Like most people, most writers are anything but Jews. And most Jews are not what you would call writers. Yet for those relatively few of us who happen to be both, the question of the writer as a Jew, and the Jew as a writer, can lead to fascinating if also, sometimes, frustrating exercises in self-definition.
For one thing, when we say “Jewish writer,” do we all have the same thing in mind? Wherein lies the Jew in the Jewish writer? On the final page of Philip Roth’s novel, The Counterlife, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, an American Jew living among Gentiles in London, defines himself thus:
A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple. . . .
We are all familiar with this “Jew without,” for he is a stock character in modern (Jewish) literature. But he is also too much of an abstraction to be called, as Roth calls him here, an “object itself.” Moreover, he is completely unlike any single Jew we are likely to meet in real life, not to mention many Jews in The Counterlife.
At the other pole there is the “Jew with,” the Jew whose historical and cultural distinctiveness—no abstracted “glass” or “apple,” he—needs no Geiger counter to be detected. But “with” what is this Jew? I would say: with both a past, a particular cultural memory which he is bidden to keep and observe, and a future, a never-tiring dream; also, until quite recently (as historical time is measured), with his own language, his own organized community, his own detailed legal and moral codes. At certain junctures of history, and especially during periods of mortal danger, this “Jew with” has responded to his situation by transforming memory into hope, by forging out of his very orientation toward the past an instrument for creating the future.
To understand this kind of Jew, especially when he happens to be a writer, one must be aware of the role played in his mind by fiction—by the play of the imagination—when reality is unbearable or as yet unformed. “For some time past I have been occupied with a work of infinite grandeur,” begins the Zionist diary of Theodor Herzl in the spring of 1895:
At the moment I do not know whether I shall carry it through. It looks like a mighty dream. But for days and weeks it has possessed me beyond the limits of consciousness. . . .
It is still too early to surmise what will come of it. But my experience tells me that even as a dream it is something remarkable, and that I ought to write it down—if not as a reminder to mankind, then at least for my own delight and reflection in later years. And perhaps as something in between these two possibilities—that is, as literature. If my “novel” [Roman] is not translated into reality, at least out of my activity can come a novel.1
Its title: The Promised Land!
Herzl, in the event, accomplished both literary “possibilities.” First he wrote The Jewish State, his programmatic manifesto of Zionist redemption, and seven years later he wrote his utopian novel, Altneuland.
I might mention an even earlier example of this same wild “dream” of Herzl’s. In July 1881, in Russia, a wave of pogroms sparked by the assassination of Alexander II precipitated the mass emigration of Russian Jews to America. That same month, an appeal to these emigrants to change course for Palestine appeared in a Jerusalem paper, Ha’Khavatzelet:
What is America to you! Among whom are you going to live! They too are like those whom you are leaving now. . . .
And do not fear the Arabs, either, for they are not wild beasts, and we may hope for more from them than from those who are the glory of mankind and call themselves educated and enlightened.
From the perspective of that day, such advice must have seemed a little mad. In July 1881, Palestine had nothing to offer. The Jewish community numbered barely 25,000 souls. My future birthplace, the agricultural settlement of Petakh Tikvah, had been decimated by malaria, and the survivors had long since departed the scene.
Only a few months earlier, as it happens, one of the founders of Petakh Tikvah, a certain Joshua Stampfer, had spoken at a fund-raising meeting in Chicago. According to a lone report in a Hebrew weekly, “The result of the meeting was that a Society was founded . . . and the members pledged a certain annual sum for the support of those who would come to the Holy Land to toil the earth. . . .” But what was Stampfer doing in the United States after Petakh Tikvah had been abandoned? What, by way of either material or spiritual prospects, could he offer his audience? It was not until September of that year that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda would arrive in Palestine and start his one-man crusade for the revival of Hebrew as a language of everyday life. It would be another full year before the first major wave of immigration, the First Aliyah, would get under way, and another twenty-three years before the Second, at the end of which the Jewish population in Palestine would still stand at only 85,000.
