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’s common knowledge that Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish new year. And yet, despite the obvious importance of this High Holy Day, the Bible quite clearly stipulates another month entirely as marking the true beginning of the Jewish year. That is the month of Nisan, whose first day falls this year on Saturday, April 6. By dint of its connection to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Nisan would indeed seem to be the most important month of all.
Recently, junior congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez invoked distant Jewish roots at a Queens synagogue as a preamble to celebrating the mash-up of Puerto Rican culture and by extension all cultures: “I think what it goes to show is that so many of our destinies are tied beyond our understanding.” Last year, a minor fuss erupted after New York State Senate candidate Julia Salazar made dubious claims to Jewish ancestry.
Such claims, some more credible than others, have been made by various politicians and public figures. Indeed, possible Jewish ancestry has fascinated both Jews and non-Jews when it comes to American historical figures, reaching as far back as Alexander Hamilton (not to speak of my fellow columnist Stuart Schoffman’s fascinating piece on Lincoln). A recent study suggests that one in four Latin Americans has some Jewish ancestry, most likely a vestige of Jewish conversos fleeing the Inquisition to settle in the New World.
There’s something tantalizing about the prospect of uncovering your past with a cheek swab. DNA evidence is refreshingly precise in contrast with the hazy knowledge afforded by family legends and hearsay. Thanks to popular DNA analysis platforms like 23andMe, one can uncover deep connections to hundreds of individuals, of the past and present, whom you have never met. Putting aside the genuinely amazing stories of immediate family reunions that have emerged from 23andMe, the phenomenon also speaks to those with more distant threads to unravel. In one promotional video on 23andMe’s website a Lebanese American man who always wondered about his mother’s gray eyes and his love for Martin Scorsese movies is astounded to learn that he is 9 percent Italian. In that same report he finds some Ashkenazi Jewish heritage as well, a discovery he suggests might hold some promise for peace in the Middle East.
I recently purchased my own 23andMe DNA kit in a Black Friday sale and mailed it in just as Ocasio-Cortez released her Jewish heritage announcement. While I don’t struggle with any glaring mysteries about my past, the thought that these results might offer some new knowledge about myself kindled my excitement. But what kind of knowledge, really? And why the excitement?
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 the first part of the book of Exodus, after centuries of slavery in Egypt, God rescues the Israelites amid miracles and wonders. Their freedom, however, is not an end in itself but a precondition of their true national calling: the worship of God. Thus Moses first leads the Israelites not to the Promised Land but to Mount Sinai, where God reveals Himself and gives them the Ten Commandments. In this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24), which follows immediately thereafter, the Israelites are given the outline of an entire legal system, complete with instructions on tort law, financial regulations, the prohibition on witchcraft, and the agricultural holidays—a first taste of the legislation that will take up much of the remainder of the Pentateuch.
It is surprising, then, that Mishpatim, which inaugurates the legislative portion of the book of liberation, begins by speaking of slavery: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” This topic consumes the first 27 verses of the parashah, which in itself suggests just how far the Israelites have come: from being slaves themselves in a foreign land to being prospective owners of slaves in their own land, governed by their own laws.
At a glance, it might even seem that the oppressed have become, or are about to become, the oppressors. Yet a closer look shows that the placement of this passage is neither haphazard nor contradictory but instead forms a crucial link between the narrative and the legal segments of Exodus—beginning with the very first verse, which mentions not just slavery but also emancipation…
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 this month’s Jewish Action I review Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new-ish Bamidbar anthology.
Excerpt: Beyond offering specific insights, Zornberg presents an expansive framework for reading Tanach that sets her apart from nearly every interpreter out there. Her books are a true illumination of the Talmudic maxim which describes the Torah: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Zornberg highlights the remarkable potential of Tanach to reflect upon, and in turn be illuminated by, many of the deepest questions and concerns raised in continental philosophy, postmodern criticism and the field of psychoanalysis.
….The word for repentance in Judaism, teshuvah, translates literally as “return.” A secular Jew who becomes observant is deemed a ba’al teshuvah, literally a “master of return.” Or, in modern Israeli parlance, a chozer be-teshuvah, which we might translate as a “returner to returning.” (His Christian equivalent is described as undergoing conversion or, in certain circles, as being “born again”—both of which are more radical than returning.) The word teshuvah implies that no great break is needed on the way to spiritual renewal. Rather, moving forward is a process of getting back in touch with what was, in some sense, there all along, though what you return to might be neither the religion of your great-great-grandfather in the Pale of Settlement nor that of an affable Chabad outreach rabbi half your age. Return need not be to any discernible prior place at all. The Talmud writes that God created the possibility for teshuvah before creating the world (Nedarim 39b). Return is a state of mind….
Jewish history has not always been characterized by laughter, but in Genesis it evokes the freedom and joy of a life in partnership with God.
Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.