Home > Conversations > Literature and Prayer: A Talk with Ilan Stavans
Published: Tue Jul 1 2003
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Literature and Prayer: A Talk with Ilan Stavans

Religion is at the core of Ilan Stavans’s work. His autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, explores his own views on the divine and on Jewish lore in general. In various sections of The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture, he analyzes the way memory shapes individual and collective identity. And in stories like “Xerox Man” (AGNI 51) he further reflects on the dialogue between God and man. The following interview pursues these themes to their natural next step. It took place in La Jolla, CA, on November 11th, 2002, during a visit by Stavans to deliver a lecture at the San Diego Jewish Community Center.

Kim Ben-Porat: Let me start by thanking you for On Borrowed Words. I found the memoir sweet and accessible. It contains sufficient information about culture, exile, and language to attract a varied audience. In it you talk about your grandmother, Bobbe Bela, and her belief in the Yetzer Harah, the Angel of Death. Do you think our prayers—or for that matter, our curses—reach the Upper Realms?

Ilan Stavans: All of us are endowed at birth with a symmetrical conglomeration of angels around us: an equal amount of benign and malign angels. We spend our life with them dancing around us, in an eternal power struggle. Our deeds and prayers push the scale in one direction or the other. It is not granted to us to find out which side won—only our successors have that knowledge.

KBP: Only when we are buried?

IS: The entire life is the debacle between one and the other. At the outset humans are neutral. It is up to each individual to realize his full potential. The jury is out until Death, with a capital D, finally sweeps us over.

KBP: So what would you define as a good deed?

IS: The capacity to synthesize one’s talent and the time in which one is placed on earth. All people have a set of talents. Some of these talents never find an outlet while others do. The art of changing the universe doesn’t necessarily involve larger-than-life epic transformations. Instead, it is about the most minute and insignificant details of life.

Yes, God is in the details….To be honest and responsible toward those routine events requires considerable talent. Can one manage to strike a balance between one’s benign side and malign sides, between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Judaism at least grants you the freedom to explore.

KBP: In theory…

IS: I’m not talking about Judaism pushed to an extreme: fanatical Judaism, of the sort that justifies acts of terror. Only when it allows the person to stamp his own character…Who is it that said that character is not an end in and of itself but an odyssey?

KBP: You often talk about a person’s stamp, e.g., the hatima, the seal that defines how one is and what one is able to leave behind.

IS: What one does isn’t only for you but for generations to come. The real measure of who you are isn’t judged by the present but by the future.

KBP: So the idea of the hatima isn’t just a personal issue.

IS: We’re part of a long chain of generations. Our responsibility is equally with those than preceded us and with those that will follow us. It’s all about continuation.

KBP: So we’re a crystallization of prior and future efforts.

IS: Exactly. History is a two-way street: it moves back and forward at the same time.

KBP: What a gratifying thought!

IS: Quality is essential. One ought to keep up with the level (talent, contribution, etc.) of one’s past and future relatives.

KBP: The Kabbalists like to say that the course of a lifetime is set upon conception, although the individual is able to alter his fate. How have you altered yours?

IS: Obviously, I don’t know what coded set accompanied me at birth—no one does. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with these ideas of freedom and determinism. Are we free or is our destiny preconceived? The answer is probably a bit of the two. Every decision you make, you challenge the preordained plan—or to emphasize it.

KBP: That preconceived plan, is it written somewhere?

IS: Yes, metaphorically. One of the changes I’ve made, for instance, is to escape the linguistic habitat into which I was placed originally. First came Spanish and Yiddish….But my life nowadays is, for the most part, in English. To jump out of one’s linguistic habitat is no easy matter. You need to fashion a different self.

KBP: Why did you decide to jump out of Yiddish and Spanish?

IS: I don’t know….At one point I wanted to make Aliyah, to move to Israel. Eventually, though, I discovered that I’m a full-fledged Diaspora Jew. I enjoy being an interloper, an outsider. Today I have a sense of nostalgia—false nostalgia, perhaps—, a form of compassion for the lands (Mexico, Israel) I could have inhabited. Had I done so, naturally, I would have become a radically different person, unlike my present self.

