Tag Archive | Diaspora

Creating a radical Hebrew culture — in the diaspora

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Creating a radical Hebrew culture — in the diaspora

Israeli artists and authors abroad are beginning to create an alternative Hebrew culture that challenges norms and national borders. Israeli politicians, on the other hand, aren’t so pleased.

Over the past few years we have been witnessing the growth of an alternative Hebrew culture, both independent and diverse, outside of Israel. Just recently two Hebrew-language publications have been published in Berlin: the bi-lingual magazine “Aviv,” edited by Hano Hanostein and Itamar Gov, and “Mikan V’Eilach,” dedicated to diasporic Hebrew and edited by Tal Hever-Chybowski. They join the relatively older magazine “Shpitz,” edited by Tal Alon, and a number of institutions such as Berlin’s Hebrew library and the Berlin Public Library.

Diasporic culture is slowly awakening in Israel as well. Examples include Itamar Orlev’s book “Bandit,” or Tomer Gardi’s new book, which was written in broken German and is currently making waves in Germany. The discourse is not defined by the physical location of the writers, but rather by their consciousness, which is the product of diaspora. In the global age it is difficult to feel obligated to national borders, the borders of language, or the borders dictated to the citizen by his nation.

I feel, however, that there is a need to make clear the cultural aspect of this diaspora, which includes a diverse cast of voices and takes place in so many places that it is actually bigger than Berlin (Berlin, of course, is a strategic place because of the history of the Holocaust). The paradox is that while Israel is closing its borders to the diaspora, it is also appropriating its works. For example, while the annual Sapir Prize for Literature was closed off to writers who live abroad, the State of Israel is monopolizing Jewish works of art and literature outside as Israel, as exemplified by the National Library of Israel’s attempt to take ownership of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, for instance.

Over the past few years, more and more voices in Israel want to close the door to Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli voices who live abroad, specifically because of the growing effect of the Hebrew diaspora. But this rejection only strengthens the diaspora. On the one hand, strengthening the mental border between border Israel and the diaspora leads to a deeper understanding that there is a need for creative independence and autonomy in the diaspora. On the other hand, there is a refusal to forgo a dialogue, whose goal is to go beyond these borders.

This reaction is reminiscent of the neoconservatism that we see in fundamentalist movements, which oppose globalization and freedom of information — and are explicitly against cosmopolitan identities. Is it even possible to create imaginary borders between Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli works in the Internet age? It is wonderful to see that every conservative response is answered by an even more radical response by people who understand that their art is greater than the narrow imagination of politicians.

And the paradox lies before us: the more they try to strengthen the borders, the more culture will flourish and challenge these conservative positions by creating more cosmopolitan, independent diasporic structures. If we open these borders to other languages and places, we could become part of a never-ending stream of creativity. That way we can truly learn what is happening outside our national group.

Diasporic culture often criticizes Israel from both inside and outside. They put up an emotional wall to try and stop Israeli voices from developing this culture. This wall joins a long list of other walls that Israel builds. Israel tried to block out the diaspora, and the attempt to stop this new culture is yet another attempt to negate the Jewish diaspora. The emotional aspect, which seeks to ignore voices of lamentation, is reminiscent of the way Mizrahim and Palestinians are silenced. Instead of rejecting the laments, listen to them — they are not coincidental.

For many years Israelis left the country due to political, social, ethnic, and gender problems that were created by the state — and which the state never took responsibility for. The Mizrahim who immigrated to the U.S., Palestinian refugees who were thrown out of their country, Palestinian citizens who often feel like it’s better to be foreigners in foreign countries than foreigners in their homeland. The attempt to block out any criticism of Israel is a form of joining the masculine, militant stream of Israeli hasbara. Anti-Semitism and fascism created Israel, yet without criticism we return to these very constructs. We must listen to diasporic voices without building emotional and political barriers, ones that hide behind the idea of “patriotism,” which in itself is a continuation of oppression by other means.

Mati Shemoelof is an Israeli author, poet, editor, journalist and activist based in Berlin.

What we left behind in Egypt: Mizrahi thoughts on Israel

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Even when they had reached the borders of the Promised Land, after 40 years in the desert, all the Children of Israel wanted was to go back to Egypt. In Erez Biton’s poem, the immigrant from Algeria and his son fail to build a home in Israel. Independence Day is also the tale of the rift in our identity, created by immigrating here. Full Article

“And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:3]

“…And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!;

And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’;

And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.’” [Numbers Chapter 14 2-4]

Before we discuss the Mizrahi present in Israel, let us examine the trauma as it is reflected in the desire of the Israelites to return to Egypt and postpone the narrative of redemption in the Promised Land. Looking back at this theological question is important for a psychological understanding of the modern perception of identity, and the impossibility of achieving inner autonomy within Zionism and its holidays and Independence Day in particular.

