Israel / Europe: back and forth

Memories of a summer

Zionism or diasporism? And what if the essence of being Jewish was precisely between these two options? Between here and there, between exile and being rooted? David Haziza gives us here the account of a summer spent between these two horizons.

 

Altneuschul in Prague – The oldest surviving European synagogue – Wikipedia commons

 

Some of the memories of my summer come back to me in the heart of the New York winter. It started for me in Israel. Every morning I would wake up overlooking the oldest Jewish cemetery in Jaffa – at least the ones still visible there. If it was early enough – and sometimes the sun was barely rising – I would enjoy the brisk wind from the harbour on our balcony and, with a cup of coffee in my hands, I would read or look at the graves below for a while. They serve as a meeting place for crows and as a shelter for cats in heat, whose baby cries resound with deafening sharpness.

It was founded by Rabbi Judah “me-Raguza” from Ragusa (Dubrovnik). Telavivians mistakenly call it “Margoza” because of the vowel fluctuation of the Hebrew: in this error there is a history that spans five centuries. The hybridity of this city within the city, of this city’s substratum, is also being told: Egyptian, Canaanite, Philistine, Greek, Arab… a city from which some remnants of the Danites embarked three thousand years ago on the ships Deborah speaks of, an ancient and trendy city, a district of clubs and cafés, but also of humble piety, such is Jaffa, which is also called Joppa or Yafo.

So we spent our time between the latter and Jerusalem, which was harsher despite the picturesque markets and the peace of its Shabbat – despite the songs of Ades, the great Syrian synagogue in the Nahalaot district, despite the cafés, the rural leper colony of Talbieh and the endless shelves of the old bookshop in Schatz Street.

These two cities spoke to me, besides Hebrew, in a multitude of languages: in English and French, in Russian and even in Italian, which I was able to try out with the old Libyans who pray in the Zodiac quarter of Jaffa (each street is named after an astrological sign) in an old caravanserai built there, facing the port, a century before the cemetery, then the only Jewish caravanserai. (They pray, but as soon as the ark is opened, they toast with anisette and taste sliced boutargue). Around Mahane Yehuda, it’s Yiddish, and elsewhere it’s Arabic, that of the Muslims and Christians, intermingled with Hebrew, and that of the old Iraqis and Moroccans of the Jaffa Flea Market.

Jaffa cemetery – Photograph by the author

The persistence of the Levant, at the heart of Israeli modernity, the lingering of a polyglot Europe, once as fluid as it was powerful in its influence – or rather its brute force – is what Israel carries in the folds of its identity. This country will have succeeded in being neither a New Canaan, a place of rootedness, nor some crusader enclave, but rather a native land of exile, “for the land is mine: you are but strangers dwelling with me”.

Sometimes people ask me why I didn’t choose to live in Israel. One reason is that I prefer New York and Europe. Israel is too new for me, and its ‘economic model’ now leaves little room for research and the humanitarian sciences. Another is more directly related to my convictions: I love the land of Israel too much to want fifteen million Jews to be crammed into it. I love deserts and forests, and the prospect of having to populate the Negev horrifies me. Moreover, I wish for the inhabitants of this country that they could live in real cities – not barracks or cities – where they would be able to house themselves, feed themselves and enjoy life without ruining themselves or putting themselves and their children into debt.

Between my taste and my convictions, there is also what some would call my ‘diasporism’, but I would not use that term myself without caution. I am not a diasporist in the sense that, like the fake Philip Roth of Operation Shylock, I would think that Jews should live in diaspora, which I would see as their natural habitat. But I am diasporic: my life is there, over there, between exile and homeland.

In Israel itself, it is a certain diaspora that I seek, the sound of languages other than Hebrew, or other accents (Oriental, Arabic, “old Israeli”, Russian, Hassidic…), the intermingling of styles and histories, the step aside rather than the adherence to oneself. Nothing puts me off so much as the kind of puritanism of the theocratic ideologues of the Third Temple – or even of a good number of secular pioneers, left or right, of those “regenerators” of the last century – who want to do away with the “mentality of the Galut”, of the exile.