But among those in the Second Aliyah were, not so incidentally, a number of second- and third-generation Hebrew writers, articulators of the living link between the Jewish past and the Jewish future. And here, pursuing my theme of the interconnectedness of fantasy in its plenitude and reality in its trickle, I offer a few lines by one of them, Shlomo Zemakh, who in years to come would make his mark as a critic and editor. In 1904, at the age of eighteen, Zemakh, like his boyhood friend David Ben-Gurion, had just left Poland to become a pioneer in Palestine. During the last night of his voyage to Jaffa, which he spent standing on the deck, this lad, who had been brought up in a devout hasidic household, found himself reacting to his historical moment like the quintessential “Jew with” that he was. As he puts it in his autobiography:
A great sweetness swept over me, as when, for the very first time, I had put on tefillin. . . . I narrowed my eyes the way I used to prepare myself in prayer, until my temples ached and I was rocking back and forth in concentration, directing my words at the hidden coastline to the east: “To Eretz Yisrael . . . New Society . . . to Eretz Yisrael . . . New Society. . . .”
Now, to me, perhaps the most moving thing about this chanted prayer is that it is itself a literary quotation, repeating a line from the monologue of a madman in the novella Whither?, the last work of the Hebrew writer Mordecai Zeev Feierberg, who died in 1899 at the age of twenty-five. The real-life scene at the Jaffa coastline, in other words, recapitulated a scene in Hebrew literature that was very much on the minds of thousands of young dreamers then turning their backs on a doomed Jewish existence in Europe and undertaking to secure for their people a Jewish future in the land of Israel. Zemakh was saying his prayers, so to speak, at the very moment a future imagined in books (both sacred and secular) was touching the sands of reality.
Let us leap to 1931. Fifty years had j passed since Jerusalem put the question to the Jews of Russia: “What is America to you?” And the Russian Jews had given their answer: millions went to America, thousands to Palestine. By 1931 the American Jewish community had reached the five-million mark; in Palestine, notwithstanding the Balfour Declaration and the transfer of control from Turkey to the British Mandate, despite unceasing educational efforts in the Diaspora, and despite four distinct waves of immigration, the Jewish population had reached a mere 175,000.
And yet, by 1931 the nucleus of a distinct Jewish society had crystallized. There was a rich network of political, economic, and social organizations. Perhaps of greatest significance of all was that Hebrew had become the language of education, from kindergarten to university; of publishing enterprises; of acquisitions in public libraries, enriched annually with numerous translations from world literature; of public life and administration; of the daily press, the theater, and to a growing extent the street and the home.
I was five years old in 1931, a first-year pupil in the Talmud Torah of Petakh Tikvah, where my father was then teaching. Hebrew was the only language I spoke, a language in which I had already begun to read. Although my parents were newcomers, barely six years in the country, my father had arrived with a mastery of Hebrew, which he had taught while still in Poland. To me and to all the other children around, Hebrew was so natural, our Jewish environment was so natural, that I cannot now recall our ever having given it a conscious thought. My home was moderately religious, and up to the sixth grade I attended religious schools. But with my father’s encouragement I was also reading abridged Hebrew versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen. As I grew older I read everything from James Fenimore Cooper to John Steinbeck, from Gogol to Gorky, from Stendhal to Romain Rolland, from Goethe to Thomas Mann (I received a copy of Tonio Kröger for my bar mitzvah)—all in the only language I knew, Hebrew.
And non-Jews, where were they in all this? Nowhere; the tension between Jews and everything non-Jewish which to this day plays such a central role in Jewish writing was outside my experience as a child. I knew about it, of course, but to me and my friends it was like something out of the Gothic tales that we loved to read, frightening but at the same time reassuringly remote.
The same goes for our concept of the Diaspora. On the one hand there were those “other Jews,” whom we had been taught to think of as polar opposites to our own selves, as everything we were not and as having failed to be everything we had become. On the other hand, these same people were often our own European families—in my case, grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and first cousins, figures chiseled into my imagination by means of my father’s ambivalent reminiscences and my mother’s tears. Where the real, flesh-and-blood Diaspora Jews were in all this I did not yet know, and would not effectively learn until I saw for myself in 1945.
What I saw in the summer of that year, as a nineteen-year-old soldier in the Jewish Brigade serving in Europe, were the Jews who had survived, and ever since that encounter I have known who I myself am, both as a man and as a writer. I am a Jew, period.
