Nudging aside Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and the shenanigans of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the news of the day in late May was the tarorom over the awarding of Israel’s Sapir Prize—Israel’s premier literary award — to Israeli author Reuven Namdar for his stunning novel “The House That Was Destroyed,” which chronicles a year in the life of a New York academic.
The Sapir Prize identifies, recognizes, and rewards (financially) the best book that was published during the year in the Hebrew language.
All to the good. Reuven Namdar’s novel was rightly acclaimed as a tour-de-force in the genre, and Namdar appeared to fit the key criterion: he is an Israeli author.
Or is he?
Within minutes of the award, voices literary and general complained that Namdar has been living in New York for years, has an “American” family, and by appearance has little intention of returning to Israel. In the words of a leading Israeli literary critic and historian, “He’s not an Israeli; he’s an American. Period.”
For its part, the Sapir Prize wasted little time in tweaking its protocols. The new guidelines, adopted in May, require that the candidate be an Israeli who is living and working in Israel. The requirement, to go into effect immediately, that the Sapir be awarded only to residents, created a new debate, one over Israel’s responsibility for the broad rubric of Hebrew culture — wherever it may reside. Sapir, for its part, maintains that its responsibility is to allocate precious resources to those writers who have made the tough choice to remain in Israel. The argument, by extension, is that Israelis have a responsibility to ensure that arts and letters in Israel will continue to be a top priority.
“No, no!” assert those who don’t like the new guidelines. The mission of Israel is to support Hebrew belle-lettres wherever they are crafted. Indeed, the very fibre of Hebrew literature is, at least in part, that of the Diaspora — and Sapir ought acknowledge that reality.
The next Sapir will be awarded in early 2016. Stay tuned.
Jerome Chanes writes about Jewish — including Israeli — arts and letters. He is the author of four books on Jewish history and American Jewish public affairs.