I confess. I am an addict.
I cannot pass a bookstore window without pausing. An open bookstore lures me in to browse and amble. A snappy title, an eye-catching cover, or seeing a familiar author’s name on a new book raises my heartbeat and gets my wheels spinning. I am a bibliophile – a lover of books.
So, when Hebrew Book Week arrives in the beginning of June – I have another excuse to feed my inner book worm.
My love of Hebrew Book Week is not solely about bibliophilia. As an Israeli-by-choice, my specific romance with the Hebrew book is also about my lifelong becoming Israeli – from being a tour guide to my wildly insignificant army service, and even my insistence on sandals from Passover to Sukkot. Learning Hebrew – speaking, teaching, and reading – and enjoying it are all key parts of my identifications and commitments. After 35 years in Israel, my romance with Hebrew and the Hebrew book continues; albeit in a spoken Hebrew heavily spiced with a profound Boston accent. When I open my mouth – and some will say I do that too often – I sound more like a Kennedy than I sound like a Rabin.
I define my Jewishness as mainly a cultural-ethnic identification. Hebrew is not only utilitarian; it is a root system linking me to thousands of years of Jewish creativity. It places me in a memoryscape that helps me understand where I come from, and where I belong. Amidst the capitalist assault on human solidarity; the attempt to reduce each one of us to isolated consumer “I”s – Hebrew language and literature offers the chance to be a “We.” As in Ehud Banai’s rich, humorous, and provocative song, “Hebrew Man,” Hebrew enables me to imagine myself as part of a family that includes voices ancient and modern, from the Land of Israel and around the world. It offers a meaningful expression for all seasons; for celebration – “and aided our arrival at this season” and for also for mourning – “May the Divine Who Is All Places (HaMakom) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
And in the context of Hebrew Book Week, what do I want in a good book? Basically, I want a Hebrew book – in fact I want every book – to subvert. I do not use this term only in a narrow political sense – although that is also good. I want a book that transports me to other places, that breaks the routine, and that suggests that the way I live – the way we live – is not the only path to humanity.
On the simplest level, the very act of reading a book is subversive because of its intimacy. Cradling a book in folded hands disconnects us from the omnipresent screens that gobble much of our attentions. In another sense, subversion is the very essence of the Hebrew book.
When the Hebrew Bible posed a moral code that rejected child sacrifice, that demanded protection for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, and even the trees surrounding a besieged city – it was subverting values and behaviors nearly universal in ancient times. Part of the Hebrew Bible’s timeless power is that around the world and in our own backyard; these subversive aspirations are still yet to be achieved. The Hebrew Bible is frank about the price of subversion. Prophets are exiled, and stoned, and imprisoned, and swallowed up by monstrous ocean beasts. And in our own lives what is the price that each one of us and that society is willing to pay to turn aspiration into achievement?
No doubt that there is a light-year of distance between the Hebrew of the Bible and the Hebrew of modern Israeli letters and street. However, there is also considerable continuity – even in the tradition of subversion. The Zionist idea was a movement of subversion. Zionism subverted the status of the Jews as an oppressed, exiled minority. Zionism challenged the Jews to throw off internalized, negative self-images and take responsibility for the present and future through the establishment of some form of national self-determination in some part of their ancient historic homeland.
The Zionist movement would not have been possible without the voluminous work of pamphleteers, playwrights, novelists, scholars, journalists, poets, and songwriters who birthed and raised modern Hebrew. These word-artists laid the cultural-social cement and planted the seeds of argument necessary to give birth to a nation. It is no coincidence that Israel’s most Hebrew city – Tel Aviv – is named after a book. Tel Aviv was the Hebrew title of Nahum Sokolov’s translation of Theodore Herzl’s utopian vision of what the “State of the Jews” could look like. Tel – the ancient archeological mounds marking century after century of the diversity of civilizations that have called this place home. Aviv – the Spring, holding out the promise of rebirth and freedom.
There are countries built on oil, and others on precious minerals and ores. There are other countries built on colossal stretches of land spanning continents. Israel may well be the only country in the world built on letters and books. And so, there are those who will argue that books don’t sell, and their shekel value is not equal to the newest app. However, supporting Hebrew books (and books in general) is about enriching and empowering the human imagination to soar, and to consider who we are and who we can aspire to become.
It would do Israel well – and it would be a fulfillment of the notion of the Jews as “The People of the Book” – to establish and provide funds and foundations, scholarships, and training for all kinds of young people to become the next generation of subversives, the next generation of Hebrew writers and artists to continue to feed our imaginations. Particularly in troubling times, when tremendous challenges cloud tomorrow’s horizons, storytellers of all kinds are needed to inspire, remind, cajole, and offer hope.
You ask about my addiction? Nice of you to ask. I do try to remove a book from my library and pass it on to someone else when I meet a new book and invite it home. And for Hebrew Book Week, I will be out there celebrating and searching for new friends.
Hebrew Book Week, observed this year from June 15-22, is celebrated annually with open-air book fairs and literary events throughout Israel.