Rachel Korazim’s work in teaching Israel through literature is her second career.
After retiring from the Jewish Agency for Israel — career number one — she went on to create dozens of educational units showing different aspects of the Israeli experience through the works of its writers and poets. She does this work for Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, and at time, such as next Shabbat, as a scholar-in-residence in places like Temple Emanu-El of Closter. (See box.)
Yet if you ask her when her connection to Israeli literature was forged, she’ll point to a moment back before her first career at the Jewish Agency, before she earned her doctorate in education, before the year she spent in Montreal, back, in fact, to before she was born.
“The love of poetry runs deep in my family,” Dr. Korazim said. “I was exposed to it before I was born.”
That, in fact, is how she got her name.
Here’s the story she tells about her mother, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who made aliyah “before the state of Israel was born” and found herself lost on a kibbutz.
“My mother was a poetry lover,” Dr. Korazim said. “She knew absolutely no Hebrew. She could not find any other person in the kibbutz she could speak Hungarian with, except for one young woman. She asked the other woman: Do the people around here have poetry like we used to have in Hungary? Can you bring me a poem and try to explain it to me in Hungarian?”
This was when Dr. Korazim’s mother was pregnant with her.
“This young woman brought my mom a poem by a poetess known as Rachel.” Rachel Bluwstein had made aliyah to Israel at the beginning of the 20th century. Her weekly poem in a newspaper, Davar, made her a pole star of the Hebrew-language poetic firmament.
That first Hebrew poem Dr. Korazim’s mother had retold to her in Hungarian “was about a barren woman who wanted to have children and could not,” Dr. Korazim said. “This woman wanted to encourage my mother, to say, ‘Look how fortunate you are. You are going to have a baby, while this other woman had it even harder.’”
Whether or not that cheered up the new immigrant — and whether or not she was further cheered by learning then of the poet Rachel’s death at 40 from tuberculosis — this first Hebrew poem and its author made an impact.
“I am named Rachel after that poet,” Dr. Korazim said.
“In that poem, the woman says, ‘Had I a son, I would call him Uri.’” Uri is the title of the poem, which was made into a song by Achinoam Nini. “I called my first born after that child the poet Rachel did not have.”
Yet if Dr. Korazim was born into literature, her turn toward it as a means to talking about Israel came some 30 years ago, when she was a Jewish Agency emissary in Montreal.
“Life was very different in the 80s,” she said. “We didn’t have the social networks and the cheap phone calls. The disconnect from home was very difficult for me and my family. I felt my disconnect from Israeli literature. I wrote to my friends back home and asked them to send me new, interesting books.
“Soon, word got around Montreal that I had the new books from Israel. First it was my Israeli friends who asked me to get together for reading.” This couldn’t be a standard book club where everybody read the book, since the books were so hard to obtain. “I just had the one copy.
“Later, my non-Hebrew-speaking friends asked me about the books. We studied homemade translations.
“One of the participants in those English-speaking groups told me how meaningful it had been for her to get introduced to modern Israeli literature. She said, ‘It was as if I had invited my listeners to my living room back in Israel and let them listen to the intimate Israeli discourse, the kind of things Israelis are saying to each other when you diaspora Jews are not listening.””
This inspired Dr. Korazim to create her educational sessions — dozens of them are on YouTube — for “people who want to get to know Israel from a different angle: listening to the Israeli discourse through Israel.
“Israeli society is pretty complex,” she said. “I want that sense of complexity to come through. I collect pieces of literature that talk against each other.”
One session she will present in Closter will look at the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society.
Another will examine the clash of the “very mainstream Israeli demand that immigrants leave behind everything and forget their culture and language” with the reality of how the ancestral languages seep through in the poems of the children or grandchildren of immigrants “who want to get in touch with the earlier existence.”
Dr. Korazim brings in excerpts from authors who are published in translation as well as from younger writers for whom she provides her own translations. She also brings along the Hebrew original. “Although we always study in English, occasionally I will point to difficulties in translation,” she said.
And if the idea of spending an hour or two discussing literature brings back bad high school flashbacks?
“Normally I start sessions by asking how many hated it back in high school or college when their literature teacher asked them what did the poet mean. A third will raise their hand and say they used to not like poetry and literature and school,” she said.
“It’s not going to be like that. Just come and experience it.”
Who: Dr. Rachel Korazim
Where: Temple Emanu-El of Closter,
180 Piermont Rd., Closter
What and when: She will give three talks
On Friday, January 26, at 10:30 a.m., “Echoes of the Holocaust in Modern Israeli Literature” with Sisterhood Study Group
Later that day, at 7 p.m., “Israel diaspora Relations — Changing Narratives”
And on Shabbat morning, January 27, 9 a.m., “Voices and Languages — Fragile Identities in Modern Israeli Poetry”