By Moshe Shner | 27/08/2009
The crisis of discontinuity within Jewish metaphysics will be resolved only by venturing out into life or by internalizing the religiosity which is expressed in the direct "experience" of life, which will replace the longing for what exists beyond it. God exists in this world, not beyond it. Moshe Shner, a first generation Israeli and the son of Holocaust survivors, writes on the Diaspora and the formation of the Israeli identity as a work-in-progress
When my father Zvi and my mother Sarah arrived in Israel in 1948, they were no longer young. They bore the burden of weighty memories and tribulations, a chapter that was to occupy their inner world for the rest of their lives, and to become the substance of their public endeavor. They had left home, family, childhood, colors, smells, many languages, a European education, and all their dreams behind them.
In a material sense, they arrived in Israel empty-handed. But they were rich in the spiritual endowments that build human character, most of them invisible to us native Israelis. As the 1946 Zionist Congress in Basel was drawing to a close, they married in a café in the presence of a handful of friends. After two years of intensive Zionist activity, they embarked on building their home in that faraway land. Sarah, who immigrated a few months before her husband, arrived with one suitcase filled half with personal items, every last thing that she owned, and half with archival material on a Jewish organization of historic importance: "The Coordinated Effort to Rescue Jewish Children" from their wartime hiding places. She had a sense of history and was driven to tell the painful story from "that place." At the time she was pregnant with her firstborn, Avner.
The name Avner, chosen for its literal meaning of "a candle to father" was supposed to memorialize my father's father, Abba Shner, a poor tailor who owned two sewing machines, and who apparently was killed together with the other Jews of the Lodz Ghetto at the Auschwitz extermination camp. My own name, too, Moshe, is in memory of my grandfather, Moshe Dushnitzki, who died far away and was buried, we assume, in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Moshe Dushnitzki was the owner of a spacious home, and had led a luxurious life in his home town in northern Poland, on the Lithuanian border. The locals called the house "Napoleon House" because, as the story goes, one of Napoleon's commanders (or attendants) had stayed there on the way to the debacle in Russia (the house, made of wood, burned down a few years ago). We never knew our grandparents. They remained a part of that world, which had been left behind and enfolded all of life's fullness - rich, colorful, and tragic. They remained a riddle, without a resolution. What was left for us were our names and the knowledge that there had been a whole world there, one that was no more, out of which our parents' identities had been carved. We call this lost world, the Jewish Atlantis, "Diaspora."
Exile is more than a matter of mere geography. It is a narrative/theological concept whose import is decisive within the Jewish historic consciousness (which by its nature is ahistoric). From a geographic standpoint, the concept of "exile" refers to life outside the borders of the Land of Israel. In terms of Jewish history, according to the Jewish narrative, the concept delineates the horizon of contemporary Jewish life, embracing the undefined promise of a future in the physical homeland of our destiny. Yet, more than sketching out a dream of life in a distant Land of Israel, the exile became the reality of Jewish life in the present, and the Diaspora became home. In the Jewish-Rabbinic narrative, exile is time without significance, which must be endured without sustaining spiritual injuries, until the promised days of substance arrive. But in real life, exile became an identity-shaping reality. Hundreds and thousands of years of Jewish life in the Diaspora turned exile into a familiar, understandable reality for the Jew. While in terms of the ideal, exile is the antithesis of the sense of home, the Jewish exile has attained the reality of permanence. Thousands of years of Jewish alienation have become second nature. After thousands of years of exile, being in exile has come to mean being at home, in a familiar and well-understood reality (with all of its well-known difficulties). In contrast, aliya (ascent, or immigration) to the Land of Israel has become an egress to an unknown foreign land.
The Jew living the promise of the Messianic Age repeatedly told himself that the Day of Redemption would surely arrive, even if it was long in coming. This promise became a defining text and not an actual event - a fixed text, like prayer, like the morning prayer, like morning itself.
The Jew excels at longing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; the actual building of the city is another matter altogether, at times embarrassing, falling short of perfection of a dream, and often rife with errors and moral failures, together with uninspired moments of grayness. "Eternal life" is the ideal pinnacle on the ladder of personal progress that Jewish tradition outlines, while the "here and now" deals with roads and sewage, street illumination and garbage removal, schools, public gardens, and hospitals. That is what makes up Jerusalem - that's the whole thing. Jerusalem under construction takes the place of "the built-up Jerusalem."
