Day: December 2, 2017

Writing is the Closing of Circles: Nava Semel


From R. Lentin, Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Re-occupying the Territories of Silence, (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000)


I met Nava Semel on November 25, 1992 in the apartment she shares with her husband Noam Semel, director of the Tel Aviv Cameri Theatre, and their three children, Iyar and twins Eal-Eal and Nimdor. Semel was born in 1954 in Tel Aviv. Her father, Itzhak Artzi, a former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, was born in Bukovina and is not a concentration camp survivor. Her mother, Margalit (Mimi) Artzi (nee Liquornik), also born in Bukovina, is a survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Kleineshenau. The twins, born in the US while Noam Semel served with the Israeli consulate in New York, have American passports. ‘This too is part of my being a daughter of survivors,’ Semel explained, ‘at least when the helicopters come to rescue the survivors here, they would be saved.’ Semel’s brother, Shlomo Artzi, is a leading Israeli popular singer. Semel is small, short haired, and very intense. Her use of the Hebrew language is very precise. She had obviously done a lot of thinking about being a daughter of Shoah survivors and has written both fiction and journalism about it.

Nava Semel describes her childhood as an ‘ordinary Israeli childhood.’ She served in the army as a news producer with Galei Tsahal, the army radio channel. She began writing when she had her first child. Her collection of short stories, the first ‘second generation’ fiction collection published in Israel, Kova Zekhukhit (A Hat of Glass) (1985), met with a wall of silence when it first appeared, but has been written about extensively since then. The collection was re-issued in 1998 with an introduction by the literary critic Nurit Govrin. Several stories have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Turkish and French and appeared translations in Germany and Italy in 2000.

In all the stories there is a ‘child of’ persona and they are all based on the various stages of learning about and coming to terms with her parents’ survival as Semel explains in the following narrative. Indeed, in all her books, the reality is often viewed from a child’s point of view.

Her one-woman play Hayeled meAchorei Haeinayim (The Child Behind the Eyes) (1987), a monologue of a mother of a Down Syndrome child, had many showings in Israel and abroad and several radio broadcasts internationally. In 1996 it won the Austrian radio play of the year award. Her two novels for young people, Gershona Shona (Becoming Gershona) (1988/1990), and Maurice Havivel Melamed Lauf (Flying Lessons) (1991/1995) deal with young people living among Shoah survivors in search of an Israeli identity. Both were translated into English. In 1996 Flying Lessons was selected in Germany as one of the 30 best books of the year. The novel Rali Masa Matara (Night Games) (1993) is the story of a group of Israeli forty-something friends playing a treasure hunt on the 1987 Day of Independence, half a year before the Intifada broke out. The novel Isha al Neyar (Bride on Paper) (1996) tells of life in a pre-state Israeli moshava (collective settlement) in the 1930s. Semel also translates plays, mostly on Shoah-related themes.

In 1996 Semel won the Prime Minister’s Award, a twelve-months writing scholarship. In 1999 she collaborated with her father in writing his biography (Artzi and Semel, 1999), documenting the story of a young Zionist journeying from Europe to Israel. And writing the script for a documentary film on Transnistria, based on her journey to the death camps in 1998.

Since our initial meeting, which proved seminal to writing this book, Semel and I remained in close contact. I have chosen to present her entire narrative not as an ‘ideal type,’ but because it seems to be the ‘key story’ to the interpretation of the other narratives. The narrative encompasses most of the elements highlighted by the other narrators and theorised in later chapters. These include breaking the silence surrounding the Shoah and Shoah survivors, the confrontation between the Jewish Shoah and Israel’s ‘new Hebrews,’ ceremonial memory versus intimate memory and the ‘masculinised’ Israeli ‘normality’ versus the stigmatisation of Shoah survivors. Moreover, perhaps because my parents, like her parents, came from Bukovina, the trajectory Semel’s narrative presents, her ‘thematic field,’ from the split subjectivity of being a silenced child of survivors, stigmatised in the new state of Israel, and a member of (our) first sabra generation, to being a writer who is re-interpreting the puzzle of Shoah daughterhood, resonates most with my own trajectory.

Semel has been central to my work, not in the sense of being a ‘key informant,’ nor in the sense of being a ‘co-author,’ but our collaboration raises important issues about voice and authorship. Like the other narrators, Semel has been engaged in ‘researching’ the meaning of being a daughter of Shoah survivors in Israeli society, and, like the other narrators, she is a ‘woman of voice,’ who has broken the silence about the Shoah in her own family and in Israeli society by writing herself onto Israel’s cognitive map. The feminist strategy of ‘giving voice’ to voiceless people might seem superfluous, if it was not for Semel’s and the other narrators’ recurring stories about silence. While this book is based on their narratives, ‘it is the researcher who narrates, who “authors” the ethnography’ (Stacey, 1991: 23). The question of authority and authorship is particularly thorny when researchers insist on a collaboration process with their informants, but ultimately produce the research text themselves, no matter how modified or influenced by the narrators. My work with Nava Semel and the other narrators was dialogic, yet the question of ‘giving voice’ remains open. Dialogue as a research strategy employs Myerhoff’s notion (1992) of the ‘third voice,’ born by the virtue of the collusion between researcher – a sociological narrator, embodied, situated and ultimately responsible for her own words, her own ‘multiple selves’ – and narrators. Read more