This was the year of the outsider for the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award, whose funds are provided by the Israel state lottery. For the first time in its 14-year history, the prize was given to a writer who doesn’t live in the state of Israel: Reuven Namdar, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, won for his second novel, The Ruined House.
The 51-year-old writer is a Jerusalem native who first came to the U.S. after his army service, hoping to learn about his family’s heritage. His mother is from Iran’s Mashhadi Jewish community, many of whom immigrated to New York during the Iranian Revolution. Namdar stayed in New York, becoming part of the Israeli literary diaspora revolutionizing Hebrew literature.
In an interview by Skype last night, before the award’s results were known, Namdar told me that the fact that he “was allowed to come so far” in his career shows an “expansion of the Israeli and Hebrew sphere globally that was never there before.” He said he was pleased not to have been excluded “because of my zip code.”
Of being an Israeli expat writing abroad, he said, “Israelis are fascinated by this idea and in a way liberated by it.”
Namdar had previously told me he sees himself as a “cultural translator” from America to Israel and vice versa. Namdar’s novel, edited by Haim Weiss, is about a professor of comparative cultures in New York who has dreams of working as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. The book jacket describes it as “a Hebrew and New York novel that creates a new possibility for Hebrew literature.” Clearly, the judges were intrigued by the possibility.
The other nominees were Agur Schiff for The Latecomers, Lea Aini for The Native, Hagit Grossman for Lila and Louis, and Galit Distel-Etebaryan for The Peacock in the Stairwell. As always, there was controversy. This year, four of the five nominees, including Namdar, were published by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan, a union of five separate publishers operating as one. Each publishing house is allowed to nominate five of its books for the prize, so Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan nominated 25, claiming it represents five different houses, not one.
Namdar’s win would seem to inaugurate a new understanding of the contemporary space for Israeli literature. New York has been officially colonized as the capital of the Israeli literary diaspora, now with its own prize-winning author.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.