A Humanities Unbounded Collaborative Project in German and Romance Studies at Duke University

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Exploring “The Pages” by Hugo Hamilton

In The Pages, Hugo Hamilton writes a compelling story about a curious young woman through the voice of Joseph Roth’s book Rebellion. Rebellion is not only the narrator of the story but also the source of the young woman’s curiosity. Her curiosity inspires her to embark on a journey to learn more about her Jewish identity and family history. Throughout the book she meets new people, finds her identity, and ultimately answers her questions about the past. 

In most cases, when readers finish a book, they must resort to online forums or their own imagination to answer any burning questions they might have. Luckily, after reading The Pages by Hugo Hamilton, we were not left to our own devices to get answers. Being able to talk with Hamilton was an amazing opportunity that provided insight and clarity about the book. After reading The Pages, there were a couple different questions I had such as why Hamilton chose to write the book in English and why he decided to have a book narrate the story.   

To understand The Pages more deeply, it is important to understand Mr. Hamilton’s background. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland with his German mother and Irish father. In our class, we have explored quite extensively the role and impact language has on storytelling. Language is not only the words that are being spoken but also the history of those words in context of the culture they are used in. As a child, Hamilton spoke both German and Gaelic but was forbidden to speak English at home. Because he was not allowed to speak English, described as the “language of the street,” Hamilton says he felt a “kind of homelessness in [his] experience as a child. [He] felt as if [he] was migrating every time [he] walked out onto the street.” Because English was forbidden in his household, Hamilton gravitated to it and longed to conquer it. English was the language that connected Hamilton to the world and writing in English, in contrast to German or Gaelic, gave him a sense of freedom and belonging on “the streets” where English was so prevalent. Understanding Hamilton’s choice of language helps us to understand more about his family history and culture.  

  Books are powerful tools. They can inspire, encourage, and teach their readers. To keep “Anti-German” literature from inspiring people, the Nazi regime had ritual book burnings in which thousands of Jewish books were burned. On the very first page of The Pages, we are introduced to the narrator, a book who has been saved from the book burning of May 1933. When I realized that Hamilton used a book as the narrator, I was curious to why he made that stylistic choice. Hamilton explained that he chose The Rebellion by Joseph Roth to narrate this story because it was the book that one of his relatives saved from being destroyed. Many years later, as Hamilton got to hold the book in his hands, he was curious about where the book had been and what it had seen. These questions inspired him to let The Rebellion guide him. He stepped back as the author and allowed the voice of The Rebellion to take center stage. By using an inanimate object as the narrator, Hamilton hopes that his readers will feel a sense of helplessness. Hamilton admits that “a book cannot actually do anything. They cannot stop somebody from saying something or affecting people’s actions.” I admit, the narrator’s lack of ability to act or change the story’s course made me frustrated. The frustration and helplessness that I felt parallels the helplessness the characters felt as they were searching for their identities and places in the world. Hamilton appointed The Rebellion as the narrator to creatively connect his readers to the characters in the story. 

Jewish Woman Writers – Sophie Levenson Conference Blog

On Friday morning, Allison Schachter of Vanderbilt University shared her research on a number of women writers who worked in a global Jewish context in the 20th century. Through her speech, I learned about the experience of isolation shared by many of these women writers—something that was elucidated in the writings of Debora Vogel, who lived between 1902 and 1942. According to Professor Schachter, Vogel was born in Galicia and educated in a number of languages, including Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Her work bounced between these languages while also bouncing between styles of writing: while she began as a Hebrew poet, Vogel later published a number of “prose montages” in Yiddish.

In our class, we have explored a variety of short stories and essays from a vast range of languages. I have read all of them in English; many are translated editions. Something that became clear to me after learning about Debora Vogel’s writing is that the language in which an artist chooses to write is a significant choice—it denotes culture, indicates personal history; language means something. When Vogel wrote in Hebrew, she was largely dismissed as a “Hebrew nationalist,” because she was Jewish. When writing in Yiddish, Vogel’s work was widely ignored; Yiddish was a language for women, for feminine men—not for real writers. But Vogel herself saw Yiddish as an international Jewish language, which is an incredibly powerful idea. Language, most of the time, is regional, meaning that distance is often a barrier in communication, even in a modern world where mail moves quickly and people can travel the globe in fewer than eighty days. Yiddish was a solution to that problem in the 20th century, existing as the universal solvent for whatever might stand in the way of international Jewish communication and connection.