The world of the exile, the world of my grandfathers and grandmothers, went up in flames. The world of the Sephardic dispersion and the Jews of Arab lands, too, was destroyed by force of the geopolitical reality of the mid-twentieth century. Nothing at all remains of the reality of Jewish life of a mere century ago. The Jewish world, the majority of which was European and, the smaller part, Sephardic or Arab, became a global dispersion that was divided between two dominant centers: Israel and North America. However, the transformation of the Jewish global picture expresses only the surface level of the drama. The demographic and geographic calamity was but the statistical manifestation of a profound identity crisis, which may be illustrated by my own parents' story, together with the stories of hundreds of thousands of other Jews of every ethnicity...
Beneath the tempestuous Jewish present lurks a great abyss. The various expressions of Jewish extremism, the placing of the totality of the meaning of Jewish existence on one issue, the attempts to give an absolute Jewish response to the questions of the present - these are very likely testimony to the desire to escape the dread of the emptiness of Jewish existence. He who shouts is he who is unable to hear that which is said sotto voce. To stammer is so frightening that we shout out answers to drown out the turmoil, the thoughts of despair, the longing for a world left behind - in Warsaw, Vilna, Minsk, Berlin, Salonica, Baghdad, Marrakesh, Addis Ababa, Sana'a, Aleppo, and all the centers of Jewish life where Jewish life is no more.
|While in terms of the ideal, exile is the antithesis of the sense of home, the Jewish exile has attained the reality of permanence. Thousands of years of Jewish alienation have become second nature. After thousands of years of exile, being in exile has come to mean being at home, in a familiar and well-understood reality (with all of its well-known difficulties). In contrast, aliya (ascent, or immigration) to the Land of Israel has become an egress to an unknown foreign land |
In his own wonderful way, Amos Oz tells the story of the cultural uprooting of an entire people in A Tale of Love and Darkness. The discourse dealing with Israeli identity is an expression of a fundamental cultural crisis. The Jewish state was built as a conglomerate of Diaspora groups and fragments of communities, a gathering place for tribes of refugees and survivors. The continuity of the generations has been severed, the model for living in exile disrupted: Who are the gentiles upon whom we can blame our troubles and from whom we can run to our own, larger-than-life, inner spiritual world? The climate has changed: How can we know how to cope with the dryness and the Middle Eastern sun? It took our parents' generation, wrenched from their roots, dozens of years to understand that in Israel, it was not a lack but rather a surfeit of sun that endangered people's health. How could one become accustomed to an unforested, snowless landscape, and the stony, rocky soil? How does one love, how does one curse in a foreign tongue? What would be a suitable diet for life here? Until I was an adult, the only hummus I ate was canned, and I had never tasted olive oil - but fish oil, yes.
My parents' home was unmistakably secular, built on foundations of Europe's enlightened utterances. Matters of social justice and the brotherhood of man were the cornerstones of its consciousness. The Jewish "revolution" became the subject that established man's responsibility for his destiny. No miracle determined anything, and no divine guiding hand directed our lives, but rather the power of our spirit, as well as our worldly physical ability, that of our sinews. Jephthah the Gileadite, Samson the Mighty, King Saul, David with his sling in hand, Judah Maccabee, and Bar Kochba joined the heroes of the Jewish struggle of the preceding century to yield a whole new Jewish mythology that shaped our Israeli consciousness.
The saga continued here in the Land of Israel, but from one episode to another, a great darkness prevailed. The continuity of attachment was forced. I had no grandfather to put me on his knee, tell me stories about Judah Maccabee, and read to me from the Torah portion of the week, as he used to do with my father. The only picture that we had of him showed a lean man in a suit: the anti-hero in the story of our family identity. I know far more about the wonders of King Saul than about the life and personality of Abba Shner, my tailor grandfather from Lodz. My other grandfather, Moshe Dushnitzki, a certified surveyor, came close to being one of the builders of the Ottoman Hedjaz Railway linking Damascus to Medina, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and I used to imagine him as a man with the ability to physically engage in worldly activity. But he, too, is shrouded in the gloom of oblivion and destruction, apparently without parents, without family, without tradition. The roots through which culture is absorbed reach down to the bedrock of oblivion, where they were completely severed four generations ago.
A strong belief in humankind infused my parents' home, together with a great fury directed against man for doing what he did in that century. We considered God a tremendous fabrication, of which we had the great intelligence to disabuse ourselves. However, together with the death of God in our world - in an age of doubt and bitter irony concerning reality - metaphysics also died, along with the belief in the power of words to drive a value system. I belong to a generation that is deaf to the words "value" and "ideology." Anything not actual, not concrete, is nothing but a way to dupe people. The spirit of God was a great disappointment. Neither did modernism prevent the destruction. No amount of Jewish patriotism in alien courts could keep even decorated Jews from being sent to Dachau. Socialism, borne aloft by ardent Jews, sent thousands of them to the Gulag. What was left was skepticism, concrete, real, and actual, and no one could take that away from us.