However, if I am convinced that the paradoxical essence of the Jewish people resides in this diaspora, born as it was on the margins of four empires and nourished by their mingling, there are two things that distinguish me from the “diasporists”: First, I believe that on balance Zionism has been less oppressive, less tainted by crime than most of the competing ideologies – from bourgeois assimilationism to communism, even to orthodox isolationism – to which Jews have adhered in the past; second, I believe in the centrality, imagined and real, of our native land.

The Land of Israel is a vital organ for the people of Israel – but just as there are always several organs in a body (heart, brain, digestive tract…), so the people of Israel would not be any less cut off from their universal roots than from their local ones. This is why some Jews are made for “the country”, others, like Roth or the Frenchman David Shahar, for the countries, whatever they may be, to whose secret sparks it is appropriate that, plunging their hands into the rich texture of things, they should enlighten themselves and us.

Brnos crocodile – Photograph by the author

Shahar: this summer I followed in his footsteps, from Israel to the Périgord and then to the Morbihan, where I thought, among the menhirs of Carnac, that Gabriel Jonathan Louria was indulging his meditations there as much as he was indulging his pagan lust in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, in Jerusalem. But I had previously spent a week in a place that summed it all up in a way.

My research took me to the heart of Central Europe, to Moravia, where a group of professors and students, mainly from the Hebrew University, experts in Jewish history, Talmud, biblical criticism and mysticism, were given the opportunity to explore the messianic question together, and in particular one of the most fascinating, and also the most terrifying, avatars of the myth of Jewish myths: I am referring to Frankism, that doctrine of revolt and apostasy which germinated in the 18th century, first on the borders of the kingdom of Poland, in the present-day Ukraine, in the wake of the antinomian Sabbataist heresy, and then, accompanying its founder, Jacob Frank, spread to Moravia, Bohemia and Germany. Frank lived in Brünn, now Brno. The capital of Moravia, Brno is best known today as the birthplace of Kundera and for the stuffed crocodile in its old town hall – a relic with which I like to imagine Frank discussing tanninim, the dragons with which Jewish mythology populates primitive chaos.

It was in another city, Olomouc (the Austro-Hungarian Olmütz), that we found ourselves. One of the oldest universities in the country, founded by the Jesuits in the second half of the 16th century, is located here, amidst streets that, like those in Brno and other cities in the country, have a unique combination of Baroque and Belle Epoque charm.

The choice of this place was partly due to the rich history of the Jews of Moravia and not only to the presence of Frank in the capital of this province – a history that was marked early on by religious dissent: the Maharal of Prague deplored, for example, that pious Jews in Moravia could give themselves the licence to drink non-kosher wine, and with the consent of their rabbis. We were thinking about this amusing flexibility, which is apparently well attested, as we drove through the vineyards that punctuate the delightful landscape between Olomouc and Mikulov. (The second of these towns, the former Nikolsburg, is home to a beautiful old baroque synagogue and an admirable cemetery whose jagged tombs are set on a hill, both recently “renovated” by American Hasidim who have invented a Moravian origin…).  It is undoubtedly on this fertile ground of disorder and epicureanism that the extraordinary receptivity of this community to both Sabbataist mysticism and the Haskalah grew.

The “rehabilitated” synagogue of Mikulov – Photograph by the author

There were three students there whose singular erudition I envied, and we often prepared the next day’s readings together, sometimes in the Secession décor of the Villa Primavesi, sometimes under the beams of a smoky brasserie straight out of a Hammer film. One evening we clung to a fragment of a commentary on the Psalms by Israel Hazzan of Kastoria, a Sabbataist rabbi, which we were to present to the other participants. Drying up a bit, we moved on to the situation in their country.