The power of language is remarkably delicate. Using Yiddish to communicate artistic thought across the globe is a remarkable thing, especially for a Jewish people living far and wide in a post-diaspora world. Jewish literature demands an audience; the Jewish people demand literature; Yiddish was, in the 20th century, the tool that would bring Jewish literature around the world to its people. This momentous solution, however, was held captive by misogyny. Women were not credited with the intellectual power that they very much possessed, and Yiddish was associated with women, so the language lost its credit, too. The effects of this are clear in the way that the literary world of the last century refused to acknowledge the value of Vogel’s work. Language is as vulnerable to social marginalization as people are.

Interpreting the Significance of Women’s Internationalism and Jewish World Literature

The presentation by Allison Shachter focused on women’s internationalism and Jewish world literature, exploring the contributions and experiences of Jewish women writers in the 20th century. The speaker highlighted the exclusion of women writers from mainstream literary movements and the erasure of their complexities in the process. The speaker focused on modern short stories and novels because these genres are secular, important, and social and are considered to be the women’s greatest prose. The speaker then introduced several female Jewish writers, including Leah Goldberg, Elisheva Bikovdky, Dvora Baron, and Debora Vogel, who challenged the norms that defined the rules of art, artists, literature and new forms of Jewish collective attachments.

The presentation argued that these women writers responded to the political and social transformations of their time, challenging the norms and rules of art, literature, and Jewish collective attachments. They resisted the pull of national languages and interrogated the boundaries of Jewish and non-Jewish culture, offering a feminist critique of the economic crisis of their time and documenting the relationship between the artist and society.

One of the writers highlighted in the presentation is Debora Vogel, who was educated in German, Jewish, Yiddish and Hebrew and embraced Jewish ideologies. She was the editor of a modernist journal and expressed frustration with the conservative circles of the time. In 1935, she published her only collection of montages, offering a revolutionary space for feminist critique and representing the struggle of the artist to survive and maintain value. The presentation also mentioned Lorraine Hansberry and Tillie Olsen, who faced FBI scrutiny, and recognized their shared struggle as minority women writers. The author argued that it is important to push against the boundaries of world Jewish literature and to recognize the contributions of these writers.

From this presentation, I learned about the experiences and contributions of Jewish women writers in the 20th century and the challenges they faced in the literary world. I was struck by the author’s argument that these writers offered a feminist critique of the economic crisis of their time and documented the relationship between the artist and society.

In conclusion, the presentation provides valuable insights into the experiences and contributions of Jewish women writers in the 20th century. It highlights the challenges they faced in the literary world and the ways in which they responded to the political and social transformations of their time. It is a reminder of the importance of recognizing the contributions of minority writers and the role that literature plays in documenting and critiquing the conditions of our time.

The presentation by Shai Ginsberg explored the intersection of world literature, Jewish literature, and the question of the law. It started by examining the idea of inclusion and exclusion in the category of Jewish literature, and how this affects its standing in the literary world. The speaker noted that the secularisation of Jewish literature emerged as early as the 18th century, but it was not until later that scholars began to relate it to the European notion of literature, leading to a more expansive definition of Jewish literature. However, the speaker also raises questions about the role of religion in Jewish literature and whether it should be included in the definition.

The speaker discussed the economic and political context behind the emergence of Jewish literature as a world literature. He noted that Jewish literature’s circulation was heavily reliant on the circulation of religious texts and raised questions about the endpoint of Jewish literature. The presentation also explored the ambiguities of Jewish literature in the literature of the Haskalah in the Russian Empire. Some texts may have been written on behalf of the state as part of its Jewish policies, raising questions about how such texts can be considered world literature. The speaker then shifted focus to the function of reading and thinking about Jewish literature, emphasising the centrality of questions about who reads, under what circumstances, and how texts are translated and disseminated. The current reception of a text is what matters, and the speaker questioned the alignment of our literary vision with that of a historical text and what to do when the world defies our vision.

