A reverence for books

2016-05-10 06:00
 Award-winning author Anne Landsman will speak at the inaugural Jewish Literature Festival.

Award-winning author Anne Landsman will speak at the inaugural Jewish Literature Festival.

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Words and Jewish culture have walked a long history together. It’s this relationship – the rich tradition of disputation, debate and dialogue – which the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival looks to explore.

The festival is set to take place on Sunday 22 May in Gardens and will feature over 45 events.

One of these events will be a talk by award-winning Anne Landsman, who returns to her homeland to discuss Jewish Literature at the festival.

Landsman grew up in Worcester, surrounded by blue skies, mountains, and an endless variety of indigenous plants. But she dreamed of living another life in London, Paris or New York, she says in her online bio. “Most of the children I went to school with were Afrikaans, had blonde hair and shockingly blue eyes. I was Jewish; my black hair curled in every direction and my nose was long. It added another layer of not belonging. And then there was apartheid, which was invented and established while I was growing up. I knew it was wrong, my parents knew it was wrong, but that’s where we lived.”

At 21, after completing a degree at the University of Cape Town, Landsman travelled to the cities of her imagination. New York stole her heart and she attended Columbia University and started writing screenplays. “That’s where I began to think of writing about South Africa, the place I never read about as a child. A short story I wrote which was published in the American Poetry Review became the prologue to my first novel, The Devil’s Chimney. I then went on to adapt the novel for the screen, as well as teach writing myself.”

She has published essays, reviews and interviews and wrote a second novel, The Rowing Lesson. With a string of awards for The Rowing Lesson, Landsman’s newest project looks to create “a historical fantasy intended for younger audiences but which hopefully appeal to their parents”. She will also discuss the rationale behind this shift at the festival. “My passion for reading and books began when I was a child. I have wonderful memories of visiting the public library in Worcester with my mother. By writing for a younger audience, I wanted to recapture some of that magic – this time not as reader but as a writer, inviting children into that world.

“The two main characters, a Jewish girl of thirteen and her ten-year-old brother, along with their father, flee religious persecution in their homeland and settle on an unnamed island which expelled its Jews centuries earlier. The theme of displacement and religious intolerance, although explicitly Jewish in my novel, is a universal one and is particularly relevant today.”

Creating a Jewish literature has no hard and fast rules, Landsman says. “There are so many different ways of being Jewish, and there are Jews scattered all over the globe, living very different kinds of lives. There is such a spectrum, both in terms of observance as well as birthright. Being Jewish is really the story of being human, in all its complexity and diversity. At the very least, though, a Jewish book should have some Jewish content in terms of theme or setting, or a Jewish character or two.”

At the festival, Landsman will tackle the topic “What makes a book Jewish?” in a panel discussion.

Jewish culture is strongly based on literature, Landsman believes.

“The Jews are the people of the book. The Torah (five books of Moses) is the foundational text not only for Judaism but Christianity and Islam as well. Before reading from the Torah scroll, Jews raise the fringes of their prayer shawls to their lips, and then transfer that kiss to the hand-written words inscribed on the parchment. When a Torah is no longer usable, it is buried in a waterproof container. If a Torah is dropped, it is customary for those who are there to fast. The rules that govern how a Torah is made, where it is kept and when it is used go back several millennia. At the very heart of Judaism is the worship of this ancient text. So Jews have a special relationship to books,” she says.

The Jewish experience is really a window into the larger human experience, Landsman says. “As a child, I remember listening over and over again to a long-playing vinyl record of American Jewish jokes titled ‘You Don’t Have to Be Jewish’. The point was that you didn’t have to be Jewish to find Jewish jokes funny. In the same way, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Philip Roth or Cynthia Ozick or Jonathan Safran Foer – or any of the wonderful South African Jewish writers at the Jewish Literary Festival,” she says.

The festival will showcase authors, poets, illustrators, journalists, writers and educators who have a Jewish connection or are engaged with subjects of Jewish interest. It is a day for mingling with fellow book lovers, making new friends, gathering ideas and picking up some great reads. There will also be a full children’s programme.

Tickets are available at Quicket.co.za. For more information, visit www.jewishliteraryfestival.co.za


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