A strange paradox runs through modern Hebrew literature: The most enduring and iconic expressions of hope depend, at their core, on despair. Or is it the reverse, that the most serious expressions of despair yield the most profound articulations of hope? The historian Simon Rawidowicz perhaps said it best in his famous essay “Israel: The Ever-Dying People”: “We see that not only traditional Judaism, the Judaism of Torah and its commandments, but also so-called modern or secular Judaism tended from its very beginning to consider itself the end — to regard its efforts in various fields of life and thought as those of the last Jews, edging toward the precipice from which there is no return, no second chance for a new struggle.”1 And yet, observes Rawidowicz, “Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew.”2
Nowhere is this curious mix of despair and hope more evident than in “Tikvateinu” (1886), the poem by Naftali Tzvi Imber (1856-1909) that served as the basis for Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” The original “Tikvateinu” included ten stanzas that supply a seemingly endless list of conditions according to which “our hope has not yet been lost”: “od lo avdah tikvateinu.” For example, as long as a Jewish soul still yearns and looks toward Zion; as long as tears flow from our eyes like benevolent rain, and throngs of Jews still visit the graves of their forefathers; as long as Jews still imagine the Western Wall and weep over the destruction of the Temple; as long as the waters of the Jordan and the Galilee continue to flow abundantly and the daughter of Zion weeps among the ruins; as long as pure tears flow from the eyes of the daughter of our nation and that this same daughter rises in the middle of the night to mourn Jerusalem; as long as blood still flows in the veins of the Jew and dewdrops fall on Jewish graves; as long as love for the Jewish nation still throbs in the heart of the Jew — then we still have reason to hope. Note the recurrent references to tears, graves, and ruins, as if to suggest that a consciousness of death and destruction is the very precondition of hope. The very phrase “od lo avdah tikvateinu” calls to mind death as well as rebirth, insofar as it alludes to Ezekiel’s exilic prophecy of the resurrection of the dry bones. Some of the conditions set by the poem seem involuntary, even assured: the natural rush of water in the Jordan River and the Galilee, the flow of blood in one’s veins, and the falling of dew on the gravestones. And yet even these lines conceal a pessimistic counterimage: the potential depletion of water in an arid, rain-starved land, and the spilled blood of Jews in graveyards. The poem insists that hope will abide so long as Jews continue to weep for and love one another.
In contrast to Imber’s poem, which imitates Jewish liturgical poetry in its use of the first-person-plural voice, Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) employed a first-person-singular form for his famous, oft-sung poem “Ani Ma’amim” (“I Believe”). The poem, best known by its first line, “Sahki, sahki al hahalomot” (“Laugh, laugh at the dreams”), acknowledges cynicism and despair even as it asserts enduring hope. Others, including the speaker’s lover, who is addressed directly in the poem, may laugh at and mock his dreams, but the poet-speaker will continue to believe in his lover and his friends, and thus in all of humankind — in universal dreams of freedom, equality, and peace. Only after asserting these universalistic principles does the speaker mention the Zionist Jewish dream of national return and regeneration. There is nothing particularly religious about Tchernichovsky’s
poetic proclamation of hope, though the title of the poem calls to mind Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith.” Here, the very idea of universal hope takes the place of Jewish religion, a clinging to dreams in the face of harsh, late-nineteenth-century reality. Tchernichovsky’s poem ends with a hopeful image of Jewish continuity: After the death of the founding generations of Zionists, a younger poet will sing a new song and lay a wreath on the old poet’s grave. Both “Hatikvah” and “Ani Ma’amin” are poems that defined early Zionism, and they have been sung by Israelis quite literally as anthems of hope. But did the dream of continuity bear fruit? Did all that singing beget a new generation of hopefuls? A recent story by Amos Oz, “Sharim” (“Singing,” in the collection Scenes from a Village) portrays a family whose teenage son had shot himself to death under the parents’ bed inviting members of the village to a monthly sing-along evening where they sing, among other Israeli favorites, Tchernichovsky’s “Ani Ma’amin” — a disturbing image, to be sure.
Consider another short story, by contemporary Israeli writer Etgar Keret (b. 1967) entitled “Hahomer Shemimenu Asuyim Hahalomot” (“The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of”). The title of Keret’s story alludes to Prospero’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” on the ephemeral nature of all dramas, dreams, and lives. Was the hope of secular Zionism but a fleeting modern Jewish dream? In Keret’s story, two young Israeli men, presumably after their army service, travel to Koh Samui, Thailand, where they buy a tube of “the stuff that dreams are made of.” All they have to do is rub this stuff on their eyelids, and they begin to dream — while awake. One of the men, Amir, dreams that he becomes an international commercial success; the other, Etgar, dreams that his ex-girlfriend dumps her new boyfriend, a law clerk, and returns to him forever. The latter dream immediately brings to mind the last line of the refrain of Tchernichovsky’s “Ani Ma’amin” — “ki odeni ma’amin bakh,” “Because I still believe in you.” Except that here, dreams disappoint. The two friends are so assured of the power of the Thai “stuff” to deliver one’s hopes and dreams, they buy several crates of it and export them to Israel, only to discover that the stuff provokes dreaming only for them. The story suggests that the collective (Zionist) hope is over; the story ends with Amir resting his head on the counter and Etgar mourning his ex-girlfriend’s marriage to the law clerk.
And yet, there is something so endearing and hopeful about Keret’s vigorous imagination and unflagging sense of humor. One after another, his postmodern stories depict an Israeli embrace of the Yiddish image of the schlemiel; they suggest an enduring, exilic Jewish hope that dreams are ever-dying, therefore never actually dead, therefore very much alive and rising. By the end of the story, the tube of “stuff” no longer works at all, even on them; “It might as well have been hummus.” Somehow, it’s being hummus seems good enough for us readers — reason enough to continue hoping and laughing along.
1 Simon Ravidowicz, “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” in State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People” (Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Mass., 1998), p. 58.
2 Ibid, p. 63.