Finally, the speaker turns to the example of S. Y. Agnon’s novella “In the Heart of the Seas,” to illustrate some of the complexities involved in reading and interpreting Hebrew literature. He noted that at the time Jehoshua was writing his novella, Hebrew literature was in the midst of a sea change, as many Jews were immigrating from Eastern Europe to Mandatory Palestine, which was emerging as the centre of Hebrew letters. However, the political context was complicated, as the British denied the Jewish collective presence in the territory, even though Jews made up 30% of the overall population of Palestine. The speaker suggested that the prospects for Hebrew literature were very much on the way to becoming a major literature, both politically and literary, even though it was still the literature of a persecuted minority dispersed around the globe.

In conclusion, the presentation highlighted the complexities involved in defining Jewish literature, the political and economic context surrounding its emergence, and the function of reading and thinking about Jewish literature. By examining the example of S. Y. Agnon’s novella “In the Heart of the Seas,” the speaker provided a concrete example of the challenges involved in reading and interpreting Hebrew literature. This presentation is a valuable contribution to the study of world literature and Jewish literature, and provides a nuanced and thoughtful approach to the question of the law in relation to these fields.


The importance of a modern Jewish canon

I had the opportunity to attend the third panel of the Global Jewish Modernism Lab Conference on Friday, February 10th, which contained two presentations.

The first was by Monique Balbuena, who presented on “Transnational Sephardic Poetry”. Balbuena explored the use of Ladino as a written language and the lack of significant cultural production in the language. It was most interesting to hear about the Sephardic poets who are reviving the language through their works, like Clarisse Nicoidski. The course Mapping Jewish Modernism introduced me to the topic of Jewish modernist literature for the first time, so everything is still new to me. Hearing about Nicoidski’s bilingual English-Ladino book of poems, “Ojos, las manos, la boca” was therefore truly eye-opening, since I had never encountered this kind of bilingual poetry before I was struck by how these poems deal with the loss of connection and celebrate the Sephardic Jewish experience through memories, traditions, and the search for identity, themes that we have seen repeatedly in works we have discussed in class.

The second presentation, given by Saskia Ziolkowski, delved into the significance of Modern Jewish Italian Writing as World Literature. Ziolkowski discussed what constitutes Jewish literature and its importance in the Italian context, using the author Elsa Morante as an example. The discussion touched upon the tension between Jewish identity and the feeling of not belonging, alienation, and rejection that comes with having multiple or even split identities (e. g. being Jewish, Italian etc.). To me, it seemed like being Jewish was often deemed insignificant in Italy, I was disheartened by this realization. At the same time, I was thrilled to see that the presentation highlighted the importance of Jewish Italian Literature.

Overall, the panel provided enlightening insights into the issue of Jewishness in literature and the tension it creates in terms of identity. Through the works of Sephardic poets and Jewish Italian writers, the panel demonstrated the importance of preserving cultural heritage and exploring the connection between language, identity, and history. The most valuable message I received from attending the panel was that specific languages like Ladino and specific identities like Jewishness in Italian literature have been sidelined. By discussing these topics, we gain enlightening information about those obscured minorities. I not only learned about important writers and their formative works, but I also saw how it ties in well with what we have been learning in the Mapping Jewish Modernism Course throughout the semester. We read several texts where the challenges faced by Jewish writers like Franz Kafka or Jewish protagonists like Leopold Bloom emphasize the importance of a modern Jewish canon in literature just as much as this panel did.


Identity Mistranslated: Borchardt’s Literary Project (Maggie Wolfe)

Prior to Adi Nestor’s presentation at the Global Jewish Modernism Conference on February 10th, 2023, I had never heard of Rudolf Borchardt or his project to create a German literary canon to rival that of the Italians and the English primarily through the art of translation, but I did harbor an interest in the act of translating itself. In a 2012 article, Ryan Bloom provides an overview of the various translations and mistranslations of the first line of L’Étranger by Albert Camus: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Is she? That article is what prompted me to study French, so that I could read Camus in its original language. It’s what prompted me to attempt to learn to read Russian in order to best understand Dostoevsky. But what about translation not as an individual literary project but as a comprehensive political agenda? 

