Many years ago, when I was eight or nine years old and the world was still full of promises, one of my teachers, puzzled by my surname, atypical for Serbia where most surnames end in “ikj”, asked me what I was. I stood up and told him what my father had always told me: that I was a Jew. “But how is it possible”, he said, “I thought that there were no more of you Jews left around.”
At that time I had no idea what he meant. He was, perhaps, genuinely surprised, without any intention to utter an insult. I was just a kid, and it would take me several years to learn about the horrible story of Holocaust. But his remark stuck deep inside me, and for a while I thought of myself as the living dead.
Defining Jewish is as difficult as defining Jewish identity, or at least, secular Jewish identity. Growing up in the small, secular Jewish community of former Yugoslavia, I thought that defining Jewish identity was one of our obligations. It seemed to me that everybody else in our multiethnic society was so sure of his/her identity, and that it was only Jews who kept spending endless hours trying to understand who they really were. When we got together in our annual summer camp somewhere on the Adriatic coast, we would have two or three meetings devoted to that subject, and back in our respective Jewish community centers, during the regular weekly meetings of our Youth Clubs, we would try over and over again to come to an acceptable answer. We would mention Jewish tradition and holidays, the beauty of Shabbat, the bond of Hebrew, the light of Zion. But since we were not practising Jews, all these things, although we recognized their importance, did not mean that much to us. And since most of us were children from mixed marriages who chose to follow the Jewish inheritance, we would always come to the same conclusion: Jewish identity was a matter of choice.
The same answer is the only one I can offer when it comes to the question of defining the secular Jewish writer: it is a meter of personal choice. But that answer works only on the individual level. Seen as a group, regardless of their individual choices, Jewish writers display more similarities than differences. In other words, the question of defining Jewish literature remains as acute as ever, but the answer – like the one to the question of Jewish secularity – is still not in sight.
Language, unfortunately, does not help us. In most cases it does define a national literature, but Jewish have always spoken many languages. There is, it is true, one “holy language”, Hebrew, for all Jews, but not all of them speak it. Besides, for writers their holy language is the one they use to write their poems or stories. On the other hand, Jews have always used different languages in their everyday life, and sometimes even to write their holy books.
Ethnicity is also problematic. Jewish writers often resist being classified as ethnic writers. It might be the consequence of an old Jewish fear: “If I show myself to be different, I will give them a good reason to point me out”. Innumerable historical instances of persecutions and pogroms have confirmed this fear. That explains why mimicry, and why it is still being used today in the world in which acts of segregation are still more powerful than acts of unification.
So critics and literary theoreticians could come to only one definition, namely, that a Jewish writer of Jewish origin and that Jewish literature is written by writers of Jewish origin. It is not a highly clarifying conclusion, but given all the differences, divisions and denials inside the Jewish community itself, it seems to be the only possible one. I also like to add a phrase “who write(s) on Jewish themes” to that definition, thus adding the necessary element of choice. Why would you otherwise write on Jewish themes (with the obvious exception of anti-Semitic writing, of course) if you do not feel Jewish or, at least, have some doubts concerning your own Jewish identity?
The doubts surrounding Jewish identity might account for an disproportionally high number of writers among secular Jews. Their long-term and everyday mimicry might also account for some more. But although doubting and the art of mimicry are of essential importance to writer, I do not believe that they make Jews better equipped for writing or art in general. Jews might be more stubborn in their doubting or more willing to try yet again to reach perfection, but as a nation they do not have anything that any other nation might not have.
In other words, I disagree with those writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who claim that the Jewish writer has a special role, a special task to achieve. Raymond Federman, American novelist and survivor of the Holocaust, wrote somewhere that it was the duty of the Jewish writer to write about the horrors off Holocaust, and it is probably true for many Jewish writers, especially the ones who survived that experience. But isn’t that the duty of every writer: to write about the horrors of what he/she perceives to be the ultimate holocaust? It does not mean that the horrors of the Holocaust will be diminished. It only means that there are too many horrors in this world and that a writer’s attempts to fight against them, no matter how “small” or “big” they are, is what really counts.
For me, being a Jewish writer means being a part of an ethnic literature consisting of many smaller ethnic literatures, in the same way as individual Jewish communities around the world are different from each other. Being Jewish also gave me a burden to carry, a welcome burden one might say, because in essence that’s what writing is about : it is about carrying a burden and telling other people how it feels to carry it, helping them to take it off their shoulders, at least for a short while, and realize that despite heaviness and suffering there is some light at the end of the road.
Although I felt uncomfortable and frightened whenever other kids, who until then had never through of me as being different from them, kept staring at me, I am grateful to my primary school teacher. He helped me learn a most important lesson for writers: words, as well as the silence after them, may not kill, but they can do almost anything else. They can hurt, but they can also create.