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Michal Govrin

b. 1950

by Rachel Feldhay Brenner

“I find myself between the two intertwined and at the same time opposite stories of galut (diaspora) and ge’ulah (redemption).” This autobiographical statement encapsulates the richness of Govrin’s family tradition and offers a key to her writing. Born in Tel Aviv on November 24, 1950, Govrin is the only child of a Holocaust survivor and prominent Zionist leader. In her autobiographical essay, A Journey to Poland (2001), Govrin writes about her mother, Regina-Rina Poser-Laub-Govrin (1912–1987), who was born in Cracow. She refused to join Oskar Schindler’s rescue of Jews in order to stay with Marek, her son by her first marriage to Paul Laub. She lost her child in an aktion (a roundup of the Jews for deportation). Even though she was not religious, Govrin’s mother befriended a group of graduates of the strictly religious Bais Ya’acov girls’ school, who called themselves “the minyan.” The group miraculously survived the Cracow ghetto, the Plaszow labor camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the death march to Bergen-Belsen. Regina emigrated to Israel in 1948 and in 1949 married Pinchas Govrin. The legacy of the Holocaust has deeply affected Govrin’s life and work. In the poem, “Can’t You See?” (1981) addressed to her brother, Govrin speaks of the unmediated presence of the dead which irrevocably and indelibly binds her to him: “On my cheeks still lie the curls of the brother/in whose death I live/His breath is the wind in my hair.”

The equally powerful Zionist legacy of her father’s family adds a crucial dimension to the evolution of Govrin’s literary work. The story of his family’s immigration from the Ukraine to Palestine in the 1920s brings together Zionist ideological variants as represented by four generations. In her essay, The Case of Jewish Biography (2001), Govrin traces the story of her paternal great-grandfather, Izik Hajes (1856–1937), who mourned the destruction of the Temple and “carried his mystical messianic longings” to Jerusalem, where he settled in the hasidic neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim. Her grandfather, Mordecai Globman (1874–1943), was strictly orthodox; yet he supported the Haskalah (Jewish secular enlightenment) and joined Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), the proto-Zionist movement which founded the first Jewish colonies in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The writer’s father, Pinchas Govrin, was born in Shpilov in the Ukraine in 1904, emigrated to Palestine in 1921 and was among the founders of Kibbutz Tel Yosef in 1921. He died in 1995. His brothers and the next generation adhered to the Zionist socialist platform of the Po’alei Zion, a Zionist workers’ movement, and came to Palestine as pioneers to establish kibbutzim and drain the swamps.

Govrin’s first attempts to express her paternal Diaspora legacy through artistic creativity began during her studies in Paris where she became religiously observant. Her Ph.D. thesis in theater, which focused on hasidic creativity and ritual, demonstrated a strong influence of European Jewish history, while her dramatic adaptation from the hasidic tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1811), La moisson de la folie (produced by La compagnie des sept mendiants in Paris, 1974), indicated an ongoing preoccupation with Jewish mysticism and its kabbalistic tradition. Govrin’s theatrical activities—she is the Chair of the Theater Department at Emunah College in Jerusalem—have demonstrated continuing preoccupation with the Holocaust. Her 1994–1995 production of the novel Gog u-Magog (1941) by Martin Buber (1878–1965) relates to the destruction of the Jewish world in Europe, while her 1981 direction of The Work Room by J. C. Grumberg (b. 1939) for the Habimah Theater required a Holocaust workshop for the cast. Govrin is also a visiting professor in the Chanin School of Architecture of Cooper Union in New York and a Writer in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University, New Jersey. She married Haim Brezis (b. 1944) in 1982 and they have two daughters: Rachel Shlomit (b. 1984) and Mirika (b. 1988).

In the 1980s Govrin published two books of poetry—Otah Sha’ah (1981) and Gufei Milim (1990)—and a collection of short stories, Le-ehoz ba-Shemesh (1984). “La Promenade, ” a poignant story in the collection, marks an important stage in Govrin’s exploration of the Holocaust thematic. The story depicts how the incommunicable Holocaust experience imprisons a group of survivors in an unbearable relationship. The need to keep up appearances of elegance and courtesy characterizes the members of the group, but their behavior is laced with anxiety. Their days are filled with small talk. The meaningless platitudes are a code which silences the past, even when the suppressed pain threatens to shatter the façade of normalcy. The story ends as it began, with the same ritual of mechanical gestures, empty, inane phrases, and unrelieved loneliness. The inability to tell the story precludes the hopeful resolution of a redeeming closure.

Govrin rejects facile solutions for a world which has seen the Holocaust. “After Auschwitz,” she claims, “there are no more innocent stories.” Her long and powerful novel Ha-Shem (1995), for which she was awarded the Kugel Prize and Prime Minister’s Prize for Creativity, ponders the indelible legacy of evil in the post-Holocaust world. The novel was favorably compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Bernhard’s Schlink’s The Reader (1997) and D. M. Thomas’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1993). Critics praised the “sheer verbal beauty of Jewish liturgy, prophecy and philosophy” and welcomed a book “so exalted in spirit and intense sentiment, so human that to open its pages is to embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation.” The use of Jewish traditional sources highlights the novel’s theological search for redemption in the post-Holocaust world. The protagonist, Amalia, seeks to evade despair through search for a God. While neither the orthodox nor the kabbalistic tradition provides an adequate answer, Amalia’s odyssey of spiritual quest eventually leads to self-affirmation which both draws upon the Jewish tradition and at the same time rebels against it. Amalia discovers the imperfection of the Divine, an epiphany that makes her recognize her own hubris and teaches her to accept her own imperfection. Her spiritual journey leads her toward the paradoxical realization that true mending lies in the recognition of the impossibility of complete tikkun.