Nestor began her presentation with a big question and only complicated its answer as she went on: what is the distinction between a German and a Jewish identity? Rudolf Borchardt was a prototypical case of a bourgeois assimilationist Jew in early 20th century Germany. His parents both converted to Protestantism. Borchardt therefore defined himself as a strictly German, Protestant translator-poet. His style was, in Nestor’s words, “formalist” and purposefully “archaic”, in an attempt to embrace a German traditionalism that never necessarily existed, and which utilizes artful and extensive fictive elements in order to “correct” the past, to create the traditions to which he wanted to adhere. Nestor supplied Borchardt’s Book of Joram as an example of the prototypical work of his German Traditionalist project. It is an attempt to write an apocryphal, Germanic biblical text using almost entirely Lutheran German outside of several deliberate neologisms. The ending to the epic poem is distinctly New Testament: a new messiah born as a redeemer to purge his progenitors. 

Borchardt was determinedly Christian, but in his translations he could never escape an association with Judaism which would only be cemented when the Nazis banned his “Jewish” works. His works are subconsciously acutely related to the so-called “East Prussian Process” of assimilation according to Nestor: a total subsumption of religious Judaism in order to embrace one’s Germanness, an embrace of “one nation, one language”. Not only was Borchardt’s work concerned with Jewish themes and motifs beneath the surface (dissatisfaction, self-hatred, reculturation), but his very act of constant translation, of being uncomfortable in just one language, is distinctly Jewish and modern. The talk left me pondering pre-war German-Jewish culture, a culture to which I have some connection: what is the distinction, if any, between Borchardt’s wandering German, searching for purpose in language, and the stereotype of the wandering Jew? Does there need to be one? Is there a point where the distinction becomes regressive and anti-modern, as suggested by Nestor by way of Theodor Adorno?

What does it mean to know a language? Insights from the What is Multilingualism conference

During the “What is Multilingualism” conference, Dr. Levy noted in her talk that “…Hebrew has never walked alone” in its evolution as a language and dispersion over time. This sentiment has stayed with me past the conference as I reflect upon the languages in my own life, which include Italian, English, and Hebrew—their history, role in forming my identity, and the lack of singularity in “knowing a language” (Does this require fluency? Comprehension? Something entirely different?). Dr. Levy’s argument of language as a state of being—a state that does not belong to anyone but is inhabited by people at different moments in time—resonates with me and has empowered me to envision language as a more fluid and emotional phenomenon. Language is not owned– it is performed, adapted, perceived. It is functional, acting to facilitate communication, yet simultaneously emotional, bridging connections between people and shaping their identity. In the context of Jewish modernist texts, language often acts in this identity-forming role, revealing the identity of authors themselves, the ideas that are lost or gained when these works are translated, and illuminating the diverse experiences of Jewish characters from across Europe and the globe. It is difficult to define what makes a text a “Jewish text,” just as it is difficult to define the boundaries of knowing a language, or even what makes a singular language, if it has been so heavily influenced by others throughout history. Perhaps, though, expanding both definitions will add new perspectives and nuance to our understanding of Jewish modernist works.

Along with this discussion of the difficulty in defining language and multilingualism, I enjoyed the thought experiment that many of the panels from “What is multilingualism?” proposed: considering multilingualism throughout history. In our class, we often examine the broader historical context of the texts we read, and after attending these conferences, I would argue that the same should be done when discussing the languages themselves that the texts are written in. I found the example of Ladino from Dr. Balbuena’s talk particularly relevant, as for many authors, writing in this language was a conscious choice that subsequently reflects the emotional sentiment and cultural context of this time. Even if authors were not native speakers of the language, Dr. Balbuena points to examples where Ladino simply “felt right” for particular pieces. For instance, the use of Ladino in Sephardic poetry when discussing death, even while the language itself was falling out of use. This also calls into question the differential use of certain languages, not only based on topic of writing, but also based on who was writing– which languages are reserved for academics only? Religious leaders? Workers? The wealthy? Dr. Balbuena’s talk discussed examples of this phenomenon, such as the use of Hebrew in academic and religious works, and the use of Ladino by families as well as its resurgent use in modern and contemporary literature.

