the first time in Israel, scholars, journalists and lovers of the Spanish language gathered from morning till dusk at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a five-day academic conference hosted by the International Association of Hispanists (AIH), an umbrella organization involved in every cultural aspect of the Spanish-speaking world.

It should come as no surprise that Judaic and biblical culture left an influential mark on Hispanic society over the centuries. In Jerusalem, hundreds of “Hispanists” — scholars specializing in Hispanic studies — came from more than 40 countries to discuss the extent of this influence in the university’s Mexico Hall auditorium.

With over 100 presentations, three symposiums, and special talks led by honored guests, the conference covered everything from cinema, literature, and theater, to history, and linguistics.

The association’s current president, Aurelio Gonzalez, is a renowned academic researcher from Mexico whose focus is on the medieval literature of the Spanish Golden Age. Every three years sees a change of leadership when a new president is elected at the conference to lead the organization’s 1,400 members.

Dr. Ruth Fine at the AIH conference in Jerusalem, July 2019. (Courtesy)

Despite pressure earlier this year by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which pushed for the gathering to be relocated to another country, the conference brought almost 600 guests to Jerusalem. Furthermore, the association elected Dr. Ruth Fine of Hebrew University to head AIH for the next three years — a first for an Israeli since the organization’s 1962 founding in Oxford, England.

Fine, who is the head of Hebrew University’s Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies, also recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Navarra for her work in intercultural dialogue between Israel and the Hispanic world. (Full disclosure: this writer is a graduate student of the department.)

In a video message, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave his appreciation for the conference taking place in the Holy City. “Jerusalem is a great meeting point between three civilizations: Christians, Muslims and Jews,” he said. “The expulsion of 1492 was the end of the Jewish Spanish Golden Age. Nevertheless, Ladino was converted into a Jewish language and a Spanish spirit was fixed in the Jewish essence forever.”

Saul Sosnowski, professor of Latin American Literature and Culture at the University of Maryland, said that the success of the conference was due to it being held in Jerusalem.

“The fact that this takes place in Jerusalem, that people here are focusing on the many aspects that have come out of Spain after the expulsion of 1492, and that we can address Spain in double layers, and that we are addressing Latin America in several layers is tremendous and a tribute to Ruth Fine and to the department and the university that is hosting this. It’s a tremendous success” he said.

The decision to hold this year’s summit in Jerusalem was obvious to everyone, association president Gonzalez said, because a large part of Hispanic culture is Jewish.

Gonzalez told The Times of Israel: “The Hispanic world is very diverse. The conferences were traditionally held in Europe or in the Americas. But Israel has a Hispanic foundation… the Sephardic world. So, there is a double meaning in taking the Hispanic world from outside its traditional [European or American] spaces, and here, taking the Hispanic [parts] of the Israeli world.”

Referring to descendants of Sephardic Jews, Gonzalez said, “A portion of the Jewish world is also Hispanic… Sephardism plays a bigger role [in the conference] now that we are in Jerusalem. If we were in Mexico, we would focus more on Latin America. For this reason, the Hispanist world is open.”

As such, the topical issue of “homeland” also naturally fit in the conference.

‘Where I feel at home’

In an onstage dialogue, Israeli author David Grossman spoke about the meaning of a Jewish homeland alongside Spanish Basque writer Fernando Aramburu, whose 648-page turner “Homeland” (Patria) inspired the first half of their discussion.

Speaking in English is “strange to do at the Hebrew University, but I was asked to do so,” Grossman told the 100-member Spanish-speaking audience ahead of the hour-long writers’ dialogue.

Hearing Grossman speak English at the Hebrew University was not as “strange”  as watching the authors’ method of communication. As Aramburu spoke in Spanish, Grossman received simultaneous translation into Hebrew. Still, that didn’t stop Grossman from immediately smiling back the moment Aramburu cracked a joke.

Fernando Aramburu and David Grossman. (Yehezkel Hojesta)

The men, who had never met before, also bonded over the theme of language and identity in conflict zones.

Aramburu shared his personal experience growing up in an area of Spain whose official language is different from his mother tongue of Basque. He said that when he started school, he could not speak Spanish correctly. “I had to learn quickly from the other children to fit in,” he said.

In his internationally acclaimed novel, Aramburu writes about two etxekoandreak (Basque for housewives) whose friendships and lives are driven apart by the Basque separatist conflict in Donostia, also known as San Sebastian, which is Aramburu’s birthplace. Before the conflict, the protagonists would mix Spanish and Basque in their everyday conversations, but at the height of the political crisis, there was only room for one language.

For Grossman, the notion of homeland was more poignant than language.

“Maybe because of the historical experience of the Jewish people, to be out of our home for so many centuries, for me the homeland is first of all a place where I feel at home. I must say that one of the greatest things about Israel is that it gave our children a place where there’s home. It gave us a cure to recover from the Shoah and having never really had a place where we felt at home. I think this is something that characterizes the Jewish experience,” Grossman said.

David Grossman and Fernando Aramburu in conversation, July 11, 2019. (Yehezkel Hojesta)

But sometimes, we can become prisoners of our own great stories, he added. “We know how to polish these stories to make it more authentic in getting us the love and empathy of others,” Grossman said.

“But sometimes we might wake up and ask ourselves, why do we keep telling these stories? Maybe it’s not up to date anymore? We are already in another situation. We have already turned into prisoners of our own legislative stories,” he added.

Grossman said it may be time for Israel to change its own story to reflect the nation’s current reality.

“This country was such as a genius in creating everything in high-tech, in agriculture, in culture, in building up the strongest army in the region, in revitalizing the language… but on the only thing essential to the future of our children, this is where we are totally paralyzed,” Grossman said.

‘Historical justice’

One conference participant, Argentine writer Martin Kohan (who prefers to call himself a “Latin Americanist”) warned of the institutionalization of Hispanic culture — providing a history lesson in the process.

“Spanish is what it is because Spain expanded,” he said, referring to the Spanish colonization of the Americas, home to tens of millions of indigenous people.

Participants of AIH at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, July 2019. (Courtesy)

Spanish should also be discussed within the context of Latin America’s diversity and plurality, Kohan said, adding that if the conversation becomes an attempt by a Spanish institution to hegemonize and control its associates, then “my position is of resistance.”

Argentine writer Martin Kohan, center, at the 20th International Association of Hispanists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July 2019. (Courtesy)

Kohan, who is Jewish and on his first trip to Israel, told The Times of Israel that, “I feel I’m with my people here.” Kohan’s novel “Open Accounts” has been recently translated into Hebrew by local publisher Nine Souls.

Meanwhile, Dr. Daniel Blaustein of Hebrew University, who teaches one of Kohan’s novels in the course “Narratives of the Argentine Dictatorship,” offered a more definitive response about the historic gathering.

“Having this in Jerusalem is quite an accomplishment,” he said. “It’s an accomplishment for the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies of the university. This event has brought almost 600 people from around the world to Israel. It’s an honor.”

“And, as a result of having the conference here in Jerusalem, Ladino, [the language] of the Hispanic Jews, has obtained the status of an official language by the Royal Spanish Academy [RAE]. This is historical justice,” said Blaustein.

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