The ProsenPeople

Recapitulating a Move Gershom Scholem Hypothesized Long Ago

Thursday, March 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I first traveled to Jerusalem almost by chance, knowing next to nothing about the place, and having no expectations for the trip. But the city got under my skin immediately. If I’d been asked why it affected us so strongly at the time, I think I would have stuttered out something about the intense compression of peoples, faiths and histories—combined with the dramatic built structures and landscapes. I’d come there casually; but there is nothing casual about Jerusalem. The city grabs your attention, and won’t gently release it. Jerusalem’s sheer physical presence—ancient and new, vibrant and ghost-ridden; shot through with dazzling vistas of shattered stones and twisting olive trees—is arresting.

After my wife and I returned to America, scenes from our visit kept coming back to us. We found that our former frustrations had been chafed raw by that experience of a world where everyone we met seemed consumed by ideas and arguments over ultimate questions of good, evil, life, death, and ultimate meaning. We began thinking about returning immediately and soon enrolled in a program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary that would enable us to study in Jerusalem for a year. By the time we actually got back to the city, my wife was pregnant and the experience of having a child in a place that values the idea of family before all else was powerful enough that we became enthralled by the possibility of remaining there. Jerusalem’s reputation is violent and spiritually hyperventilated, but after New York, day-to-day life there seemed almost tranquil, simpler, more pure, and physically beautiful.

Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah had been inspiring, but we weren’t interested in trying to literally enact kabbalistic exercises. Normative synagogue life held no pull for us. Without even realizing that we were recapitulating a move Scholem had hypothesized long ago, we began to wonder whether the next phase in our own fascination with Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, might be Zionism. We told ourselves that by living in Jerusalem as Jews, even if technically secular—as writers pursuing our own imaginative visions—we might be fulfilling a more meaningful role in Judaism than we could attain through any degree of ritual observance elsewhere. The problem of how to live a resonant Jewish life outside the law might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began.

In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem. Or, more accurately, I’m amazed that we assumed we could come to Israel with our existing set of liberal values and transfer them wholesale to the life we would build in this new world.

For all practical purposes we really hadn’t given any more thought to the Palestinians before arriving than Scholem had devoted to the Arabs. We felt that the Palestinians should have a state of their own and should share equally in any benefits accruing to other populations of the State. We deplored the thought of Palestinians being mistreated by the security forces and we understood that Palestinian society suffered from unjust economic disadvantages.

But these attitudes are so broad and vague that they can hardly be said to constitute a political position. It was a facile liberal perspective that accepted everything and demanded no sacrifices. Just as Scholem had no intention of equating the Zionist movement with the acquisition of political power, but became party to that evolution in purpose by virtue of being enmeshed in the historical circumstances that turned the project toward territorial sovereignty, we had no intention of supporting the more reactionary elements in the State but became implicated in their ascension by virtue of not doing more to fight against them. We effectively resigned ourselves to the Occupation by becoming so preoccupied with the exigencies of raising our own little family. Politically speaking, the Land was an abstraction to us no less than it had been to Scholem envisioning it from early twentieth century bourgeois Berlin. We were fine, theoretically, with whatever the negotiators decided about how the country got cut up to bring peace, knowing that our own home corner of West Jerusalem would never be surrendered. And meanwhile our home life, our nest in verdant, floral Rehavia in a modest but charming apartment overlooking a courtyard garden in which our growing children played idyllically with other children from the surrounding low buildings, was humanly rich and spiritually enlivening.

I went to graduate school in English and American literature at Hebrew University. Soon I was teaching there. The economics of our existence were always a struggle, but our life still continued to seem fulfilling so long as our Jerusalem world could be decontextualized from the larger dilemmas we were gradually becoming more conscious of.

However, the First Intifada began not long after we arrived. And as we came to understand something of what brought this popular revolt about, and the reasons why it had stirred the passions of so large a part of the Palestinian population, the contradictions between our ideals and the political reality of the land became increasingly jarring. The relationships between Palestinians and the Jews, the injustices and mutual antipathies—which had been far in the background of our thinking about what it meant to settle in Jerusalem—were pushed toward the foreground of consciousness.

