Hebrew Book Week opens today at a variety of locations throughout Israel. It is a very important national celebration. Book Week provides a necessary horizon for the State of Israel, a cultural horizon. Books and poems enrich the Hebrew language and inspire the necessary renewal of social ideas.
From the dawn of modern Zionism, there has been a struggle between renewing Jewish national self-definition based on political territorialism or based on culture. Menachem Ussishkin viewed nationalism as the urban foundation intimately connected to the holy ground here. Others, among them Ahad Ha’am, wanted to build nationalism based on our inherent cultural characteristics. Book Week in the sovereign state of Israel is the confirmation that Jewish and Israeli cultures are still used as a method for Zionist self-definition. It provides us with a moment to stop, take a deep breath and diversify our ethical choices despite the nuisances of life and existence here.
I think Book Week as is a “religious holiday for Israeliness.” On this holiday, we harvest the first fruits of culture and celebrate an ethical renewal of the citizens of Israel. Books are similar to the first fruits that fall from the trees or wheat harvested in the fields. Poems, reference books and even children’s books need time to ripen. Book Week is a once-a-year opportunity to taste the “first fruits” of the season: new ideas in Israeli society.
Book Week is our spiritual celebration. I would expect the government to promote it in a more meaningful way, as a month-long celebration during which prizes are awarded to the creators. There should be plays and readings in every place and on every corner. Writers are not lacking in Israel, and Book Week is the time to allow them to express themselves in front of broad audiences. It is also a chance for us to get to know our creators.
Since the 1980’s, there seems to have been a fine monolithic ending to what Ben-Gurion prescribed. Israeli culture has opened up to a broader and more varied selection of voices. Groups that were once silenced can finally be heard in cultural centers. A multicultural voice has been created in Israel. Hebrew is a language open to absorbing creations and influences from other languages because it is still developing. Thus Book Week is also a chance to taste from the world’s variety and to expound further on the multiplicity of cultures in Israel.
As a result of cultural barriers breaking down in recent years, we have been exposed to new niches in our own culture as well. Israelis are returning to the Jewish library and renewing their reading of traditional texts. Our ancient set of texts, poetry and books were once a turn-off. Now many Israelis from a generation that once did not know Joseph at all are reading new works that are in dialogue with our rich Jewish past. A change in the cultural trend of Zionism is also taking place. Where once it sought to secularize Jews completely, Zionism is realizing that this is actually an impossible task. This is a very good thing. One cannot speak of the Jewish People and close the door on our traditional texts, nor can one leave these texts only in the hands of the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox.
Thus after the religious pilgrimage days of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, and the Zionist holidays of Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day, we finally arrive at Hebrew Book Week. A week that is unique, set aside so that we can think freely and connect to ideas from both past and modern times. We can choose a new societal vision. Book Week provides us with a rich market and a fertile ground for creativity. During Book Week we can connect to the inter-galactic worlds of science fiction or the fantasy world in which there is no state, no army and even no democracy because everything is free and delightful.
Go out and get a taste of Book Week. There you will find true spiritual nourishment.