The users and uses of languages have varied throughout history, and continue to vary based on context, geographic location, and a multitude of additional factors. Still, this premise that language reflects the person using it and the time of writing is indeed important to consider, especially in the context of Jewish literature. This idea resonates with many of the works we have read, particularly those that choose to use Yiddish during a time with a diminishing number of Yiddish speakers and the rising use of Hebrew for academic and religious texts (for instance, the film East and West or Fradl Shtok’s From the Jewish Provinces). To borrow Dr. Levy’s phrasing, such works do not “walk alone,” but instead walk alongside rich historical and cultural context. As such, I have now come to appreciate that language can provide clues into this context that we should continue to examine and integrate into our understanding of Jewish modernist works.

Exceptional Junctions of Jewishness with African American and Latin-diasporic Cultures

After attending the first and second panels of the Jewish Literature, World Literature conference, there were many takeaways that I was presented with as well as a mass of new information that I learned, primarily from Dr. Schachter’s and Dr. Levy’s talks. A recurring theme for me through both of these presentations was the role of women in Judaism and in Jewish culture and how they are portrayed in literature. Dr. Schachter mentioned that Jewish women writers themselves were often seen as “hysterical or historical”, and I find this to be an accurate description of many women writers I’ve read from the age of revolution up until the modern era. Names who are widely read now such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath, who is the namesake of the phenomenon that states poets are more susceptible to mental illness than other creative writers, were all women who were seen as emotionally and mentally distraught, yet still made their way into copious literary canons today. I believe that the racialization of Jewish women authors in particular also added to such a categorization and this drew parallels for me within the literature of African-American women writers who were often seen as too radical or dismissed as serious authors altogether. I was quite pleased when Dr. Schachter compared Lorraine Hansberry and Tillie Olsen in her presentation because this reflected very similarly to the comparison I was making on my own as a graduate student in German Studies who often looks at the intersections of the African American and Afro-German diasporas through music and literature. From listening to Dr. Schachter, something I would communicate to a broader audience is not only the affinities that women writers of other backgrounds share with Jewish women, but also how stories of Jewishness intersect with other marginalized groups. For example, this conference, I was unaware that Lorraine Hansberry had created a play with a Jewish protagonist and having been written by a Black woman who has faced her own share of discrimination in 1950’s America, I can imagine the analogies Hansberry was able to create in her work.

Since I am unfamiliar with the plot of this play, my curiosity would be to discover what issues faced by the Jewish characters can also be juxtaposed onto Hansberry’s own experiences and that of the experiences of the African American community as well. To relate this to Mapping Jewish Modernism, I feel as if this is a different type of mapping Jewishness- not necessarily referring to geographical regions, but looking at what spaces Jewishness also permeates on a social level when it comes to interaction with other minority groups in one area. This subject is discussed in Jewish literature specifically concerning the inhabitation of ghettos and what communities this encompasses in different parts of the world. In this same vein, another linguistic intersection that was new to me was the language of Ladino. I had never heard of this before and now I am anxious to learn about the Jewish experiences in Hispanic and Latin American cultures. As a Spanish speaker, I could understand small excerpts of Ladino that were shared by Dr. Levy and Dr. Balbuena and it felt similarly to how I can also understand certain words in Yiddish due to my knowledge of German. I am vaguely aware of Jewish authors that lived in Brazil and wrote in Portuguese, but I was not aware that Ladino was also a language that emerged from Jewish migration. My greatest takeaway from the Jewish Literature, World Literature conference is that there are many more overlaps with my own research interests and cultures with Jewishness and Jewish culture than I had initially expected. This excites me for future topics on Jewishness that I will learn about and what will continue to be covered via Mapping Jewish Modernism, as I will be looking for more ways to relate to Jewish literature through my own background as a student and an academic.

Thinking Jewish Modernism through the lens of intersectionality with Allison Schachter

   In her talk entitled ‘Women’s Internationalism and Jewish Literature’, Allison Schachter highlights the fact that women’s absence from the canon of Jewish Modernism means that we know less about Jewish Modernism than we think. Her research makes use of a holistic approach to women’s writing in Jewish Modernism that puts the emphasis on reading different Jewish women writers as well as non-Jewish women associated to Jewish modernism together and in their own contexts in order to bring to light the broader experience of women writers in Jewish modernism. This not only broadens what we might think of as Jewish Modernism but also forces a shift of what is already known, as it highlights the fact that the conception we have of Jewish modernism as it is formed mostly by Jewish male writers and artists has to be reevaluated in light of what is being excluded.

