JEWISH FICTION IN TRANSLATION & THE FOSTERING OF JEWISH IDENTITY
By Nora Gold
One of the first things to strike a new visitor to Jewish Fiction .net, the online literary journal I edit, is its proliferation of translated stories. This is not coincidental. Part of the goal in creating Jewish Fiction .net was to provide a place where Jewish stories from around the world could come together, rub up against each other, and through this proximity, reveal our many diversities and commonalities as Jews. It also felt important, in light of the increasing divisions, divisiveness, and polarizations within the Jewish world, to create a space for excellent Jewish fiction that would include as many different Jewish voices as possible. A journal for all Jews.
Jewish Fiction .net publishes first-rate contemporary Jewish fiction (either written in, or translated into, English) that has never before appeared in English. In its first 2 1/3 years, Jewish Fiction .net has published 120 stories or novel excerpts, written on five continents and in eleven languages: English, French, Spanish, Serbian, Russian, Romanian, Turkish, Croatian, Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew. Out of these 120 stories, 42 (1/3 of the total number) were translated into English from other languages. Out of these 42, 26 were translated from Hebrew, and so far there have been over 33,000 visits to our website from readers in 104 countries. Reading Jewish Fiction .net, one can’t help but feel astonishment and excitement at the tremendous diversity manifested in these stories. So many ways to be Jewish! So many different perspectives and attitudes. So much intriguing new information, culturally and historically. Readers say they are dazzled by the richness, variety, and sheer beauty of these stories, and that this gives them, as Jews, feelings of pride, identification, and a sense of belonging. The cornerstones of Jewish identity.
“Jewish identity,” though, is a complex phenomenon, and it is very challenging for educators and community leaders to create or strengthen it in others. Yet one fascinating research study provides an important insight into the nature of Jewish identity. Cohen et al. (2011) found that one major predictor of Jewish identity is having attended a Jewish overnight summer camp. This isn’t surprising. A Jewish summer camp is an intimate community, and Jewish identity - like any other aspect of our identities - is forged through intimate relationships in a communal context. Similarly, reading Jewish fiction involves an intimate relationship (between reader and writer), and occurs in a communal context (communal because stories, being in the public domain, are shared property, and also because these are the stories of our own community). Perhaps for this reason, reading Jewish fiction (translated or not) often creates a deep, authentic bond between an individual and the larger Jewish world. So Jewish fiction can be one more gateway into Jewish identity.
Another reason that Jewish identity can be created or reinforced through reading Jewish fiction is that literature is intrinsically pluralistic. Stories like the ones in Jewish Fiction .net show you (albeit undogmatically and obliquely) how people different from you live, think, feel, and experience the world. Including, of course, how they experience themselves Jewishly. Implicitly this presents readers with choices and teaches them tolerance and inclusiveness. The stories in Jewish Fiction .net have been written by authors who are secular and religious (“religious” encompassing all streams of Judaism), who are right- and left-wing, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, old and young, female and male, economically advantaged and disadvantaged, community-affiliated and community-alienated, LGBTI and straight, and hailing from both Israel and the Diaspora. Gathering all these different voices in one place implicitly offers readers multiple portals into Jewish identity.
Last but not least, stories have power. They can open our hearts and minds, break down stereotypes, increase mutual understanding, and facilitate communion and community. You can’t, reading fiction, enter into someone else’s inner life and then fail to see them as fully human. Nor can you demonize these individuals and the groups they come from. Reading builds bridges between people. For example, we hope that our many stories translated from Hebrew will help the alienated younger generation in the Diaspora to connect more strongly to Israel. And we hope that, through our efforts to publicize the greatness of our great literature, Jews everywhere will better appreciate and cherish the beautiful diversity of Am Yisrael.
Dr. Nora Gold (www.noragold.com) is a prize-winning fiction author, the creator and editor of Jewish Fiction .net (www.jewishfiction.net), and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies at OISE/University of Toronto.