If you go
What: Discussion and Reading with Almog Behar and Professor David Shneer: “Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israeli Literature”
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Where: CU’s University Memorial Center, Aspen Room
More info: RSVP appreciated. Please call (303) 492-7143 or visit jewishstudies.colorado.edu for more information.
Almog Behar is a Jewish Israeli poet, author and activist. He writes both in Hebrew and Arabic, coming from a Mizrahi Jewish background (Jewish of Arab/Middle Eastern descent). He will be visiting the University of Colorado for a public discussion Thursday to discuss literature within the Jewish and Arab mixed culture of Israel. He will also give a poetry reading, including his famous piece, “My Arabic is Mute.”
Tell me about where you are from.
I grew up in Netanya and Ra’anana, which are two smaller towns north of Tel Aviv. There, the Arabic language is not well-received on the street, or in most places in Israel. Netanya has a majority population of Mizrahi Jews, whereas the majority in Ra’anana is Ashkenazi, which are Jews from a European descent. The dynamic there was much more of being the “other.”
Is your family Mizrahi?
My family is a little mixed. My mother was born in Baghdad, so yes, she is of a Judeo-Arabic family. She spoke Arabic with her parents until she was 10 years old, when she came to Israel. Her educators told her parents to stop talking to her in Arabic. My father is mixed between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. Half is from Istanbul and half is from Germany. He came to Israel when he was 4 years old. So, languages for me were consisted of Arabic, German and Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish hybrid that is spoken in Turkey).
What inspires your poetry?
Well, I guess growing up, I had a natural experience speaking different languages. Life for me was to speak languages, but in different accents than other people. When I was 17 years old, my grandmother began to lose her memory due to old age. She forgot Hebrew and spoke only Arabic. It became clear to me then that it’s not a natural process to lose language through immigration or assimilating into another culture. It’s an outside influence. Society forces people to forget culture, which is what I came to when I started to study languages of the home. I had a romantic idea of poetry. I thought of it as personal. But as I went on writing, it went more and more into the social role of writing. I keep memories in my writing.
Why do you think it is important for people to understand the cultural differences in Israel?
I think, first of all, going back to my family, something is missing in the present Israeli culture. In the colonial separation, for some people, their culture is not at all present in the public sphere. It gives them a feeling that there was no culture. That’s the peculiar thing — most Jewish culture in the diaspora is litigated through Jewish language. Not being connected to their ancestors’ languages, most of the Jewish culture is lost. In Israel, Arabic is there, it’s the local language. It’s not a family memory. Arabic is part of the future of Israel and it’s part of the past. In the end, everyone in Israel will have to learn Arabic just as they learned Hebrew. It’s not just for descendents of the Arab world.
Contact Mirav Levy at email@example.com.