By Maya Kaganskaya | 04/03/2010
When I awoke early on that stifling October morning in 1976, sitting across from me was an Israeli journalist, from Maariv, if I’m not mistaken. We were still a novelty then, and if they didn’t interview every single immigrant, then it must have been every other one. The first question she asked me went as follows:
“Why did you come?”
I don’t recall what answer I gave her, but it was most likely the kind of response that according to local concepts, which have remained unchanged in the past twenty-five years, would be classified under “romantic” and “pathetic.”
Since then, I have been interviewed by the Israeli media so many times that if I ever decided to publish a collection of those interviews, it would be the size of a telephone book.
But even ten, fifteen, twenty and twenty-five years later, the question “Why did you come?” crops up as frequently as hot, dry weather and is just as inevitable. As if I have to provide an explanation for my consistently bizarre presence here for each new generation of media people and the growing Israeli masses. And that is why for quite some time now I reply with a standard, prepared answer: “I knew but I forgot.”
The truth is, of course, that I haven’t forgotten anything. How could a person forget the moment that strikes you with a blinding flash, when all those chaotic, formless things, streaks of light and shadow, good and bad intertwined, known as “life” suddenly amalgamate into a tight knot, like a sailor’s knot, into a clenched muscle of iron will directed at a single, specific goal. That is the moment you realize that there is no way back, that all the drafts you have written, all the snippets and outlines have joined together to form a single plot, and that you are simultaneously the author and protagonist of that story.
The catastrophe of political correctness
Could Dostoyevsky ever forget that St. Petersburg drizzle, when as he drank his morning coffee with milk and read his newspaper, a small item in the crime section caught his eye: A student had murdered someone because, as he candidly admitted, he had found himself in dire financial straits and could come up with no other way to extricate himself!?
Could Raskolnikov have forgotten that moment when at the sight of the loathsome old woman, a usurer, he was struck with a clarity of vision the likes of which comes only on one’s last day on earth: that the sanctity of life for all human beings is a lie and that there is no equality where the right of every creature to life is concerned!?
These two moments of illumination are what led to the creation of the novel Crime and Punishment, the very same book that Saddam Hussein read in his grave pit of a hiding place. What did he hope to find in the novel: justification for sin, the inevitability of punishment? There is no way of knowing. But after this piece of knowledge, which is stunning, all the talk about the complete self-containment of the culture of Islam in comparison to European culture is worth about as much to me as the Russian ruble on the international currency market: in other words, absolutely nothing.
The ease and willingness with which Israel accepted the politically correct gospel regarding the equality of cultures is embarrassing and disconcerting. While this approach may be politically profitable, intellectually speaking, it is completely wrong.
Signing onto this doctrine has thus far not earned Israel any political points, whereas the cultural damage it causes is patent: Israeli culture, which is already overly collectivist has become mediocre to the extreme in its mainstream, free as it is from the worry that comes from self-criticism, stagnating into talentless smug self-satisfaction.
The example of Crime and Punishment is of course grim. That doesn’t mean that I am saying that the decision that I made back then has become colored in hues of fear and anxiety: No! But it was a fatalistic decision, with all the shades of ignorance and bleak lack of freedom, which go hand in hand with fatalism. A choice of this kind cannot make use of knowledge on the subject of the choice – as much or as little as possible, as reliable or unreliable – that cannot reveal the unknown future. This is akin to the way the libretto of a ballet tells of its content but reveals nothing about the ballet itself.
Choice, choice… What forced me to choose? Anti-Semitism? Oh yes! But it was not the anti-Semitism of the “pale of settlement” and the pogroms against the Jews, and not even the anti-Semitism of Hitler and Stalin, his campaigns against cosmopolitanism, theater critics and other murderers in white coats… and the planned finale in the snow of Siberia, with the support of ecologically clean measures (the freezing cold, starvation, the northern lights, snow shrouds), without any expensive chemicals or other damaging elements.