Govrin’s avant-garde poetics constructs her Ma’ase ha-Yam: Chronicat Perush (2000), which combines a highly original layout of the text with original etchings by Lilian Klapisch. The text’s layout, which imitates the Talmudic page, explores the connections between speech, writing, and the world. As Govrin claims, it is a text about “the eros in the foundations of the language;” it explores the language’s desire to simultaneously “penetrate and receive.”

In her latest novel, Hevzekim (2002), Govrin aims to bring together her “two opposite stories” of galut and ge’ulah. Here, in the historical reality of the Gulf War and in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the legacies of the Holocaust and of the Zionist idea are revisited. The contrastive realities of Alan, a Holocaust survivor, historian and Nazi hunter, and of Sa’id, a Palestinian Arab, the victim of nakba and a theater producer, are reflected in their love relationships with the protagonist, Ilana, the daughter of a Zionist founding father. Ilana, an architect, attempts to construct a Monument of Peace, an edifice that would symbolize a possibility of reconciliation of the Holocaust catastrophe and the Palestinian defeat in Zionist reality. War and violence defeat the plan. Ilana’s death highlights the impossibility of any peaceful resolution of the mutual negation of the stories of Jews and Arabs.

Govrin defines herself as a “Jewish” rather than an Israeli writer. Her multicultural and multilingual background, her European education, her orthodox orientation and her parental legacy allow the writer to develop a vision that transcends the parochial and the local. She offers a particular perspective on Israeli-Jewish post-Holocaust reality by combining artistic experimentation with biblical and rabbinic sources and with philosophical discourses. Govrin’s complex and challenging texts present an unconventional vision of today’s Jewish world, a vision which stimulates imagination and raises important questions about the Jewish future.

SELECTED WORKS BY MICHAL GOVRIN

Books

Otah Sha’ah: Shirim (That Very Hour: Poems), Tel Aviv: 1981; Le-Ehoz ba-Shemesh: Sippurim ve-Aggadot (Hold onto the Sun: Tales and Legends), Tel Aviv: 1984; Seder ha-Laylah ha-Zeh (This Night’s Seder), Jerusalem: 1989; Gufei Milim: Shirim (Bodies of Words: Poems), Tel Aviv: 1990; Ha-Shem. Tel Aviv: 1984. Translated by Barbara Harshav as The Name. New York: 1998; Ma’ase ha-Yam: Khronikat Perush (The Making of the Sea: A Chronicle of Exegesis), Jerusalem: 2000; Hevzekim (Snapshots) Tel Aviv: 2002.

Short Story

“La Promenade.” Translated into English by Dalya Bilu. In Facing the Holocaust: Selected Israeli Fiction, edited by Gila Ramras-Rauch and Joseph Michman-Melkman, 227–260. Philadelphia: 1985.

Critical Essays

“Reshimot al ha-Teatron ha-Italki”(Notes on the Italian Theater). Bamah 64–65 (1975): 78–81; “The Jewish Ritual as a Genre of Sacred Theatre.” Conservative Judaism 36/3 (Spring 1983): 15–34; “Tendances Actuelles dans la Création d’un Theâtre Juif” (Contemporary Trends in the Creation of a Jewish Theater). Yod: Revue d’Etudes Hebraiques (1985): 91–112; with Tamar Alexander. “Storytelling as a Performing Art.” Assaph 5 (1989): 1–35; “The Journey to Poland.” In Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of Holocaust Survivors, edited by Alan L. Berger and Naomi Berger, 141–155, Syracuse, New York: 2001; “The Case of the Jewish Biography.” Partisan Review 68/1(January 2001): 1–10; with Jacques Derrida and David Shapiro. Body of Prayer. New York: 2001; “Love in the Afterlife, a Selection from the Zohar.” In Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature, edited by David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky, 239–252. Philadelphia: 1990; “Chant d’Outre-Tombe” (Songs from Beyond the Grave). In Passage des Frontieres, autour du travail de Jacques Derrida (Crossing Frontiers: Around the Work of Jacques Derrida). Colloque de Cerisy Conference Proceedings, 227–236. Paris: 1994; “Ha-Pulhan ha-Yehudi be-Signon shel Teatron Kodesh” (Jewish Ritual as a Genre of Sacred Theater). In Judaism and Art, edited by David Cassuto, 243–267. Ramat Gan: 1990.

Bibliography

Brenner, Rachel F. “Walter Benjamin’s Angels of History and the Post-Holocaust Quest for Redemption in Israeli Fiction: David Grossman’s See Under: Love and Michal Govrin’s The Name.Graven Images 4 (1998): 37–66; Brenner, Rachel F. “Interview.” Graven Images 4 (1998): 60–66; Sicher, Efraim. “The Return to the Past: The Intergenerational Transmission of Holocaust Memory in Israeli Fiction.” Shofar 19/2 (Winter 2001): 28–52; Zerubavel, Yael. “The Mythological Sabra and the Jewish Past: Trauma, Memory and Contested Identities.” Israel Studies 7/2 (Summer 2002): 115–145.

How to cite this page

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. "Michal Govrin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/govrin-michal>.

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