Global literary confab here will explore Israeli writers

More than 30 years ago, when books by Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth captured the attention of U.S. Jews, few Israeli works of the same stature had been translated into English. As a result, the literature of Israel was relatively unknown to North Americans.

That is not the case anymore. With many prestigious publishing houses, newspapers and journals promoting the work of Israeli writers in the United States, and with a substantial increase in available titles, the inner life of Israel is readily available to the American reader.

The question now is: What are American Jews learning about Israel from these works and how do they feel about what they find?

According to Professor Alan Mintz of Brandeis University, a keen observer of Israeli literature, American Jews are starting to understand that Israeli literature is not just about the constant political and military upheavals.

"Israelis can now produce a literature that doesn't always have to be related to issues of Jewish consciousness and adaptation to non-Jewish society, which has been the obsessive theme of various diasporas," he added.

Mintz will address these and other issues at the upcoming international Jewish writers conference, "Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation," from Sunday to Tuesday, Feb. 1 to 3. The event, which takes place at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel and other Bay Area locations, is sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Mintz will be joined by more than 35 writers and critics from around the world, including some of Israel's most important writers such as Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Sami Michael and Joshua Sobol.

Although Israeli literature is not consumed with such headline-grabbers as the peace process, it does focus intensely on issues of history, politics, morality and the relation between the individual and the community — often with a subversive or cynical tone.

On the one hand, as Mintz wrote in an article in the 1997 American Jewish Year Book, this brush with a non-heroic Israel is frightening and disorienting for many readers. As a result, despite the central role of Israel in the lives of many American Jews, relatively few pick up Israeli novels.

On the other hand, according to Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, the ambiguous, searching, even subversive nature of much contemporary Israeli fiction might prompt many of her congregants to pick up an Israeli writer's novel for the first time.

"To read an author like David Grossman can be a very positive experience. It doesn't necessarily lead to being more critical of Israel, which is what many people are afraid of," said Aron, discussing the Israeli writer whose left-leaning bias has been criticized by some American Jews.

"Many people identify with his approach, and say to themselves, `He expresses the concerns and issues I feel, and I am not an enemy of Israel for having these feelings. Like him, I am part of the process of figuring it all out.'"

Marie Shek, the cultural attaché at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, said that when Israeli writers come to speak in America, Jews — and even more so, non-Jews — are surprised both by how confident the authors are about criticizing their own country, and how rich and open political discussion among Israelis really is.

In fact, Shek, who arrived in San Francisco only four months ago, has been quite surprised herself.

"When you are in Israel, when you are inside the issue, you don't have time or space to think about it in this way," she said. "When you come here, you see it a little differently."