Yale Professor Wins Coveted Israeli Prize for Literature

One of the leading literary theorists in the world, Benjamin Harshav, the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Yale, has won the EMET Prize 2005 for literature.

One of the leading literary theorists in the world, Benjamin Harshav, the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Yale, has won the EMET Prize 2005 for literature.

Harshav, who also teaches in the comparative literature and Slavic languages and literatures departments at Yale, was awarded the prestigious Israeli prize for his major contributions to the study of literature generally and Jewish culture particularly. In making the award, the EMET Prize committee cited among Harshav’s accomplishments helping to “shape the study of literature in Israel,” founding a school of literary theory—known as the “Tel Aviv School of Poetics”— and his notable translations of Hebrew poetry.

“Harshav’s work in the theory of the text, theory of prose and theory of poetry has advanced in tandem with his concrete studies of writers from Hebrew, Yiddish and general literature. His impressive erudition in different areas of language, literature, art and culture found expression in the publication of over 20 books and dozens of articles, including studies of Jewish culture and history and studies of art (the abstract painter Moshe Kupferman and a monumental book on Marc Chagall),” the Prize committee wrote.

Born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then Poland), in 1928, Harshav fled with his family to the Ural mountains in the Soviet Union during World War II. After the war, having completed one year of university study in mathematics and physics, he joined a Zionist-Socialist youth movement and studied at its World Seminar in Munich, Germany. There he was co-editor of a Hebrew-Yiddish monthly publication and, at the age of 19, published his first book of poetry.

After emigrating to Israel in 1948 to fight in the Israeli War of Independence, Harshav attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew literature and Jewish history. As a student, Harshav co-founded a literary journal, which profoundly influenced the direction Hebrew poetry would take for the next generation. From 1957 to 1960, he studied comparative literature at Yale with celebrated literary critic and teacher René Wellek. Following his studies at Yale, he returned to Hebrew University as a teacher, creating a host of new courses in literary theory and Hebrew literature. In 1966 he joined a group of former students in setting up the department of poetics and comparative literature at Tel Aviv University. He chaired the department for five years. During this time, Harshav founded the first Hebrew journal for the “science” of literature. In 1975, he founded the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, where he edited two international literary journals in English: Poetics and Theory of Literature and Poetics Today. He also published a series of books in Hebrew.

While still on the faculty at the University of Tel Aviv and as he continued as director of the Porter Institute, Harshav traveled widely as a visiting professor: to the University of California in Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Indiana, Columbia and Dartmouth and finally, in 1986–87, to Yale. Becoming professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University in 1987, Harshav joined the full-time faculty at Yale, where he still maintains a busy teaching schedule. He continues to divide his time between Israel and New Haven.

The author of over 20 books and dozens of articles, Harshav is perhaps best known in the non-academic world for his definitive biography “Marc Chagall and His Times.” Translations of his work have been published in 11 languages.

The EMET Prize for Art, Science and Culture is given annually for excellence in academic and professional achievements that have far-reaching influence and significant contribution to society. The prizes, which together amount to $1 million, are awarded in five categories—exact sciences, life sciences, social science, humanities and culture and arts. The p rize is administered under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Israel.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345