Friday, September 24, 2010

Meeting Israel Prize Winner Hanoch Bartov

To judge by the many prestigious awards his country has bestowed upon him, and by his prolific output—including ten novels, six collections of short stories, and three books of essays—the eighty-four-year-old Hanoch Bartov should need no introduction. And yet, outside Israel, this master of Hebrew style and quintessential son of the Jewish people and the Jewish state is relatively little known.

One can only hope this will change now that Bartov is about to receive his country's highest honor, the Israel Prize, to be awarded at a nationally televised ceremony on Independence Day, April 20. Informed of the prize, the voluble octogenarian cracked that, although arriving "a little late," it at least provided "scientific proof that there is life after death."

Born in Petah Tikvah to immigrant parents in 1926, the young Bartov preferred burying his head in a book to playing sports. He received a religious education but left school at fifteen to become an apprentice diamond polisher. At seventeen, he joined the Palestine regiment that later became the Jewish Brigade, a formation tardily authorized by Winston Churchill toward the closing stages of World War II.

At war's end, Bartov remained in Europe, where he helped to seek out surviving Jewish refugees and transport them "illegally" into Palestine. Twenty years later, his experience would provide material for a novel, The Brigade, one among the few Bartov works available in English.

Back in Palestine, Bartov spent several semesters at the Hebrew University before being abruptly called up in 1947 to serve in the Haganah during Israel's War of Independence. Thereafter, his career as a writer, which included decades as a columnist for Maariv as well as the steady production of distinguished works of fiction and non-fiction, began in earnest.

When did you first see your name in print?

I started writing as the result of an army bet when I was nineteen. It was a very short story about unrequited love, a subject troubling me at the time. It took me a while to figure out where to send it, but six or seven weeks later a check arrived for a little over a pound—a lot of money at the time.

I was not yet a writer, but I was writing. I'd caught the bug.

Unlike many Israeli writers, you insist on calling yourself a "Jewish writer."

One of my formative experiences was serving in the Jewish Brigade in Europe. A second, after the War of Independence, was living in Jerusalem's German Colony where my wife and I were surrounded by Holocaust refugees rebuilding their lives. After my experiences with the survivors, I dropped my exclusively "Israeli" identity. If I was not foremost a Jew, what did I share with these people who had gone through the hell of the Holocaust?

Hillel Halkin, who translated one of your books, has said that you were among the first in Israel's literary establishment to write in the language people actually spoke.

Yes. Though I employ linguistic allusions to Torah and Mishnah, I don't go in for flowery usage or images. I'm not a fan of post-modern writing, either. I write what I see.

Which authors would you recommend to someone who wants to start exploring contemporary Hebrew literature?

First, read my books!

What book would I find on your bedside table?

Josephus' The Wars of the Jews. It's really about the wars among the Jews. An ancient book, but I read it to understand the tragic parallels with our own times.

You are a man of the Left.

I am Left, but left alone. My Left was shattered many decades ago by the revelations about the crimes of Stalin. Nowadays, I find the Meretz party to be irrelevant, and Labor is led by a millionaire [Ehud Barak], a bourgeois par excellence.

Where does that leave you?

Adhering to certain values that, if besmirched, would make the Zionist enterprise meaningless. Israel needs to be a society based on justice and honesty, the values propagated by the ancient Hebrew prophets. We used to be egalitarian, but we've become a plutocracy. There is a shocking disparity of income. I was disillusioned with Communism, but I remain a social democrat—an old-fashioned socialist.

What do you make of Israel's anti-Zionist Left?

You're speaking of the Left in academia. They are mere curiosities. They lead comfortable lives and mouth platitudes.

In retrospect, was Israel's founding generation mistaken in aiming to create a "new Jew?"

Before the Holocaust, the idea of creating a Jew with none of the baggage of the Diaspora seemed reasonable. But after the loss of Europe's authentic centers of Jewish life, the situation changed. We in Israel did not appreciate how much, and regrettably we allowed our children and grandchildren to grow up Jewishly illiterate

What is the way forward?

It's not religious extremism, though frankly I prefer the [fanatical ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist] Neturei Karta types to the Hebrew-speaking post-Zionism crowd. Why? Because after a generation or two, there's a chance the ultra-Orthodox may become heretics, but they'll still retain enough of their heritage to stay Jewish, whereas those who are Jewishly illiterate will be lost forever.

Getting back to literature, in the last ten years you have published two novels, a long novella, and a collection of essays. What next?

I'm not comfortable talking about work in progress. But I do have a project that's been in the works for several years. Now that I've won the Israel Prize, I feel duty-bound to finish it.

As for my recent fiction, I continue to grapple with the Israeli-Jewish connection, tackling it from different angles. For instance, in 2006 I published Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street [Mi-hutz la-Ofek, Me`ever la-Rechov], a work that took me twenty-eight years to complete. I don't really call it a novel because it deals with an actual family and I let their story speak for itself.

They were from Kovno, in Lithuania: very Zionist, speaking Hebrew and always intending to come to Palestine but never succeeding. During the brief Soviet occupation [June 1940–June 1941] before the Nazis invaded, they were able to send two of their sons here. I met one of them in the Jewish Brigade, and the other I knew later in Jerusalem. Miraculously, the family back home survived the Holocaust; they were reunited by our Jewish Brigade, and the entire family--the youngest boy was thirteen--made it to Israel. Both the adult sons fought in the War of Independence, but tragically the older one was killed in action. The parents lived well into their eighties with all of these memories.

For me, this is a saga that mixes Jewish and Israeli fates. In what sense? You never know whether you are going to survive or die.

--April 2010

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