Israeli Literature's No. 1: Prof. Menachem Perry

Professor Menachem Perry, 70, Scholar, editor and publisher.

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Professor Menachem Perry is the great patriarch of literature in Israel. Not for nothing does he arouse a good deal of antagonism; after all, patricide is a part of the culture. He is extremely knowledgeable, with distinct tastes and firm views in a world that has a hard time both expressing such things and being able to choose.

There isn't enough space here to describe all his work over the past 50 years. He is a literary scholar and was one of the founders of the literature department at Tel Aviv University, which he headed for 30 years. Sometimes it seems that everyone was once his student. He is the editor-in-chief of Hasifriya Hahadasha Press, which is considered an imprimatur of quality. Among the writers and poets published by Perry are Hanoch Levin, David Fogel, Avot Yeshurun, David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua, Yeshayahu Koren, Orly Castel-Blum, Yaakov Shabtai, Yehudit Katzir, Sami Bardugo, Haggai Link and Bella Sheyer. And that is just a very partial list. The writers he had translated into Hebrew include Nikolai Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, Erri de Luca, Primo Levi, Clarice Lispector, Toni Morrison and José Saramago. Again, a very partial list.

Perry is known for speaking his mind, an uncommon trait in the book world. And he has frequently paid a heavy price for it. Steimatsky CEO Iris Barel has refused to meet with him ever since he said, some four years ago, that "The person running Steimatsky has no feel for books." Today he explains: "I said openly what other publishers say off the record. Barel claims I caused great damage to Steimatzky and so she won't meet with me until I apologize. I don’t know what damage I did to Steimatzky, but it's clear what damage Steimtazky did to Hasifriya Hahadasha."

Despite frequent backlash, he took another defiant step this year when he decided that Hasifriya Hahadasha’s books would henceforth display two numbers on their back covers: the amount that goes to the writer and publisher, and the price to the consumer. This means that consumers can now see the difference between what the publisher and writer make and the catalog price – i.e., the bookstore’s cut. The bookstore chains were not pleased, to put it mildly.

And what about literature itself? On the one hand, Perry says, there are better Hebrew literary books today than ever before, while, on the other, there is no literature. How can both be true? He explains that "literature is written in the framework of a discourse on literature, of polemics, of young writers rebelling against earlier generations – and none of that exists anymore. There is no discussion about literature and no differentiation between featherweight literature and serious literature. From this standpoint, I'm not a happy camper."

Menachem Perry. Illustration by Leo Atelman

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