Why Israel Deserved Its Own Translation of Kahanoff's 'Jacob's Ladder'

According to the book's copublisher, 'an Israel that faces conflicts between the identities that construct it' merits a contemporary translation of the 1951 book.

David Guedj
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Kahanoff. It was natural for her to work with Harari.
Kahanoff. It was natural for her to work with Harari.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
David Guedj

Jacqueline Kahanoff’s novel “Jacob’s Ladder” recently appeared in Hebrew translation (it was written in English). In a short article to mark the event, the book’s copublisher, Ktzia Alon, adopts the approach of the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin, and argues that a work “demands” to be translated in time and place in a way that is not accidental.

According to Alon, the current social atmosphere in Israel was a key factor militating the book’s translation: “‘Jacob’s Ladder’ was meant to be translated and published at this point of time, in an Israel that faces conflicts between the identities that construct it,” she writes. “It is a society beset by horrifying displays of racism, one that has yet to accept its geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East.”

Still, do other factors also enter into an editor’s decision to publish a certain work at a certain time? In fact, Alon climbed the ladder that was, as it were, set up by Kahanoff, who passed away in 1979 at age 62, and was captivated by the literary and cultural world that was revealed to her in the novel – just as the book’s original publisher, Manya Harari, was enchanted by it more than 60 years ago in London.

After World War II, two friends, Harari and Marjorie Villiers, founded a small publishing house, The Harvill Press (the name derived from the first letters of their surnames). Harvill specialized in original literature and translated works on religion, philosophy, culture and psychology. Through the medium of books, the two partners wished to build bridges between people, countries, cultures, beliefs, religions and worldviews.

Harvill thus continued the heritage of the periodical The Changing World, which Harari had published in the first year of the war. In a period when access to information was restricted (either due to censorship, or the fact that there was a breakdown in the connection to cultural developments because few things were published during wartime), the magazine provided British readers with reports from Russia, the United States, France and other countries. Harvill later became an imprint of the international publishing firm Random House, and is now called Harvill Secker, after being merged with Secker & Warburg.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Harvill was known primarily as a bridge between readers of English and writers from the Soviet Union – in some cases, Russian writers who could not get their work published in their native land. The manuscripts were acquired by Harvill for translation and publication in English. In 1958, Harvill published the first English-language edition of Boris Pasternak’s novel “Doctor Zhivago” (translated by Harari and Max Hayward), after it had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Italy the previous year.

Pursuing its aim to connect between cultures, Harvill also published literary works that dealt with life in Egypt and the diversity of Egyptian culture. Indeed, prior to “Jacob’s Ladder,” Harvill published Tawfik al-Hakim’s novel “Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecutor” (1947), translated into English by Abba Eban; and, the following year, a short-story collection, “Land of Enchanters,” edited by Bernard Lewis and Stanley Burstein.

Ideology and identification

In the case of “Jacob’s Ladder,” which appeared in 1951, it seems likely that, in addition to its compatibility with Harvill’s ideology and repertoire, Manya Harari’s identification with the story was a decisive factor in the novel’s publication. She was born in 1906 in what is today Baku, Azerbaijan, the fourth and youngest daughter of the banker and businessman Grigori Benenson and his wife, Sofia. The family moved to St. Petersburg during Harari’s childhood, and she was tutored by a governess who was brought from Western Europe. The family left for England on the eve of World War I.

In 1925, Manya Berenson and her sister Flora visited Palestine. In Jerusalem, she met Ralph Andrew Harari – a merchant banker and art scholar, and the son of Sir Victor Harari Pasha, a civil servant, financier and prominent member of the Jewish community in Cairo. Manya and Ralph were married in Paris and made their home in Cairo until 1936, when they moved to London, following the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Harari was a translator, editor and publisher until her death, in 1969.

