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Michal Govrin

b. November 24, 1950

by Rachel Feldhay Brenner, updated by Adia Mendelson-Maoz
Last updated June 23, 2021

Michal Govrin at a Paris book salon in 2010. Image courtesy of Georges Seguin via Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

"I find myself between the two intertwined and at the same time opposite stories of galut (Lit. (Greek) "dispersion." The Jewish community, and its areas of residence, outside Erez Israel.Diaspora) and ge’ulah (redemption)." This autobiographical statement encapsulates the richness of Govrin’s family tradition and provides a key to her writing. Michal Govrin, born in 1950, is an Israeli poet, writer, and stage director who utilizes an unconventional poetic that stems from her interest in philosophy and theology as well as from her education and Orthodox Jewish orientation. She has published five books of poetry, short stories and novels, and has been the director of a dozen productions in repertoire theater as well as Jewish experimental theater. Govrin's works have been translated and discussed in newspapers and journals.   

Family

Born in Tel Aviv on November 24, 1950, Michal Govrin is the only child of a Holocaust survivor and a 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 a chance to be rescued by Oskar Schindler to stay with Marek, her son by her first marriage to Paul Laub. She lost her child in an aktion (a roundup of 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 The quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.minyan." The group miraculously survived the Cracow ghetto, the Kraków-Płaszów labor-concentration 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 the brother she never knew, 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'a She'arim. Her grandfather Mordecai Globman (1874–1943) was strictly Orthodox, yet he supported the Jewish Enlightenment; European movement during the 1770sHaskalah (Jewish secular enlightenment) movement and joined Members of Hibbat ZionHovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), the proto-Zionist movement that 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 A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.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 coastal swamps.

Govrin married Haim Brezis (b. 1944) in 1982 and they have two daughters: Rachel Shlomit (b. 1984) and Mirika (b. 1988). 
 

Early Work

Govrin’s first attempts to express her paternal Diaspora legacy through artistic creativity began during her studies in Paris, where she completed her Ph.D from Paris University VIII. Her Ph.D. thesis in theater, which focused on Hasidic creativity and ritual, showed the strong influence of European Jewish history, while her dramatic adaptation of the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1811), La moisson de la folie (The Harvest of madness, produced by La compagnie des sept mendiants in Paris, 1974), was indicative of her ongoing interest in Jewish mysticism and its kabbalistic traditions. 

Govrin’s theatrical activities—she is the Chair of the Theater Department at Emunah College in Jerusalem—manifest her lasting 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, whereas her 1981 direction of The Work Room by J. C. Grumberg (b. 1939) for the Habima Theater required a Holocaust workshop for the cast. Govrin was also a visiting professor at 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. 

In the 1980s, Govrin published two books of poetry—Otah Sha’ah (That Very Hour,1981) and Gufei Milim (Bodies of words, 1990)—and a collection of short stories, titled Le-ehoz ba-Shemesh (Hold on to the Sun,1984, English translation published in 2010). “La Promenade,” a poignant story in the collection, documents 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 that 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. 

On Trauma, Words, and Prayers

Govrin rejects facile solutions for a world that has seen the Holocaust. “After Auschwitz,” she claims, “there are no more innocent stories.” Her long and powerful novel Ha-Shem (The Name, 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. This novel can be read in the context of post-Holocaust writing, yet it brings to the fore a distinctive quality as it focuses on  Jewish traditional sources that highlight the novel’s theological search for redemption. The protagonist, Amalia, seeks to evade despair through a search for God. While neither the Orthodox nor the kabbalistic tradition provides an adequate answer, Amalia’s odyssey of spiritual quest eventually leads to self-affirmation that draws upon the Jewish tradition but 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 imperfections. Her spiritual journey leads her toward the paradoxical realization that true mending lies in the recognition of the impossibility of complete tikkun (repair). 

Govrin’s avant-garde poetics constructs her Ma’ase ha-Yam: Chronicat Perush (The Making of the Sea: A Chronicle of Exegesis, 2000), which combines a highly original text layout with original etchings by Lilian Klapisch. The text layout, which imitates the Talmudic page, explores the connections between speech, writing, and the world. The text is built upon the connection between the eros and the foundations of the language and explores the desire of language to simultaneously penetrate and receive. A vivid example of this textual approach could be found in her etymological investigation of the Hebrew word "safa," which designates both “language” and “lips”—facial as well as vaginal (see The making of the Sea, p. 18).

Body of Prayer, with Jacques Derrida and David Shapiro (2001 and an extended version in Hebrew in 2013), continues Govrin’s intellectual and creative interest in language, divinity, and prayer. The book is based on a conversation that took place in the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union, where David Shapiro invited Michal Govrin and Jacques Derrida to discuss the voice and the poetics of prayer. It examines instances in history and Midrashic literature as well as in secular contexts where a prayer was offered up to an addressee with hope and despair. The second part of the book draws a parallel between Govrin's text about her mother and birthplace in Cracow, and Derrida's writing about his dying mother, reflecting on the nature of confession and prayer on the deathbed of a mother. In a collaborative way, the book elaborates on issues of spiritual tradition in Judaism, guilt and hope, the place of the "I" as a prayer, and the concepts of uncertainty, listening, and reception.

