Lest there be any doubt about Jewish claims to the title People of the Book, the latest scandal roiling Israelis these days has to do with an amendment in the regulations of a literary contest. Modeled after the Man Booker Prize, Israel’s Sapir Prize is the country’s top literary award, bestowing on its recipients—who have included sterling names like David Grossman and Yoram Kaniuk—eternal fame and a check for $40,000. For the first 15 years of the prize’s existence, any author was eligible as long as he or she wrote in Hebrew. Last week, the prize’s administrators amended the contest’s bylines, demanding that the winning author live in Israel full time.
As has been the tradition for two millennia of Jews poring over fine print, two conflicting camps arose, one arguing that the amendment was just and necessary—why, after all, should Israel fete a writer who had chosen to sever his or her ties with the Motherland?—and the other decrying the act as an assault on the fundamentals of literature in general and Hebrew literature in particular. In a letter to the prize’s administrator, 57 Israeli writers, poets, and intellectuals argued that the new amendment “is an act against the Hebrew language and its most basic characteristics,” a blustery edict that denies the fact that Hebrew literature was written long before the modern blue-and-white flag flew over Jerusalem. Had he been around today, some critics noted, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, wouldn’t have been eligible for the Sapir, having composed most of his work while living abroad.
How to make sense of this controversy? And does it even matter? To answer these questions, look no further than last year’s winner, Reuven Namdar’s Ha’Bayit Asher Nechrav, or The Ruined House. It’s a bit of a taunt to sing the praises of a novel not yet available in English, but as Namdar’s win was a major catalyst for the new amendment—Jerusalem born, he has spent the last 15 years in New York—his book is the obvious first step in this discussion.
And it is, much to the chagrin of the amendment’s supporters, an absolute masterpiece, one of the most monumental works written in Hebrew in the last century.
The novel’s protagonist is Andrew Cohen, a professor in the fictitious department of Comparative Culture at New York University. He’s a dedicated follower of fashion, which is evident in everything from his apartment—a triumph of minimalism—to his academic work, which includes gossamer with clever titles like “Woody Warhol and Andy Allen: Representations of Inversion or the Inversion of Representation.” Divorced from his wife—her emotions and her furniture were too much clutter for Cohen—he is now paired with a graduate student half his age, with whom he darts from one gala to another. Like most American Jews who are a few cheeseburgers removed from the faith of their forefathers, Andrew, too, has nothing more than a nominal interest in Judaism, which he marks with an annual visit to shul on Yom Kippur.
And then the nightmares begin.
At first, they creep up in passing, a blur of a vision here or a hint of an apparition there. But soon, the professor’s life is taken over by strong, sensual, and, often, monstrous spectacles, all of which involve the ancient rituals of sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. In his delirium, Cohen sees the high priests, or Cohens, performing their sacred and blood-soaked duties. He also develops a series of maladies, with his skin and his mind both growing acutely sensitive to the impurities around him, from menstrual blood to non-kosher food. Unable to process any of these phenomena with the blunt tools he’d acquired in decades of academic frippery, professor Cohen goes mad.
And so—blissfully! beautifully!—does the reader. As Cohen’s condition continues to deteriorate, the novel, written in gorgeously layered Hebrew, grows unbearable. New York as seen through Cohen’s eyes is dripping with vile secretions of every kind. There’s an abomination around every corner, and the sophisticated besuited gentleman Jew grows weaker and weaker with each dribble. Readers seeking solace from this onslaught of sounds and smells and ghastly images are invited to follow the book’s subplot: In between each chapter, a few pages—written and designed to look like scraps of the Mishnah and dealing exclusively with the rituals of animal sacrifice on Yom Kippur—provide a hidden key to Cohen’s torment. Like all things Talmudic, they, too, require a close and exhaustive reading.
Take the time, make the effort, and you’ll see that the novel, like all great works, contains multitudes: It’s about American Jewry’s search for meaning. It’s about faith in modern times. It’s about Judaism’s radical messianic spirit and its rebirth in each generation. It’s about exilic life in the aftermath of the Temple’s demise. It’s about the struggle for foundations in an era that seems to be built entirely on intellectual, moral, spiritual, and emotional quicksand.
It is, in short, the quintessential Hebrew novel. It’s hard to think of one more ambitious, more engaged with the core questions that have bedeviled Jews, in Israel and abroad, for so long. It’s also hard to imagine a novel like this being written in Israel: Its scope, its facility with both the trifles of contemporary life and the awesome rhythms of antiquity, its psychological depths and its theological seriousness—all those could have only been achieved far from the cauldron of everyday Israeli existence and its own boiling concerns.
The Sapir Prize committee is unlikely to change its mind. Unlike the Man Booker, which, in 2013, rescinded the demand that eligible authors live somewhere in the British Commonwealth and acknowledged the need to promote the universal appeal of the English language, the lights out of Jerusalem have opted for a provincial vision that shares nothing with the way Hebrew literature has been written and read for millennia. It chose to punish Hebrew writers living on the Hudson or the Havel merely for doing what Jews have done for the vast part of our existence as a people. That’s a shame, but it’s a minor one. As Namdar’s book proves, the grace of Hebrew literature and the power of Jewish thought each stem from the same ancient engine that has been powering both for a very long time. For writers, there’s no greater prize than tapping into that eternal resource.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.