Without geography, but with a bibliography: A translator discusses Amos Oz’s "Jews and Words"

Iaroslava Strikha (Copyright: Hromadske Radio)

Jews and Words, a collection of essays by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, has come out in Ukrainian (Dukh i Litera Publishing House). We are talking with the translator Iaroslava Strikha about the ideas discussed in this book and the difficulties of the translation.

Iaroslava Strikha:  This book by the distinguished Jewish writer Amos Oz was coauthored by his daughter, the historian Fania Oz-Salzberger. Oz is known primarily as a fiction author, including his book A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was adapted for the screen by director Natalie Portman, who also plays the leading role. A Tale of Love and Darkness depicts the formation of a person, a person in the word, the formation of a writer, as well as the formation of the young state of Israel.

The book Jews and Words, just published in Ukrainian by the Dukh i Litera Publishing House and in English by Yale University Press, is a collection of essays that explores what to do with literary tradition, so that all these figures do not throw a long shadow behind your back; how to interact with this productively; what to do if your identity is appropriated by a group that is disagreeable to you; and how to claim your own small place in a cultural field in frequently antagonistic dialogue with various people.

Iryna Slavinska:  That’s very interesting. Of course, we will be talking about what Israeli culture is, we will also be discussing this whole legacy that extends from various countries of the world, together with those people who came to Israel as immigrants and settlers during various migration periods. But first, perhaps, it is worth making a note on the margins about Amos Oz himself. I am sure that not many of our listeners have heard this name; at least not everyone will instantly recall who he is.

Iaroslava Strikha:  Amos Oz comes from our lands. His mother was from around Rivne. And they didn’t really fit into the realities of the new state after their move. They were very pained by this move. For them, it meant the loss of European culture, which they had rejected geographically, and over time the culture rejected them with the Holocaust. But they dreamed that their son would build a new culture. The son was a kind of Zionist dream of the 1950s. The son would be a word-man, but he would be a person of action. He would work on a kibbutz, he would create a garden where there was a desert…

Iryna Slavinska:  In the direct sense of this word. It’s not even a metaphor about the creation of Israel.

Iaroslava Strikha:  Absolutely. At the age of fifteen he did indeed join a kibbutz, where, ironically, he obtained what the preceding generation had had in Eastern Europe.

Iryna Slavinska:  Collective farms?

Iaroslava Strikha:  Yes. He weeded the soil there the same way, picked apples, with the difference that he discussed Liebknecht at the same time; in other words, everything that existed in the early twentieth century. Thus, the circle closed. What his parents had fled from, he revived in the new land. Perhaps we may have had Amos Oz, an excellent agronomist, but there would have been no Amos Oz the writer. But everything crashed because of the circumstance that he was absolutely unsuited to agriculture. Literature became enriched a bit, and the collective farm became slightly impoverished.

It is interesting that for a long time he was not allowed into the world of writing; he was not given a day off so that he could write. It was only once he had already written big international bestsellers that he was finally allotted three days for writing, two days for teaching (somewhere between kibbutzes he managed to graduate from the Department of Literature at the [Hebrew] University of Jerusalem, and on another day he had to work as a waiter at a kibbutz. He was no longer permitted to engage in agriculture because they realized that things were calmer like that.

Iryna Slavinska:  The people who emigrated at the beginning of the twentieth century, that is, the generation of Amos Oz’s parents, were people who were heading into the desert in the direct sense, in keeping with some theoretical modernizing project of a future state that they still did not possess but which eventually appeared. Does this passion exist in Amos Oz’s creative work? 

Iaroslava Strikha:  Yes, but he does not write about “they came to the desert.” Instead, he writes about this continuity; this is precisely what the book Jews and Words is about. Supposedly, owing to complex historical circumstances, there was a people that did not have a genealogy and no geography; instead, there was a lengthy bibliography. For him, this textual continuity, a life of words, is a very vital tradition. Perhaps it was a desert, but it was a desert populated by all the characters from the bibliography. It’s like a room that is standing empty at the moment because the homeowner has left for a minute, but in fact everything is there. All the furniture, someone’s crown, scepter, and mantle are lying there; you can simply throw them on yourself, try them on, continue all this.

