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December 16, 1988 - Image 44

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-12-16

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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44

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Word War One

Continued from preceding page

two great lights of American Jewish
fiction, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, both
of whom declined invitations to participate
in the conference, have conflicted and
ambivalent relationships to their own Jew-
ishness and • to Jewish life. In addition,
many of the writers who did participate are
marginal in the sense that they are not
especially favored by the American Jewish
masses or not read more within the Jewish
community than outside it.
Herman Wouk and Chaim Potok, two
novelists who combine commitment to the
community with broad popularity in it,
were not invited or even mentioned at the
conference. According to Richard Siegel,
associate executive director of the National
Foundation for Jewish Culture, Wouk had
been briefly considered and Ozick had
suggested Potok. Both were ultimately
rejected, presumably for lack of sufficient
intellectual credentials. "They're typists,
not serious writers," Irving Howe growled
privately, and he characterized Wouk in
particular as "a hack — an enemy of
serious writing."
As if to emphasize that lines were being
drawn, the conference was tightly con-
trolled to keep "the writers" (as the
conference organizers called the panel
participants) separated from those who
came to hear them. All sessions were in
panel or lecture format, and there were no
small-group discussions; preference in the
brief question-and-answer periods was
given to "the writers"; and no event was
scheduled that would allow informal social-
izing between "the writers" and the
audience. Between the afternoon and eve-
ning sessions "the writers" were whisked
off to dinner with wealthy local patrons.
Even the chartered buses that took parti-
cipants to evening events were carefully
segregated; when several of "the writers,"
by design or mistake, ended up on the
wrong bus, the conference organizers in-
sisted that they leave their seats and move
to the correct bus.
Questioned about this, Richard Siegel
explained that the conference had as its
primary aim to bring "the writers" to-
gether; other attendees were merely "an
audience" to help inspire and motivate the
dialogue. The effect, however, of imposing
so hierarchical a structure was — since
most of "the audience" were also writers
in their Jewish communities — to keep
"the writers" separate from their natural
constituency, many of whom had traveled
far distances to hear them. A more open
conference might even have expanded the
possibilities of dialogue, since, according to
several of "the writers," despite the careful
choreography little significant dialogue
occurred offstage between the Israeli and
North American literati. "A very elitist
event," summed up one woman in the audi-
ence; numerous others, including some of
"the writers," echoed this evaluation.
Nonetheless, the conference as a whole

generated extraordinary intellectual
energy and excitement. The first such
gathering of its kind, it also established a
solid groundwork for future events in the
National Foundation for Jewish Culture's
year-long cultural exchange program
between Israeli and North American Jew-
ish literary figures.
In general, the "Writer in the Jewish
Community" conference highlighted the
divergent literary traditions and historical

Cynthia Ozick serted
that too few Jews, in
America and Israel,
have sought to enhance
Israel's position in the
media and among
intellectuals.

experiences of Israeli and North American
Jews as well as their real conflicts over
religion, politics and worldview.
But the conference also made clear that
any split between the two Jewries is a work
of fiction. Not only have the two commu-
nities drawn closer since the Six-Day War,
but each clearly needs the other for spir-
itual ballast and moral support. Despite
the disagreements, a number of the parti-
cipants, from both sides of the Atlantic,
made strong statements emphasizing the
indivisible unity of the Jewish people. If
the formal dialogue had a definable out-
come, then, it was perhaps the acknow-
ledgement that Israelis and North Ameri-
cans are long-term partners in Jewish life.
North American participants included,
in addition to those already named, fiction
writers Max Apple, Rosellen Brown,
Joanna Kaplan, Leonard Michaels, Hugh
Nissenson and Nessa Rapoport; poets
Stanley Kunitz and Harvey Shapiro; trans-
lators Chana Block and John Felstiner;
scholars Robert Alter and Alan Mintz; and
writer-editor Leon Wieseltier of the New
Republic.
Israeli participants included writers
Ruth Almog, Hanoch Bartov and David
Schutz; poets Meir Weiseltier and Dahlia
Ravikovitch; critics Yael Feldman, Chana
Kronfeld and Eli Shaltiel; translator
Carmit Gai; and writer and Bible scholar
Meir Shalev. A number of the Israelis are
now teaching in American universities,
which seems to suggest that, at least on
one side, the dialogue is already well
underway. 0

David Margolis writes from Los Angeles.

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