It would be simpler and perhaps easier to say otherwise—“I am me, period,” or “I am an Israeli, writing in my native tongue, Hebrew, period.” But I am not, and have not been since at least that summer of 1945, when I arrived at the deep conviction that either Israeli means Jewish or it is utterly meaningless, or worse. To me, to say “Israeli, period,” is to join the long, crooked line of those determined to escape their Jewishness, to cease to be.
Zionism itself, of course, represents a dramatic manifestation both of the Jewish people’s will to be and—let us not delude ourselves—of that impulse to negate ourselves, to become somebody else, to be “normalized.” Yet today, half a century after the birth of what some regarded as a new generation of un-Jewish, de-Judaized “New Hebrews” in the land of Israel, I can nevertheless assert in plain English (translated from plain Hebrew) that, for me, being a Zionist and an Israeli, deep-rooted as those twin identities are, has no meaning except as a part of being a Jew, an actual Jew in actual history.
Besides, there was the actuality at home to correct any misconceptions one might have had on that score. In 1931, as I have mentioned, there were but 175,000 Jews in Palestine, most of them newcomers; between 1931 and 1947 the community exploded to 630,000, a real mismash of lands and tongues and not at all any imagined new Hebrew identity, separate from the history, culture, and behavior of Jewish communities in the Diaspora as they had developed over the centuries. The day Israel became independent, only one out of every twelve Jewish citizens was either native-born or had been living there for at least thirty years. All the rest were relative newcomers, most of them in the country fifteen years or fewer.
And this was true not only of the population at large but of the “Hebrew” elites as well, including the legendary “Palmakh Generation,” so-called after the crack shock-troop units of the Israeli army. Take the famous case of the 35 commandos who in the 1948-49 War of Independence fell in battle on their way to liberate the besieged settlements in the Judean hills. “The 35,” immortalized in a poem by Hayim Gouri, are a central metaphor for an entire generation—but who, in reality, were they? The platoon had been improvised at the last minute, and the men, most of them students at the Hebrew University, came from a number of Haganah units in Jerusalem. Fifteen of them, including their legendary commander, Danny Mass, were foreign-born. Danny Mass, twenty-four, was hardly fourteen years in the country.
That, and not the “New Hebrews,” was the reality: a past remembered or invented, a future imagined, hardly any present at all to rest one’s feet on. The term “the New Hebrews” was itself an invention, coined by the poet Yonathan Ratosh, born Uriel Halperin. His brochure, “Proclamation to Hebrew Youth,” appeared during 1943—that horrible year in Jewish history—and it was we, little native-born Jewish brutes in Palestine, whom Ratosh declared the New Hebrews, a nation apart from Diaspora Jews.
I mention Ratosh in connection with what I am trying to say about being a Jew—a word which to him was anathema—partly because for quite a number of years I had the privilege of working alongside this wonderful poet at the same newspaper, he as night proofreader, I as night editor. I was all that he objected to, a self-proclaimed Jew who loved Yiddish and was a member of the Zionist Left. But I also possessed one attribute for the sake of which he could forgive me everything: I was native-born, and hence, potentially, his man.
But I never was. In an old issue of the literary biweekly Massa I was pleased to uncover recently the text of some remarks I made in 1954 when my novel Each Had Six Wings, whose subject is the “Second Israel” (immigrants from the Arab and Mediterranean East, as well as the hundreds of thousands from DP camps in Europe), won a literary prize:
The story is not just that of alien newcomers, it is my own story as well, things remembered from my own childhood, from when my own parents’ home was also a home of newcomers, the story of my own generation, only seemingly worlds apart from the so-called “Second Israel.”. . .
I also make use of folk songs, proverbs, tales, and jokes, treasures I came across during my studies. That encounter turned into a source of pride and love.
In quoting this young member of the Palmakh Generation, which is what I then was, I merely mean to underline the gap between that young man’s real world—a thoroughly Jewish world—and the mythical role attributed to him. It was Albert Einstein, I think, who said that the one reason he regretted being born a Jew was that he was thereby denied the opportunity of choosing to be one. I would hate to think that in being born an Israeli I would be denied all those Jewish things that Roth’s Zuckerman thinks he can be Jewish without.