In their book, Jews and Words, Amos Oz and his daughter focus on the most ancient texts. This is the Old Testament, these are medieval rabbinical commentaries, this is the cultural stratum, to which those groups that are not politically close to Oz are declaring an exclusive right of ownership right now. Oz is a liberal. Oz is somewhat of a leftist. Oz is one of the most consistent and most eloquent advocates of the two-state solution: a peaceful Palestine, a peaceful Israel. At the same time, active appellations to the ancient religious textual layer is now mostly being adopted by the Israeli right; it is being adopted by very religious groups. But Oz is an atheist. At the beginning of the book he says that he is an atheist of the Book from the People of the Book.

He thus tries to regain the right of secular liberals, too, to be involved in this tradition, to make use of it as their own tradition. And he says that discussions, disagreement, and a mistrust of authority are an integral part of this tradition. This is not a revolt against tradition, but the contrary. He says, therefore, that tradition cannot be so ossified as people make it for their political needs. It must be vital and full of the most diverse voices.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing to discuss this bookshelf. Are we talking exclusively about sacred texts or is there still room for secular texts in this book?

Iaroslava Strikha:  He focuses on sacred texts in this particular book. But there is sense to this, inasmuch as the book was written originally in English, then translated into Hebrew, but not by Oz. This means that this book is geared toward the Western audience and that it aims to show that in order to be a Jew it is not necessary to be a iudei [Israelite, Jew]. In other words, sacred text can be used not just in a sacred context; you are free to do whatever you like with it.

Iryna Slavinska:  If it’s written in English, can one say that this is a kind of export of Israeli culture? Why is it not written in Hebrew, not for the domestic reader?

Iaroslava Strikha:  I think it is written for everyone who is interested in literature. One way or another, each one of us has some kind of literary tradition with which we have various relationships, sometimes more antagonistic, sometimes more harmonious. But in my opinion, it is written particularly for the Jewish diaspora of America, which is not necessarily in agreement with Israel’s current policies, and the book is designed to demonstrate that even if you do not agree with certain policies, there is still room for you in this continuity; in this long, interesting history you will still be writing—or be able to write—whatever you want.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have already talked about why the book is in English, but when we talk about Israel, there is, of course, a dichotomy between Yiddish and Hebrew. And appealing to Hebrew-language texts against the background of the loss of the Yiddish language, particularly by those immigrants who, like Amos Oz’s parents, moved to Israel, is, in fact, a very broad subject that can be discussed. Is this subject raised in the book at all? And does it make sense, perhaps, to talk about Amos Oz’s position on that which concerns Yiddish in Israel?

Iaroslava Strikha:  It seems to me that this subject is not broached in this book, but the subject is undoubtedly very broad and very painful. That is, on the one hand, it was possible to raise Hebrew from scratch, which was not a native, first language in the late nineteenth century…

Iryna Slavinska:  And to create a common language for everyone who came to Israel.

Iaroslava Strikha:  Yes. He says that Hebrew is the most successful start-up of Israel, known as the “start-up nation.” The biggest start-up is Hebrew, which was raised from scratch to seven million native speakers a hundred years ago. But this happened at the expense of Yiddish, a secular, democratic language that was lost. Educated scribes and wise men did not speak Hebrew, but they read it, they wrote it; they created cultural production with it. But even women wrote in democratic, popular Yiddish, as well as those who did not have access to an expensive education. But, to a significant degree this tradition perished during the Holocaust. In Israel it had to die in order to make room for Hebrew. Right now, I’m trying to recall whether there is something about Yiddish in this book. I think that there’s nothing.

Iryna Slavinska:  But perhaps we know something about Amos Oz’s position; maybe he says something about this elsewhere.

Iaroslava Strikha:  Unfortunately, right now I can’t say anything about this. There is another book published by Dukh i Litera, which I translated as well, in which Yiddish is discussed at length. This is a collection of essays by Cynthia Ozick, Metaphor and Memory.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is worth mentioning her in this sense. What does it say about Yiddish?

Iaroslava Strikha:  She says that a new Yiddish is being created on the basis of the English language. Yiddish is translated simply as “Jewish.” In the researcher’s opinion, this can be any language spoken by Jews that is filled with Jewish meanings and which is supplemented by ancient Hebrew (of the nineteenth century) or Hebrew elements today. She claims that the new Yiddish is emerging right now from English. For Cynthia Ozick, the loss of Yiddish is a more painful and more personal subject.