Gershom Scholem had lived through the rise and fall of the idealistic Brit Shalom movement, with its dream of a binational solution to the governance of Palestine. Between 1923 and 1933, he witnessed the rise of the right wing Revisionist Movement that threatened to dominate the whole Zionist project and bore heavy responsibility for the bloody riots of 1929, along with the ensuing Jewish-Arab violence in the 1930s. As immigration from Russia surged, Scholem saw Zionism itself transforming into a nationalistic endeavor bent on taking control of all of Greater Israel.

Between 1988, when I came to Israel, and 1996, when our own plans to leave Israel were set in motion, we saw the Intifada, the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Agreement, a huge new wave of Jewish emigration from Russia, and a surge in a new kind of religious nationalism that led to the settler protests and riots of the early 1990s—which culminated with the assassination of Rabin—and the election of the expediently demagogic, reactionary Bibi Netanyahu.

Our life in Israel began to take on a darker cast within a short time of arriving. There were many ups and downs over the ensuing years, and we felt a persistent enchantment with Jerusalem itself, but any hazy Zionist ideals we might once have harbored were destroyed by the double-blow of Rabin’s death and Netanyahu’s empowerment. We no longer knew what we were doing in Israel. And we could no longer even fantasize that we were contributing to anything positive in Jewish history by the mere fact of living in Jerusalem. If anything, the reverse was true.

We wrenched our life up and out of Jerusalem, (now with three children), and returned to New York. But our family had been born in the spirit of those ideals that first brought us to Jerusalem. As it turned out when those ideals crashed and we turned away from them, our family crumbled as well. My wife and I divorced, and for many years it was as if our whole life in Jerusalem had been a dream.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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  • Want to Understand Israel? Start Reading...

    Wednesday, March 01, 2017 | Permalink

    Internal Dialogue is a Jewish Book Council blog series on literary trends, ideas, and discussions of interest to Jewish readers and community organizers, curated by the Jewish Book Council editors and staff. Posted by Nat Bernstein.

    Jewish Book Council kicked off its third season of Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation this week with a discussion between Daniel Gordis and Nir Baram, two of Israel’s most celebrated contemporary writers.

    Presented in partnership with The Paul E. Singer Foundation and moderated by Bari Weiss of The Wall Street Journal, Israel: A Tale of Love & Darkness? opened an engaging and provocative discussion of the current political and social realities of the Middle East today, prompted by Daniel Gordis’s recent publication Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, recipient of the 2016 Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Nir Baram’s forthcoming report A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

    Following the audience Q&A at the end of the live discussion, series moderator Bari Weiss asked both authors to name three books they would each recommend to American readers looking to gain a nuanced, deeper understanding of the region’s history, future, and contending narratives.

    Nir Baram immediately named the short stories of A. B. Yehoshua, specifically the works collected in The Continuing Silence of a Poet. Though Yehoshua’s novels are better known among international audiences, Baram insists the Israeli Faulkner’s short fiction is unquestionably some of the best writing to ever come out of Israel—indeed, he claims, it is probably some of the best writing from anywhere, ever.

    Baram also recommended Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949as a crucial primer on the history of the region. While world leaders and the older generations of activists discuss and negotiate resolutions based on the 1967 borders, Baram points to their Palestinian counterparts and the emerging grassroots-initiated movement of younger Israeli Jews shifting the focus to back to 1948.

    Daniel Gordis asserted that the Amos Oz autobiography that inspired the title of Tuesday evening’s event perhaps best represents the Israeli narrative, both in terms of form—Oz’s writing remains unsurpassedly beautiful across genres—and its encapsulation of the Zionist historical experience of the twentieth century. A Tale of Love and Darkness presents “a loving look at the country without failing to point out the problematic.”

    Gordis also recommended Eshkol Nevo’s Neuland, a fictional response to Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland imagining a movement to create an entirely new Jewish state among young, post-army Israelis traveling abroad. The story raises searing questions about the Zionist ideal and its evolving identity in the modern world.

    Both authors agreed that David Grossman’s work is seminal to the literary expression of Israel—Gordis highlighted To the End of the Land, a novel in which a woman runs away from home to prevent the possibility of the Israel Defense Forces finding her to report the death of her son (thereby ensuring that he “can’t” ever die): “a beautiful look into the struggles and scars of the country.” He also mentioned S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh—a novella critiquing Israel’s capture of an Arab village in 1948, examined in A Land Without Borders—and the author’s curious rise to prominence at the time of the book’s publication in 1949: the book became an immediate bestseller in Israel, and Yizhar was swiftly elected to the Knesset and appointed Minister of Education, indicating that “Israel does not run away from self-critique—or at least didn’t use to.”

    Of course, books don’t have to be about a place, moment, or conflict to convey the experience and tensions of the people living in them. Baram encouraged the audience to delve into contemporary Israeli writers across genres and explore works that purportedly concern the universality of the human condition. Young writers like D. A. Mishani, Asaff Gavron, Lea Aini, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, are deftly expressing the Israeli narrative in the subtext of their prose, which reaches outward but never fully departs from the socio-political environment that bore them. And if you’re looking to follow his advice, Jewish Book Council’s editorial team assembled a reading list to start you off…

    A video recording of the full program will be posted online next week for readers who were unable to attend the live program, and discussion questions for the featured titles are available for free download here if your book club is interested in reading these or other books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation continues next month with Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History on March 28, 2017 at The Jewish Museum. Sign up for free admission »

    Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

    Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

    Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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    A Palace of the Arts Arising from the Ruins

    Tuesday, December 22, 2015 | Permalink

    My father was a businessman in Cleveland, Ohio. He and I loved each other deeply, even if we didn’t see eye-to-eye on so many things. Here is a typical exchange I remember quite vividly:

    Me: Dad, the unexamined life is not worth living! (I had recently discovered the ancient Greeks, or more likely, I’d read a novel in which someone was quoting them.)

    Dad: Who says? (He was late for golf.)

    I sometimes resented, sometime envied, his easy-going attitude, while I seemed to add drama and complications to my life wherever possible. At the top of the drama-and-complications list has to be my move to Israel exactly thirty years ago.

    Since then I’ve raised a family here, had several careers and a number of jobs, written and published a few novels, translated some of Israel’s great modern literature, and taught hundreds—oh, thousands by now—of students young and old. It’s been immensely fulfilling, sometimes frustrating, incessantly interesting and has provided a treasure trove of experiences for the writer in me.

    My life and career in Israel have put me in touch with many remarkable people in the world of culture and the arts, something that has made me feel like an integral part of Israeli society, instead of an outsider. Yet one thing has persistently bothered me for a good chunk of my thirty years in Israel: the feeling that I am unable to do a thing about the country’s biggest stumbling block, the failure to achieve peace, or to become that “light unto the nations” that so many people expected would happen. I ache in sympathy with the way this beautiful, troubled nation makes such remarkable progress in certain spheres while getting nowhere in that one. I am mortified by my own ability to look away from the problem.

    Then two years ago I purchased a decrepit, centuries-old Ottoman ruin in the predominantly Muslim Old City of Acre (Akko) on Israel’s northern seacoast. I had vague notions of turning it into an apartment for myself, a studio for my literary activities, and an extra apartment I could rent out. For the past year I have been engaged in a massive restoration and renovation project and have been watching the miracle of a palace arising from the ruins. What’s more, the purpose of the building has been evolving as I had the amazing experience of being welcomed by my neighbors and watching the workers—most of whom are local—pour their talents and much more (I’d cautiously call it love) into every stone and crevice.

    In the end, this crazy dream has turned into Arabesque: An Arts & Residency Center in Old Acre (Akko), due to open in the coming weeks. My son Micha and our neighbor Maharan will be co-directors; Maharan’s mother, Khayet, is the house mother (em bayit, a term I love, as though she gathers the whole building in her arms and coddles it). And I am its artistic director. To me this is the embodiment of what could and should be in the Middle East: a place where all are welcome, all cultures and languages and religions are respected, all sides have a voice and a role, and art rules.

    There have been obstacles along the way; there are more in store for us. There have been days when I’ve asked myself why I needed this. But I’m willing to wager that even with all the drama and complications, all the soul-searching and questioning that have gone into this project, my father would have been proud and pleased at what his son and grandson are trying to achieve. Inshallah, as we say in these parts, that we’ll succeed.

    Evan Fallenberg is an award-winning novelist and translator and teaches at Bar-Ilan University. For more information about Arabesque: An Arts & Residency Center in Old Acre, please visit the project’s IndieGoGo site here.

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    Israel, A Story of Survival

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Eric Gartman posited how and why history can and should be both informational and interesting. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    In the summer of 1997 I had the good fortune to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One day several students rushed out between classes, spreading the news that a terror bombing had hit the city. Sixteen people were killed and a hundred wounded in two suicide bomb attacks at Mahane Yehuda, a popular fruit and vegetable market. I was horrified. But to my surprise, our teachers took the news in stride, saying in effect, Life must go on. We returned to our studies.

    A couple days later I rode the bus past Mahane Yehuda. The market had been cleared of debris and was packed once again. I expressed my surprise to a young Israeli woman sitting next to me. “This is how it needs to be,” she told me. “Life needs to go on, we have to prove to the terrorists that they can’t beat us.” I was impressed by her fortitude. A few minutes later I got off at Jerusalem's central bus station. Another bus pulled up and its passengers disembarked. With the two busses emptied, the station platform was densely packed. I suddenly realized that it would be the perfect opportunity for a suicide bomber to attack. If there were two suicide attacks like those at the fruit market, the damage would be enormous. I panicked, realizing that my life might be in jeopardy. When I regained my composure, it occurred to me that this was the fear that Israelis lived with every day. It was a lesson I never forgot. I never experienced fear like that in America, even after the September 11th attacks.

    Unfortunately, this is hardly an unusual story. It is a mere microcosm for what life is like for Israelis. They have to contend with fear and violence on a daily basis. Yet they survive. Indeed, at its heart, the story of Israel is a story of survival. Throughout its first decades of existence, the Jewish state faced numerous attempts at its destruction. The wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 all brought Israel to the brink of annihilation. Surrounded by more numerous Arab states, Israel’s survival seemed very unlikely to contemporary observers during these decades. Yet the Jewish state survived and prospered.

    How it survived in the face of steep odds is the topic of my new book, Return to Zion. It is a story that needs to be told, for the courage and perseverance of those pioneers is a tale for the ages. And while there is no lack of books on Israel’s history, most of those books do not give any idea of what it was like for the people who experienced these momentous events. Have you ever wondered how the first settlers from Europe coped with their strange new environment? Or how it felt to witness the liberation of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall? What was it like to be involved in Israel’s numerous wars?

    These were the questions I wanted to know about. And since I could find no books addressing these issues, I collected eyewitness accounts of all the major events in the history of modern Israel in order to give the reader a sense of what it was like to live through those momentous times. I also wanted to explain that history in easy non-academic language. It is my hope through my book young people and non-specialists will learn the history of Israel’s survival in an engaging and entertaining manner and gain a new appreciation for all that they endured, and continue to endure to this day.

    Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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    No Fear on Israeli Soil

    Wednesday, October 07, 2015 | Permalink

    Michael Golding is the author of the novels Simple Prayers, Benjamin’s Gift, and A Poet of the Invisible World, now out from Picador. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


    In the spring of 2014, I was invited to teach two days of master classes in Beit Zayit, a moshav on the western edge of the Jerusalem Forest. I’d been to Israel in 1987, and was deeply moved by the experience. But while I was happy at the thought of going back, I also experienced a trace of fear. Over the years, the conflict in the region had only grown. The news brought stories of car bombings, bus bombings, mortar shelling, civilian stabbings. There was even a report, the year before, that swarms of locusts had crossed the border from Egypt—making it seem as if the tiny country had returned to biblical times. As the date of my departure drew near, I joked to friends that it was a suicide mission. But in truth, I began to wonder if I was crazy to go off to a land besieged by such random acts of terror.

    When I arrived in Tel Aviv, that early June morning, there was a fragrance in the air that took me back to the youthful days of my first visit. And as I strolled the beach—and dined at the port—and roamed the ancient streets of Jerusalem—I felt as if I’d never left.

    How could I have forgotten the splendor of the place?

    How could I have stayed away for twenty-seven years?

    Over the next two weeks, my head tried to remind me that Israel was a dangerous land. But my heart only experienced the joy of being in a place where the people were kind and the food was good and the air was sweet. My fears dissolved. I truly felt I was in “The Promised Land.”

    A few days after my return, while I was in in New York to see my editor, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped at a bus stop in the West Bank and subsequently killed. Ten days later, an attack in the Golan Heights killed another Israeli teenager. The war that erupted between Israel and Palestine lasted for seven weeks. And the airstrikes and ground fighting resulted in the death of over two thousand people.

    There are voices in my head that say, “Don’t go back; it’s too charged; too risky.” But I’ve been invited to teach again next year, and I’ve already booked my tickets. Because I know that whatever fear I may feel before going will dissipate once I’m there. Israel calls. And, crazy or not, I can’t wait to return.

    Michael Golding was born in Philadelphia and educated at Duke, Oxford, and the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of Simple Prayers, Benjamin's Gift, a translation of Alessandro Baricco’s stage play Novecento, and the screenplay adaptation of the best-selling novel Silk. His new novel, A Poet of the Invisible World, is out from Picador.

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    Friday, December 05, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Chava Lansky

    Ishmael's Oranges by debut novelist Claire Hajaj tells the parallel stories of Salim and Jude. Salim is a young Palestinian boy living in Jaffa who's life is thrown upside-down in 1948. Jude is a Jewish girl living with her family, all of whom are Holocaust survivors, in the north of England. Their paths collide in 1960s London where they fall in love despite the many challenges their backgrounds provide. Hajaj follows the journey of those cast adrift by war and the individual and universal conflicts that ensue. The beautiful cover illustration depicts the detachment and anonymity of a life in exile.

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    Book Cover of the Week: What We Brought Back

    Thursday, August 07, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    As summer programs and, God willing, this summer's war between Israel and Hamas draw to a close, one has to wonder at the experiences of the Jewish teenagers, college students, and young professionals who traveled to and within Israel through Taglit Birthright, study abroad, or other opportunities over the past few weeks. Facebook flooded with updates and op-eds; Instagram housed a gallery of "bomb shelter selfies" with new friends; emails home detailed each day's travel log and security considerations. How will these young people reflect on their (first, for many) time in Israel?

    The image of the Old City inside a shaken souvenir snow globe seems rife with symbolism, especially now.

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  • Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut Reading List

    Thursday, April 11, 2013 | Permalink

    Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

    Yom Hazikaron, Israel's official Memorial Day, is right around the corner. The holiday, followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut ("Independence Day"), which commemorates Israel's declaration of Independence in 1948, begins on April 14th. Click below for recommended reading:

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    Wednesday, April 10, 2013 | Permalink

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    Top 25 Literary Classics About Israel

    Friday, February 01, 2013 | Permalink

    During the JFNAGA this past November, JBC shared a list of 25 famous literary classics in the areas of Judaism and Zionism with the Israel Forever Foundation. Select titles from the list can be found below and the complete list can be found here.