This past February 14th marked the 116th anniversary of the publication of Theodor Herzl’s manifesto The Jewish State, which lay the groundwork for the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel. That same evening a special event took place in the Jerusalem Theater: a performance of Herzl’s play The New Ghetto, written in 1894, just a few short weeks before he began composing The Jewish State. It is commonly understood that the turning point for Herzl—the moment he realized there was no escaping from anti-Semitism even in enlightened Western Europe—was the Dreyfus Affair that began in the fall of 1894. Yet The New Ghetto, written shortly beforehand, is proof that, as some scholars have argued, a proto-Zionist sensibility had already been roiling in Herzl’s mind.
Last month’s production was a historic privilege for those who attended it: it was the first time the play has ever been performed in Israel.
For more about this wonderful performance, as well as an intriguing parallel with Tom Stoppard’s newest play Leopoldstadt, please see my new essay in Mosaic Magazine.
Two summers ago, while my family finalized our aliyah to Israel from the New Jersey suburbs, a few favorite songs found themselves repeating on our Spotify playlist. One was a catchy song by Israeli singer Udi Davidi called “See My Light,” which is in fact filled with rabbinic teachings about redemption. The refrain is a quote from Rabbi Hiyya’s statement in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Berachot 4:2): “This is how Israel’s redemption begins, little by little, everywhere it goes, it goes and multiplies.”
The song gave me a little comfort as I spent the weeks packing up our life in the USA. When we first landed in Israel, and in the ensuing months, I certainly did not hear the bells of redemption ringing. Yet now, more accustomed to daily life and perhaps more sensitive to the spiritual nuances of the atmosphere here, not a few days pass by before I sense a little spark, a frisson, of redemption, geulah. These moments happen when I am out in nature, exploring the historically overloaded landscape of Israel. Vistas which appear in the Bible, were won and lost by numerous civilizations, and still remain a pleasant option for a Jewish family outing.
I feel redemption when my otherwise fully American children recite a verse from the Torah by heart like it is second nature, their natural sweetness blending with the sweetness of our tradition in a way that can’t be separated. Even as shops and businesses are shuttered because of the government’s response to the coronavirus, what should be a glum public mood is elevated by the goodness of the people of Israel. A young, secular smoothie-stand owner brought to his knees in debt still gives a free daily shake to every beggar who approaches his shop. Witnessing such an act of kindness, I looked at him with surprise and he pointed upward, “None of this is from us, you know?” I think I do know, little by little.