The absence of identity was our identity. Jewish alienation was our truth. This is the truth of the impoverished, and while it does not overflow with a sense of gratitude, it remains the reality with which we must live and dwell. Today there are approximately 13 million Jews, a very small percentage of the world's population. There were more Jews in the world in 1939 than today. I tell my students that the Jewish people should probably be related to as the panda, like an endangered species. The question of the continuation of Jewish life in the world is a disturbing open question, even discounting the Iranian nuclear threat: Jewish communities throughout the world are all, each at their own pace, in the midst of a process of demographic decline. Only the center of Israeli-Jewish life is seeing processes of growth, emergence, and change.
Israeli Jewry is the expression both of the post-Destruction Jewish turmoil and of the return to a complete, total actuality of physicality, culture, and spirit. The Polish Jewish educator whom I often think about, Janusz Korczak, toured Palestine twice, in 1934 and in 1936. His essay "Impressions of the Land of Israel" reveals a probing human view of the Jewish children born into the reality of living in the homeland: "I saw that the children's gait on the rocky land was different: they set their feet in two different rhythms - first, they try the terrain on their toes to test whether the ground is smooth, and only then do they rest their whole foot on the ground and walk forward..."
|The "Zionist revolution" is far more than what meets the eye - the release from political bonds or the attaining of "a land of refuge" and an assured foothold. Its deeper significance is the ability it affords to live a life free from the reflex of dread, even if one process or another might ultimately lead to a fate like that of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel|
The Israeli child belongs to the place. Directly and with utter compatibility, he lives in harmony with his surroundings. The sole of his foot knows every inch of the rocky ground, and his eye is accustomed to the light of the Land of Israel. The Jewish child outside the Land of Israel has a different identity and he manifests - to the discerning eye of the educator-doctor Korczak, who came from "there" - a different, Diaspora essence: "When a Jewish child attends a Polish school, his dreams about the home of his parents are in Yiddish, and about school matters in Polish. He does not have the words for the new concepts."
The internal alienation, the duality that exists between the Jewish home and the non-Jewish environment, are the essence of the exile. But the transition to Israel is also an exile. Years of alienation and longing must pass before the new place becomes - after intense effort - "home." The identity of "Diaspora Jewry" was based on an intimate familiarity with the reality of the foreign country. To be planted in the ground of Israel requires a different model of existence. Having a home that is yours requires a different responsibility. George Steiner, the philosopher and literary scholar, equated Jewish identity with the Jewish condition of being "guests" from an ideological standpoint. Human beings have feet, not roots, to enable them to be each other's guests (Steiner, "Jewish Values in the Post-Holocaust Future," Judaism, 16:3, Summer, 1967), and the curse of the twentieth century is the fascist proprietorship against which Jews, in the past, posited an ideological, humanist alternative. One may reject Steiner's aspiration to maintain the Jewish condition of being perpetual guests following the horrors of the twentieth century, but his observation remains valid: To be a Jew in Israel means to accept responsibility for one's home and to live the life of a homeowner.
The challenge of identity that Zionism forced Jews to confront was skillfully addressed by philosopher A.D. Gordon, who was unjustly caricatured in Israel. We have forced Gordon (b. 1856 in Podolia, immigrated to Israel 1904, d. 1922 in Degania) into the mold of prophet of "the religion of labor." Yet the return to nature is neither a matter of gardening nor a simple matter of returning to agriculture and working the land. Gordon's salient message is not simply to take up the plow again, but to return to the fullness of life and existence.
The "Zionist revolution" is far more than what meets the eye - the release from political bonds or the attaining of "a land of refuge" and an assured foothold. Its deeper significance is the ability it affords to live a life free from the reflex of dread, even if one process or another might ultimately lead to a fate like that of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
On the individual level, Gordon rejects man's every escape from responsibility for the moments of his life, under the guise of ideology or fear of intermingling. Young people of the generation go to him for advice, as a mature guide and spiritual counselor. His answer is: Seek the pathway of your life. Do not be distracted by the ideology of identity that says, "What would happen if...," but rather believe in the power of the individual to navigate his life: "One must ask for life in life, while one is alive; one must seek it every moment, because every moment is a new letter, a new word, a new chapter - everything according to that which is vital, according to the strength of life..." (Gordon, Letters and Reports, Moetzet Poaeli Haifa Publishers, 1967, p. 70).