Depicting Space

Govrin's work bridges divine spaces and language, concrete spaces and political contexts. In her novel Hevzekim (Snapshots 2002, translated into English in 2007), she parallels her “two opposite stories” of galut and ge’ulah (exile and redemption). Here, in the historical reality of the Gulf War and in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the legacies of the Holocaust and the Zionist idea are revisited. The contrasting realities of Alan, a Holocaust survivor, historian, and Nazi hunter, and Sa’id, a Palestinian Arab, the victim of nakba, and a theater director, 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 to peace, an edifice that would symbolize a reconciliation of the Holocaust catastrophe and the Palestinian defeat in Zionist reality. War and violence undermine that plan. Ilana’s death highlights the impossibility of any peaceful resolution of the mutual negation of the Jewish and Arab national narratives. 

Govrin’s novel A'hava al ha-hof (2013) describes a summer in the 1960s on the beach in Ashkelon where the young protagonists are full of naiveté. The novel creates a space that is "out of space," in that the characters can shed their pasts, family histories, traumas, and status and form new relations.The novel delicately weaves a constant tension between virginity and permissiveness, purity and aggression.

In Amra yerushalayim (2008, Said Jerusalem), a collection of poetry with sketches by Orna Milo, and her collection of essays Yerushalayim makom ha-ta'ava: masa al ha-mitos (2019, Jerusalem, Place of Lust: Essays on the Myth), Govrin centers her interest in Jewish scripture and the divine on the physical space of Jerusalem and its place in contemporary Israel. Amra yerishalayim produces a voice emanating from a humanized city in which liturgy and political aggression are combined. She links the city to everyday life but at the same time preserves its mythical aura. This tension is also apparent in other parts of the book when she writes about other spaces, such as the Jezreel Valley, the place her father farmed when he came to Kibbutz Tel Yosef, when nature, the land, and the birds were imbued with national sacrifice. 

The essay collection Yerushalayim makom ha-ta'ava: masa el ha-mitos presents a portrait of the city and its myths in very provocative ways. Govrin discusses the city's holiness from a feminine perspective: Jerusalem is, and always has been, in its designations and traditions, a feminine image, a source of lust, and a bedrock of contrasts, linking the elevated mountain view with the abyss. Govrin depicts Jerusalem as the focal point of the relationship between God and his devastated partner, Israel, which takes on the image of the Daughter of Zion and Jerusalem. In this book, she also incorporates the role of Jerusalem in the writings of both Paul Celan and Jacques Derrida and examines where myth shatters on the stones of reality. She elaborates on the concept of shmita, the sabbatical year when the land lies fallow, as a form of relief, taking up an idea that appeared in the novel Havzekim, as a symbolic response of Jerusalem to the territorial struggle.      

Conclusion

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 coalesce into a vision that transcends the parochial and the local. She takes a highly individualized perspective on Israeli-Jewish post-Holocaust reality by combining artistic experimentation with biblical and rabbinic sources and philosophical discourse. In her poetry, prose and essays she examines places and spaces within a polyphonic context of architecture, art and theater, the sanctity of land, and the national narrative. Govrin’s language and poetics are complex and challenging. Her fluidity of genres interjects unconventional vision and kindles the imagination, and raises important questions about Jewishness. 

Selected Works

Books 

Otah Sha’ah: Shirim (That Very Hour: Poems), Tel Aviv: 1981.

Le-Ehoz ba-Shemesh: Sippurim ve-Aggadot (Hold on to the Sun: True Stories and and Legends), Tel Aviv: 1984. Translated as Hold onto the Sun: True Stories and Legends. New York: 2010.

Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.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.

Body and Prayer (with Jacques Derrida, Michal Govrin, David Shapiro). New York: 2001. 

Hevzekim. Tel Aviv: 2002; translated by Barbara Harshav as Snapshots. New York: 2007. 

Amra Yerushalayim (Said Jerusalem). Jerusalem: 2008.

Yerushalayim makom ha-ta'ava: masa al ha-mitos (Jerusalem, Place of Lust: Essays on the Myth). Tel Aviv: 2019.

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 Theater.” 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 Hébraiques (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: Syracuse University Press, 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: The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, 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: Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

“Chant d’Outre-Tombe” (Songs from Beyond the Grave). In Passage des Frontières, autour du travail de Jacques Derrida (Crossing Frontiers: Around the Work of Jacques Derrida). Colloque de Cerisy Conference Proceedings, 227–236. Paris: Galilée, 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. 
Mendelson Maoz, Adia."Borders, Territory, and Sovereignty in the Works of Contemporary Israeli Women Writers." Women's Studies 63.6 (2014): 788-822. 

Sicher, Efraim. “The Return to the Past: The Intergenerational Transmission of Holocaust Memory in Israeli Fiction.” Shofar 19/2 (Winter 2001): 28–52. 

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomit. "Place, Space, and Michal Govrin's 'Snapshots.’" Narrative 17.2 (May 2009): 220-234. 

Shemtov, Vered. "The Bible in Contemporary Israeli Literature: Text and place in Zeruya Shalev's 'Husband and Wife' and Michal Govrin's 'Snapshots.'" Hebrew Studies 47 (2006): 363-384. 

Zerubavel, Yael. “The Mythological Sabra and the Jewish Past: Trauma, Memory and Contested Identities.” Israel Studies 7/2 (Summer 2002): 115–145. 

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How to cite this page

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay and Adia Mendelson-Maoz. "Michal Govrin." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/govrin-michal>.