South Africa’s Inaugural Jewish Literary Festival: Why it’s all about the book

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I’ve had my nose buried in a book ever since I learned to read.

I delved deeper into why I — and millions of my fellow Jews around the world — feel so nourished and connected when reading, studying, discussing and talking about words.

These and other Jewish writers, descendants of our proud tradition of wordsmithery, enjoy far greater literary recognition than their numeric representation should allow.

A product of a Herzlia education, a BA in languages and a Jewish home (“I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.” — Elie Wiesel), I eat, sleep, breathe and engage with words every day. Whether I’m teaching plain language, writing an opinion piece, engaging with the world on Twitter, reading to my children or editing someone else’s words, words are my currency; it’s hard wired into my DNA.

Well aware of my own obsession with the magical dance of letters into syllables, words, phrases, sentences and verses, I’d never given much thought to the general Jewish affiliation to words — written, sung or spoken. I mean, I’ve always known we love books, stories, poetry, plays; I’ve just never linked this to our Jewish roots. So I delved deeper into why I — and millions of my fellow Jews around the world — feel so nourished and connected when reading, studying, discussing and talking about words.

I’m privileged to be a student again after an 18-year break — and this time it’s so much more civilised. Every Monday morning, I spend two hours engaging with Jewish life and thought in my Melton Year 1 study group; I haven’t felt this alive in a long time, devouring every word that Rebbetzin Maizels and Bryan Opert utter. And it’s the Melton methodology of text-based study that made me realise that, with apologies to Meghan Trainor, the relationship between Jews and words is ‘all about the’ book.

Melton brings 4000-year-old texts alive in the context of the modern world, making it clear why many say ours is not a bloodline, but a textline. The study of Torah and other Jewish texts has been central to religious life eversince biblical times, beginning with the Torah (the ‘book’). The Talmud and other rabbinic literature are early examples of Jews grappling with and debating the meaning of words and their significance — in this case, those God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Maimonides and other medieval writers continued this tradition, always going back to the Torah for the original text before examining the interpretations of the various rabbis and arriving at a conclusion. And so it continued through the centuries of commentaries, teaching and philosophy of the modern religious scholars and goes on today in the voices of modern Jewish writers, both religious and secular.

Literary critic George Steiner refers to the twentieth century language revolution in linguistics and language-based philosophy and criticism as “a second principal chapter, as it were, in the decisive interaction between Judaism and the genius of the spoken and written word.” (“Some Meta-Rabbis”, 1976). Steiner’s first principal chapter was the text-centric reconstruction of Judaism by the Rabbis in the Talmudic period. This ensured it survived the ruins of Jerusalem and became what Steiner describes as an “indestructible house of words”. Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, also refer to the Jewish people’s “deep sense of the importance of words” in their book jews and words (2012).

Jews have a tradition of explaining life through stories and know all too well there is no better way to make a point than to weave it into a captivating tale. The celebrated Israeli author, Shai Agnon, on receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, explained: “People’s talk and the stories they tell have been engraved on my heart, and some of them have flown into my pen.” The South African Jewish Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, explained why she wrote: “Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.”

These and other Jewish writers, descendants of our proud tradition of wordsmithery, enjoy far greater literary recognition than their numeric representation should allow. Although Jews account for around 0.2% of the world’s population, Jewish writers have won roughly 13% of the total number of Nobel prizes for Literature. Similarly, while occupying around 2% of the world’s population, Jewish writers have world’s population, Jewish writers have won roughly 13% of the total number of Nobel prizes for Literature. Similarly, while occupying around 2% of the population of the USA, American Jews have won a whopping 53% of the Pulitzer Prizes for Non-Fiction.

Over the years, as Jews have begun uniting over their love of words, Jewish book festivals have sprung up all over the world. And on 22 May 2016 South African Jews will join their counterparts throughout the world. I am thrilled to have been involved with planning the first Jewish Literary Festival in South Africa, to be held at the Gardens Community Centre in Cape Town on 22 May 2016. If you love books, Jewish literature, culture and conversation, don’t miss this jam-packed day of fascinating events. For more information, visit www.jewishliteraryfestival.co.za, like our Facebook page, Cape Town Jewish Literary Festival, follow us on Twitter @ JewishLitFest and book on Quicket.

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