Image from the Blekinge museum

For six hours every day Isabel and Rosa sat next to each oth­er at a stain­less steel work table in the kib­butz kitchen peel­ing, dic­ing, and mix­ing veg­eta­bles for a thou­sand people’s break­fasts, lunch­es, and din­ners. Isabel’s timid ques­tions drew out the war and camp tales curled inside Rosa for decades. Rosa’s respons­es emerged first in small rip­ples then in large knock down waves that over­whelmed them. Some days Rosa left the kitchen ear­ly crushed by the load of sense mem­o­ries. After a few months Isabel asked Rosa if she could write her sto­ry down. In English.”

Thus Isabel Tole­do becomes a ghost­writer for Holo­caust sur­vivors, in Make it Con­crete (2019) my nov­el about an Amer­i­can woman liv­ing in Israel who stum­bles into her profession.

When the book opens Isabel is pen­ning her six­teenth book in twen­ty years, and it’s tak­ing its toll on her. The bound­aries between past atroc­i­ties and cur­rent real­i­ties are no longer so firm. She is less resilient when it comes to her own children’s safe­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly her daugh­ter who is a sol­dier in a com­bat unit. Isabel feels on the verge of col­lapse even as the grav­i­ty of her work push­es her to continue.

Isabel knows well the insider/​outsider dilem­ma of the immi­grant. As much as she is a part of Israeli soci­ety, she lives with mis­trans­la­tions on all sides.” To make mat­ters worse, she doesn’t share a moth­er tongue either with her moth­er (Pol­ish, Yid­dish) or with her chil­dren (Hebrew). She is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly alien­at­ed and enriched by this. No one except her close friend Mol­ly, a Jew from Dublin — Yid­dish with an Irish accent — under­stands the full the depth of her belong­ing and yet not belonging.

Thus Isabel Tole­do becomes a ghost­writer for Holo­caust survivors.

Many years ago, a col­league of mine, Axel Stäh­ler, invit­ed me to a con­fer­ence on post-colo­nial lit­er­a­ture in Mün­ster, Ger­many. He had man­aged to con­vince the con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers that Jews fit the cri­te­ria of a col­o­nized peo­ple, though not in one land, nor over one spe­cif­ic peri­od of time — a unique ver­sion of colo­nial­ism in which they were sub­ject to for­eign rule and suf­fered oppres­sion sim­i­lar to many col­o­nized pop­u­la­tions, even if they were not tech­ni­cal­ly native.’ Not every­one at the con­fer­ence agreed with this cat­e­go­riza­tion, though in recent years there has been a soft­en­ing towards it in lit­er­ary stud­ies, espe­cial­ly with the growth of terms like dias­po­ra, migra­tion, and mar­gin­al­iza­tion at home. Char­ac­ters such as Dick­en­s’s Fagin, and Shake­speare’s Shy­lock can now be eas­i­ly ana­lyzed under the rubric of a post-colo­nial Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture (and not just an over­ar­ch­ing antisemitism).

At the con­fer­ence I read a short sto­ry enti­tled Sil­hou­ette,” about an Amer­i­can woman who flees New York City and its vio­lence for the bucol­ic tran­quil­i­ty of a kib­butz in the West­ern Galilee. Only vio­lence fol­lows her there as well. Amidst the banana groves and agri­cul­tur­al fields, the com­mu­ni­ty comes under rock­et attack from Hezbol­lah in Lebanon. And then a home­less dog is attacked both by a dog and chil­dren who belong.’ The pro­tag­o­nist is appalled by this vio­lence and iden­ti­fies with the out­cast dog. Who isn’t a stray?’ she asks. The ten­sion of being an insider/​outsider, of being a stray,’ is one of the ideas I return to over and over again in my fic­tion, and most recent­ly in Make it Con­crete.

Over cof­fee, sud­den­ly, Axel asked me if I were an Israeli or Amer­i­can writer. I was stunned, unsure how to even begin to answer this ques­tion that no one had ever asked me — and that I had nev­er asked myself. Axel the­o­rized that for a Jew­ish writer to live in Israel and write in Eng­lish — not Hebrew — was an expres­sion of post-colo­nial­ism. Like Indi­ans who write in Eng­lish and not Ben­gali, or African or Caribbean writ­ers who like­wise write in Eng­lish when they could be writ­ing from home in their coun­try’s native tongue.

