Middle Land and God Wrestler

Jared Gimbel
December 11, 2013
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A Chinese Character that graces language menus and restaurant signs everywhere to indicate the world’s most commonly spoken language is a simple one: a rectangle split with a line down the middle:

This simple sign, similar to that of a cake being cut, is an interesting psychological gem. The Scandinavians may refer to their region as Norden (the North), and the Norwegians in particular would be Nordmenn (People of the North). South Africans have the opposite phenomenon.

China’s name for itself predated these directional complexities. China is the middle, the big line cutting through the middle of the cake—a cake that could be planet earth. All other nations are to be found on either side of that line.

When I was at a conference in Stockholm once, I was told by one of my colleagues who lived in China that the Chinese mind recognizes three types: Chinese, Jews, and Everybody Else.

While this is an obvious blanket statement with equally obvious exceptions, one would wonder why a country with 20% of the world’s population would see the Jews as something special.

And this takes us to a very different country, one that whose name is not a geographical description (as Mitzraim, or Egypt, would be “The Thin Country”) or a nation named after a river (such as today’s Kingdom of Jordan), but rather “He Shall Wrestle with God” (Yisrael).

But there are three categories termed “God Wrestler”: Am Yisrael (the “Ethnos” that wrestles with God), B’nei Yisrael (The Sons, or the bloodline, that wrestle[s] with God) and Medinat Yisrael (the State that wrestles with God).  These are not the same things, although they do have elements (and people) in common.

The God of Israel is regularly extolled as the One who “chose us from all the nations” in the Torah Reading Service, but given as Judah and Israel were between Mesopotamia and Egypt, the idea of them being a “Middle Country” was not something to be pointed out…or desired.

Instead, with so many rulers who did “what was evil in the Eyes of the Lord” with as many prophets who admonished them and just as many exceptions to all of these norms, the Children of Israel had mastered an art, one which it continues to this very day: arguing with God, wrestling with the realities of the world He created, privileges of the claim of being chosen.

Chinese-Jewish relations have been often covered in Jewish magazines of all political stripes. While all friendships (between nations and people alike) usually come with problematic dimensions, problems in this friendship are almost completely ignored in the Israeli press as well as by Jewish Diaspora authors.

A deep textual tradition unites both of these peoples, as well as elements and idioms from an ancient past that have overtly crept into the 21st century. Reminiscing on older times and significant changes comes easily to both.

But at the heart of the friendship lies a tension: The Middle Land has a confidence and strength gained by size and prestige, the God Wrestler had mustered its confidence from a tradition of texts that reflected an underdog status, a constant pessimism and stream of rebuke.

There are friendships that cannot work because the two parties are two similar, and there are friendships that cannot work because they are too different from each other, but between the Middle Land and the God-Wrestling nations, the balance seems entirely perfect.

No wonder these friends enjoy talking to each other.

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Jared Gimbel is the founder of “Present Presence,” an initiative devoted to fostering positive images of communities throughout the Jewish Diaspora to North American and Israeli Audiences. He is currently a Masters Degree Candidate at Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg, and has been a Jewish community activist while living in the United States, Israel, Poland, Sweden and Germany. Jared has served as a tour guide, editor and translator at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Cracow, and was also a fellow at the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. In 2011 he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on non-human species in European mythologies, and his upcoming Masters’ Thesis focuses on perspectives and portrayals of Jewish Life in Finland and in Greece. When he’s not working, he enjoys collecting pop music from many different countries, and is always in the process of learning a new language.

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