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.
As a particularly raucous Israeli election season enters the homestretch, a recent Israeli film, now making the Jewish film festival circuit with subtitles, provides some perspective. It’s called The Unorthodox (Ha-bilti Rishmiyim, literally “Those Without Permission”) and tells the little known story of the founding of the Shas political party, a punning acronym for “Torah observant Sephardim.”
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
Revive the girl
Before the treaties
עולם של שלום
את העלמה שאת
את הדבש שהיה
לפני שרדו בך
החיי את העלמה
Lately it seems to be the season of haredim on screen. My immersion in this very particular oeuvre began with Shtisel, the 2013 runaway hit Israeli TV series, which depicts a haredi family in Jerusalem in all of its complicated, charming dysfunction. (The first two seasons are now available with English subtitles on Netflix.) More recently, Autonomies (2018) presents a dystopian division of Israel into separate secular and religious states. In the United States, two recent documentaries showcase radically divergent ways of understanding the New York Hasidic community and the experience of marginal figures within it. Haredi Jews are not always interchangeable with Hasidic ones, and Israeli soap operas are different than American art-house documentaries. Yet in considering all of these offerings, certain patterns inevitably emerge. Counterintuitively, the more serious offerings in this genre are the ones with a lighter touch.
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?
In November 2017, the newly constructed Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC. It is reportedly the most technologically advanced museum ever built in the United States, and it is the largest privately funded museum in the country. The majority of the financial backing for the museum, which is free to the public, comes from the Oklahoma-based Green family, founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and champion of Christian causes. Despite its backers’ beliefs, the Museum of the Bible goes out of its way to make religious Jews comfortable. To take one of many examples, a visitor must strain his or her eyes in order to see the term “Old Testament” used anywhere in the museum. Instead, it is almost always the “Hebrew Bible” or even the “Jewish Bible”—a signal to Jews that their Torah has not been superseded by Christianity. All of that said, the Museum of the Bible is not a Jewish museum, nor should it be mistaken for one. Nevertheless, Jewish visitors who remain aware of the limitations inherent in such an enterprise have much to gain from the Museum of the Bible. Indeed, somewhat paradoxically, a visit to the museum provides an opportunity even for literate Jews to learn something about the impact of our central sacred texts on the wider world and can have a profound impact on our sense of Jewish pride and religious mission.
Israel has produced several fabulous television series in recent years, perhaps especially those which depict fictional lives of religious Jews. These include the iconic Srugim, which tracks the Friends-like relationships between a group of single friends navigating the South Jerusalem “national religious” dating scene. The entertaining, if somewhat melodramatic, Kathmandu follows the legitimately exciting lives of a Chabad couple living and working in Nepal. Shtisel, both hysterically funny and understated, set a new bar for subtlety and depth in exploring the dynamics of a rather dysfunctional but wholly endearing hasidic-haredi family in Jerusalem.
Shababnikim, one of the latest additions to the mix, is a slickly produced and fast-paced series that chronicles the adventures, both external and internal, of four twenty-something denizens of an elite haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. The aesthetics, four studs sauntering off to some irrelevant destination with the backdrop of a throbbing rock soundtrack, recalls the HBO series Entourage. The substance spans the gamut from romantic comedy to profound observations about Judaism, the relationship between the religious and secular worlds, and what it means to be a man. In other words, it’s the kind of series that could only exist in present-day Israel, and it’s the invention of a talented religious graduate of the Ma’aleh film school named Eliran Malka.
For the full review see here
This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine
The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.
Click here for the full article