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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.