At the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, and at the end of it after 40 years, the Israelites ask to return to Egypt. Both requests are impossible, as Egypt is already impossible. They are in a never-where, in the desert, which is neither the Promised Land nor Egypt. But in both cases they do not speak to God or to Moses and Aaron, and if they do, all they ask for is life and death in the land of Egypt, which still seems like a safe place to them. How could Egypt be a safe place for them, after having left it with such sturm und drang? How could they ask to return to Egypt, having drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds? And how dare they ask to return to Egypt, a moment after the Song of the Sea, and all the miracles the Lord has performed for them?

It can be understood when they are still Egyptian slaves at heart, and so the moment there is hunger, and they are in the desert, they are afraid and want to go back. But after 40 years, during which they have received the Ten Commandments, Moses as a prophet and Aaron as his right-hand man, received the greatest technology there is, acquired monotheism, which no nation around them had. And with all these wonders, they still want to go back to Egypt. How does this happen?

Yearning for the cut-off hand

I wish to argue that Egypt in this context is not the Egypt of an enemy. Egypt is their identity. Egypt is their mother tongue. Egypt is the first memory. Egypt is the frame of reference, the context in which they live. When they say that they want to return to Egypt, it is like saying that they wish to return to their mother, to the womb. They are Egyptian slaves who following the awakening of a new identity have been thrown on a journey.

And they reject the terms of the journey. This is perhaps the context in which we may understand the golden calf. At Mount Sinai of all places, a moment before the theophany, they are Egyptians, and as such they speak with Egypt, even if at present Egypt is the land of the enemy, is the perfect other, is the one that wanted to put them to hard labor, to annihilate them.

Thus, a moment before entering the Promised Land, after 40 years, and also a moment after the escape, they discover Egypt as a place of love, a place where they’d rather die than live hungry in the desert, or fighting wars in the Promised Land against large nations, and huge kings such as Ogg King of Bashan, and the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Hivites and the other local peoples. They want Egypt, even though Egypt is impossible. They hold a dialogue with Egypt, and we may re-read Pharaoh’s reluctance to give them up also as Pharaoh’s reluctance to give up the Jewish-Arab aspect of his Hebrew-Egyptian subject. Suddenly the Israelites’ hyphenated identity, as Hebrew-Egyptians, and the Egyptian identity of Moses, as the grandson of the previous Pharaoh, and as a leader opposed to the current Pharaoh – all these do not seem so far fetched.

The Israelites’ cry is to bring Egyptian-ness into their world. In the crisis of hunger and threat of war, of all moments, they go back to speaking with Egypt, in Egyptian, and give up the spiritual guidance of their prophet, who comes from a different class, and is already speaking with God face to face. This is a class-based rejection, directed at an elite that no longer understands their daily life problems.

They wish to replace Moses and Aaron, to effect a revolution. They wish to die with full bellies sitting on the fleshpots of Egypt. In both cases, the first and the last, they reject the Lord’s leadership, despite all the wonders and the miracles, all the parting of the sea, Mount Sinai, water from the rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud going before the camp, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other super-natural moments.

Their call to return is almost childish, infantile, but could be considered as a desire to unite aspects of their identity that are irreconcilable in modern Jewish thought. Their wish to be Egypt is a wish to be with the dead parent, with the hand that was cut off. But in today’s thought there is no way to heal the trauma and to make peace with it. Especially not on Independence Day, because of its absence in the public sphere, within all the exclusion from the culture in general in Israel.

“Scaffolding,” By Erez Bitton (translated by Tsipi Keller)

On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel

my father stood

pointing to the sides and saying:

Upon these ruins

one day we will build a kitchen

to cook in it a Leviathan’s tail

and a wild bull,

upon these ruins

we will build a corner for prayer

to make room

for a bit of holiness.

My father remained on the threshold

and I, my entire life,

have been erecting scaffolding

reaching up to the sky.

Erez Biton in his poetry does not deny the darkness, the night and gloom – the trauma – entailed in immigration. He has no moment of redemption, he does not come to Independence Day with flag in hand. On the contrary. The father holds on to hope, as he moves from Algeria to Israel. But the father does not enter the Promised Land and has not a shred of Zionism’s redemptionist concept of itself, as celebrated on Independence Day. Biton’s father remains on the threshold. Belief in the Messiah will yet awaken, the father promises, with the Leviathan’s tail and the wild bull. He will yet build.

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

It is he, with the faith, who believes he will yet enter the Promised Land, but fails to do so. There is no kitchen, no temple. The son is busy with just erecting scaffolding to the sky. What does erecting scaffolds to the sky mean? Is it asking God to make his promise come true? You build the scaffolds, He’ll build the rest. Is it defiance? Like the Tower of Babylon? This is the internal Mizrahi state, which is hard to understand. Even if we wave the flag, that doesn’t mean the psychic trauma has been healed.

The father comes to half a house, to ruins. We know that Erez Biton grew up in Lod. Does he mean the ruins of the Palestinian city of Lod, or does he mean metaphorically, the ruin into which the Arab-Jews are thrown under the Ashkenazi-Zionist regime?