KBP: I admired the fact that you don’t glamorize Mexico in On Borrowed Words. There’s so much being written these days about displacement and exile….I often wonder if all those authors indulging in reflections on exile would have created anything had they stayed home.

IS: Exile is often involuntary. In my family, only my parent’s generation has remained stationary. I moved from Mexico to the United States. Bobbe Bela moved from Poland. Her ancestors moved from one section of the Pale of Settlement to another. And prior to that, from Spain and the Mediterranean perhaps….Did I choose to be an immigrant? I used to think I did, but oftentimes I think this fate has chosen me, the way it chose those before me and the way it will choose those after me. For now, I feel American, Mexican, and Jewish. But the equation might be replaced by another one tomorrow.

KBP: My next question is about your father. You portray him as a commanding character in On Borrowed Words. What elements have you taken from him—or discarded—in your own role as father?

IS: Recently, while sitting with my kids, I’ve discovered in me the same physical gestures my father does. I certain movement of the hand, a smile, for instance—they don’t belong to me but to my father. It’s fate, of course.

KBP: The scene in On Borrowed Words where you take an afternoon nap with your father is amazing. That’s probably the most intimate situation you can have with someone.

IS: He’s quite comfortable with his body and juggles his male and female parts admirably.

KBP: It’s his Latin self, I guess. Do you believe the Hebrew letters have inherent power? Can someone understand their content without knowing the language?

IS: No other human language has sacred power, only Hebrew does. Hebrew, like other languages, is horizontal, e.g., human. But it also has vertical reach. Of course, someone in India might say the same about Sanskrit. I, for one, believe that Hebrew was already present when the universe was created. It is transhistorical….To quote Shmuel Yosef Agnon in the conversation with Saul Bellow: “With Hebrew, you’re safe for the ages.”

KBP: That’s typical Agnon.

IS: To simply smell the Torah, to appreciate the decorated letters…ah, the experience is superb. Why do the letters need to be adorned? The answer is simple: because language is more than simple graphs and sounds. It is, in its essence, prayer. Prayer is the capacity to turn language into song, to go behind and beyond content, to let the soul be hypnotized. Whenever I’m in a synagogue and I kiss the scroll, I shiver. The experience is unlike anything else, a pact of sorts. Hebrew is a divine language, a language of horizontal dialogue.

KBP: That’s the result of tradition.

IS: Yes, of course. Not everyone in synagogue experiences the same. The varieties of religious experience, to use William James’s phrase, are wide. Plus, since 1948 Hebrew has struggled to become pedestrian: a political tongue, normal, just like any other. Fortunately, this hasn’t deprived it of its celestial rings.

KBP: But the fact that Hebrew changed has also given people more access to the Torah.

IS: For millions of American Jews, it still remains veiled. American Jews don’t bother to learn Hebrew. Why should we, they ask, if the majority of the world speaks English and the Torah is available in lucid translations, among them the one done under the auspices King James? I cannot imagine any Diaspora since the destruction of the Temple that has been so square minded as the Americans in terms of language. There has been no other period in our history when we haven’t been able to speak at least a second language. When they sit in the synagogue and listen to the Torah portion, they don’t really understand it, not most of them. For me this is an impossible situation.

KBP: Isn’t it possible to inherently understand the text? Can’t the essence bypass logic and help a Jew comprehend the words even though he doesn’t know Hebrew? In fact, some second translators don’t even know the original language but seem to latch onto the meaning quite accurately.

IS: Sure. Not all translators are traitors.

KBP: Should we, as writers, feel the immense obligation to be, and I quote from page six of The Inveterate Dreamer, “other versions of the rabbi, repositories of modern memory, elevated souls with the intellectual tools, capable of analyzing human affairs, preachers, counselors, decipherers of ancient truths, interpreters of sacred texts, in short as living mirrors.” Isn’t this quite a heavy load for the bogged-down author?

IS: We do it in spite of ourselves . . .

KBP: So what is the ultimate responsibility of the writer—and to whom?

IS: The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to truth: inner and outer truth. It is a responsibility toward oneself and to society: to be honest, to reach one’s full potential, and to acknowledge that, in spite of the fact that we’re but a speck of dust between one area of darkness and another, our duty on this earth is immense: to bring light.


Kim Ben-Porat is a poet and novelist and an MFA graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars. (10/2003)

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