Elazar Benyoëtz' reading of "„Es dunkelt wie mir scheint - גם החושך מיטיב את הנרות”

April 17, 2020

Click here to listen to the reading.

To mark the occasion of Elazar Benyoëtz’ 83rd birthday, the Leo Baeck Institute Jerusalem, together with the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University, had originally planned to organize Benyoëtz‘ first bilingual, German-Hebrew poetry reading. However, like so many other events, his reading, titled: „Es dunkelt wie mir scheint—גם החושך מיטיב את הנרות” had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, however, Elazar Benyoëtz had agreed upon compiling a small selection of his German and Hebrew aphorisms for a virtual reading, which is now online. Here, you can find a short introduction to the life and works of Elazar Benyoëtz, with focus on the relationship between Hebrew and German in his writings.

Elazar Benyoëtz was born into dark times—in Vienna, on March 24, 1937—two years 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 עצמיBetween 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 Bundesverdienstkreuz. Benyoëtz is also a corresponding member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Darmstadt.

In Hebrew literature, however, Benyoëtz has remained a fairly obscure figure, despite the endorsement and enthusiastic criticism on the part of prominent writers such as Shin Shalom, Dan Pagis and Tuvia Rübner. Despite having been a promising Hebrew writer, Benyoëtz, nevertheless, turned in the 1960s to German as his preferred literary language. How did this transition come to pass, and what motivated it?

At home, his parents spoke with him in Austrian German. In Palestine, Benyoëtz grew up in the polyglot environment of Tel Aviv, received his education in modern Hebrew, and wrote his first poems in this language. But then, in 1962, shortly after the Eichmann Trial and three years after being ordained as Rabbi, Benyoëtz went to Germany, equipped with a letter of recommendation by Martin Buber in his suitcase. At this time, Germany was still a no-go-zone for Jews—Dan Ben Amotz, one of the first to break this taboo, would publish his לזכור ולשכוחTo Remember, to Forget only six years later. Thus, at the time, Benyoëtz’ decision to study and work in Germany was met with explicit and often vitriolic personal attacks and hateful criticism on the part of his contemporaries.

In Germany, between 1964-8, Benyoëtz launched and founded the unique Bibliographia Judaica Project, whose aim was to record the life and work of every single German Jewish writer. Theodor Adorno acknowledged it as an ”important and productive plan“. The project culminated, after some initial difficulties, in the Archiv Bibliographia Judaica dictionary, which was published in  twenty-one volumes by Renate Heuer. In order to be able to realize this project, Benyoëtz had begukn to study German, and in the years leading up to the student revolt, he began to write his poetry in German.

However, his approach to the German word remained that of a rabbinical exegete who weighs carefully each letter and sentence, reading it self-reflexively from many different, often contradictory angles. Notwithstanding Benyoëtz’s choice to write in German, his aphorisms are not rooted in the writings of Georg Lichtenberg—thefather of German aphorism—but rather in the biblical book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and the talmudic Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Though he publishes his aphorisms in German, the aphoristic tradition he draws upon is a Hebrew one. Curiously, Lichtenberguwrote: ”Of all translations which might be done of my works, I explicitly encourage Hebrew ones.“ (”Unter allen Übersetzungen meiner Werke, die man unternehmen wollte, erbitte ich mir ausdrücklich die hebräische.“) Benyoëtz, however, felt that the German language was better suited for the composition of pointly formulated aphorisms, even if he wrote in the spirit of a Hebrew aphoristic tradition. What kind of relation prevails, therefore, between the two languages in his writings?

Benyoëtz’s Hebrew writing of German aphorisms, as it were, is well exemplified in his autobiography Aberwenndig, which, although written in German, must be read not like a German book, from left-to-right, but like a Hebrew book—from right to left. Therein he reflects on his relation to the German language, which he regards as ”a flexible and pliable language,“ with more possibilities than to be realized. In this language, he had found new ”fathers“—he writes—and could feel as an old Jew despite being a young Israeli. This connection to the German language and its Jewish tradition would not have been possible either as an Israeli, he writes, or in Israeli Hebrew, which he regards as a language intoxicated with pride, a tongue that gradually lost its universal ethical tradition for the sake of nationalist pragmatism. But he did not turn to German because he fled from Israeli Hebrew: ”I had to arrive there,“ he writes, ”where the all-overshadowing event had happened“—(”das Allüberschattende,“ which can also be translated as that which had overshadowed the cosmos, our universe).

