It’s About Us: An Exchange Between Ioram Melcer and Michal Levertov

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May 1, 2006
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Dear Michal,
At the age of six I had a lot of questions, and I had some answers too. I had a fairly good idea about the way babies are born, about the shape of the world and its continents, about languages being different and fascinating, about dinosaurs and the atom and about a host of other matters, all vital to me though some were trivial or strange in the eyes of the adults I knew. And then I asked the question: “Mummy, why is it that we hear about the Jews in ancient times and then again only now?” My mother, by then well-versed in being my correspondent, answered after a second or two: “Because the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and we went on exile for 2000 years until we returned to Israel.” Back then, it was 1969, we were living in Honduras, since my father was working for an Israeli company that was building the main road there. I grew up bilingual, in Hebrew and Spanish, and this conversation about Jewish history was held in Spanish. I must have asked for further details, since in two or three sentences I heard that we were expelled from Spain in 1492 and that Hitler had killed six million of us just a few decades ago. The main point sunk in instinctively: it was all about “us” the Jews. We had seen the Temple burn, we had gone on exile, we had been forced to leave Spain, we had been massacred by the Nazis, and we were returning home, to our homeland.

More than 35 years after receiving my mother’s version of History 101 by shock treatment, my Judaism is still as clear and simple as ever: it’s about “us.” We, the Jews, are that group of people we speak of in the first person plural. And it doesn’t matter if we speak of them across the millennia, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, in the Land of Israel or in the Diaspora. All other matters are secondary, but they are also much more problematic. I wouldn’t dare ask my mother about matters such as conversion, “Who is a Jew?,” the future of Zionism, the Occupied Territories, the unity of secular and Orthodox Jews, and so on and so forth. I know we have problems. I am one of us.

— Ioram

Dear Ioram,
I can definitely relate to your “us” definition, this personal feeling that dives deep into the stormy, multi-currents sea of Judaism. But I need more than that. You see, my own childhood experience was, I think, very different than yours. Born and raised in a kibbutz — a strong, self-assured and, ideologically speaking, homogeneous society — the presence of Judaism as a lively, ongoing ingredient of life, has accompanied me from early childhood.

The message we received was that Judaism is an identity and, as such, it would be better to see it not as a passive thing, but rather as a subject for constant work, preservation, and — at the same time — innovation.

This “work” can be practiced easily in such a community. Holidays, for example, were never just gathering and eating as experienced by many Israeli families. Holidays also had nothing to do with praying or attending a synagogue. (We simply did not have one.) Holidays were grand communal celebrations, intently representing a deep connection between historical events, nature’s seasonal circles (and their agricultural impact), and the holiday’s social-cultural implications as interpreted by the members of the kibbutz.

Pesach, for instance, was the primal holy day of freedom, revival, and emancipation. Purim was a celebration of artistic creativity and Sukkot a reflection on the equality of humankind. All festivities were accompanied by music, reading of old and modern Hebrew texts, dramatization of historical and biblical events, and other innovative activities.

I left the kibbutz many years ago. Many aspects of that life that were distasteful: the total lack of privacy, the monolithic thinking, the arrogance of a society as it tries to implement utopia. But the search for redefining Jewish identity is something I continue to value. My Judaism needs concrete content. I can’t seek it in synagogues, as I’m not religious. I won’t seek it in gestures of yiddishkeit, as they feel like empty symbols to me. I am seeking it in culture, in the Hebrew language, in idioms. I pursue it in my political activities, in my work, and in my endless arguments with friends who purport different views on the nature of Judaism. My Judaism has more questions than answers, and it is anything but clear and simple. But just as any other component in my circle of identities (Israeli, woman, Zionist, humanist), I want it to be like that.

Fondly, Michal

Dear Michal,
Though our childhood experiences were indeed different, that difference is less than might be construed given our different surroundings and social contexts. Reading your letter made me realize again that though the kibbutz is disappearing as a distinct phenomenon, it has influenced much of what is Israeli, including the Jewish quality of our upbringing. Yes, I can call it “our” upbringing — yours and mine — and I can say so from my present perch as an Israeli parent. Much of what you experienced on kibbutz as Judaism is what I — in the 1970s in Haifa — and my children today encounter in school beginning with kindergarten. Through both formal and informal education, my four children, ages five to seventeen, are breathing in a Judaism that is virtually identical to what you describe.