Over cof­fee, sud­den­ly, Axel asked me if I were an Israeli or Amer­i­can writer. I was stunned, unsure how to even begin to answer this ques­tion that no one had ever asked me — and that I had nev­er asked myself.

I asked Axel why I had to choose, why could­n’t I be both, a hybrid — an Amer­i­can writer who writes about Israel, and an Israeli writer who writes in Eng­lish. As a child of immi­grants who them­selves were chil­dren of immi­grant refugees, I was com­fort­able with hybrid­i­ty and resist­ed a sim­plis­tic bina­ry. For months, Axel’s ques­tion haunt­ed me. If I were an Israeli writer, should­n’t I write in Hebrew? And what about how dif­fer­ent I feel from Israeli soci­ety some­times? And what about my lim­it­ed Hebrew that fol­lows me like a shad­ow, limned in guilt? Hebrew is part of the chil­dren of Israel’s project of Return. It’s the Holy Lan­guage, mor­phed once again into the quo­tid­i­an, a kind of nor­mal­iza­tion’ with­in the nation.

With dis­com­fort I asked myself if I could con­vey with all its com­plex­i­ty and nuance, what goes on in today’s Israel if I con­tin­ued to write about it in English?

Isabel Tole­do, the pro­tag­o­nist of Make it Con­crete, also lives out this quandary though a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. Like me, she lives to some extent in Hebrew, but writes in Eng­lish, because she knows her­self as a writer in Eng­lish — yet she is writ­ing about Europe. These sto­ries of the Jews of Europe that she makes con­crete end up being real­ized in Israel. How can I allow myself to limp in Hebrew and soar in Eng­lish? I ask myself this innu­mer­able times, after hav­ing lived in Israel for twen­ty-five years.

As a child of immi­grants who them­selves were chil­dren of immi­grant refugees, I was com­fort­able with hybrid­i­ty and resist­ed a sim­plis­tic binary.

In the pref­ace to Cyn­thia Ozick’s 1976 book, Blood­shed and Three Novel­las, she writes about her rela­tion­ship to Eng­lish. She says, Eng­lish is my every­thing, now and then I feel cramped by it… A lan­guage, like a peo­ple, has a his­to­ry of ideas; but not all ideas; only those known to its expe­ri­ence. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Eng­lish is a Chris­t­ian lan­guage. When I write in Eng­lish, I live in Chris­ten­dom.” And she reminds us that Hen­ry James was none too hap­py when the chil­dren of Jew­ish immi­grants began to make their way into Eng­lish. They brought with them all sorts of East­ern Euro­pean influ­ences that he would have rather they left behind. So when Jew­ish writ­ers like Ozick — like me — write in Eng­lish, we are por­tray­ing our­selves through a fil­ter which to some degree resists us.

When writ­ing Hebrew in Israel, there is the pulling for­ward of a thread that starts in the Bible, and runs through to the medieval­ists Ibn Gvi­rol and Yehu­da HaLe­vi; to the res­ur­rec­tion­ists Bia­lik, Tch­erne­chovsky, and Gold­berg; on through to today’s books where the col­lo­qui­al dom­i­nates. When I write in Eng­lish, I pull from Chaucer, Shake­speare, Mil­ton, Austen, and Hem­ing­way all the way up to today, where Jews have tak­en their place at the table. Four out of four­teen Amer­i­can Nobel Prize win­ners in lit­er­a­ture have been Jews – the most recent being Bob Dylan. And two of them did not write in Eng­lish: Isaac Bashe­vis-Singer (Yid­dish) and Joseph Brod­sky (Russ­ian). On the oth­er hand, Saul Bel­low, the first Amer­i­can Jew to win a Nobel in 1976, was so cer­tain he belonged to Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture that he nev­er wor­ried Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture might not belong to him – a strong con­trast with Ozick­’s ambiva­lent observations.