And here, for the delicious irony of it, is one of them—a deathbed letter, dated January 10, 1941 and addressed by Yonathan Ratosh’s father, Yehiel Halperin, to his newborn grandson, Khaman. The grandfather had been one of the founders of the Hebrew School in Odessa and Warsaw;’the child, named typically by Ratosh after the pagan sun god (a second son, Saharon, was named after the moon), would be killed forty-four years later in the Sinai by a crazed Egyptian soldier. The letter itself reads like a last cry not so much to the baby as to the dying old man’s son, a cry to that son to free himself from myth and to accept his people’s real history and culture. It opens:
To my first grandson, tenth generation to the Genius of Minsk, author of Sequence of the Generations, may the memory of the righteous be blessed. May the blessing of your forefathers, rabbis of genius, ecstatic hasidim and scholars at yeshivot, authors of profound and penetrating books, rest on your head, my new child. And may you grow to become great in the Torah, in learning, and in science; may you become our pride and glory, an important link in an age-old line of rabbis and scholars. . . .
As between the son, Ratosh, and the father, Halperin, I take my place with the father, and against that strain, even today far from dead in Israel, that says “I am an Israeli, period.”
But it is not just against the “Right,” as it were, that I define myself. In a piece published in last year’s Rosh Ha-Shanah edition of the Jerusalem Weekly Ha’Ir, the Israeli Arab novelist Anton Shammas wrote:
Why does the Left in Israel insist on being Zionist, and refuse to realize that this cannot be—you are either Zionist or Left?
For Shammas, Zionism equals racism, and Israel’s Law of Return, the heart of Zionism, is a racist law. So if I, for instance, want to remain a leftist I must renounce my Zionist convictions and opt for a truly “secular, democratic” state of Israel.
What a strange coincidence: the ultra-expansionist Ratosh, for whom the land of the Hebrews embraced not just Greater Israel but the entire Fertile Crescent, and the Palestinian Arab Anton Shammas, whose childhood memory of a huge
Star of David makes him “sometimes wonder if that star was not branded into our flesh,” agree on the need to de-Zionize, which is to say deJudaize, Israel. Well, I for one decline to consider that I had (in the Yiddish phrase) a stone for a mother.
To me, being Jewish is anything but a disembodied abstraction, let alone an accidental condition, like being “a glass or an apple.” It is, at this moment, at the end of this century of Jewish solitude, to be overcome by the sense of continuing mystery. I am one of the fortunate: having been born into the Israeli condition, I have also been able to choose freely my identity as a Jew. And I have lived through one of the most momentous changes in Jewish history, the passage, as it were, from book to state, from words to action. I have been part of what was a tiny immigrant community, itself subsisting mostly on myth, or through the power of an idea, and I have lived to see it become the most vital element in the body and soul of the Jewish people, still, perhaps, insufficiently oriented to the future but absolutely bursting with the present, a land where nine out of ten under the age of thirty are native-born, and of these, almost half have native-born parents. To me, a Jewish writer, such figures contain an almost magical potency.
Three years ago I was in Portland, Oregon, on a two-day visit. Among those whom my hosts had arranged for me to meet was a certain Rabbi Joshua Stampfer. As soon as I beheld his face I noticed the resemblance to the Stampfers of Petakh Tikvah, and half-jokingly, even before saying hello, I asked:
Are you the grandson?
“No,” he shot back, “the great-grandson.”
It turns out that the original Joshua Stampfer, while on his 1881 fund-raising tour for Petakh Tikvah, for some reason took out American citizenship papers. A year later he was back in Palestine, where his descendants, who all lived in Petakh Tikvah and were a fixture of my childhood, became leading citizens. But they kept their American passports. Then, around 1924, one of the grandsons, fearful of losing his U.S. citizenship under the laws newly enacted by Congress, went to serve as a rabbi in Akron, Ohio. Sixty-one years later I was to meet his son Joshua in his temple in Portland, Oregon.
But that too is not the end of the tale. For the present Joshua’s son, Saul, has become an Israeli, and teaches Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In short, and to improve upon Herzl, the “novel” has been translated into reality, and out of the reality there may yet emerge a novel.
1 It was this passage from Herzl's diary I had in mind in choosing the title for my novel, In the Middle of the Story.