The Place where Dana is

Dana Shem-Ur studied phi­los­o­phy at the École Nor­male Supérieure. Ph.D. can­di­date in his­to­ry at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, she trans­lates from French, Ital­ian, Chi­nese into Hebrew and published Where I am (New Vessel Press, 2023).

How are you ?

Dana Shem-Ur: Time goes by, but the pain doesn’t fade away. It grows within each day in which the hostages are left in Gaza, in which I am exposed to blind hatred, negationism… It is terrifying and very sad.

You had specialised in the past in Negative Theology. What led you to this topic?

Dana Shem-Ur: Now you’re bringing me back to my master’s studies in Paris. When I was at EPHE and later at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, I delved into this field of research and was fascinated by it. In the studies, I investigated the ways in which the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben each tried to “extract” religious ideas from biblical texts and to leverage them into their social-ethical worldviews.

More precisely, they were interested in apophatic discourse, or negative theology. I could talk about this topic for hours, but in a nutshell, negative theology is a realm of thought based on the assumption that God is fundamentally inconceivable for the human mind, surpassing our metaphysical understanding. Therefore, no attribute could be used to describe God – even describing God as an entity, in fact, is a form of anthropomorphism and an expression of our faulty human language. So how can we say anything about God? That is, in fact, the fundamental question of negative theology, and its way to “approach” it is by adapting a discourse that is not metaphysical, meaning one that doesn’t rely on ideas of knowledge and attributes. Prayer is one example of this kind of discourse.

Jewish philosophers often assert that “time is immeasurable,” existing before creation, relative in nature, and devoid of a concrete distinction between past, present, and future within the realm of God. What would you say about that ?

Dana Shem-Ur: I think it’s a fascinating observation, embedded in a way in the Hebrew language itself. In Hebrew, the words “God” (Jehovah), “existence” (ha-va-ia), and the verb “to be” (li-hi-iot) all share the same root. I don’t believe this is accidental. The traditional Jewish perspective is that God is infinite in the absolute sense, meaning that God has no past, present or future. In other words no end but also no beginning. In that sense, God encapsulates everything that exists while being, at the same time, everything that comes into being. Speaking of the verb “to be,” let me add that the phrase “I am what I am,” (said by God to Moses in Exodus) is, in fact, a poor translation of the biblical text, which reads in Hebrew: “I will be who I will be” (e-he-ye a-sher e-he-ye). I’ve often encountered erroneous translations of the Hebrew scriptures like this. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to transfer the beauty and depth of the Hebrew language into other languages. Its vocabulary, which itself has a beautiful notion, “treasure of words” (o-tzar mi-lim), is full of words that carry a visual and spiritual sense, often hidden. Think, for example, of the words “to listen” (lish-mo-a), “meaning” (mash-ma-ut), and “discipline” (mish-ma-at). In other languages, these are completely different words, but in Hebrew, they are linked by the common root (sh-ma). I find it fascinating. In fact, in the Ancient Testament, the act of listening is central. God is revealed to the prophets through His voice. Perhaps, only by following his commandments through acts of discipline (mish-ma-at) can the prophets and the people of Israel come closer to conceiving the meaning (mash-ma-ut) of their existence.

Another interesting aspect of Hebrew, which will necessarily be lost in translation, is that it doesn’t place the subject at the center of the world like Latin languages do. French, for example, is a Cartesian language, so to speak. A person says, “I possess” (“j’ai”), “I have cold” (“j’ai froid”), “I have hot” (“j’ai chaud”). In Hebrew, on the other hand, if we want to say we hold something, we say, “there is to me” (yesh li). If I say I feel cold, I say “There is cold to me” (kar li). It’s as if the Hebrew speaker recognizes the phenomenological existence of the world independently and the way it affects us. In other words, the human self is not placed at the center.

You recently published a Hebrew translation of a novel from Chinese. Congratulations! Can you tell me about it?

Dana Shem-Ur: Yes, it’s very rewarding to finally see my translation of two novellas by Eileen Chang (Red Rose, White Rose and Youth) circulating among Israeli readers. I discovered this incredible author while living in Shanghai five years ago and absolutely fell in love with her witty, sensual, and captivating writing style. It was, you could say, a dream of mine to be able to introduce her to the Israeli reading public, to connect these two ancient cultures. It was my first full-length fiction translation from Chinese into Hebrew, having previously translated mainly from French and Italian.

What is your novel about ?

Dana Shem-Ur: My novel tells the story of Reut, an Israeli woman who spent two decades in Paris married to a French philosopher, Jean-Claude. They have a son who attends the École Normale Supérieure and doesn’t speak any Hebrew. The narrative follows them on a trip to Puglia to meet a celebrated author with whom Jean-Claude hopes to forge a close friendship.

Reut’s journey is both geographic and deeply spiritual. I wanted to explore in my novel the experience of Israeli emigrants who have chosen to live abroad. As you know, the history of the Jewish people has been marked by constant migration. For many, Israel served as a long-imagined homeland, a dream to be realized. However, since its establishment, many Israelis have also chosen to leave the country for various personal and political reasons. In a sense, they have departed from their once fantasized land, the place they most desired but they do not leave cost-free. Reut’s experience encapsulates that of Israeli emigres for generations including the dilemmas of culture and identity. Most powerful is that the events of October 7th complete the circle of that journey, showcasing in the modern era the insecurity of European Jewry who did not wander by choice.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.