Today’s post takes me far afield from my usual exploration of Japanese arts and culture. Reading a fascinating new book on exile and Jewish literature, and talking with one of its editors, gave me fresh insights into place, identity, and the meaning of belonging. After introducing the book, I share my conversations with editor and friend, Nancy Berg.

Berg Saperstein, Exile and the Jews Book Cover

Exile and the Jews Literature, History, and Identity, edited by Nancy E. Berg and Marc Saperstein (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2024) as a Jewish Publications Society Book.

The word “exile” undoubtedly conjures forth images of punishment and dislocation. For many the word is connected to Israel and the fate of the Jewish people forced to separate from their homeland. The Hebrew equivalent for the word exile, “galut,” suggests not only the spatial notion of movement away from a homeland, but also the psychological and theological associations of oppression and shame.

But “exile” is even more complicated than this, also containing within it the promise of transformation, growth, and new beginnings. In their richly resourced anthology, Exile and the Jews: Literature, History, and Identity (2024), co-editors Nancy E. Berg and Marc Saperstein compile the multifaceted ways that exile has been understood over the centuries and across the world in Jewish philosophical, religious, and literary texts.

The anthology—a collection of short texts, poems, excerpts of essays and exegesis by a variety of writers over the centuries—is the first comprehensive collection of the Jewish response to exile. It is a stunning achievement, representing years of collection, annotation, and research. The sheer amount of material covered, from the biblical period to the present, is staggering. The format of the anthology is thoughtful, with ten chapters organized loosely around a central aspect of the exilic experience: exile and the human condition; exile in history; life in exile; and more. Each chapter is then further divided to engage with the exile of the individual and of the community; exile as identity; exile as affirmation; and more.

Nancy Berg, one of the co-editors, is my colleague at Washington University in St. Louis. She and I have discussed our work over the years. I wanted to learn more about the way this anthology came together. With pleasure, I share our conversation here.

Rebecca Copeland: Thanks for taking time to sit down with me today.

Let’s talk about the inception for this anthology, Exile and the Jews Literature, History, and Identity. In your acknowledgements, you note that the spark for the book was first lit when you and your co-editor, Marc Saperstein, taught a class together on exile. Marc is a historian and you are a literature professor. What led the two of you to team up? And why “exile”?

Nancy Berg: Years ago there was an undergraduate major here at Wash U “Literature and History” that intrigued me. Instead of pairing together two courses about the same time and place—one in literature and one in history—which was what was usually done, I thought it could be exciting to have both disciplines in the same course.

Back then, the university encouraged co-teaching. I thought it would be a good opportunity to teach with Marc, who was a historian. I knew that I would learn an enormous amount by teaching with him and trying to keep up my half.

So, we applied for and received a generous grant from the Kemper Foundation. I may have had the idea for the course but Marc had the knowledge to back it up.

RC: Even before this, you’d been drawn to the topic of exile, right? I remember your first monograph, Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq (1996), dealt with Jewish writers who in “returning” to Israel, had to leave their homes in Iraq. Ironically, they thus became “exiles” from their Iraqi home and their native language.

NB: That’s right. In writing Exile from Exile I began to understand the enormity and the multi-dimensionality of the concept. And even though it could be argued that exile is the human condition, or the central trope of the modern era and/or the contemporary period, it is the defining experience of the Jews.

RC: Your anthology has made me realize just how important exile is to understanding Judaism. It is not just dislocation or punishment but becomes something far more intrinsic and meaningful. Could you say a few more words about the importance of exile?

NB: The vast majority of history of the Jews took place in exile. Being “at home”—in the ancestral land of Israel, the city of King David Jerusalem—has been true only of a minority of the Jewish people a minority of the time.

Jews became a people in exile. Before exile, they were just another religious cult. Exile allowed Judaism as a religion and as a culture to develop in a way that it could persist over the centuries.

By shifting the focus and the notion of sacred from space and place (Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Holy of Holies) to time (Shabbat and other holy days) the religion became portable and sustainable.

The holiday cycle—commemorating the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, the granting of the Ten Commandments in the desert, etc.—speaks to the centrality of exile in Jewish life and practice.

Exile has been seen as both punishment and penance—there are biblical passages in which the curses for not fulfilling the commandments intensify, climaxing in exile—but it has also been seen as opportunity.

RC: The way exile turns from a moment of dread into one of “opportunity,” as you note, is fascinating. Do you mean that exile allows or forces transformation and growth?

NB: Exactly. Some of the texts included in the book argue that living in exile allows for repentance and atonement, or that living in exile paradoxically encourages a closer relationship with the Divine. Additionally, the exilic condition is seen as one that engenders resourcefulness, innovation, and creativity.