Oren, the most charismatic of the group, exhaled his rage in a mixture of Hebrew and English with a Hassidic intonation and lisp (although he grew up in a very conventional “dati leumi” environment, in the bourgeois dormitory town of Givat Shmuel). “I am Israeli to the bone,” he said. “But the day is near when I will have to leave my country. I won’t belong there anymore.” Oren was in the army. It’s hard to imagine how small and slender he is, as if he’s out of this world. In any case, he does not reject the political foundation of the state where he grew up, and his culture even less: he is not, or no longer, a Zionist, but the most remarkable product of Zionism permeates him entirely.

Moreover, Oren has remained religious, in his own way. He is a pious man, a hasid, but in the purest sense of the word. To be honest, it can be tiring to be in his company at a Shabbat dinner or in the small synagogue in Olomouc: you can only see and hear him, he gesticulates, moans, sings at the top of his voice. And at the same time, his joy is not commanded, it is known in advance like an actor’s text – the joy he felt, for example, in dancing with this old man, a survivor of Theresienstadt, who had returned to live in a town he still had to call Olmütz.

He tells us that Israel’s freedom has been compromised, and that he suffered more and more from living next to a population of which he knew almost nothing (although he knew the language), a stranger in his own land so that he could feel at home there. But more than that, he exclaimed, as we fell silent and he took another sip of beer: “I want to remain a Jew, you understand. I feel that I’m losing it there. Being a Jew and being the master is almost impossible. In the past, I thought, it was the opposite: how to remain Jewish despite the destruction of the Temple, the expulsions, the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Shoah? How not to get lost in exile? For Oren, political power is a greater paradox than Auschwitz. This is what we might call the Qibya paradox: after the 1953 massacre, Leibowitz suggested that knowing we were a people subject to the same brutal temptations as any other would be a difficult challenge.

But when we still said nothing, Oren said: “In any case, I know, and everyone knows, that we will leave, and if not me, my children. It is written.” I asked him what he meant by that, and he answered in Hebrew, half-smiling at his sudden grandiloquence and insisting on the first of these words: “The stranger, the orphan and the widow shall not oppress, and innocent blood shall not be shed in this place!

The most ‘secular’ of our group, Yoav, was enjoying a bacon sandwich (‘No thanks, I am a Reform Sabbataian’, Oren had replied when he offered him a taste). Bible study was another Jewish way of being pagan for him: after his stay in the Czech Republic, he was going to meet his girlfriend, a young archaeologist, at some site in Sicily, and I can imagine them reading Tchernichovsky’s reverie before the statue of Apollo. Yoav interrupted Oren to ask him what he meant by quoting this verse. “You know very well what I mean. You don’t believe it but you know it. That’s why we were cast out the first time, and that’s why we’ll be cast out again.” Then he returned to his facetiousness and sang the verse of the festival day mussaph as a peroration, exchanging his “modern” – and more correct – pronunciation of Hebrew for the old Achkenazi pronunciation, disfigured by the ôôô, sss and yyy: “And because of our sins, we were exiled from our land…”

I then asked Oren how he reconciled his admittedly heterodox piety with his political liberalism. I have never thought that being Jewish should coincide with a form of racism or worse, authoritarianism, but aren’t the arguments of the religious right, which thinks like this, more solid, or at least more coherent, than his? Doesn’t Halakhah demand a form of exclusivism, of domination even, as soon as the Jews return to their land, with regard to the Gentiles? What about certain prohibitions – that of leavening at Pesach, for example – which the “religious” only intend to enforce, as they should, in a Jewish state? Yes,” he answered, “that’s how they think, that’s how my parents think, even if they never formulate it clearly, they are too civilized for that, but Drekh éretz kadma la-Torah, ethics comes before the Torah. And, as if to explain the first of these two terms to me, he insisted: menschlishkeit! My country,” he continued, “is no longer menschlish, it is too Jewish to be so, but since it is no longer Jewish, it is even in the process of losing its Jewishness, for the one cannot go without the other.

