Hebrew Book Week: Israel’s Largest Book Fair

3 min read
Picture of Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Hebrew Book Week: Israel’s Largest Book Fair

“Hebrew Book Week” שבוע הספר (shvoo-ah hah-seh-fehr) is an annual celebration spanning a week (and sometimes even a month) dedicated to Hebrew literature. Throughout the country, outdoor book fairs are organized, offering discounted prices הנחות (hah-nah-chahoht) on books from various publishing houses. Despite the intense heat and humidity of Tel Aviv, over the past month, thousands of visitors crowded the book fair at “Sarona Market”, including many more in Jerusalem and Haifa. Some authors סופרים (sohf-reem) and poets משוררים (meh-shoh-reh-reem) even arrived at the fairs, greeting avid readers and signing their books.

The Early Days

“Modern Hebrew Literature” is a relatively new phenomenon, considering that Modern Hebrew began to develop intensively only towards the beginning of the 20th century. As Jews from around the world started immigrating to Israel (joining the pre-existing Jewish community in Israel, the ‘Old Yishuv’), they were in desperate need—both practically and spiritually—for a shared language שפה (sah-fah) they could all speak. We take it for granted today, but without the hard work and determination of poets, linguists, authors, and teachers מורים (moh-reem), Modern Hebrew would never have existed. This doesn’t mean that Hebrew lay dormant for 2,000 years; on the contrary, it has always been used for religious purposes, such as in rabbinic literature, and has also functioned as a lingua franca among Jewish scholars from different countries (such as Benjamin of Tudela, Abraham Zacuto, David Gans, and others).

During the medieval era ימי הביניים (yah-meh-yee hah-beh-nah-yeem), the majority of Jewish and Hebrew literature was composed in Islamic North Africa and Spain, mainly poetry. One of the greatest Jewish poets and philosophers of that time was Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058) שלמה אבן גבירול, whose poetry continues to hold great importance to this day and to influence contemporary writers. He’s known as a tragic figure in Hebrew literature, suffering for the majority of his life from an incurable skin disease מחלה (mah-chah-lah). His physical and emotional state are subjects of many of his poems, where he describes his pain and anguish over being isolated from his fellow men. He passed away before the age of 40 but left an incredible legacy behind. 

Hebrew Makes a Comeback

After the golden era of medieval Spain, during the 18th century, came the authors and scholars of the “Haskalah” movement, a Jewish enlightenment movement that worked for the emancipation of Jews in Europe. As part of their political efforts, they advocated for the revival of Hebrew in secular life, which resulted in an increase of Hebrew found in print: books ספרים (sfah-reem), journals, poems – even plays מחזות (mah-chah-zoht). As the zionist movement of the late 19th century gained momentum (decades before the Second World War), the foundations of modern Israeli literature were laid by a few literary pioneers: Shmuel Yosef Agnon ש”י עגנון (would later on become the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature), Hayim Nahman Bialik (Israel’s national poet), Leah Goldberg (writer of the early 20th century but one of the most prominent ones), Rachel Bluwstein (my favorite poetess) and others. The most incredible fact about these poets is that none of them spoke Hebrew as their native language. Unlike English, Italian, or French, the canon of Hebrew literature was created by writers who learned Hebrew as a second or third language. 

A Distant Dream

Nowadays, in the 21st century, thousands of Israeli writers publish their work in Hebrew, some of whom have received international acclaim. Some of the more popular authors whose books were translated into English are David Grossman, Etgar Keret, Meir Shalev, Noa Yedlin, Maya Arad, Zeruya Shalev, Amos Oz and many more. So whether it’s in Hebrew or English, now might be a good time to pick up a book by an Israeli contemporary writer and remember that not long ago, it was a distant dream.

 

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