As Light As Darkness

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Originally, for this week, the Leo Baeck Institute had scheduled the Hebrew-German bilingual poetry reading ”Es dunkelt wie mir scheint“ by renown aphorist Elazar Benyoëtz. But even though reality decided to challenge us, don’t you worry: we are up for the challenge! Thanks to Dr. Jan Kühne of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Center for the German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University who wrote this wonderful introduction, we hope that in this post you will enjoy a taste from the lecture all the way from home!

Elazar Benyoëtz was born into dark times—in Vienna, on March 24, 1937—a year before the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany. Immediately afterwards, his parents emigrated with him to Mandate Palestine. Twenty years later, he would publish his first collection of poems: ביני לבין עצמי—Between Me and Myself. He continued to write his poetry in Hebrew throughout the 1950s and 60s and published, all in all, eleven books of Hebrew poems, aphorisms and short prose. Two later books were published in 1980 and 1989, when he was already a prolific and acknowledged writer in German.

Benyoëtz published his first German book in 1969 under the title Sahadutha. Until today, he continues to primarily write and publish in German—to date, over fifty books and booklets of aphorisms and poems. Benyoëtz is considered nowadays as one of the most important representatives of aphoristic style in German literature and has received a dozen of distinguished awards, among them the Chamisso prize in 1988 and the Theodor Kramer prize in 2010. He has been conferred the highest honours by both the Austrian and the German government—the Austrian Ehrenkreuz for Science and Art and the Bundestverdienstkreuz. Benyoëtz is also a corresponding member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Darmstadt.

Like many other German-Jewish writers after the Shoah, also Benyoëtz suffered from the Nazi-stigma attached to the German language and cultural tradition—a language and tradition which had, after all, contributed most decisively to the modernization of Jewish tradition since Moses Mendelssohn, Samson Raphael Hirsch, as well as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Benyoëtz is, probably the last influential living writer in the German Jewish tradition—a generation which has come to an end with the recent demise of writers such as Ilana Shmueli, Manfred Winkler, Eva Avi-Yona, Tuvia Rübner and others.
What renders Benyeotz special in this generation is that he had forged his way into German as a second language. Like the German-Jewish writer Ludwig Strauss, who, nevertheless, had inscribed himself into the Hebrew language, Benyoëtz had likened his relationship to both languages to a pair of lips, by drawing upon a wordplay between language and lips in Hebrew.

Strauss had famously called Hebrew and German the lip-pair of his heart in the aphorism: Where is the language wherein I can express everything inside of me? Two languages/lips are the language-/lip-pair of my heart. Similarly, Benyoëtz writes: ”My upper-lip has a Hebrew, the lower lip a German connotation.“ However, he adds, he could not speak but only write with these lips since they diverge and cannot be brought together, not even for a whistle (nicht einmal für einen Pfiff).

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