Author brings layered Holocaust tales
Correction appended: The article originally stated that Govrin learned of the death of her mother's half-brother. In fact, the death was of her own half-brother.
Students, staff and other members of the Brandeis community paused their busy days last Wednesday to be transported through myriad perspectives of characters living in the post-Holocaust era. First, through the eyes of a young woman leaving the familiarity of Israel and traveling to Poland for the first time, then through a congregation of Israeli tourists in France, and finally from the first woman again but, this time, years later, as she reflected on her mother's mysterious past. Award-winning Israeli author Michal Govrin managed to at once inspire and enthrall as she spoke about her newly published collection, Hold on to the Sun, in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Govrin also read passages from her previously-published short stories and essays and signed copies of her book.
This event was arranged by a partnership with the Schusterman Center for Israel studies and the Haddasah-Brandeis Institute. The HBI is a research center devoted to the advancement of Women's and Gender Studies and Judaic Studies through supporting work in the field and introducing aspects of each field to one another. It was co-sponsored by the Near Eastern Judaic Studies department and the Hebrew Language and Literature Program. According to Assistant Director of the Center Rachel Litcofsky, the Schusterman Center has a tradition of bringing prominent Israeli authors to Brandeis, including Meir Shalev, Amos Oz, Sayed Kashua, Etgar Keret and Ronit Matalon.
Govrin and many of these authors are part of an effort to present current Israeli culture to students and familiarize them with modern Israel from a cultural, and not solely political, perspective.
"[We try to] combine authors well established in America and also authors who are very significant in Israel but less so in America. They are unique voices in Israeli society," Prof. Ilana Szobel (NEJS) said.
Govrin, in addition to being a prominent Israeli author, is actually quite closely connected to Brandeis through her latest book. Hold On to the Sun is part of the Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series, a joint project of the HBI and the Feminist Press. These organizations worked with Govrin and her editor, Judith Miller, to compile specific works and publish this collection.
Govrin was born in Tel Aviv and has lived in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Paris with a thesis in contemporary sacred theater. She is both an author and a theater director and has 10 novels of both poetry and fiction so far. In addition to her many awards for theater productions and books, she was selected by the Salon du Livre of Paris last year as one of the most influential writers of the past thirty years.
Hold on to the Sun is a compilation of several essays and short stories and encompasses a broad range of Govrin's work. She wrote some of the pieces while she was a student at the University of Paris (one piece was originally a letter to her parents), while others are as recent as 2006. While working on the collection, Govrin read through anthologies that she had not read for many years and compared the process to meeting another self. "Moments of the past are like friends; they are not who we are but we should be kind to [them]." She continued, "I did not change the tone or voice that came with them but accepted them as layers of multiple voices that we all carry." Shulamit Reinharz, the director of HBI, said that the diversity between this poem, an essay, nine pieces of fiction, two more essays and an interview included in this collection is one of its most interesting dimensions.
"The beauty of this book is that it brings some of her most significant work together so students can easily get to know her various voices," Reinharz said.
Although the Holocaust is a central issue in Govrin's work, she has a very unique way of incorporating it into her stories. Govrin's mother was a Holocaust survivor. During the talk, Govrin recounted the riveting tale of her mother's escape. She revealed how, while growing up, she never knew about her mother's life before the Holocaust. As Govrin grew up, she learned of her mother's experience in the concentration camps and of the death of Govrin's half-brother. Her writing reflects this personal experience. She focuses on the lingering effects of the Holocaust on individuals, family life and society as a whole. "She calls for readers to pay attention to the victims themselves in camps and ghettos more than the Nazi machine," Szobel said.
"As a writer, [she presents] a beautiful, unique, touching literature with her own experience but also a theoretical contribution about general ways of thinking about the Holocaust," Szobel said.
Like most of Govrin's work, Hold on to the Sun is centered around the many facets of Jewish and Israeli society and culture, but even more so than other books, a wide range of readers will appreciate it. Govrin's editor and longtime friend Judith Miller was instrumental in the construction of this work, and comes from a completely non-Jewish background. Part of the joy of reading comes from traveling to new worlds and living through a different perspective. Govrin has also experienced so many cultures, from her time at the University of Paris as a student to living in New York, working with the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, or even from her trips to Poland and Russia, that her work represents the fusion of cultures and experiences that have shaped her perspective on the world.
"The title story [Hold on to the Sun] is a good example. It is a layered story within a story, like a Chinese box," Govrin said.
"The juxtaposition of analogous experiences of very different cultures,
Jewish ultraorthodox neighborhoods, an anthropological photographer going to exotic missions in Australia and a young student American from San Francisco all somehow merge into an uncanny community of an analogous mystical experience," she added.
Govrin's talk was inspiring and fascinating. The author's experience compiling this collection taught her a lot about herself and the evolution of her worldview.
"[This book's message is] ‘Go on expressing yourself' as you develop. ... Every stage [of life] is valuable in its own terms,'" she explained.
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