In many European countries, denial of the Holocaust is prohibited by law, which does little to prevent anti-Semitism from rearing its ugly head on the European continent. And nevertheless… the attempt to steal the Holocaust from us causes even Israelis whose not-so-distant Jewish past awakens only a feeble response to react with outrage and indignation.
I and tens of thousands of others of my generation are aware of the final solution according to Stalin to the same degree of certainty that a former inmate of an extermination camp knows all the twists and turns of the hell he inhabited. Indeed? I have never encountered among anyone, with the exception of Israelis, such staunch opposition to the very possibility of discussion of the subject, whether among historians, Sovietologists or ordinary Israeli-born people of a reasonable level of education and moderately leftist views – in short, the representatives of that class that in Russia are called the intelligentsia, and here – intellectuals. But whatever we call them, they are the natural habitat for my social life, that “miniature homeland” outside of which is the great, historic homeland, which has become a ghost-filled void.
Denial of truth for the sake of an ideological belief – that was my first lesson and the blow that I was dealt already in my first contacts with Hebrew speakers of the same class. I have internalized the message, but I will never recover from the blow.
As for the post-Stalinist anti-Semitism, especially that of the 1960s and 1970s – this was the anti-Semitism of a tired, aged and nerve-wracked society, whose internationalist past still tied it down like a patient with hardening of the arteries. But it was no longer capable, nor did it have any pretensions, of resisting the mental pressure of the antisemitic-Russian Orthodox state.
Despite all this, the place occupied by the Jews among the (scientific-literary-artistic) elite, starting from the latter part of the 1930s, was still reserved for them. Some succeeded more easily, while others encountered difficulties. What is more important is the idea that dominated on the psychological level: The loathing for the ideological supervision and the pretension of the government to have the last word regarding the fate of the world and humanity, which was shared by both Jewish intellectuals and the Russian intellectual avant-garde, lent the Jews a feeling of intellectual affinity with their Russian environment. Jewish existence did not boil down to a bitter social-ethnic residue based on lack of recognition and withdrawal from society. There were enough ecological niches for everyone: Some preferred the kitchens of dissidents from which wafted a strong scent of politics preoccupied with the burning issues of the day; I was satisfied with the free, natural expanse of the bohemian-artistic gatherings. And as for the venomous aftertaste of anti-Semitism that was blended into all of these – it depended on each Jew’s individual threshold of sensitivity (I have met and still meet quite a few of my former compatriots who maintain that their geographical homeland does not and never did harbor any anti-Semitism, because they personally never encountered it. I would be happy to believe them…).
It is noteworthy that the brand of Zionism of the 1970s was reborn, and grew particularly strong especially among that class to which the most successful Jews belonged, those who were able to integrate into society more successfully than the rest: doctors of physics and mathematics, eminent researchers in the humanities, artists, artists of the screen and theatre. And this was at the very same time when the average Soviet Jew swore his allegiance to the socialist homeland, but not without turning his head in the direction of his neighbors and fellow workers, and in complete sincerity wished upon Israel all imaginable catastrophes, including a nuclear holocaust. That very same Jew himself lived with vestiges of Yiddish in his memory and home, matzah on Passover, a baby that was secretly circumcised and Shalom Aleichem translated into Russian on a bookshelf. This was of course a distorted and shameful way to preserve one’s national identity, but even a cleaner way does not enthrall me: I will never believe in a direct connection between what is known as a Jewish lifestyle and the choice of Israel. Even if such a connection exists, it goes in the opposite direction.
Ancient traditional Jewish values, such as the study of the Jewish sources and tradition, which incidentally is enjoying considerable popularity among Jewish in post-Soviet Russia, the Jewish family, the aroma of rising bread, which resembles nothing else, and which declares a Jewish home when candles are lit in it every Friday, the Jewish woman, who fulfills in it the role of the sacred icon in a pious corner of the experience… this entire set reminds me of Proust’s famous Madeleine cookies, whose dimensions have been inflated into overall national terms and whose taste and smell are destined to free the national memory and associatively awaken in it a repeated wave of memories and a strong connection to the family embrace.
