An Artist’s Palette

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November 1, 2006
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Michal Govrin

What is the role of artistic creation in the development of a contemporary Jewish identity? From the earliest stages of my artistic career — as I became a writer and theater director — I have sought to maintain an openness to current trends in world culture while searching for a fresh dialogue with Jewish heritage. The artistic process has been, for me, a framework for cooperation not only with Israeli artists, but also with numerous Jewish artists from the Diaspora. In the fall of 1972, as a young woman, I traveled to Paris to do doctoral work in theater. I left Tel Aviv, Israel’s secular cultural center, to observe the country from a distance. I became an alien, an exile, and although I resided in the city of culture and freedom, I was exposed to a new foreignness — being Jewish. I found myself in the heart of the Jewish-European historical entanglement. And when I traveled from Paris to New York, I met American Jews who were creating Jewish cultural alternatives. In their works, I found an echo of my own search. In 1975 I went to Poland, to “my mother’s story.” These travels turned learning into an intimate part of my life and artistic endeavor. While I had sojourned to study as an Israeli, I returned as a Jew with a different awareness of the “story” to which I belong.1

An artist’s real place of study, her beit midrash, is located in the depth of her creative work. This is learning through creating, and creating through learning. Faith (in Hebrew the word faith, “emunah,” is related both to “ma’amin,” religious believer, and “oman,” artist) gives creative power to learning, to innovation, and to the pursuit of repairing the world. The essential biography of an artist, with its peaks and plummets, also takes place in the secret chambers of the creative endeavor. While one does not usually see what goes on backstage, I offer here some of the dramas that have engaged me during my artistic career.

If Hebrew theater, which was created against the background of a culture lacking in theatrical tradition, originally drew for its inspiration on the entire range of Jewish life2, then the new Hebrew literature became, primarily, the arena of Zionism’s struggle against the Old World, and against its jam-packed bookshelf. Even the most eminent critics viewed Hebrew literature as the vanguard of the struggle for secularism — a struggle that was not untainted by political ideology.

The ideological-political Zionist-Israeli clash, which cut Hebrew literature off from its sources3 and blocked off any possibility of direct dialogue with these sources (whether out of a sense of continuity or out of rebellion), also retarded the development of an original Hebrew avant-garde literature. This, at least, was my assumption at that time, as the “sea of Torah” flooded my writing-table with waves of language, and with a wealth of unique textual forms.

In the beit midrash of artistic creation, the “Jewish book” was opened before me, with all of its linguistic layers and its multiplicity of genres — the book that had been composed over the course of hundreds of years and across a huge geographic and cultural expanse. And in contrast to the European languages, which broke off from ancient Greek and Latin, the Jewish tradition bore, in all of its wanderings and amid the echoes of a multiplicity of tongues, its full literary and linguistic load, in continuous succession up to the era of contemporary Hebrew, via the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, liturgical poems, prayers, the Zohar, the rabbinical responsa, the commentaries, the Shulchan Aruch, reflection, ethics, Hassidism, invocations, missives … A unique rainbow of linguistic colors. At the same time the myriad layers of the Jewish book revealed a wealth of original literary genres, which by their very nature reflect the human consciousness in a unique manner — genres that, surprisingly, reverberate more strongly through the prism of scholarly or scientific innovation. For example, brain research and artificial intelligence or postmodernism enable us to appreciate the Internet-like “windows” of a page of Talmud, the behavioral language of the mitzvot, the realism of the rabbinical responsa, and the stylistic pastiche of the Zohar, to mention but a few.

As in the hasidic tale about the generations following the Baal Shem Tov, we too have forgotten the prayer and the place in the forest to pray. All we have left is the old story. The treasure that is Jewish culture is not familiar and not accessible to most Jews today. Even the memory of that treasure is nearly forgotten. But artistic expression has the power to awaken that memory. An existential experience, together with learning, has the power to transform both the audience and creator.

