Writer Gertrude Stein, who would have turned 142 today, is probably best known for running a literary salon in Paris during the interwar years; Picasso used to drop by. The poet Linda Zisquit is Jerusalem’s best-known saloniste, carrying on a tradition that has been formed over centuries, in part by Jewish women.
The salon dates to the 16th century but rose to prominence in the 18th century. Originally satellites of imperial courts, they subsequently evolved into centers of discussion, elaborate conversation, and social posturing. An early and important saloniste, Madeleine De Scudery, outlines the manner of conversation that the salon was supposed to house; “the secret is to speak always nobly of small things, very simply of great things … we may affirm without falsehood that there is nothing that cannot be said in conversation, provided it is managed with wit and judgment.” De Scudery and her peers were not only well-situated hostesses; they were able theoreticians of rhetoric who paid sustained attention to conversation, what De Scudery terms “the bond of society for all humanity” and “the greatest pleasure of decent people.” Their understanding of what constituted proper conversation included letters and notes and all matter of written material, but excluded whole swaths of other subjects and ways of talking about them.
It is significant that from the very beginning salons were coded as feminine spaces, an ezrat nashim where cards, games, and vivacious conversation carved out a model of interaction both central to Enlightenment Society and slightly apart from it. As quintessentially Enlightenment institutions, they appealed immensely to Jews seeking to enter into the “conversation” European civilization was having with itself. Their location in the home allowed Jews to redefine this traditional place of observance as a space open to modernity, the lamp of the Enlightenment as well as the Shabbos candles. As Emily Bilski and Emily Braun note in their 2005 Jewish Museum exhibit and subsequent volume Jewish Women and Their Salons, Jewish women like Rahel Levine in early 1790s Berlin, Salka Viertel in 1930s Los Angeles, and of course Gertrude Stein in 1920s Paris were essential in the development of these vital institutions, which served as both an entry pass to mainstream culture and an antechamber to the avant-garde. Such important events as the Dreyfus and Wilde affairs to a large degree transpired in Jewish salons, and the Duchess of Guermantes who features in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was modeled after a Jewish women called Genevieve Halevy.
In an era of video conferencing and Skype dates, not to mention the use of “conversation” to describe email threads and Facebook messages, I wondered about the contemporary fate of the salon. Book clubs, cooking classes, and meetups of various kinds all seem to lay claim to a fragment of the legacy, but I thought that Israel, a place where, as Philip Roth once trenchantly noted somewhere, “everyone speaks in italics,” would be a good place to look for conversation, or at least one kind of it.
Linda Zisquit, who has five children, lives in a beautiful home on a quiet street just off of Emek Rephaim. In an indicator of the convergences possible in a small country, her home doubles as a gallery called Artspace, a dual identity that mirrors the conflating of public and private space that defined salons in their first iteration. Zisquit is a poet, and a good one—she has received an NEA Translation Grant and has been a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Poetry. A student of the great American poet Robert Creeley and a writer whose “idiom and language are, and will always be, American,” as well as deeply influenced by Puritan literary sensibilities, Zisquit has lived in Jerusalem for thirty years, raising her children there while helping to found the creating writing program at Bar Ilan University.
Israel’s universities have always had a complicated relationship to Hebrew—just a year ago, Hebrew University decided to allow students to submit dissertations in English. As a result, Zisquit has become the center of a dynamic and creative circle of writers, artists, and thinkers, predominantly Anglo but also deeply embedded in the Israeli cultural scene. Her circle is cosmopolitan but also locally inflected, having come to Israel for reasons personal and professional. She bears the discrepancy between the land of her birth and language and the home where she lives with grace; hers is not a tormented expatriatism but an artistic synthesis. Her encounter with the work of Israeli poets Yona Wolloch, Yehuda Amichai, and Rivka Miriam has led to important English renderings of those writers. In a sense, they were also her way of working through a new place and a new language; translation as ulpan.
But, as has been noted in discussions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the art of composition can be as much social as artistic and can involve effectively placing people as well as words together. Zisquit is effacing about the company she keeps, but it undoubtedly constitutes a kind of 21st-century Anglo-Israeli salon, a group with deeply held convictions about the Jewish State and its policies and direction. A reception at her home brought together writer Bernard Avishai, literary critic Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, novelist Allen Hoffman, and James Snyder, the Director of the Israel Museum. Also in attendance were Meir Appelfeld and Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, two distinguished contemporary artists. These people have known each other a long time—two attendees recalled first meeting at Harvard Hillel in 1961, and DeKoven Ezrahi praised Hoffman’s early short story Kagan’s Superfecta as a defining early moment in what come to be seen as explicitly Jewish humor. Reflecting on her roots in both Israel and the United States, DeKoven Ezrahi explained how her homes in New Hampshire and Jerusalem constitute two entirely different worlds, each one coherent and yet unrecognizable to the other.
Zisquit’s poetry adumbrates these tensions by writing across the seam of English and Hebrew, upstate New York and downtown Jerusalem. In a poem entitled “Ritual Bath,” part of a 1993 collection of the same name and reprinted in Havoc just this year, Zisquit writes “my body contains a foreign tongue,” speaking to the physical and linguistic dimensions of living in-body out-of-country. While Havoc features selections from three earlier volumes of Zisquit’s poetry, the new poems feature experimentation with a new form that speaks to another, more distant attempt at cultural encounter.
Zisquit was most animated and impassioned when speaking of the ghazal, a form she first absorbed from a student and which she has devoted much time to inhabiting and that was developed in the Persian poetic tradition and most effectively deployed by the 13th-century poet Rumi. Zisquit takes particular delight in the rhyme between ghazal and mazal, the Hebrew word for fortune. It’s a congruence that speaks to the ways in which poetic concern can be activated by both imagined and real spaces. The poem titled “Ghazal-Mazal” begins “I wanted to call it razzle-dazzle,/ but the rhyme is off, since in Arabic it’s rhazal.” Zisquit begins by acknowledging the American vernacular impulses of her birth and first poetic language, only to experience the frustration and discovery of learning a language mid-verse along with the recognition of the difference between written and spoken language. But razzle’s loss is mazal’s gain, as the languages jostle and speak with each other in a poetry that is itself a conversation that acknowledges various degrees of fluency and the asymmetry of living abroad in your native tongue.
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