Winner of Israel’s Top Literary Prize Masters the ‘Craft of Asking Questions’
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Prize has been given out by Israel’s national lottery, “Mifal Hapayis,” every year since 2000 (except 2009, when it was rescinded due to a conflict of interest by one of the judges who was the uncle of the winner’s editor).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.
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.”