In my work, I began by excavating the “archeological site” of the “Jewish book.” I chose to dig corners at the “site” that existentially resonated for me. Rather than dusty fragments, I found buried treasures of endless inspiration. I felt that I could turn the canon of Hebrew writing, with its myriad linguistic and formal layers, into an intimate writing tool. And, as in the field of theatrical poetics in which I was able to innovate by transferring ritual forms into the theatrical space (the siddur, the morning prayers, the cycle of the year…), the traditional textual forms and their language have formed the basis for my books, enabling innovation in the novelistic genre and poetic structure. For example, my novel The Name was written as a mystical confessional prayer addressed to God; my book of prose poetry, The Making of the Sea: a Chronicle of Interpretation, was composed in a style reminiscent of a Talmud page, with a central text surrounded by commentaries. The book was written as a love poem to the Hebrew language, and to its primal erotic tension. It resonates with the voices of those who, early and late, wrote in the Hebrew language — the tongue in which the world was created by the word — the power of renewed creation, in both divine and human speech: in blessings, in learning, in interpretation, or in dialogue. my novel Snapshots presents the “wrenching story” of the modern Jewish saga through fleeting glimpses, succah-like in their transience — the succah constituting the heroine’s architectonic inspiration. (*)

The early 1990s saw the beginning of a broad cultural revolution in Israel. Alternative batei midrash, mixed secular-religious learning frameworks and women’s Torah study institutes began to appear, and the intellectual and creative ferment (in theater, cinema, art, literature) began to spread even to the ranks of Orthodox Jewry, which up until then had participated only minimally in Israeli cultural life. At the same time the Israeli literary landscape changed as well. More and more works began to be published that engaged the entire Jewish library, with an increasing depth and diversity of voices. And so, along with the developments taking place in the United States and in Europe, a broader context for the search for a Jewish literature — poetic, technical, and critical — emerged in Israel as well4. Cooperation between artists in Israel and around the world could generate a unique global chevruta, a learning group, something similar in structure to “daf yomi,” the daily learning of Talmud. We might just create a communal infrastructure for collaborative educational and artistic work that makes such experiences central to Jewish life.

For years a dialogue with the sources has been reverberating in my studio- study — a dialogue of discovery, learning, rebellion, and innovation. It has cut across my life and across historical events; it has informed my existence and my creative endeavor. In many other studies, in Israel and in other places around the world, where Jewish artists are active, ground-breaking dialogues are currently taking place with the Jewish heritage. Each of these dialogues contributes to a contemporary chapter of Jewish creativity.

1 A perception that I have discussed at length in my article: “The Case of the Jewish Biography,” Partisan Review, 2001/1 or in: The Journey to Poland, Partisan Review 1999/4; My research on Theater and Jewish ritual is described in: Jewish Titual asn a Genre of Sacred Theater, Consevative Judaism, ol 36(3), Spring 1983 or: www. All about Jewish Theater.
2 For example, the Habima Theater’s repertoire during its first years of activity as a drama studio affiliated with Constantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater staged A. Anski’s The Dybbuk, or The Golem, to mention but few. [See also]: B Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
3 Bialik and Ravnitsky’s work in collecting selected midrashic tales in Sefer Ha’agada (“The Book of Legends”) also constituted a reaction to the cultural rift.
(*) The Name, translated to the English by Barbara Harshav. The English translation of Snapshots is forthcoming, both by Riverhead Books of Penguin.
4 This school’s richness and diversity of voices call for comprehensive and detailed research.

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Michal Govrin is an Israeli writer, poet and theater director. Govrin has published eight books of poetry and fiction, translated to many languages, and recipient, along with her theatrical works of a number of prizes and grants. Michal Govrin lives in Jerusalem, where she writes and creates Experimental Jewish Theatre. This essay is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book, Building Jewish Peoplehood: Challenges and Possibilities , editors: Ezra Kopelowitz, Menachem Revivi. The book is part of the Jewish Peoplehood project sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the UJA-New York Federation, and the Israel America Jewish Forum.

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