Shani Boianjiu and the Past and Present of Jewish Literature

By Melissa Weininger
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In the early 20th century, Jewish literature was being written in all the great cities of Europe.  In cafes and garrets in Berlin, Warsaw, and London, Jewish writers were creating the foundational texts of Jewish literary modernism.  They were writing in the Jewish languages of Europe, Hebrew and Yiddish, to be sure, but they were also writing in Russian, German, and Polish.  Most of them wrote in at least two languages, sometimes more.  Some of these writers, especially the ones who wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, or both, saw the languages in which they wrote as their cultural territory.  Without a state of their own, they created a home for themselves in literature, one that united Jews across the nation-states of Europe. 

After the devastation of the Second World War and the establishment of the state of Israel, the transnational character of Jewish literature was radically altered.  With few Jews left in Europe and European languages tainted by their association with Nazism and the Holocaust, the great multilingual urban centers of Jewish life were gone.  At the same time, Hebrew was now a territorialized language, the official language of the new Jewish state.  For a time there remained a vibrant Yiddish culture centered in New York, but over the next generation, as Yiddish was suppressed in Israel and neglected in the Diaspora, Hebrew became, by both design and default, the only Jewish literary language left.  (I know I’m going to get angry mail from Yiddishists for that; but if you can name a contemporary Yiddish writer whose work is reviewed in the New York Times, I’ll write a retraction.) 

That does not mean there is no Jewish literature being written in languages other than Hebrew; as always, there is a vibrant and active Jewish literary culture in the major vernacular languages of the Diaspora, especially English.  But the multilingual, transnational Jewish culture of the last century, which embodied the linguistic and geographical breadth of Diaspora Jewish life, has largely shrunk back within the borders of the nation-state, becoming “American” or “Israeli” literature instead. 

Across these boundaries comes Shani Boianjiu’s novel-in-stories, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.  Boianjiu, a 25-year-old Israeli and a Harvard graduate, wrote and published the novel in English.  It was excerpted in The New Yorker and noted in the New York Times and elsewhere,  its author interviewed by major mainstream and Jewish publications.  In these reviews and interviews, the fact that this Israeli writer composed her first novel in English has usually been viewed as a curiosity; but in reality, her linguistic border-crossing puts her solidly within the modern Jewish tradition of transnational and multilingual literature.  The question is, what does 21st-century transnational Jewish literature look like, and what does it mean for contemporary Jewish culture? 

Boianjiu herself has said that writing the book in English, far from being deliberate, was an “accident” of circumstance: she was attending college in the United States, where her academic work was in English.  But a number of the literary and linguistic strategies she employs in the book show that her use of English is very deliberate, even if it is incidental to her literary purpose.  She translates many Hebrew phrases and idioms literally, even when they don’t wholly make sense in English: “my mother organizes a tomato and tea for me”; “it has a view of the entire world and its sister”; “she lives in Jerusalem Street 3.”  There are few, if any, contractions, as Hebrew lacks this form, although there are many acronyms, with which modern Hebrew is rife.  At one point, Boianjiu engages in a little meta-linguistic game: a character calls a weapon a “machine automatic gun” and another corrects her, saying, “I think you are supposed to say ‘automatic machine gun,’” just as a native English speaker might correct an Israeli using the proper Hebrew adjective-noun order, which is incorrect in English.  In this way, Boianjiu’s language seems self-consciously to inhabit both English and Hebrew at the same time. 

This mutual imbrication of languages is also common to the multilingual history of Jewish literature.  Most of the early modern Jewish writers wrote in at least two languages; and some of them, notably S.Y. Abramovitsh—often known by the name of his literary alter-ego, Mendele Mokher Sforim, or Mendele the Bookseller—even translated themselves.  Indeed, some form of self-translation was crucial to all early modern Hebrew literature, because the ancient language lacked modern vocabulary and, since it had not been a vernacular language for nearly 2,000 years, the rhythms of natural speech.  Writers like Abramovitsh used Yiddish, the vernacular language of European Jews, as a kind of model for their Hebrew work, inventing neologisms where necessary and creating dialogue based on the syntactical patterns of Yiddish.  Abramovitsh himself quite literally translated most of his early Yiddish work into Hebrew, and the mutual influences of the two languages are similarly evident in his work. 

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid can, in a sense, be seen as a self-translation with no original antecedent, unmoored in a globalized world.  Both the novel’s language tricks and its frequent references to American and global popular culture suggest that the book is located in a kind of in-between cultural space, not unlike the no-man’s-land (or, perhaps more accurately, the “no land’s man”) in which deterritorialized Jewish writers found themselves in the 19th century.  Characters in The People of Forever refer to Chiquititas, a children’s telenovela from Argentina; Dawson’s Creek, the American teen television drama; and Mean Girls, an American movie featuring contemporary celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey, among many other items of transnational culture.  Though the main characters all grew up in a small, remote village near the Lebanese border, they were raised on a diet of global pop culture and satellite TV; their cultural reference points are not particularly Jewish, or even particularly Israeli, and this affects their understanding of their own identities and their subsequent development.  Near the end of the novel, after the three main characters, Avishag, Lea, and Yael, have finished their army service and are figuring out what to do with their lives, it is revealed that each of them, in one way or another, has chosen to integrate herself into the same global culture on which she was raised.  Lea writes pornographic novels that are “well received globally”; Avishag spends her free time writing fan fiction about an American comic book character named Emily the Strange; and Yael travels the world, “translating works she found in China, Romania, Zimbabwe, India, and putting them up online for free.  And she wrote music.  In all languages.”  The global diversity of the characters’ cultural points of reference and artistic production mirrors the linguistic and cultural dislocation of the novel itself. 

Much has been made of the novel’s focus on the experiences of its characters in the Israeli military, with critics on opposite poles of the political spectrum speculating about its politics.  Boianjiu herself has recused herself from political debates about her book, claiming that, because it is a work of fiction, its task is not to take a position but to revel in complexity.  But even more than that, the references to globalization and the cultural dislocation at the forefront of The People of Forever seem to suggest the book’s own lack of cultural specificity.  In other words, as a translation without referent, a novel unmoored in language and culture, it explores the impact of militarization generally on the lives of young people caught up in its casual violence, indifference to the individual, and gender discrimination.  Last week, veterans of the American military who had been sexually assaulted during their service testified before a Senate panel.  Some of the situations they described are not so far from the casual domination and sexual expectations of senior male officers toward their female soldiers in The People of Forever.  It seems that the behavior of Avishag’s superior officer, Nadav, who “tells me to show up every night at his tent,” is merely a type we can now recognize in any military hierarchy. 

It is this breadth of vision that both links The People of Forever to the Jewish literary past and roots it firmly in the global present.  Nineteenth- and early 20th-century Jewish literature and culture were defined by both multilingualism and the location of Jewish belonging within a diverse linguistic community, which served as an alternative to the territory of the nation-state that defined the boundaries of parallel national-cultural communities.  In the 21st century, when both Jewish politics and Jewish culture are increasingly defined by polarities between Israel and Diaspora, The People of Forever both embraces and refuses those categories, offering a complex and multivalent understanding of contemporary Jewish culture. 

Melissa Weininger is a postdoctoral fellow in Jewish Studies at Rice University who writes about modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature and modern Jewish culture.

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