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.
It is difficult to find words to respond to the horrific fate that befell 19 year-old Ori Ansbacher. Murdered while she took a walk in the Jerusalem woods. In recent years, we have sadly grown accustomed to such tragedies in Israel. Each martyred victim seems to have been more impossibly sweet than the last. Innocents who, as Agnon once put it, “the enemy was not worthy even to touch.” Yet, the details of this particular tragedy shocks even those ears that are inured to such news. Can I add anything to the cries of mourning that have been echoing across the Jewish world?
Yet, beyond the photos and the loved ones’ memories, Ori left us with a poem. This poem, one among many to be sure, has been publicized in Hebrew and is worth examining closely. Ori’s remarkable personality is laid open within: she offers us a lens into a deep truth that she understood at a young age and was able to crystallize into words.
The poet begins with a call to action, “asi,” so that “your world will be/A world of peace.” Considering the brutal circumstances of her murder, there is something impossibly tragic about this delicate call for peace. Indeed, this is not the externally imposed peace of the activists who seek to displace people like Ori and her family in order to appease an insatiable beast. It is a peace that starts within and emanates outward. Ori understands that the first step she must take to realize this world of peace is to look within and appreciate her own value, “the girl who was” and “the honey that was,” before life became more complicated and challenging. Change is a paradox. One must reach back and reacquire something which was there all along: the sweet core of honey found in an innocent young girl.
For Ori, and perhaps, many of her peers and role-models in the community of Tekoa and beyond, the process of finding internal wholeness precedes seeking perfection from the world around you. It’s the inverse of a certain kind of activism we see among young people in other corners of the world. A world of peace is you something you must try to create for yourself before you can demand it from others. The poem offers affirmation, hopeful but not overblown, that it is possible to reclaim the best parts of ourselves. Something pure and sweet and nourishing with which we may have lost touch.
After Ori’s death, several of her friends and neighbors put her words to music, which they then shared with her family at the shiva. The words and music and voices meld into a beautiful song. And, of course, in this context the song takes on additional shades of meaning: “the girl who was,” the honey that was extracted, a “world of peace” are now invoked ironically with devastating effect. Although those who listen and sing continue to suffer and grieve, the mindset expressed by this song, the sensibility from which it emanates, is a gift. How many great people have we come to know, just in the last three years alone, through their murders by terrorists: Dafna Meir, Hallel Ariel, Miki Mark, Erez Orbach, Elchai Taharlev, Elad Salomon, Adiel Coleman, Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal, Rabbi Raziel Shevach, Kim Levinger, Ari Fuld, Yovel Mor Yosef. The list goes on much further and I do not mean to exclude anyone, only to highlight some names that made an impact on me in particular, perhaps because of similarities in background or mutual acquaintances ensuring that their story would be made known to me. There is a tendency to idealize people after their passing. Yet, these were holy people, each in their own way, in life and in death. Their stories have also introduced us to the communities that produced them, who now gather to mourn. Perhaps it is a geographic issue – many of Israel’s most idealistic citizens live in the areas most vulnerable to Arab attack. Or maybe it is testament to the strong characters of Jewish Israelis more broadly. The lives that were stolen belonged some of the finest people one could encounter, cut down by depraved monsters motivated by hatred and enabled by a political apparatus that is fed too much by the “civilized” world. Yet, in response to that ugliness we see, inexplicably, beauty. Teenagers singing softly at the shiva house, a campaign to bake and share cookies, Torah learning, internal reflection, creativity, and yes some threats to, gasp, build more homes for families in their memory.
Two years ago hundreds of thousands of women in pink hats gathered in major American cities to fulminate and demand a vague set of rights, most of which they already have. This past year angry mobs descended on Paris, flinging firebombs and destroying property, over rising taxes and stagnant economic conditions. In Israel, innocent children are murdered in cold blood at shockingly regular intervals. There is very little chanting. There are very few demonstrations. Rather tears, poetry, memory and love. When I think about this it’s hard not to feel a bit angry myself. I wonder whether the situation would change with a little more righteous fury and collective indignation. Perhaps it would. But I also remind myself of Ori’s words, even more potent when considering these challenges. The perfection we seek in ourselves has the power to emanate outwards. Only by recognizing and embracing our own inner sweetness, the honey that is there and has always been, will we build the world of peace we so desperately need.
So your world will be
A world of peace
The young woman (alma) you are
The honey that was
Before they drew it, and you out
For yourself anew
Revive the girl
And create a world
A world of peace
Before negotiating with yourself
And your beloved
Before the treaties
And the violations
And the battles
עשי שיהא עולמך עולם של שלום שלום עולמיםזכרי את העלמה שאת את הדבש שהיה לפני שרדו בך
נכסי לעצמך מחדש את המתיקות הזו שהייתה שלך
החיי את העלמה ובראי לך עולם עולם של שלום לפני המשא ומתן שלך עם עצמך ועם אהובך
In his essay on the poet Raḥel, Hillel Halkin offers a fascinating study of her too-brief life (1890-1931), her poetics, and the unique place she occupies in the Hebrew literary landscape. Certainly, against the background of the pioneering Zionist ethos of her time—nationalistic, idealistic, and collectivist—the intense individualism of Raḥel’s verse stands out. No less deeply committed to the Zionist enterprise than other poets cited by Halkin, notably Uri Tsvi Grinberg and Avraham Shlonsky, she devoted herself mainly to the exploration of such seemingly inward emotions as sadness, longing, humility, and self-doubt.
The study of poetry on its own terms is a noble literary ideal, but it is difficult to read the poetry of Raḥel without also ruminating upon the personal circumstances, especially the disease to which she would eventually succumb at the age of forty, that may account for the themes of suffering, loneliness, and longing that run through her work. It is perhaps for this reason that Halkin in the end deems her to be, with emphasis on both adjectives, a “great minor poet”: that is, one who deals with localized themes, seemingly without obvious public import, but who nevertheless addresses them with a clarity and virtuosity that ensures he or she will never be forgotten—as, in Israel, Raḥel has indeed never been.
Yet might this major/minor distinction, which Halkin applies with subtlety and generosity, ultimately be something of a false choice?