The classroom in College Hall is standing room only as acclaimed Israeli author Judith Katzir answers questions posed by Penn professor Nili Gold. How is the literature by female writers, including those in Israel, changing the global literature landscape? Gold asks. What is it like to spend two months teaching and writing in Shanghai?
The soft-spoken Katzir responds like a writer, sharing eloquent, well-composed thoughts.
“I don’t want you to think of me as a dinosaur trying to convince you to read stories, to read novels,” she says. “But in our lives, we make intimate acquaintances with only a few people: close relatives, family, a few friends. Literature gives us the opportunity to meet many more souls, characters, people we can identify with.”
And just like that, she has the room.
Katzir is at Penn at the invitation of Gold, a professor of modern Hebrew literature who teaches several of Katzir’s texts in her courses and whose most recent global seminar to Haifa, Israel, included meeting the author. This event, sponsored by the Middle East Center, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Jewish Studies Program, brought Katzir to the University to share her thoughts about the global context of Israeli literature and to discuss her own writing.
Though Katzir has plenty to say about the broad landscape, she comes to life when talking about her own work. Gold asks her first about “Schlafstunde,” a love story between two 13-year-old cousins whose secret is discovered by an abusive “uncle” named Alfred. Katzir provides a backstory from her own life before going into detail about the fictional short story, which appears in a collection of stories called “Closing the Sea.”
Katzir grew up in Haifa in the 1960s and 1970s. Though there were people around her who had survived the Holocaust, the event itself wasn’t a subject she learned about in school. “The Holocaust was like a nuclear cloud around us, above our heads,” she explains. “We knew the Anne Frank diary, of course, and we knew the number six million.”
In “Schlafstunde,” this piecemeal information haunts the young cousins, who spend their grandparents’ schlafstunde—a siesta-like period in the middle of each day—in the family attic. They light six candles to honor the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and then promise to marry each other. Alfred catches them as they consummate their love. Terrible abuse by the uncle follows until the cousins agree that the only way to stop Alfred is to kill him. He does die, but from complications following an operation, not from the poison the cousins concoct.
“Everybody who reads this is shocked,” Gold says. “But one of the things I think is amazing is Katzir’s ability to really enter and reconstruct the mind of a child, how a child sees things. This story really reconstructs the way children look at the world.”
From there, the conversation at Penn turns to Katzir’s latest, not-yet-translated novel, “Tzilla,” based on the life of one of her great-grandmothers.
“She was born in Russia in 1883 in a small town not far from Minsk. She never attended school. In those days, only boys went,” Katzir says. “At the age of 19, she moved to her brother in Odessa. She learned sewing. She met a young boy.”
The boy’s name was Lazar, and they married and moved to Palestine, where they began a family. At age 37 and after having five children, Tzilla meets a man from Poland named Hanan and they fall in love. Together they all move to Gaza and later to Tel Aviv—Tzilla tells Lazar that Hanan must come along as a tutor for the children—and together they all live for 25 years, until Lazar’s death.
“I was fascinated about this story for many, many years,” Katzir says. “I started again and again to write it, at the beginning as fiction. I changed the names and everything. But I heard Tzilla’s voice tell me, ‘It’s not fiction. It’s real life. Why do you invent stories if I gave you the real truth?’ So, I left it.”
To understand how these works came to be offers Penn students and faculty a chance to better understand a writer who has helped others like her break into a literary scene that was, until recently, relatively closed off. “Israeli literature was male-dominated for a very long time,” Gold says. Katzir “was one of the first voices in the ’80s. When she first appeared, it was a huge coup. She was 25, 26, and she became famous quickly.”
“She’s still an important figure,” Gold adds. “Her writing is unique. It’s stream of consciousness, but it’s accessible.”
In College Hall as Katzir pulls back the curtains on the fictionalized realms she creates, and she leaves the audience with one more reason to pick up the very medium in which her stories live: to calm the frenetic pace of life today.
“In a world that generates a lot of noise,” she says, “books are oases of peace and quiet.”