Though the question “Where are you from?” has become somewhat fraught in these politically divisive times, it is a query even more existentially complicated for Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and publisher Tom Haviv. Haviv was born in Israel and came to New York at the age of three, but traces an ancestral lineage from Istanbul, Turkey on his father’s side, who descended from his Ladino-speaking paternal grandparents. Splitting the difference with his American-Ashkenazi mother, Haviv has an interest in the truly diasporic nature of Jewish culture — especially its language. This has inspired many of his artistic and literary pursuits, including co-founding the independent publishing house Ayin Press in 2018 alongside friend and fellow multi-hyphenate creative Eden Pearlstein.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Haviv reflected on his diasporic roots: “My grandparents in Turkey spoke Ladino, the Spanish language that was carried over by the Jews there; they also spoke French, which was the colonial language across the Middle East; and they also spoke Turkish, which was a new language that was spoken in the 20th century after the Ottoman Empire fell.”
Haviv acknowledges that Jewish people hardly have a patent on rapid cultural evolution between generations, but uses his personal lineage as a jumping-off point to explore questions of nationalism, identity, and the power of language and symbols. Originally published in 2019 by Jewish Currents Press (and currently for sale in reprint through Ayin Press), A Flag of No Nation (2019) is an extensive book that combines family archives, poetry, and discourse around the development and deployment of his Hamsa Flag, a design that symbolizes a potential one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish-Muslim solidarity, and the common ground between Sephardi and Mizrahi cultures.
The book begins with a section called “Island,” which conveys an allegorical legend of generational rift and reckoning on an island, with text rising from a horizon line into the white space of each spread, painting a picture with words both literally and visually. The next section, “Losslessness,” parlays an oral history of Haviv’s family, complete with archival images. All of the writing is poetic, but the third section, “Ladder | Allegiance and An Arrow A Wing,” almost reads like a Greek chorus. The final section presents performance texts regarding A Flag of No Nation and the political visions represented by the Hamsa Flag. The entire work is a case study of how Haviv dances between the past and the present, the personal and the universal, Judiaism as individual practice and as a worldwide diaspora.
This is just one of Haviv’s personal projects with Ayin Press, which not only hopes to serve as an amplifier for the often-occluded Mizrahi perspective within Jewish discourse, but also aims to bring that discourse writ large to a wider audience — one that also caters to younger readers through the publication and distribution of children’s books, several of which are written by Haviv.
Another such project is Haviv’s Woven (2018), a children’s book with two female protagonists growing up in a town where everyone’s hair is braided together. According to Haviv, the hair symbolizes “living in a community where everyone is tightly bound.”
Both of the girls in Woven have unusual abilities to engage with the hair around them, one is a harpist who can play music from the hair and the other is a sculptor. The book can be read in either direction (perhaps a subtle nod to the Hebraic reversal of conventional left-to-right reading) and meets in the middle where the girls come to different conclusions about their relationship and internal conflict with their community, whether to work within its bounds or cut themselves free.
Woven was created in collaboration with illustrator Sibba Hartunian just before the founding of Ayin Press, and in some ways can be seen as a mascot for the spirit of Ayin.
“Ayin was founded as an intersectional Jewish space,” said Haviv. “We say [it’s] rooted in Jewish culture, but we don’t just publish Jews, and we’re not just publishing for Jews. We’re really interested in what Jewish publishing can mean for other identity groups.”
This ethos pushes against a prevalent convention of insularity within Jewish culture — in both secular and nonsecular communities. Even the name of the press, Ayin is a letter in multiple languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Phoenician, and many others. One of Ayin’s multiple meanings within Hebrew is “Eye.” This engagement with a multiplicity of meanings, language-play, and finding common ground between disparate cultures aptly demonstrates the values and mission of Ayin Press as an organization.
“We were interested in this kind of trifecta of editorial concerns,” said Haviv. “One, we have called it ‘speculative theology,’ which means emerging spirituality; two, political imagination; and three, radical aesthetics. We really deeply believe that whatever we can find in any of those categories, that’s unique and done with authenticity and depth, and shared with generosity, would be interesting to anyone, no matter their background, and potentially useful.”