Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Yiddish vs. Hebrew

-- Foiglman by Aharon Megged -- I thoroughly enjoyed Megged's fabulous, seminal novel of Israeli-Diaspora relations, translated into English more than 15 years after its original publication in Hebrew.
Zvi Arbel, Israeli professor of Jewish History, is given a copy of Yiddish poems written by Parisian holocaust survivor Shmuel Foiglman. Foiglman gradually worms his way into Arbel's life, despite the fact that Arbel's wife, the biologist Nora, can't stand him or anything he represents. As Arbel agrees to pay for the translation of Foiglman's book into Hebrew out of his own pocket, and gets more and more involved in Foiglman's affairs, he fails to notice that his wife has sunk into a deep depression, and a tragic set of events is set in motion which ends with the dissolution of their marriage and his wife's suicide (as revealed in chapter 1).
While it has a strong plot, Foiglman is a novel of ideas. Essentially, the novel pits Yiddish -- representing Jewish history -- against Hebrew -- representing the Israeli present, and questions the Israeli attitude to the Diaspora and to its Jewish past. There is also a strong recurring theme of history (Arbel) vs. biology/science(Nora) vs. poetry/fiction (Foiglman) as ways of looking at and understanding the world. Ultimately, Arbel is criticised in the book for being so engrossed in analysing dry historical trends that he cannot see what's going on in the here and now and is oblivious to the human element. Says Arbel:
"It is the great writers, the novelists, who see deeper and further than us. And the reson is that they, unlike us, focus not on events but on people... And I, who have spent my entire life examining the minute details of events, did I hear the anguished cry of Nora's soul?"
It took me a while to get into this dense book -- it's quite slow to begin with. But I read the last 200 pages in one sitting and am still thinking about its multiple layers. Definitely recommended.
An extra plug, incidentally, for Jerusalem-based publisher The Toby Press. Almost everything they publish is really exciting -- look out for their books.


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