But as Marcel Proust was needed in order to elevate the value of a cookie to a philosophical one, thus the Zionist challenge is directed at the personality alone, having Kierkegaardian properties: To be yourself means to choose yourself as yourself.”
“Did you lack anything here?” Russian colleagues asked their successful and thriving Jewish friends bitterly and enviously, as the latter chose their suitcases over all the objects of mass consumption.
The social elite is a class of personalities. Only a personality creates culture, and it is only via the culture of the personality (even if what is involved is the personality of the Iraqi tyrant!) can identity bolster itself and occupy the place it deserves. It appears that here of all places, at the most burning point of weltanschauung (“What is a personality?” “What is culture?”), an abyss has formed between Israelis and former Russians so deep and so wide as to be impossible to bridge.
Ariel Sharon once mentioned the Sudetenland in the context of trying to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he talked about the Germans of the Sudetenland and the loss of Czechoslovakia. As usual, the statement by the leader of the nation was immediately met with unbridled contempt. One of the responses not only amazed me, but actually bowled me over: “What does Sharon have to do with Czechoslovakia,” fumed a certain professor of sociology. “If he were from Europe, I could understand it… but he was born in Israel. What does it have to do with him?!”
That is not a political judgment; it is an anthropological one. According to him, humans come from the animal world and descend to the level of plants: Only a plant is exclusively defined in terms of the coordinator points of “here” and “now.”
But wasn’t it our ancestors, who in their early days as shepherds, liberated humanity from the domination of nature and determined that history would from now on be its habitat? And wherever history is, we find that memory, free will and all three tenses dominate: the past – to know; the present – to live; and the future – to overcome death and to continue oneself infinitely into eternity… That is the law of humanity and it applies to all human beings. To say nothing of the personality… In my eyes, the paradox of the personality lies in the fact that it begins in the place where personal experience ends. The value of a human being is measured in this, in what and how much he manages to grasp from the non-personal. No “personal story” can explain War and Peace, or the embodiment of Flaubert in the skin of Madame Bovary or Einstein’s fixation with the secret of space and time.
It is amazing to see the willingness with which everyday Hebrew has given in to the coupling of the word “culture” with the most surprising and unsuitable partners. We have “leisure culture,” “housing culture,” “eating and drinking culture.” And we have recently seen the appearance of even more eccentric cultures, in the form of the “culture of the lie,” and “a culture of deliberately leaking information.” In other words, any social experience that is organized even to the slightest degree is immediately promoted to the level of culture. But this is a dead end, a hopeless situation in which all the passageways are blocked, a retreat to the depths of ancient times.
The mass immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1970s is commonly referred to as an “ideological”, that is to say Zionist, immigration, implicitly condemning or reproaching the waves of immigration that followed it: the “immigration of the fleshpots,” “immigration of refugees,” and so on. But that thing that Israelis are accustomed to mechanically call Zionist ideology in no way resembles what we actually experienced.
I am a person who is very remote from religion, an atheist. I have never needed examples from the Bible to describe my own personal experience. But no explanation other than God's commandment to Abraham – “Go forth!” applies here, although the voice was heard not from without, but from within; and the initial steps had to be taken in that inner space. And what happened afterwards? The world around suddenly began to fade and grow dim before my eyes; the magnificent city in which I had grown up, lived and loved grew uglier day by day. It sank into a series of unattainable experiences that I no longer had any need of. In short, it had become irreversibly alien. The voices of friends who did not hear the command at that time faded away and grew dim, as if they were coming to me from another shore of experience. A long time before I crossed the Soviet border and landed in Lod, I was no longer there or with them.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the early years of what is known as my “absorption” were surprisingly easy. It was not Israel that “absorbed” me; it was I who absorbed it and took it into myself. This is where the exotic resource, which writers and those with an artistic soul are blessed with in especial abundance comes into play: Say what you like, it is an adventure, an event, a leap from the given, loathsome reality into a domain of realized freedom. But understand: This was not an escape from day-to-day life, but rather a new day-to-day, and this time one is at a loss forever.
Maya Kaganskay is an essayist