Life is the individual's great challenge - one must live life as one who - walks across the mouth of the abyss or on the tops of tall mountains covered with everlasting snow" (ibid.). Self-realization necessarily leads to a life of substance, builds a unique personality, creates a fabric of meaningful social ties.
In the public sphere, as well, identity expresses itself after the fact, in living life fully, without avoiding the encounter with questions about the present or the demands of reality. In contrast, the nature of the Diaspora, beyond its geographic, political, and theological aspects, is the fear of living life. A theoretical, ideological identity signifies an internalized exile, the antithesis of an animated religiosity, and obviates the possibility for the Jewish public to live full lives: "The exile in itself is difficult; everyone realizes this and seeks ways to escape it. But harder still is what the exile has killed in us, the very power of life, the power to create for ourselves a life from within ourselves, on our own initiative and of our own responsibility."
"Throughout our exile, we have suckled from two different breasts: our physical life from the life of strangers, and our spiritual life - from our past. Renascence means being weaned from the breasts; it is not only a different life, but also the ability to be different. This ability - the ability to live from within ourselves, on our own initiative and our own responsibility - we do not have..." (Aharon David Gordon, The Nation and Labor, Moetzet Poaeli Haifa Publishers, 1967, p.198).
The Jews, for whom the exile became part of their identity, constantly cast glances backward, in the fear that the thread tying them to their pre-Zionist reality might be broken. Emerging from exile means being weaned from dependence - it is the Nietzschean decision to go out into the world and fully live the storm of life.
The breach within Jewish metaphysics will be repaired only by venturing out into life or, in Gordon's pantheistic view, by internalizing the religiosity which is expressed in the direct "experience" of life, which will replace the longing for what exists beyond it. God exists in this world, not beyond it. Religiosity is the quality of a complete earthly life, characterized by man's intensive involvement in everything around him, without any ideology of identity cushioning him from life's demands.
The ideology of identity is foreign in spirit to modern existentialism, which emphasizes man's potential for change. The ability to change is not an expression of any quest for assimilation or longing for apostasy, but rather of the ability to live, to learn, to evolve, to ascend new heights. While a nation in exile finds its identity spread out before it and perseveres in safeguarding and preserving it for posterity, even at the cost of partially cutting itself off from reality, a nation that has returned to living its full historic life finds its identity released from its frozen state. That nation once again becomes an identity perpetually recreating itself, an identity that necessarily will be different from what it was in the past.
What do we have easy access to that can nurture our identity? There is not much. The Jewish present is an agglomerate of fragments of broken tablets and traditions, ethnic groups and families, continents and countries, landscapes and tongues. To experience this reality, it is enough for us to go out into the streets of an Israeli city and walk around its markets. From this standpoint, Israel is a fascinating laboratory of national life. It is too early to know what the character of the Jewish people will be in the coming years, because all the pictures of the past do not include everything that the pictures of the future are likely to reveal. The language of the Jewish people has been revived; the Jewish way of life has been unrecognizably transformed and continues to change; the Jewish calendar, which since the events that Chanukah celebrates has remained essentially the same, now once again needs to be updated and renewed; and the political and geographic reality of the Jewish people has changed. The nation's creative life is once again an ongoing life story. Jewish-Israeli metaphysics is also destined to renew itself spurred on by the fullness of life. The lives of Sarah and Zvi Shner are the embodiment of one family unit in Israel no different from hundreds of thousands of other families living the rupture of Jewish identity and the initial processes of its revival in the workshop of Israeli life.
Behind my house on Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot grows a berry tree whose sweet black fruits attract many insects and children. We do not know when it was planted - sometime in the unwritten, untold prehistory of our lives. It was probably planted by the Arab peasants who lived here for many years and fled their homes in the 1948 war, a year before the refugees Sarah and Zvi arrived at their new home. These were the peasants whose story was left untold for many years. In the shade of the tree, the untold stories of identity come together - what happened here and what happened there, in the prehistory of our identity, before the 1948 war and before the 1939-1945 war. This is the tree that both witnessed the life that was here and encountered the refugees from the great destruction there, without making any comparison between the proportions of the one cataclysm and the meanings and proportions of the other. This tree is the mold of the landscape of my childhood.
The tree that tells the untold stories, which I have passed on to my daughters, is our identity-in-progress. The worlds that my daughters will design from the berries and the stories whispered between the luxuriant branches of the tree will become part of their identity, and perhaps of that of their children. A world in which grandparents and grandchildren share the same stories and the same berries is a living world, where people do not concern themselves with "Jewish identity" and with its formation, or with the ideology of identity, but instead seek answers to great human questions.
Dr. Moshe Shner lectures on Jewish philosophy at Oranim College