   In her talk Schachter underlines the tendency to characterize Jewish women writers as ‘hysterical’, which raises several questions. What is it about the position of Jewish women writers that is so alienating? How do Jewish modernist women writers fit in a wider context of women modernist writers being labeled as hysterical? How does this topic of female hysteria in modernism fit into a longer history of this term? Are there separate histories of the term dependent on the other identities of women writers, such as being Jewish or African-American?

   Allison Schachter indicates that although new rights and freedoms were appearing for women writers during the modernist period, these were only maintained for those included in and protected by citizenship, which in many places would have excluded Jewish women as well as African-American women. Her attempt to think in terms of intersectionality about what it means to be a women, while also being a writer, while also being Jewish or African American, brings to light the attempted project of the book ‘Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf’ by Natania Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld, attempts to study how these identities interact when they are not united in one person but rather in one marriage. Allison Schachter focuses specifically on writers such as Lorraine Hansberry who are examples of modernist women writers on the fringes of Jewish Modernism. Hansberry was an African-American writer and was married to a Jewish man, thus thinking of her in the context of Jewish Modernism in some sense mirrors Rosenfeld’s project in ‘Outsiders Together’ as her association to Jewish Modernism, is – as it is for Virginia Woolf – an association through marriage. Schachter suggests that Hansberry experienced both antisemitism and racism, and that much of her writing was left unpublished, which was typical for women writers associated with Jewish Modernism. To explore these processes of exclusion and its consequences on Jewish modernist writers and writing is to historicize the creation of the canons of Jewish modernist writing we read today and to take part in the creation of a new, more inclusive literary history.

Negotiating Jewishness: A Symptom of Modernity

Both Lital Levy and Adi Nester’s research projects revolve around the complexities of a negotiated, modern Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Levy traces the post-life of British Jewish writer Grace Aguilar’s The Vale of Cedars by examining the universal and particular elements of its subsequent translations into important vernacular Jewish languages, such as German, Hebrew, Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic.[1] Each translator had local, specific, ideological versions of Jewish modernity which they aspired to communicate to their respective linguistic and national audiences. Though not the first Hebrew translation of The Vale of Cedars, Abraham Friedberg’s 1875 translation became the textual basis for subsequent translations. Whereas Aguilar’s text could be considered in part as an appeal to her fellow British Jewish women to retain their Jewish identity as they were confronted with pressure to convert to Christianity from British Protestant society, it was also an appeal to the British gentile audience, itself, to respect the culturally assimilated Jewish population. This cultural assimilation can perhaps be seen as an outgrowth of the Jewish Enlightenment, with which Levy is concerned. Without removing the female character, Friedberg and subsequent translators replaced the Jewish female protagonist with one who was male. Levy argues that protecting feminine virtues and asserting Jewish masculinity were important elements for the male translators’ own interpretations of Enlightenment. Writing in vernacular Jewish languages, these translators did not have to appeal to gentile audiences, enabling a significantly more “Jewish” text than might have initially been feasible in the British context.

In her examination of the life and literary career of German (Jewish) essayist, poet, and translator Rudolf Borchardt, Nester attempts to comprehend the significance of Jewishness for the studied author. Though of Jewish descent, Borchardt’s family had converted to Protestantism. Despite Borchardt’s Jewish heritage, he held nationalist and authoritarian political views. Recognized as being Jewish by the German Jewish population and German antisemites alike, he often had to defend his body of work, which he saw as representative of his perceived place in leading high German culture. According to Borchardt, the only way for the Jewish population to integrate into German society was through conversion to Christianity, rejecting any notion that one could privately be Jewish and consider themselves to be German. Here, we see the limitations of Jewish Enlightenment in an increasingly nationalistic and right-wing society.

Levy’s case study presents an image of Jewishness which is international, though the particularities of each linguistic and cultural context are crucial to internal community dynamics. However, through the translations, each linguistic community’s notion of Jewishness is strengthened through the ideological particularities the translator imparts to their respective audience. I admittedly find Nester’s case study problematic. What seems to be a literary analysis comes off as an attempt to psychologize Borchardt. Jewish identity, and any identity in the modern world, are not only self-defined, but defined in relation to others. Whose definition of Jewishness are we considering? That of the antisemitic National Socialists? That of the broadly defined German Jewish community?  Or that of Borchardt, himself? Self-definition should be prioritized, but given the historical context, that of the would-be perpetrators of the Holocaust, cannot be ignored, even if this author’s emphasis is deemed anachronistic.