I only detect changes that reflect change in Israeli society — the treatment of minorities, the place of women, the handing-down of the Jewish canon, links between religious and national identity. This of course means that much of the “packaged” Judaism being taught is half-frozen. I suppose this is a natural process, allowing the next generation to weigh in and shape the discussion, thawing some parts and remoulding them while keeping other parts “as is.” This is the foundation of a living culture. In Israel, we tend to take it for granted.

Yet this does not summarize my Judaism. Far from it. Beyond approaching political, social, and moral issues with a set of tools influenced by Jewish sensibilities, my identity as a Jew is primarily based on connecting with the canon of texts and learning linked with the Hebrew language. I live in a constant state of thirst for Jewish learning, for absorbing the ancient texts, and for engaging in the ancient, perpetual discussion that stems from the text. Hillel, Honni, Rabbi Akiva, Spinoza, Yosef in Egypt, Isaac being sacrificed, the prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, poor King Saul, Buber and Agnon, Freud and Einstein, Ruth the Moabite and Job scratching his flesh… the list could go on and on for pages. Some of these texts are part of our mythology; others are part of our history. All speak to us and invite us to engage. I will always yearn to discuss, argue, agree, laugh, cry, and be moved by them. They influence the fullness of Jewish discussion — from halakhah to humor. Our stories are our Judaism — regardless of any forced social, historical, or ethnic subdivision.

Warmly, Ioram

Dear Ioram,
Indeed the role of those texts and stories in shaping our agnostic or secular Jewish culture is huge. The yearning for them is a healthy, natural feeling; it’s a craving for the familiar, for a canon of thinking and writing whose echoes and melody we’re happy to find in different aspects and layers of our contemporary lives as Israeli Jews. They are embedded everywhere: in Hebrew discourse, in academic syllabi, in newspapers, jokes, or simply in the excavation of a phrase or thought. These stories and texts connect us to our legacy; they capture the heart and widen the mind. They enable us to feel that although we live in a young state and although it sometimes seems that everything must be built from scratch, we actually hold, in our emotional and cultural warehouses, a huge and wonderful stock of building blocks with which to pave our own paths for the evolution of our culture.

However, as important and influential as those stories are, they are sealed. They were added to the canon by our ancestors, and while they might be great building blocks for our highways, it’s for us to choose (and sometime build) the vehicles, the directions, and even the speed with which we ride these roads.

And here is a troubling question — what, in the vast variety of contemporary Jewish writing, really touches the core of our identity as Israeli secular Jews? Do the heroes in Philip Roth’s books — with their sharp, complicated, stratified neuroses — touch our mental conflicts more acutely than the characters of the young author and journalist Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab whose struggle for self-definition lays solemnly on inquiring and mirroring our Israeli-Jewish perception? Does the vigorous debate on women learning, taking place today within growing Israeli religious circles, shake my perspective more than the abortion controversy taking place in the U.S.? Or, what embarrasses me more: Natan Shcharansky’s “Town Square Test” theory, which has regretfully influenced George W. Bush, or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s outrageous verdicts regarding women, non-Jews, and the authority of Israel’s court of law?

I don’t know what will enter my Israeli-Jewish canon. I can say only that the heap of books laying on my night table includes novels by Auster, Rushdie, and Roth, a history book on Russia, and a provocative biblical research paper by a couple of prominent Israeli professors called “That’s Not What the Good Book Says.” And since my bed-time reading tends to be escapist, the history book and the three novels will be read first, as they illuminate distant worlds. The biblical research, in spite of its intriguing charm, will be read last. Clearly a Jewish text, it’s not escapist enough to put me to sleep.

Yours, Michal

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Ioram Melcer, born in Haifa in 1963, holds degrees in Computer Science, Linguistics, History, and Philosophy. He translates literature from Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Catalan and has published four books: Snow in Albania (stories), Does Lisbon Exist? (essays), Hibbat Zion (novel), and Pelé: A God in flesh and blood (socio-biographical essay). He writes a column about language in the literary supplement of Haaretz and is a regular contributor in Spanish to the cultural supplement of the daily El País in Uruguay.

Michal Levertov, a former journalist and strategy consultant for political and non-governmental organizations, lives in Tel Aviv.

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