I sit­u­ate myself pecu­liar­ly between Ozick and Bel­lows. On the one hand, my place with­in this long chain of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture makes sense to me since I was born and raised with Eng­lish in Amer­i­ca. So like Bel­low I assume belong­ing. But like Ozick I am sen­si­tive to what Eng­lish is not – it is not the lan­guage of the Jews. And this has become clear­er to me since I moved to Israel.

Because I do not read much in Hebrew, I can bare­ly com­pose a text mes­sage in the lan­guage of my coun­try with­out mak­ing hilar­i­ous mis­takes; I am painful­ly aware all the time that the offi­cial lan­guage of the Jews – both in terms of polit­i­cal state­hood and cul­tur­al, reli­gious, and nation­al lega­cy – is not some­thing I live inside of, like I do Eng­lish. And this makes me con­front my insider/​outsider sta­tus every day.

So when Jew­ish writ­ers like Ozick — like me — write in Eng­lish, we are por­tray­ing our­selves through a fil­ter which to some degree resists us.

It’s the dif­fi­cul­ty of a new alpha­bet that sab­o­tages my efforts in Hebrew. A few years back I man­aged to read Dorit Rabinyan’s nov­el, Ged­er Haya, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as All the Rivers. It is a pow­er­ful sto­ry of a love affair between an Israeli Jew­ish woman and a Pales­tin­ian Mus­lim man in New York City. And I read it because Dorit is a friend and I did­n’t want to wait – which is what I usu­al­ly do – for the Eng­lish trans­la­tion to come out. And so I read, slow­ly, method­i­cal­ly, and enjoy­ably. I told Dorit that it was both strange and thrilling for me to read New York in Hebrew. And as I was telling her this, I real­ized this is exact­ly what I do when I write Israel in Eng­lish. The scepter of Chaucer is there in the streets of Haifa and Tel Aviv. And Mil­ton’s Chris­t­ian explo­ration of the world’s vices and virtues is there in the open­ing scene of Make it Con­crete. I like to think that echoes of past civ­i­liza­tions are woven togeth­er as Eng­lish words, Israeli land­scapes and char­ac­ters merge and emerge from the sen­tences. Eng­lish is my lan­guage of schol­ar­ship and fic­tion. It is my lan­guage when I con­nect to Amer­i­ca, my oth­er home across the Atlantic. Hebrew at the super­mar­ket. Eng­lish at my desk.

When Joseph Brod­sky won the Nobel Prize in 1987, he was asked: You are an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen who is receiv­ing the Prize for Russ­ian-lan­guage poet­ry. Who are you, an Amer­i­can or a Russ­ian?” Brod­sky respond­ed: I’m Jew­ish; a Russ­ian poet, an Eng­lish essay­ist – and, of course, an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen.” Iden­ti­fy­ing him­self first as a Jew and sec­ond­ly as a per­son who writes in one lan­guage or anoth­er; this may be one of the com­mon mark­ers for Jew­ish writ­ers, even those who live in Israel. This is the post-colo­nial par­a­digm Axel was keen on explor­ing, and with this in mind, I have thought a lot about Sal­ka Viertel’s quote: I have been an out­sider in Vien­na, in Ger­many, and in Hol­ly­wood. And I have accept­ed this fact rather cheer­ful­ly. Per­haps after all it is not so bad for a Jew to be an outsider.”

Writ­ing in Eng­lish, even in the coun­try where I, as a Jew, have ances­tral roots, where the major­i­ty of Jews live with­in the mag­i­cal­ly reviv­i­fied ancient lan­guage of Hebrew, main­tains my out­sider sta­tus. And maybe it is not such a bad thing after all for a Jew like me, like Isabel Tole­do, to be an out­sider – even in the land of Israel.

Miryam Sivan is a for­mer New York­er who has lived in Israel for twen­ty-five years. She teach­es lit­er­a­ture and writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa. In addi­tion to schol­ar­ly arti­cles and a book-length study on Cyn­thia Ozick, she writes short and long fic­tion. Sivan is the author SNA­FU & Oth­er Sto­ries, and a recent­ly pub­lished nov­el, Make it Con­crete