[1] I include German as a vernacular Jewish language due to the birth of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany, which was led by culturally assimilated Jews.

Rethinking the Canons with Jewish Literatures

Participants at the Global Jewish Modernism conference have demonstrated, though in different ways, that the boundaries of Jewish literatures are never stable but always liquid. They do not conform to the strict models of national literatures and make us rethink both literary and academic canons.

In the first place, Jewish literatures are often formed across borders, tracing unexpected connections between different cultures, countries, and languages. A perfect example of this transnationality is the diasporic Sephardic poetry discussed by Monique Balbuena. The map of these writings would include, among others, Bosnia and France of Clarisse Nicoïdski (1938-1996), Greece and Israel of Moshe Ha-Elion (1925-2022) and Margalit Matitiahu, Argentina of Juan Gelman (1930-2014), Bulgaria and Mexico of Myriam Moscona. Although for many of the authors, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) is not the first language, they decided to write in Ladino or incorporate Judeo-Spanish elements in their texts in other languages. In their works, Judeo-Spanish acts as an intimate language of memory, exile, and trauma (not coincidentally, both Ha-Elion and Matitiahu wrote their poems about the atrocities of the Holocaust in Ladino and not in Hebrew). However, Judeo-Spanish represents not only death but also life: authors across the globe revitalize the dying vernacular of the Sephardic Jews, and paradoxically, this fragile language, which has no official status in any country, creates a tangible network of Sephardic poets and their texts.

Moreover, Jewish literatures frequently trouble established rules and predominant narratives within the existing scholarship and criticism, as Saskia Ziolkowski explained in her presentation “Modern Jewish Italian Writing as World Literature.” Academic works on world literature tended to focus mostly on the writings from the “centers,” ignoring the “peripheries” that refer both to Italian literature (since Italy is a Southern-European and less “powerful” country) and “minor” Jewish literatures. At the same time, in global Jewish literary studies, Jewish Italian writers do not gain much attention (apart from the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi), though many key twentieth-century Italian authors were of Jewish background (Italo Svevo, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia, Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani, to name just a few). Rather than operating through labels and oppositions (“Italian” versus “Jewish”), one might see Jewish Italian literature as a fluid space that also includes non-Jewish authors. Some of them (Igiaba Scego and Claudio Magris) investigate the often silenced role of Italy in the persecution of Jews, while others (Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Nadia Terranova, and Jhumpa Lahiri) engage with works of the Jewish Italian authors of the twentieth century in their own novels. Such an unusual look at modern and contemporary Italian writings illuminates how “Jewish Italian literature is.”

This “intrinsic” Jewishness helps reconsider Italian literature from a transnational perspective. Many Italian authors (especially women writers), both Jewish and non-Jewish, that were mentioned in Saskia Ziolkowski’s presentation, have been recently (re)translated into English and other languages. As a result, Italian literature in its international reception is frequently associated with writers who exceed the rigid definitions of the Italian literary canon and national and linguistic identity. Some of these authors are particularly important to my own work. Helena Janeczek comes from a Polish Jewish family, but she moved from Germany to Italy and started writing in Italian. She is one of the most prominent contemporary Italian writers and the author of the award-winning novel The Girl with the Leica about the photographer Gerda Taro (I worked as a translation editor for the Russian edition of the book which came out in 2021). The Turinese Marina Jarre (1925-2016) was born in Riga to an Italian (Waldensian) mother and a Jewish-Latvian-Russian father and, similarly to Janeczek, later switched from German (the language spoken in her family) to Italian. Her autobiographical works are being at once rediscovered in Italy and discovered in English translations by Ann Goldstein, like Jarre’s memoir Return to Latvia that I recently reviewed for Reading in Translation. Multilingualism, translation, memory, and migration are only a few keywords that align both Janeczek and Jarre with many writers discussed during the conference “Jewish Literature, World Literature.”

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