The South African Jewish author Nadine Gordimer, who died on Sunday, July 13, at age 90, expressed an even-handed humanism throughout her literary career. This is far from the case for every winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which Gordimer was accorded in 1991. Her scrupulous sense of fairness, which motivated her to oppose apartheid in her native land, also led her in 2008 to resist strident calls to boycott a Jerusalem writers’ conference. Instead, Gordimer accepted the invitation from Mishkenot Sha’ananim, determined to meet with Palestinians and Israelis because the literary festival was meant to “assert vitally that whatever violent, terrible, bitter and urgent chasms of conflict lie between peoples, the only solutions for peace and justice exist and must begin with both sides talking to one another…I shall do my utmost to uphold the principles and practice I have held, and still hold, at home in our country.”
In that country, Gordimer was born to an assimilated Jewish family. Her father Isidore Gordimer was a Latvian-born watchmaker and Hannah Myers was from London. Long feeling an outsider herself, Gordimer explained in her Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, published as “Writing and Being” (Harvard University Press, 1995) that works by such authors as the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, Nigerian Chinua Achebe, and Israeli Amos Oz “accommodate rhetoric that would break the spell of the imagination in most fiction. This is because politics and its language, in imagery, in allusion, in interpretation of daily life are so pressing a part of everyday speech in this Other World.”
These respectful readings were prefigured in “The Lying Days,” her first novel (1953, reprinted by Bloomsbury in 2002). In it, Helen, the daughter of white middle-class parents in a South African gold-mining town, gains enlightenment about apartheid from her friend Joel, the son of a poor local Jewish shopkeeper. As Helen analyzed Joel’s sense of Jewish identity and heritage: “His nature had for mine the peculiar charm of the courage to be itself without defiance.”
Decades later, in another novel, “A Sport of Nature,” (1987), Gordimer painted the portrait of a Jewish woman, Hillela, onstage at a celebration of the new South Africa, sitting next to her husband, the president of another African country. Of the glamorous Hillela, Gordimer told one interviewer: “She fascinates me because she’s so unlike me…. Maybe I would like to have been like her.” Terming Hillela one of the “great survivors,” by choosing a name for her which evokes Hillel the Elder, Gordimer alluded to a history of intellectual and moral learning which has continued to inspire her.
In the collection “Jump and Other Stories,” (1991), the tale “My Father Leaves Home” describes an East European village which the title character possibly emigrated from, as well as the Old World anti-Semitism which he fled, without making him more sensitive about the anti-black racism he would encounter in South Africa. Jewish patriarchs played a key role in Gordimer’s literary imagination, not least in her Kafka-inspired story “Letter from His Father,” published in “The Threepenny Review” in 1984. A reply to Kafka’s famous “Letter to His Father”, Gordimer’s artful harangue rings true as parental hectoring addressed to the erring Franz:
“You go on for several pages (in that secret letter) about my use of vulgar Yiddish expressions, about my ‘insignificant scrap of Judaism,’ which was ‘purely social’ and so meant we couldn’t ‘find each other in Judaism’ if in nothing else. This, from you! When you were a youngster and I had to drag you to the Yom Kippur services once a year you were sitting there making up stories about unclean animals approaching the Ark, the most holy object of the Jewish faith. Once you were grown up, you went exactly once to the Altneu synagogue. The people who write books about you say it must have been to please me. I’d be surprised. When you suddenly discovered you were a Jew, after all, of course your Judaism was highly intellectual, nothing in common with the Jewish customs I was taught to observe in my father’s shtetl, pushing the barrow at the age of seven.
“Your Judaism was learnt at the Yiddish Theatre. That’s a nice crowd…The fact is that you were anti-Semitic, Franz. You were never interested in what was happening to your own people. The hooligans’ attacks on Jews in the streets, on houses and shops, that took place while you were growing up - I don’t see a word about them in your diaries, your notebooks. You were only imagining Jews. Imagining them tortured in places like your Penal Colony, maybe. I don’t want to think about what that means. Right, towards the end you studied Hebrew, you and your sister Ottla had some wild dream about going to Palestine. You, hardly able to breathe by then, digging potatoes on a kibbutz! The latest book about you says you were in revolt against the ‘shopkeeper mentality’ of your father’s class of Jew; but it was the shopkeeper father, the buttons and buckles, braid, ribbons, ornamental combs, press-studs, hooks-and-eyes, boot laces, photo frames, shoe horns, novelties and notions that earned the bread for you to dream by. You were anti-Semitic, Franz; if such a thing is possible as for a Jew to cut himself in half. (For you, I suppose, anything is possible.)”
Here, as elsewhere in her justly-praised literary career, Gordimer proved that indeed anything was possible when examining the personal significance of Yiddishkeit.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.