Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Winner of Israel’s Top Literary Prize Masters the ‘Craft of Asking Questions’

March 25, 2013 10:35 am 0 comments

The cover of Shimon Adaf's "Mox Nox," which won Adaf Israel's Sapir Prize. Photo: Kinbooks.co.il.

Beyond his use of Latin, Shimon Adaf is a Renaissance man when it comes to the arts, expressing himself in poetry, prose and music. But ultimately, his writing—which last month won him Israel’s top literary prize—boils down to yet another craft, what he calls the “craft of asking questions.”

“Someone says this thing, why is it? What gives it meaning? Wherever I am, I am just asking questions,” he tells JNS.org about the study of Jewish texts.

Adaf in February was announced the winner of Israel’s annual Sapir Prize—which carries an award of 150,000 shekels, or about $35,000—for Mox Nox (Latin for “night is upon us”), the second volume of a trilogy whose other two volumes include both Latin and Hebrew titles (Kfor/Nuntia, Hebrew for “frost” and Latin for “messenger,” and Arim Shel Mata/De Urbibus Inferis, loosely translated in Hebrew and Latin as “lower/infernal cities”).

The inspiration for Adaf’s trilogy came from the “clash between the Jewish world and outer world, defined in Jewish tradition as the kingdom of Rome,” which oppressed the Jews and destroyed the Second Temple, he says, adding that the titles in both languages serve to bridge that conflict between cultures.

In addition to the cash reward, the Sapir Prize comes with two translations of the author’s work, into Arabic and a different language of the author’s choosing. Adaf’s literary agent is currently seeking an English translator for Mox Nox, in which Adaf tells the parallel tales of a boy confronting his painful childhood on a kibbutz and his coming-of-age as an author.

The versatile Adaf, 41, is equally adept at translating into Hebrew the works of American 20th-century science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (for publication) and of 17th-century English poet John Milton (for his personal consumption). On the stage, he appears at literary events playing guitar and sharing vocals with the bass player in his three person band or reading from one of his three published volumes of poetry or six published novels. In conversation, Adaf discusses the work of Maimonides, the Hassidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, and John Berryman with aplomb and evident erudition.

The Sapir Prize has been given out by Israel’s national lottery, “Mifal Hapayis,” every year since 2000 (except 2009, when it was rescinded due to a conflict of interest by one of the judges who was the uncle of the winner’s editor). The prize is modeled on England’s Booker Prize, with publishing houses submitting up to 10 works apiece by Israeli citizens and a jury winnowing the submissions to a list of five.

Shimon Adaf. Photo: Eldad Refaeli.

Neta Gurevitch, the head editor of the Yediot Books publishing house, says, “What’s beautiful about this prize is its continuing power of propelling books into the consensus.” Adaf did not expect to win, joking in his acceptance speech that although he had ironed his shirt, he had not prepared a speech.

Adaf is the head of the Literary Writing track at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Be’ersheva, where he also teaches in the department of Hebrew Literature. He tells JNS.org that he was raised in a Moroccan family in Sderot that was “very religious” and expected him to be a rabbi. He learned to read and write at an early age and studied with his father, who entered him in many academic contests. Adaf says his affinity for writing comes out of his “first contact with the world,” which was “studying,” and that for him the process of studying is, “Not to study something but [to] learn how to ask questions.”

When he teaches, Adaf says, “I don’t have answers for my students, I give them a key to ask questions about their work.”

One question Adaf frequently asks in connection with Israeli literature is, “What makes you Jewish?” He says in Israel, it is a “question that is rarely asked,” but one that he is trying to ask in his fiction.

“Is a knowledge of Jewish scriptures enough to build identity around? Does keeping mitzvot make you Jewish? Being circumcised?” he asks.

Adaf speaks of his admiration for those who have grappled with these issues in other cultures and contexts, such as Maimonides, or German writers and philosophers Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig. He finds inspiration in Maimonides for the way he was able to “meet the world” of medieval philosophy. For example, in Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides “takes parts of a world that hates you” and converts it for Jewish consumption by “taking elements and making it Jewish,” according to Adaf.

Adaf says that he is interested in “Jewish identity in a post-national world, a reality I think we are heading towards.” He says, “A traditional way of thinking can provide us with a way to define ourselves,” and that he does this by writing parts of his novels in Mishnaic Hebrew, “using many parts of Gemara (Talmud) as points of reference.”

When asked about his own work compared with that of his contemporaries in Israel, Adaf says there are “many writers whose quest is similar, but are not influenced by each other, and there is not influence between them.” He names some writers who are his peers—Shva Salhov, Dror Burstein, Ophir Touche Gafla, Nir Baram—and adds that he doesn’t think there is any one “form, a style, or a model of representation that is predominant in Israeli literature,” but rather just “a collection of personal and individual points of views and means of reflecting on reality.”

Though he knows Jewish texts, Adaf is very much influenced by world literature as well, naming Roberto Bolano and W.G. Sebald as favorite writers.

Asked whether the attention that comes with winning the prestigious Sapir Prize will change him, Adaf demurs.

“In a way the winning is an external event,” he says. “My work is a process that just goes on.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Huffington Post Accused of ‘Jew-Hatred’ After Tweeting ‘Offensive’ Joke About Comedian at Video Music Awards

    Huffington Post Accused of ‘Jew-Hatred’ After Tweeting ‘Offensive’ Joke About Comedian at Video Music Awards

    The Huffington Post is facing backlash after joking about a Jewish comedian’s  appearance at the Video Music Awards (VMAs) on Sunday night. Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky took part in Nick Jonas’ performance of his song “Bacon,” staged in a New York diner — in a cameo role as a waiter throwing a handful of bacon in the air. Commenting on the show, the Huffington Post tweeted, “not thrilled at the fat jew [he] wasted all that perfectly good bacon!!!!!!” The message angered many Twitter users, who thought the joke […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli basketball fans mobbed Hapoel Jerusalem’s newest player, American pro Amar’e Stoudemire, dancing around with him during a practice open to the public. On Friday, the team posted a video on Twitter of the happy romp with fans jumping around Stoudemire, while chanting in Hebrew. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, Stoudemire pumps his fist in the air. The basketball player, who has Jewish roots on his mother’s side, also waved a flag emblazoned with Hapoel Jerusalem’s logo. The former New York Knicks forward retired from the NBA earlier […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →