“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:
Earlier this year, our family left a suburban Jewish community in New Jersey that we loved in order to fulfill a dream of making aliyah to Israel. In the years leading up to our move, we frequently discussed the merits and drawbacks of life in Israel versus the US. We discussed matters like the dangers of living in an isolated enclave surrounded by enemy states versus our seemingly comfortable and secure American lives. My husband often pointed out the spiritual dangers of life in the diaspora as well as the potential for established ways of life to degenerate rapidly, even in advanced Western societies. We boarded our aliyah flight against the backdrop of a common web of excitement, anticipation, and doubt.
Once in Israel, however, our commonplace constellation of concerns was complicated, perhaps overshadowed, by a new set of events. A wave of antisemitic incidents in the New York City area in late 2019 left us to glued to American news sources for updates. I grew up in the idyllic religious community of Monsey; in my mind it was the peaceful foil to whatever uncertainty we encountered in Israel. Yet the attack on a local Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding lunatic revealed that this place was hardly immune from hatred and violence. Sitting in Israel with rockets from Gaza falling in the distance, my heart was nevertheless in New York and New Jersey, concerned about family members and friends. I had the stomach-churning sense that the problem was unlikely to dissipate anytime soon….
In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of Holy Woman and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.