This past week, I participated in a program for high school students at the National Yiddish Book Center. Together with other Jewish teenagers from all around the country, I read some of the great masterworks of modern Jewish literature, such as “The Story of My Dovecote,” by Isaac Babel; The Hill of Evil Counsel, by Amos Oz; “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer; “The Loudest Voice,” by Grace Paley; and The Dybbuk, by S. Ansky, among others. This program changed my life because I didn’t really know that there was an entire canon of writing by Jewish authors on issues that pertain directly to the lives of Jewish people all over the world. We even read some work by Palestinian and Arab authors that centered around life in Israel.
One issue we debated time and time again during the program was the question of what constitutes Jewish literature. Does a piece have to be written by a Jewish author in order to qualify as a piece of Jewish literature? Is a piece written by a Jewish author automatically considered Jewish literature? What issues and themes must be present in a piece of literature in order for it to be a piece of Jewish literature? I personally feel that in order for a piece to be considered Jewish literature, it must be written by an author who identifies as Jewish. However, many of my peers in the program tried to argue the contrary, and it was fascinating to hear their perspectives. It made me look at what Jewish literature is in a new light.
Another question we pondered throughout the week was what Jewishness is. Is it a culture, a religion, or both? Can it be an ethnicity? Is it disrespectful to Jews By Choice to say that being Jewish is an ethnicity or a culture? Is the word “Jew” a bad word? When did it become a bad word and why? How can other aspects of identity, such as national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity, affect one’s Jewish identity? Can someone identify with Jewish culture and not with the Jewish religion or vice versa? Walking into the program, I believed that Jewish was a cultural or ethnic identity, but one person argued that Jews By Choice are not any less Jewish because they were not born into a Jewish family, and that made me rethink that aspect of Jewish identity.
I also learned about all kinds of Jewish people from all over the world. We read work by and about Soviet Jews, Israeli Jews, Yemeni Jews, and so many other cultures. We also learned about the lives of Mizrahi Jews (Jewish people who come from majority Muslim countries) and Palestinians in Israel and the challenges that the people in those groups face. We also acknowledged that despite the challenges faced by Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews on a daily basis, the existence of the State of Israel is vital to the existence of the Jewish people. Without the State of Israel, so many Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from around the world would not have a place where they could safely practice their religion and learn about and embrace their culture.
One of my favorite books we read was The Hill of Evil Counsel, by Amos Oz. The book centers around a nine-year-old Jewish boy named Hillel and the challenges he faces while growing up in the British Mandate of Palestine (the name for the geographic area where the State of Israel is today before it became an independent state). Hillel’s life changes when he is sexually assaulted by two of his neighbors, but he eventually grows into a strong, capable young man. During our discussion, one of the teachers asked us why Oz decided to write about a little boy getting raped. The teacher’s theory was that it was an allegory for the creation of the State of Israel: Hillel getting assaulted represented the Holocaust, but his subsequent growing into a confident young man represented the creation of the State of Israel and our people’s newfound freedom therein. Although the Holocaust was one of the most horrific events in world history and never, ever should have happened, the Jewish people may have never gotten to have an independent nation of their own. The same goes for Hillel: although no human being should ever be raped, Hillel grew into the man he became because of the strength he had to develop to live as a person who has experienced sexual assault.
On the last day of the program, one of our teachers told us to keep reading because literature can save the world, especially in today’s political climate. If young people begin to educate themselves on the world around them, maybe less bad things would happen. We can only change the future if we know our past, and the best way to learn about our past is to read about other people’s experiences. The insights of those who came before us can shed a light on how to navigate the world today.