Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective
University of California, Santa Cruz
This exhibit was dedicated to Elie Wiesel, one of the greatest Jewish writers of the twentieth century, who spoke in Santa Cruz on May 7, 1996. Its scope presented three challenges:
The first was geographic: how does one represent the diversity and abundance of creative writing by Jewish writers in the Diaspora? From Australia to New York, from Budapest to Johannesburg, from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, the writers whose works were included reflected the trajectories of Jewish migration, the paths of history itself.
The second challenge was time: how can one exhibit encompass the upheavals and transformations of the past one hundred years, the overwhelming complexity of twentieth-century Jewish experience? This century began with the pogroms of Eastern Europe and mass migrations to the United States, Canada, Latin America, Australia, then exploded in the genocide of the Shoah in which six million were murdered and millions were displaced. How does one traverse that terrible barrier between the Holocaust and those who lived before, those of us who live after? Perhaps Wiesel's work, which provides witness to the atrocities of those years and also insists on believing in life and hope is the best bridge we have.
To do justice to the complexities of both geography and history, this exhibit needed to pay tribute to the flowering of German-Jewish culture before the rise of Hitler which ended in wrenching dissolution of the German-Jewish symbiosis, the terrible betrayal of the Enlightenment and the promise of citizenship for Europe's Jews. And yet European Jews have survived and their contemporary works are included here as well. This century has also witnessed the founding of the state of Israel and the development of Hebrew as a living language with a living literature and that too must be included. These cases must honor the vitality of Yiddish literature, of Yiddishkayt and the efforts to preserve and revive Yiddish. We must explore the distinct history of Jews in Latin America--the secrets of life in countries dominated by Catholicism and the legacy of the Inquisition, countries which have also provided refuge for Nazis themselves. We include the Jewish communities of North Africa, the Middle East, India, and China. The exhibit reflects the ambiguities of assimilation in the United States, and the unique perspectives of Jewish lesbian and feminist writers. It must not overlook the rich writing of Canadian-Jewish poets and novelists and the differences in the cultural milieu for Jews in that country from that of its gigantic neighbor to the south. It travels to the Southern Hemisphere and the strong communities of Australia and South Africa.
The third and final challenge was one of definition: what is a Jewish writer? Is a Jewish writer anyone who is Jewish and writes? Does it matter how the writer defines themself, whether they want to be considered "a Jewish writer" or see that as limitation? For this purposes of exhibit was defined heritage who explores themes in their work. The emphasis is on creative writing, fiction, poetry and non- fiction.
Gathering these materials was a fascinating experience. Although I am first-generation American, the daughter of two Holocaust refugees, I began with only knowledge of American Jewish writers. Curating this exhibit took me on a journey through bibliographies and anthologies, through the Internet, and on endless trips through the stacks of this library, wheeling loaded book trucks into my overflowing office. I realized that my family, my Jewish family, represents the trajectories of twentieth-century Jewish migration and gained deeper insight into my own past. Surely an exhibit of this scope could fill a hundred cases instead of the ten available here. Hence this exhibit can only be an introduction, a sampling of the vast diversity of global Jewish literature created in the twentieth century. Enjoy! --Irene Reti This exhibit provides a sampling of the diversity of global Jewish literature.