Portrait shot of Penina.

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz Believes in Building Bridges Through Language

By on July 26, 2023

Penina believes in bridges. She’s collaborated, mediated, and translated between populations in bitter conflict, books that seem to defy traditional genres, and parents with starkly opposing philosophies, always finding a place of inspiring intersection. As a writer, editor, and author, perhaps it isn’t a surprise that Penina is so eloquent, and yet, it’s hard not to be moved by her words and ideas.

We spoke on Zoom about having rabbis for parents, the innovative Jewish press where she works, the power of reaching across difference, and her book co-written with a Palestinian activist. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason: Your parents are both rabbis! What was that like?

Penina: My mom was the first Conservative woman rabbi, which was an amazing, rebellious thing. Jewishness was the organizing principle of who she was, who we were, and who she taught me to be. I went to Jewish day school, youth group, and summer camp. We had a chavurah [Editor’s note: a group of close family friends who celebrate Jewish holidays together], went to shul, and kept kosher.

Penina at a book reading.

That was with my mom—the other half of the week I was with my dad. He became a Jewish academic who did really interesting work on gender and sexuality. I love the title of one of his books: God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism! But he left Jewish academia after a series of ruptures with the community so he lived a different life in tech after that. In his house, I grew up with that sense of rupture and even pain in relation to Jewishness.

Between that atmosphere and my time with my mom, I had to figure out how to reconcile simultaneous feelings of distance and closeness around being Jewish. They did agree on one big thing: Jewishness is not only about itself. It’s about our relationship to other people and other beings in the world. If Jewishness fails to be that, then it has no meaning.

So much to unpack! Did their different attitudes tend to clash or dovetail together somehow?

I’m totally mythologizing my parents but you have to make sense of yourself somehow! My mom is a dreamer. She’s a very spiritual person who talks to God and prays to God. My dad is more interested in understanding how things work and how to take them apart, in understanding what they’re made of. I’m really moved by what both of those models of looking at the world can do in conjunction with one another.

There’s a way that taking ideas apart through deconstruction, critique, and defamiliarization can actually lead to building things and dreaming them into reality. I think a lot about those poles at Ayin Press, where I work. One of the powerful things art can do is make things unfamiliar so that it shocks you into new modes of recognition and possibility and creation.

A book printed by Ayin Press.

That’s really well said. Tell me more about Ayin?

We’re a relatively new publisher rooted in Jewish culture and emanating outward, which speaks to that earlier idea of Jewishness in relationship to the world, in relationship to the multiplicities held within itself, and within a human, who is many things! We publish transformative, interdisciplinary, emergent works of art, politics, and spirituality with an eye for what exists at the margins.

Very cool. I love that Ayin is artist-run, too.

There’s so much incredible Jewish art being made, but there are not many Jewish publishers whose primary orientation is art and literature. In the Jewish community, there’s also a lot of siloing of conversations: there’s not enough space where the political, the spiritual, and the artistic can exist together, jostle and transform one another. When those things are separated, there’s no chance to bridge the self (and community) towards new learning and new possibilities for action, solidarity, and imagination. That’s a huge loss.

Bridging is a good segue to hear about your book In This Place Together, which is so compelling and unusual.

The book tells Sulaiman Khatib’s story, which is quite a dramatic one, and unfortunately, in some ways very common to Palestinian experience. He grew up in the West Bank, lived within the occupation system and felt its effect deeply on his family and ancestral land. When he was 14, he stabbed an Israeli and went to jail for ten years. Afterward he dedicated himself to co-resistance and working with Palestinians and Israelis to fight the system that exists.

Penina's book.

I met Souli through my mom, and later kept in touch with him while I was doing organizing and volunteer work around justice in Israel and Palestine. During that time, Souli asked me to help write a book that would hold his story. That led to about six years of pretty much losing my mind!

Souli embodies the necessity of being able to meet and live in the reality that’s in front of you, even when it’s unjust and horrific. But he’s not only locked into opposition. He’s able to resist while also imagining something different—a world where there’s justice, and it’s shared. A world with a political arrangement where everybody can be held and have space.

Ultimately, In This Place Together, which we worked on together, is about the necessity of joint work, something Souli has dedicated his life to. The book tries to be honest about what can be dangerous about that work, too, and what can be lost when working across difference in situations where people have such different relationships to power.

It sounds so powerful. I’m curious what it meant to you two for an American Jew to write a Palestinian man’s story?

When Souli first asked me to write the book, I said no! One of the biggest reasons was that it didn’t seem to make sense for a white American Jew to tell a Palestinian story. Is there any way to do that that isn’t a reproduction of the systems of erasure and oppression that exist in the story that we’re telling?

But through conversations with Souli, we thought maybe that question itself could be in the book: how do you enter into a project and make something with somebody from such different positions of power? That hard reckoning became part of the story. I tried to figure out how to be honest about my position, but also not take up too much space with that.

That meta aspect is such interesting and complicated territory. I’m adding your book to my “to be read” pile. Now, onto our in-house Proust questionnaire. First up, tell me a poem, book, movie, or piece of art or media that you love!

I love Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series. Those books are so strange! The language is musical and defamiliarizes the world in this way that creates a sense of incredible aliveness.

What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?

The Prelinger Library, which is private but open to the public. It’s such a cool collection of books that’s organized…spatially. The collection starts with the ground and then moves up through the human body from science into the headspace of media, arts, and critical theory, and then to outer space and aliens!

What was the last time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?

I was listening to a conversation with Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin about his new book on 16th-century Safed. He’s lifting up a model that he thinks defines that period of Kabbalistic thinking and artistic engagement and culture-making, one that was anti-binary and universal—once again that idea of Jewishness made meaningful through its relationship to the world.

That made me think about our work at Ayin, and how it arose from this Kabbalistic framework and what’s possible when we allow tightly held identities or beliefs to dissolve. I felt this moment of deep relationship across time, a sense of how engagement with the world connects us to people who came a long time before who had these ideas first and who we’re somehow in conversation with.

GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email info@gatherbay.org.