Instead, Amos Oz is a person of the Hebrew language, a person who grew up with Hebrew. But Cynthia Ozick was born in the late 1920s in America, where she grew up with Yiddish in the large Yiddish-speaking diaspora in New York. During this period a very picturesque Yiddish Modernism was developing. After all, the history of Yiddish literature is absolutely synchronous and very similar to the history of Ukrainian literature in this regard. The 1920s and 1930s are also equally mythologized, powerful, and creative. Over time this, too, disappeared before her very eyes. In her opinion, with the disappearance of Yiddish as a shared cultural territory, Jewish identity in America began to erode. Her essays are an attempt to build some kind of different construct that would provide support for this identity.

Iryna Slavinska:  In view of everything that has been discussed here, what can be said about Israeli culture, Hebrew-language culture? Is it the loss of continuity of the language that remained there, in Europe, in history, prior to the Holocaust, or the rise of a modernizing project to create a new country, a new language, a new people, a new reality?

Iaroslava Strikha:  This is very interesting. On the one hand, the revival of Hebrew is a project that is directed very much toward the future. After all, languages take from earlier books. A fusion comes about in which the modernizing project is rooted in something ancient. But Oz says that even at the moment where the majority of those most ancient texts are written, Hebrew is no longer a spoken language. In other words, such a beautiful construction on a large textual foundation, but any attempts to say that this is the past which is being reconstructed would be false. And he articulates this actively in dialogues with right-wing, fanatically religious opponents.

Iryna Slavinska:  And what do we hear from him, an opponent of the right-wing program? As far as I understood from his essays, this political platform is read and considered, although the essays themselves are supposedly about sacred texts; at the same time, they are very politically charged.

Iaroslava Strikha:  Yes, because the opponent is also actively manipulating all this. For example, the new settlements are justified by appeals to those same texts. There is not just literary analysis in this book, even though we can talk about this, too.

Iryna Slavinska:  We were talking about this politically charged content. It is interesting to talk about the arguments through dialogue with such opponents. What arguments can be heard from Amos Oz, who is not only a literary specialist or analyst of literary texts, but a political figure?

Iaroslava Strikha:  At the intersection of politics and culture. As far as I can remember the text, it says that culture cannot be perceived as an ossified construct for once and for all. Culture is supposed to be dynamic because otherwise it turns into a museum exhibit that is simply dusted off, but it is no longer living. In other words, those who supposedly champion the preservation of this culture talk precisely about preservation in the format of a dummy, not in the format of a living entity that is evolving. In order for this culture to exist, it is important for people to interact with it not just in the format of conservation and mummification.

Iryna Slavinska:  It occurred to me that the same can be said of many cultures. Appealing to tradition is eternal.

Iaroslava Strikha:  I think that in order to read this book, you don’t have to know about the political situation in Israel or the names of Amos Oz’s opponents because the things that are described there are easily projected onto the relationship with the tradition of a representative of some culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes. We still have a bit of time. Maybe it would be worthwhile mentioning literary analysis. Some literature should be heard in our conversation, not just politics. What interesting discoveries does Amos Oz make in his approaches to sacred texts? As a philologist, what struck you while working on this text?

Iaroslava Strikha:  I was struck by the fact that he emphasizes the voices that seemingly appear in the text involuntarily and which are marginal. These are women’s voices, in particular. He tries to see the living person where we see dusty lines of books. That which smells of ink and dust to us smells of blood to him; smells of sweat, smells of this whole, unendurably beautiful life.

Iryna Slavinska:  There is also a very important question that I have not asked yet. If we are talking about a translation of this kind of text from the English language, to what extent is it transparent English? Does this English contain foreign borrowings, perhaps very complex quotations or allusions?

Iaroslava Strikha:  His English is significantly more transparent than his Hebrew, for example. The biggest challenge in translating this type of text from the English is that in the English language the words ievrei and iudei are translated with the same word [Jew]. For him it would be easier to write in our country because in Ukrainian there are two words. That is, you can be a ievrei and not be a iudei, and you can adopt Judaism without being a Jew. In fact, this book tries, to a significant degree, to separate these two concepts. But the translator, who has the English text in front of him/her, needs to make a decision in every sentence to figure out if the text is about a carrier of a religion, about affiliation with a certain textual community, or about ethnic origins. In other words, to walk on tiptoe all the time, making a choice that in reality is not semantically neutral in this book.

Iryna Slavinska: How are the promptings for the translator distributed [in the text]? Are these entirely independently-adopted decisions?

Iaroslava Strikha:  There are promptings scattered here and there, but not everywhere. I hope that someone will translate [Oz’s book] again. It would be interesting to compare and see how a different person reads this, and what s/he does with it. It would be very much in the spirit of the approach to texts, which Oz advocates; it would be a discussion and a dialogue.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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