Then I dared to say, perhaps unhappily, “Could it be that Israel is less European than it was at the beginning? Nothing to do with it,” he cried angrily – and forgetting that I was the only one in the group with at least partly Sephardic origins. When I go to pray with the Syrians or Iraqis, I sometimes hear horrible things, but that’s just a figure of speech, they didn’t bring us theocracy, maybe even ethnic cleansing one day. Not to mention that their culture was taken from them, you know the history, their Arabness, they denied in them what was repugnant even to the Ostjuden, the Arab, the Orient… The worst are the good-natured, clean-cut Achkenazis who go to Bar Ilan to do computer engineering. Smotrich and Feiglin are the logical continuation of the religious Zionism of my parents.

Mikulov cemetery – Photograph by the author

Ilan, who until then had not spoken, ventured: “And I wonder if the worst are not the secularists, left or right, who still believe that it is safe to create a Jewish nation. I grew up far from Israel but in the shadow of its heroes, of Herzl, Ben Gurion, Rabin. It is an understatement to say that such words, especially coming from a child of the kibbutz, hurt my feelings. So I tried a modest protest:

“Their Zionism was humanistic, right? And one thing is certain, it definitely freed us from the yoke of the rabbis. 

– First of all, that’s not true: they thought they had freed us from them. They wanted to get religion out of the way, but we are a spiritual alliance, not a nation, and religion has returned, unexpectedly and more brutal than ever.

– Not a people?” I asked, fearing to discern the overtones of the Sand imposture. Do you think that being a Jew is only a religion?

– No! But a people is not the same thing as a nation. Not a nation, I mean like Germany or France: there’s nothing worse than that, right?

– Avodah zarah, idolatry, Oren confirmed between two more sips of beer.

– If Smotrich is the logical continuation of religious Zionism, Lieberman is the logical continuation of Zionism, secular Zionism.

I was forced to recognise there, not Sand, but the purest doctrine of the man whose name was only mentioned in our group with a kind of respect mixed with fear. Scholem had chosen Zionism against the imbecilic nationalism of his father and the totalitarian communism of his brother. And against agnosticism, he had chosen faith. But he had remained an anarchist and heretic. I asked from the floor:

“And if you leave one day, won’t you miss it?

Oren, answering for the others, told me that he would, but that after all the world was vast and beautiful, and that the Moravian forests – which his great-grandparents had walked through, he then pointed out, a little less than a century before – were also worth sticking to.

And the holiness of the land,” I asked, “of the land of Israel? Don’t you believe in it?

– The whole world is full of divine sparks, my land perhaps more so, yes. At first.

– No,” Ilan interrupted him, “it’s up to us to make it holy because it’s our land. Every people has its own holy land, its own promised land. But we fail every time.

– Do you think like the haredim then?

– No, we fail because we become persecutors, not because we don’t pray three times a day or because of Gay Pride.

– Because our priests are becoming kings,” Oren said, “like in the time of the Hasmoneans.

Then, after another silence:

“Maybe the whole earth will one day be absorbed in its own holiness. Or maybe it’s the other way round: it will absorb into itself all the holiness scattered in things, in which case it needs us to go into exile a little longer. But in fact I don’t know. I only know that if the future of Israel is Ben Gvir, Smotrich, or the engineers of Tekhnion and Bar Ilan, then we have returned too soon.

I thought of the power of this country, of the harshness of its deserts, of the mist on the hills, facing Hazor, one winter morning. Did I love them more than the forests and vineyards of Europe? Certainly not, but not less either.

In any case, today,” Oren concludes, “I find it hard to see holiness in the Grand Canyon Mall, in Mamilla or in Givat Shmuel. I even have trouble seeing it in the Diskotel. And I know there are plenty of sparks to be had elsewhere.

We fell silent. There was an unspeakable sadness in his words, but also, within that sadness, such a singular power to exist that my pessimism was disarmed. The obscure text that we had abandoned for a few moments was waiting for us, and I read these words that Oren could have said: “Kings will be your nurses, and their princesses your nurses. Learn from them that Israel must drink from the nations of the world and give them her influx.


David Haziza

I want to thank Pawel Maciejko, whom I met in Olomouc, for setting me on the path of inspiring ideas from which I drew in the following text.

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