When we connect Biton’s poem to the theological part with which I began, we may see the perception of the impossible part of identity, which one wishes to unite. Therefore we see the dialogue between the father and the son: the father leaves behind hope, but remains outside. What does remaining outside mean? Can we compare this to the Israelites who remained outside of Egypt? Even stayed in Egypt at heart, despite arriving at the threshold of the Land of Israel, unable to enter the Promised Land? The Promised Land is the Independence Day celebration. As if the sovereign status of the State of Israel can cure the psychological problem of Mizrahim in Israel.

Did Moses die in the desert because he sinned, or because he was an Egyptian through and through, who could not have entered the Promised Land? This threshold is precisely the point of immigration, a point between here and there, between there and here. A point at which it is impossible to enter a culture that does not accept or contain the different parts of your identity. It leaves those parts outside, and so you remain outside as well. The father in Biton’s poem is full of hope that he might be able to go in, with a kitchen and a temple, in half a house, in the ruins; but the son discovers the truth, that the father’s promise has remained as scaffolding to the sky, remained outside.

Is Erez Biton’s “Scaffolding” the desire to build a Jewish-Arab culture within a state that has set it as its purpose to erase the Arab parts in its inhabitants identity? Do we think that with bestowing the Israel Prize the process of accepting Erez Biton and the Jewish-Arab poetry has been completed? Even if so, the trauma still stands, with the son looking at the father, and the grandson looking at his father, who is still looking at the grandfather, who still remains outside. The memory of exclusion passes as a collective viewpoint, a lamentation of parts excluded, leaving entire communities outside.

Mati Shemoelof is a poet, editor and author who lives in Berlin. Join him on his FB page, website. And Twitter. This essay was originally part of a sermon delivered in Fraenkelufer Synagogue

The diaspora is an integral part of Hebrew literature

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There is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

By Mati Shemoelof – First published on 972magazine

BERLIN — There is no such thing as “Hebrew literature written outside Israel” because the definition of “outside Israel” cannot address art in general or literature in particular.

Literature is created in a space that is not a state or a country. The categorization of literature that is written outside or inside a country is problematic.

As such, we should understand that Hebrew literature from the get-go belongs to every country in which there are writers writing in Hebrew, or Israelis whose experience with the Hebrew language has shaped their memory, or citizens of the world who consume Israeli literature in one way or another.

So forgive me, but I will instead use the term “diasporic literature” — that which is written at times from a place of exile; sometimes from a small space that exists between our Jewish life and our life within the local culture written in the various different languages.

Diasporic literature detaches the Hebrew language, Judaism and Israeli identity from national boundaries, sharpens the weight of exposure to new cultures and transforms it from a majority language to a minority language.

Sapir Prize Winner Reuven Namdar, who writes in Hebrew in New York; or the Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari, who writes in Canadian English about her experience growing up in Petah Tikva, and whose first book made it to the New York Times Editor’s Choice list; or Hanno Haustein from Germany, who edits “Aviv,” a Hebrew-German journal; Yousef Sweid, who writes a column in Hebrew in the Berlin magazine Spitz; and of course Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian Israeli who writes in Hebrew from the U.S.

They are all part of this diasporic culture. You don’t have to be Jewish, Hebrew, or Israeli to be part of this diasporic culture. It is one’s consciousness, not one’s origin, that decides.

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Diasporic literature certainly has its own language because it is created within a set of values and terms that is entirely distinct from Israeli culture, yet remains associated with it and with the local culture. For example, the third part of my first book of short stories, “Remnants of the Cursed Book,” published by Zmora Bitan, is certainly connected to Berlin culture and constitutes an integral part of Israeli society, like all the stories of all the other immigrants in the city, who are part of Berlin culture even if they are not read there.

In my first year and a half in Berlin, literarily speaking, I wanted to celebrate my life in the multi-cultural metropolis – which is why I published an e-book of farewell poems, full of emotion and a first set of immigration poems called “Last Tango in Berlin.” On the other hand, I had a desire to document my new life, and that’s why I wrote the weekly Haaretz column, “An Israeli in Berlin.” But today I don’t celebrate emigration.

The continuation of diasporic literature is sometimes dependent on the next generation, which doesn’t usually continue writing in Hebrew. But there is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

My first full novel, which I have been working on the last few years, was written in the belly of an airplane of homesickness, with a passport of longing, en route to yearning. It reflects my gum-like soul, being stretched between Germany and Israel, and shows the way in which two cultures cannot be simply disconnected.

Something interesting happened to me recently, when I was among the organizers of multi-language performance and poetry “Hafla” slams in the city. I noticed that the poems I wrote in Hebrew were addressed to a Hebrew-speaking audience, not the local audience. For the first time in my life I decided to write one spoken-word poem in English for the next event. We’ll see how it works.

I don’t miss those who are exclusionary. Like closing off the Sapir Prize to those who live outside Israel. Is that the same Zionism that wants one nation, with one language in one land? Are we really located in just one place in this age of Internet and globalization? Can we really reduce Israeli identity to its physical borders (whatever those may be)? Do we want to shed all the books written throughout time outside Israel?

Literature should be judged by its beauty, its power to imagine new life, and not the passport of its creators. That is how it has always been, and how it will always be.

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