Writing in German, therefore, was and remained a way for Benyoëtz of connecting to the German-Jewish tradition and to those voices of German-Jewish writers that were annihilated in the all-overshadowing act of the German Final-Solution. Many of his aphorisms serve as a kind of rhetorical Stolperstein (”stumbling block“) that disrupts the reading conventions of his audiences and causes them to stop and, ideally, to think—to contemplate and ponder on its various meanings.

Many of Benyoëtz’s aphorisms are based upon quotations and references; some of his books feature appendices which, like academic treatises, meticulously highlight each source of inspiration and serve as illuminating path-lights into the darkness of forgotten and annihilated authors. This kind of writing by an Israeli Jew in German after 1945 also bears a significant redemptive quality, if we consider a maxim in Pirkei Avot which states, ”One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.“ (כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְאֻלָּה לָעוֹלָם).   

Nevertheless, writing in German entailed a number of dilemmas and difficulties/cruxes, which Benyoëtz sums up in his autobiography as follows:

He who writes in German today is not writing for Jews anymore; even if there are Jews among his readers, he cannot, of course, write for them any longer. It remains a question for future generations, what can be presented and defended as a Jewish position on the basis of this state of consciousness.

Benyoëtz asks himself, ”Why did a Hebrew poet become a German Aphorist—as long as I live, I will owe myself an answer to this question.“ This apparently inexplicable attraction to the German language raises further questions, when we consider Benyoëtz’ claim that ”The German language was the Loreley of the Jews…“—that siren-like figure, who, famously summoned in a poem by Heinrich Heine, sat on a rock next to the river Rhein, where it seduced and lured passing boatmen to their death. ”It was the Loreley…“ Benyoëtz writes, but can German ”still be“ a deadly seduction for Jews like himself? Or could Benyoëtz expose himself to the sound of Loreley’s lure, without being drawn by her into danger—as Odysseus—resisting deadly temptation by binding himself to the Hebrew language more tightly? ”The same language which in Germany serves to forget,“ he writes, ”chains me in Jerusalem to remembrance.“

On many occasions, Benyoëtz has felt the need to defend his writing in the German language; for instance, when he draws upon a Talmudic debate in Brachot 13a, where the Rabbis discuss in which language the credo of Jewish dogma—the Shma’—can be recited. Benyoëtz sides with the opinion that you may proclaim your faith in every language known and familiar to you: שמע—בכל לשון שאתה שומע. Even if Hebrew is a holy language for those, who believe that God created the world through this language, a language whereby God is, furthermore, said to have revealed himself—Benyoëtz states—the world can also be shaped in other languages. God, as it were, lives and manifests himself in every language. However, according to Benyoëtz, only as long as it stands in relation to the Hebrew language. Translation, hereby, becomes a necessary means for and mode of understanding: ”[T]here is no original without translation,“ he argues. Furthermore, ”[t]he original is holy, but incomprehensible because of its holiness; it is in need of translation.“ Only through translation does the Jewish word become a Jewish word, that is, only through a translation into German, since, according to Benyoëtz, most of Jewish history took place in the German language: ”from Yiddish to Auschwitz.“ A modern Jewish identity is unthinkable without the German language—such is the conclusion of Benyoëtz’ Jewish apology for his German poetry after Auschwitz: ”[T]his insight is painful,“ he writes, „but its gain even greater.“

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. Similar to 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 (שפה). Strauss had famously called Hebrew and German the lip-pair of his heart in the aphorism: ”אי השפה בה אביע את כל אשר בי? שתי שפותי הן זוג שפתיו של לבי.” (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).

Also in his recorded reading, which, for the first time, brings Hebrew and German together in his hundreds of readings in almost symmetrical fashion, both languages diverge and do not meet. Though standing next to each other, as it were, they stand apart. We do not hear translations; not even a dialogue between them. Far from achieving equipoise, both languages eclipse each other before each continues to follow its own trajectory. This might not seem a heavy task at first, but it is a task as light as darkness. 

Dr. Jan Kühne

Martin Buber Society of Fellows

Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center

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