This year marks the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel, and Leeds Jewish academic, Ian Vellins feels it is about time more of us explored the wealth of literature its writers have to offer. Ian has previously lectured as part of Makor’s Open Learning university course in Modern Hebrew and is currently contributing to a future publication on the history of the Jews in the 20th century. An Oxford graduate and retired immigration judge, recent postgraduate studies in Modern History and Holocaust Studies have drawn him closer to the work of Israeli authors. Leading an Israeli literature course at the Makor in November, he hopes by better understanding its literature, participants will be able to fully appreciate how the state of Israel has developed since 1948.
Ian begins by talking of how a nation built around conflict has shaped the writer’s role: “Israeli literature has been much more concerned with politics than most country’s literature. If you look at British literature from post-war to now, the bestsellers tend to be focused on crime, domestic issues, or romance, rather than the status of Britain as a political entity within the modern world. Whereas the greatest Israeli novelists are writing characters that constantly think about their existence and what’s happening in the country.”
He believes that much western art lacks the political urgency that drives Israeli writers: “They’re not just talking about daffodils in a meadow nodding their heads, they’re talking about matters that affect their lives there: generational issues, going to war, soldiers, Holocaust survivors and relationships with Arab neighbours, all within the poetic space.”
Ian highlights how the literature’s distinctly utilitarian role means it more readily becomes part of the Israeli people’s everyday lives: “A lot of Israeli poets, their lyrics are set to song, so a lot of the hits you hear on the radio in Israel are often very good pieces of poetry. Over here, the lyrics of mainstream pop songs are often fairly meaningless. But in Israel the words are very important and its poetry is a very fertile way of understanding the psyche there.”
He believes literature offers a rare window through which we can not only view the current state of Israel but understand the changing mind-set of a nation throughout a turbulent history: “The first authors of the post-war ‘golden generation’ were talking about the development of the country and the draining of the marshes and the building of the cities. After that you get people talking about more concise issues of politics. Later you’ve got the protest novelists who are writing with characters who are disillusioned about the way the country’s going.”
In recent years, the changing landscape of Israel, such as its development into a global tech powerhouse, is shaping the nature of its literary offering but he’s confident the great Jewish tradition of wit is still going strong: “Now you’ve got a modern generation writers who are writing rather pithy, very humorous short stories. If you contrast with what people were reading in 1958 compared to what people are reading in 2018, there’s a huge change. Cities have built up and the country’s gone technical. Huge parts of the population are no longer farmers in the Galilee, they’re now working in high tech industries in Tel Aviv.”
He reminds us that Hebrew as a working language of a country only started when independence was created: “Hebrew literature did exist but it was mainly biblical and people weren’t writing modern stuff. You had writers in Poland and Ukraine and the Pale of Settlement in Russia who were using Hebrew to write biblical type poetry, but as soon as a state of Israel was established and Hebrew was being used a common language between people, new words come in, and it blossomed into a completely unique modern language. Just by being spoken it’s constantly being reshaped, reflecting a changing population, with Arab slang even starting to creep in.”
Questioning whether there still remains a place for Yiddish in modern literature, Ian replies: “It was being written at the turn of the century, but as soon as the state of Israel developed, the prime minister of the day, Ben-Gurion was determined that Hebrew should replace Yiddish in common usage. When there was a paper shortage during the first years of the state, he didn’t supply newspaper print to Yiddish newspapers so they all virtually closed down.”
For a Jewish community wishing to keep in touch with Israel, he believes exploring its literary canon is vital: “If they’re not conversant with what’s being written there, they’re not going to get a flavour of Israeli life.” Speaking of its expansion into western genres, he suggests that we may already be familiar with some of its output: “For people who enjoy reading crime, you’ve now got a whole genre of really good Israeli detective stories. On TV, some of the top American scripts are based on Israeli TV series. Gideon Raff who wrote Israel’s highest-rated drama Hatufim also went on to write the hit US drama Homeland.”
In terms of a good jumping off point for those looking to dip a toe into the canon, Ian recommends exploring the works of ‘golden era’ writers Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Ahron Applefeld: “They’ve been writing throughout the years of the state, and although their styles have changed during that time, they’ve remained extremely popular authors.”
The upcoming evening course at Makor, entitled Reflecting on Israeli Literature is a 10-week programme, covering a spectrum of Israeli authors. He believes there is a huge gap in Jewish lay culture in Leeds, and feels the course will go some way to tackling its dearth of accessible in-depth adult education: “Anyone who’s interested in religion can go to a shul and have sessions on the Torah but there’s very little in Leeds to further one’s education on general cultural matters.”
With a different theme each week, from the birth of Israel, to the Holocaust, Arab relations, and the generational divide – Ian is keen to welcome anyone interested in Jewish culture looking to expand their knowledge of literature. He’s quick to stress that participants will not be expected to read 10 novels, a curated selection of brief extracts forming the backbone of his whistle-stop tour of a nation’s literature and feels it is a rare opportunity to discover a wealth of authors that can be difficult to come by in the west: “I’ve chosen pieces of literature people wouldn’t come across by going to the library or their local bookshop – short stories, extracts from novels, poems we can read and discuss. I’ve been in contact with Israeli and American universities teaching Israeli literature and chosen what I think are the best examples of what is being taught at grad and postgrad level. Anyone who’s interested in Israel or reading as a whole will certainly find it interesting.”
Reflecting on Israeli Literature begins on 9th October at Makor. For more information contact Helen Frais on 0113 268 0899.