While she was still in Cairo, Harari visited Palestine again, joining the founders of Kibbutz Geva, in the Jezreel Valley, for several months. Upon her return to Cairo, she enlisted in Zionist activity via the Jewish National Fund and the fundraising organization Keren Hayesod (aka United Israel Appeal). In the early 1950s, Yosef Baratz, one of the founders of Kvutzat Degania, the country’s first kibbutz, visited the Hararis in London, and told the couple about his kibbutz. Harari, thrilled by his story, started to write it immediately and within a few months published “A Village by the Jordan: The Story of Degania” (later translated into Hebrew).

In the late 1940s, when Harari read the manuscript of “Jacob’s Ladder” at Harvill, she was transported back to the years when she lived in cosmopolitan Cairo. The novel evoked vividly the city she loved and grieved for. The picture she paints of the Egyptian capital in her own memoirs (“Manya Harari: Memoirs, 1906-1969,” London: Harvill Press, 1972) is very similar to Kahanoff’s portrait in her novel. It was a city in which a multitude of religious and ethnic groups lived side by side, and did their best to communicate with one another in a mélange of languages.

Both Kahanoff and Harari were enchanted by the city and its landscapes, but they did not ignore the vast economic gulfs within Egyptian society as a whole and in the Jewish community as well. The majority of the people, they were aware, were indigent.

It was with a sense of helplessness that Harari devoted herself to philanthropic activity in the Jewish community, involving herself with an orphanage in the Jewish Quarter and a hostel for the rehabilitation of released prisoners. She was also chairwoman of the Cairo branch of WIZO, the Zionist women’s organization. Kahanoff, for her part, did volunteer work in a Jewish Quarter clinic that offered emergency medical services. The more complicated cases were referred to the WIZO clinic.

As the dust jacket of “Mongrels or Marvels” (Stanford University Press, 2011) – a compilation of her “Levantine writings” – notes, Kahanoff “developed a social model, Levantinism, that embraces the idea of a pluralist, multicultural society and runs counter to the prevailing attitudes and identity politics throughout the Middle East.”

In the novel “Jacob’s Ladder,” the protagonist, Rachel, is torn between Jewish tradition, Western culture and Egypt’s Arab culture. Manya Harari, too, knew all about identity crises: She was unable to strike roots either in the Russian culture of her childhood or the Western culture in which she spent most of her life.

‘Generation of Levantines’

During her Cairo years, she converted to Christianity, but stayed with her husband and continued to be active in the Jewish community and in the Zionist movement. Though Cairo’s confusing cosmopolitanism may have played a large part in prompting her conversion, she acknowledges in her memoirs that she had been attracted to Christianity since her childhood in Russia, when her nanny took her to church. It’s instructive to note that the opening essay of “From East the Sun,” a Hebrew compilation of her works from 1978, Kahanoff describes the magical atmosphere she found in a Cairo church she attended in the company of her family’s Italian maid.

In other words, both Harari and Kahanoff belonged to what the latter called the “generation of Levantines.” They were both born to families that were in geographical movement between countries and in cultural movement between different orientations. They themselves never ceased to move geographically or culturally. Neither ever found a home where she felt she belonged. Manya Harari moved between Eastern and Western Europe, between Russia and England, and between England and Israel and Egypt. She revered Western culture, but devoted her life to translating works from Russian to English. Born into a Jewish family, she was buried as a believing Catholic.

Jacqueline Kahanoff’s life trajectory included Egypt, the United States, France and Israel, and she moved between Middle Eastern and Western culture, between Judaism, Christianity and Islam – between English, French, Hebrew, Italian and Arabic.

Neither woman found surcease for her wandering or her seething soul; both channeled their lives “between the worlds” in order to bridge between people, countries, beliefs and worldviews. One was a translator and publisher, the other a journalist and writer. Thus, when their paths crossed, it was natural for them to work together on the publication of “Jacob’s Ladder.”

David Guedj is a PhD candidate in Jewish studies at Tel Aviv University. His dissertation focuses on the attitudes of Moroccan Jewry toward the Hebrew language and the building of Hebrew culture, 1912-1956.