Finding the Words
When Ora’s son, Ofer, is called up for military service in order to take part in a sudden offensive, she becomes overpowered by a fear of bereavement, terrified of sounds and shapes that might be the army ‘notifiers’ coming to her door with the worst possible news. She decides to take flight. ‘She has to obey this thing that instructs her to get up and leave home, immediately, without waiting even one minute. She cannot stay here.’ When the taxi driver asks whither she wishes to go, Ora replies, ‘To where the country ends.’
David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, published in 2010, is a novel in which the protagonist runs from grief, or rather, from the prospect of grief. By contrast, his latest work of fiction, Falling Out of Time, attempts to do what François de la Rochefoucauld once claimed is unfeasible: to look at death steadily. Falling Out of Time does not run from grief – it is a direct confrontation with grief.
Over dinner, a man Grossman names the Walking Man looks up at his wife. ‘I have to go.’ ‘Where?’ she asks. ‘To him.’ ‘Where?’ ‘To him, there.’ As they begin to recover the capacity of speech, having been struck dumb by sorrow, the wife exclaims, ‘But what is there? There’s no such place. There doesn’t exist.’ ‘Maybe he’s waiting for us,’ the Walking Man says. ‘He’s not,’ she replies. ‘It’s been five years and he’s still not. He’s not.’
But the Walking Man does leave, pacing in ever-widening circles around the unnamed town in which they live, which itself seems to have fallen out of time and place. As the narrative progresses, in step with the Walking Man’s movements, he is joined in his quest by kith from the village, each of whom is carrying their own burden or loss – the Net Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Maths Teacher, the Duke. They come to form a chorus as they walk together in pursuit of ‘there’, whatever ‘there’ might be. ‘If only we could speak to them, we thought, we’d tell them everything we did not say when they still lived.’
Sixty-seven years ago, the United Nations decided on the establishment of a Jewish state. But it was not this declaration that established this wondrous state. It arose from the blood of its sons, the sweat of its pioneers and the vision of its prophets.
Every word they left behind was a testament that tells us to be as principled as the Ten Commandments, to be strong and of good courage, to be a productive, enlightened society, to be a free and democratic country, to be a people that strive for peace.
To our neighbours, we offer a true partnership and a new life in which trees bearing fruit will take the place of arrows sowing agony. I am certain that all of us will yet see those days. Shimon Peres
Why I Love Amos Oz
In Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death it’s a sticky night in Tel Aviv, and the Author is to give a reading. Surveying the room, he begins to fashion life stories for the people attending. He takes note of a boy of about 16, moving restlessly in his chair. “He looks unhappy,” the Author thinks. The torments of his age “have etched a tearful look on his face.” The Author imagines him as a budding poet named Yuval Dahan, “but when he timidly sends his first poems to a literary editor he will sign himself Yuval Dotan”:
Through his pebble lenses he loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately: my suffering is your suffering, your soul is my soul, you are the only one who can understand, for I am the soul that pines in solitude among the pages of your books.
This feeling Yuval Dahan has — that the Author is speaking directly to him, that he has him in mind — is an illusion and to that extent irrational. Yet it is a recognizable one. In the process of trying on various writers, for me Amos Oz — who turns 75 on May 4 — was the suit that fit. His narrative voice — in turns precise and lyrical, never wasteful, always insightful — remains the one that speaks back to me, that feels familiar, that feels right.
The first time I read a novel by Amos Oz, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, one of a number of kibbutzim founded on the upland between Haifa and Hadera. The kibbutz had a library divided between Hebrew and English, with the English section open some afternoons, dependent upon the kibbutznik responsible turning up on her bicycle. Oftentimes, it would open and close without much notice.
On a break from a shift in the one the factories, I borrowed To Know a Woman, reading it in fragments during the pauses in the industrial process. I do not remember whether it was after one page, or one chapter, or the book as a whole, but I remember thinking that my relationship with Oz could not end by me returning the novel. So, I borrowed Black Box, then A Perfect Peace, and on a weekend away from the kibbutz bought a second-hand copy of My Michael from a store in Jerusalem.
Whither the Evil Son?
- The Jewish Daily Forward, April 20, 2014
American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”
In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.
But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”
“J-Socs are there to provide a fulfilling Jewish life for Jewish students who are away from home, often for the first time, and it is a tragedy and a travesty if Jewish students are made to feel so uncomfortable there that they cannot participate,” Webber added.
Reinventing Israel in Argentina
Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.
While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”
While Israeli backpackers have been criticized for showing “flagrant disregard for local customs,” the hummus trail is a natural expression both of belonging to a distinctive identity and the wish for the familiar and familial in most unfamiliar surroundings. Even thousands of miles from Tel Aviv and Haifa, Israelis cannot help but seek out and find one another.
Omri Herzog has noted that, in Israeli literature, there is a place for the journey of self-determination and self-discovery. “There, in the exotic expanses of the backpacker world, Israeli heroes may deal with repressed traumas and inadequate concepts of self,” he writes. “They can understand and forgive their families, loved ones and sometimes also themselves; against the background of bustling foreign cities and remote villages they find the strength to love, rehabilitate themselves and connect to those they have left behind.”
Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?
The idea that the trial of Alfred Dreyfus inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” is “simply not true,” Shlomo Avineri declared in a pointed, fluent, and well-received lecture that opened the first full day of London’s Jewish Book Week on February 23.
Discussing his biography of the father of modern Zionism, “Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” Avineri asserted that through examining Herzl’s diaries and letters, he concluded that the Dreyfus affair did not preoccupy Herzl’s thoughts at that time. Only in hindsight would the fate of Alfred Dreyfus come to be seen as a pivotal moment both for European Jewry and the history of the Zionist movement.
Rather, the background to “The Jewish State” was the collapsing scenery of 19th-century Europe and specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had, up until that time, been “the best country for Jews in Europe” and had been referred to as the “goldene medine,” even before the United States. Emancipation began towards the end of the 18th century, while in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph I obtained the moniker “Froyim Yossel” from his Jewish subjects who during his reign became more equal members of his multi-national, multi-ethnic empire.
During the 1890s, however, “nationalism threatened the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” while the advent of democracy resulted in the emergence of “racist, populist, and anti-Semitic candidates” for office. This affected Herzl’s city of Vienna, where Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party won municipal elections in 1895 by decrying “corrupt liberalism” and charging that Jews controlled the Austrian economy and the press.
Lueger’s campaign indicated that part of this disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Europe more generally was the emergence of anti-Semitism as a reaction to Jewish emancipation. This anti-Semitism, Avineri writes in “Herzl,” “stressed the ethnic and racial character of the Jews, not their religion.” Moreover, “it was not their suffering and weakness that sparked the new hatred — it was their success and their power, whether real or imagined.”
What Herzl saw, Avineri said, was that this new anti-Semitism was “deterministic” since there is “no way out” of a Jewish identity that is in the blood. While emancipation had demolished the physical walls of the old ghettos, opening up industry, commerce, and the professions and granting Jews new political and social rights, the Jews of Europe “found themselves in a new ghetto without walls — an invisible ghetto” but a ghetto nevertheless.