RC: The different sections in your anthology capture just how complex the experience of exile is. I was particularly struck by your chapter on “Exile of the Other,” which deals with others located in proximity to Israel. What motivated you to include this section?

NB: Jewish texts from the Hebrew Bible onward have always urged consideration of the other, exhorting kind treatment of the outsider “for you were strangers in Egypt.” [See Exodus 22.20, 23.9, and elsewhere.] I find it interesting that from the very first texts, there is the expectation of learning from one’s own experience (or that of one’s ancestors), of leaning into empathy, and of treating the Other—the one who is not you and is not part of the community even as the community is in the first stages of its formation—with tolerance, kindness, and grace.

RC: That really highlights this sense of belonging, something we often associate with an understanding of place.

NB: Yes. In exile there is an awareness of the physics of geography. One person’s belonging to/in a place may necessitate the exclusion of someone else. Thus, it is the responsibility of the one who belongs to look out for the one who does not.

RC: The works included in this section on “the Other” are certainly striking.

Portrait of Russian poet Sophia Parnok (1885–1933).

Portrait of Russian poet Sophia Parnok (1885–1933).

NB: Yes. These texts are among my favorites. They are among the most literary and most layered. Sophie Parnok’s back story (her childhood in Russia, her lesbianism) is extraordinary for her time and fascinating in the ways it is expressed in her poetry; Lea Goldberg’s “fragments” are so rich and so evocative; Edward Said shows himself to be so much more introspective and nuanced in the brief excerpt from his marvelous travelogue than we usually see in his writing.

RC: You say the texts in this section are among your favorites. Did you have a favorite chapter? Or was there a chapter that was particularly challenging?

NB: One of my favorite chapters was the one on language, since it made me think through how one can be exiled from language or find refuge from exile in language. It is the most “literary” of the chapters; unlike some of the other chapters I don’t think a historian would have come up with it.

The texts that required a good deal of knowledge of Jewish sources were among the hardest to introduce in succinct and clear ways. They were definitely a challenge.

RC: Both you and Marc come to this work from different disciplines. And yet the text reads seamlessly, as though written in one voice. How did you manage to create such coherence?

NB: Lots of discussion and a great deal of revision. So many drafts! We also benefited from a marvelous editor, Joy Weinberg from the Jewish Publication Society, who was insistent and persistent in the very best ways.

RC: The way you and Marc arranged the chapters and created different organizational units was masterful. Can you describe your process here? How did you decide on these categories?

NB: The categories began in the course we taught (although they have evolved over the years). As a historian Marc imagined that we would organize the course chronologically. Coming from literature, I naturally conceived of the course conceptually; otherwise, it would have just been another history course with some literary ornamentation. I learned a great deal from our ‘discussions’ in preparing the course and preparing the book—some of which got quite lively—and I give Marc a great deal of credit for conceding graciously even while I was learning from his vast erudition.

RC: You organize your entries around so many thoughtful categories: Exile and the Holidays (Chapter 3), for example, and Life in Exile (Chapter 6). Was there a category you wanted to include but couldn’t because of space limitation?

NB: Absolutely. It wasn’t just a matter of space but also of time. Even though the project took longer than either us ever imagined it would, we had to call it finished at some point. There are also texts we couldn’t include because of their length, complexity, copyright, or other logistical matters. And then there are the texts that I remembered differently, or which couldn’t be explicated easily, or just did not fit.
A fantasy I have is a second volume of the anthology or perhaps a series where there is a volume for each chapter. But Marc and I might leave that for others.

RC: Is there anything else about compiling this anthology that you would like to share?

NB: This is not a book I could have done by myself; I hope it stands as a testament to collaboration. But I also hope that it contributes to our understanding of exile and to our efforts to welcome the stranger, as well as to our own feelings of belonging wherever we live.

RC: Thank you for taking the time to discuss your work and your writing process. It is a pleasure to indulge in subject matter that is beyond my own limited expertise. I learned so much!

For more on this fantastic anthology, here is an interview with Nancy Berg and Jewish Publication Society Director Dr. Elias Sacks.

About the Editors:

Nancy E. BergNancy E. Berg is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq and coeditor with Naomi B. Sokoloff of the National Jewish Book Award–winning What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (And What It Means to Americans).

Marc SapersteinMarc Saperstein served as principal and professor of Jewish history and homiletics of the Leo Baeck College, London. His dozen books include “Your Voice like a Ram’s Horn”: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching, a National Jewish Book Award winner in Scholarship, and Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, 1933–1945.