Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
How I Chose to Come Here

Two women directed me to a hostel owned by a man called Machover on the other side of the large courtyard. I crossed over and entered the inn. There I was received by the innkeeper himself, a middle-aged man with a distracted expression and a thick beard.

“Can I put up here until after Passover?” I asked him.

Instead of replying, he asked me in a low and mysterious voice, “Running away from the priziv [military service]?”

His tone struck a sympathetic chord. To tell the truth, I had not prepared any story beforehand. But his implication spared me the trouble.

“Yes, from the priziv,” I replied.

He smiled, and gestured with his hand, as though to say: “It’ll be all right.” . . .

The next day the mistress of the house said to me: “My son Elie will soon be coming home for Passover, and then things will be gayer.” At the same time she informed me that her Elie was the manager of the diligence office in Nevel. . . . The name Nevel burst upon me like a thunderclap. For I immediately remembered who the junior Machover was.

At Succoth time—that is, a half year before—Zilstein and I had visited Trotsky and Yonovitz in Nevel, in the province of Vitebsk, and the whole town had buzzed with our visit. After all, we teachers were a kind of government official, and we paraded around looking every bit the part in our blue cockaded caps. The most important householders in Nevel had invited us to visit them at home at various times during our stay. Things had been lively. When we walked down the street people used to stop and stare at us. So there was no question in my mind now but that the junior Machover had seen me more than once. Besides, when we left Nevel he had sold me the ticket to travel by diligence (as far as Vitebsk). Nor was there any doubt in my mind but that he had heard of my having run away from Velisz, for Nevel is in the same province, and the exciting news had probably reached thither.

It was logical to assume that when the junior Machover found me in his father’s home he would become frightened and tell his parents who I was. Most likely the family would ask me to leave. Whether or not they did so, it was not desirable for me to be recognized. . . .

[Nevertheless] I decided to stay on. If Elie should recognize me I would deny that I was myself. At that time I looked much different from the way I had in Nevel, not at all the government official. En route I had had a hair-cut that left my sidelocks unshorn. I now looked like a respectable young man of the old-fashioned school. So, at least, I thought. Whenever I looked in the mirror I was delighted with my reflection. Yet, at the same time, I experienced a pang at my yeshiva bocher appearance.

So I decided to appear before Elie in my false identity of Lipschitz, and act as though I had never heard of anyone called Cahan.

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II

One afternoon (it was almost Passover time), Mirel [the Machovers’ eldest daughter] came into my room with a shining face. She had happy news for me: Elie had arrived! I hope that what I wished her never came true. . . .

Putting on an expression of the greatest delight, I went to present myself, Mirel going ahead of me. As I strode through the hallway, I saw to it that my trousers were correctly thrust into my boots; I wound my scarf around my neck, and pushed my hat back so that the curly earlocks would show. I was almost positive that I would pass, for, after all, Elie was not personally acquainted with me. What if he had seen me a couple of times on the street, and again when I had taken the diligence for Velisz at his ticket office? My appearance had then been quite different.

I remembered him quite well, for I have a good memory for faces. Besides, he had an unusual appearance; it was easy to recognize him, for he was exceptionally short, and had a roly-poly face, pug nose, and blond beard. His diminutive stature was enough to provoke attention. . . .

“Here is the young man,” the senior Machover said to his son. . . .

Elie actually blanched with amazement.

What did you say your name was?” he asked.

“Lipschitz,” I replied, looking him straight in the eye.

His glance flew to my boots, my hat, my sidelocks. “Weren’t you in Nevel a few months ago?” he asked, in confusion.

“Where’s that—Level?” I asked, in mock ignorance.

Then he turned to his father. “If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I could have sworn that this man was Cahan, the teacher from Velisz.”

“What’s that you say?” I asked again, wearing an expression of curiosity. “Cahan?”

He told me . . . about Cahan and Zilstein and their friends, the teachers of Nevel, and how they had passed Succoth week together; how the householders of the city had entertained them, and what a lively young fellow that Cahan was. . . .

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There was a young man from Nevel called Tropanov who used to frequent the Machovers’; he was studying at a school for healers in Mohilev. Elie had brought him regards from his parents, and Tropanov now visited him daily. When he heard that 1 resembled a school teacher called Cahan who had spent a week in his native city, and that this Cahan had been invited to all the important homes, he began to ask the Machovers whether Cahan had not been invited to his father’s house as well, and that turned out to be the case.

Tropanov was very homesick, and the fact that I resembled a man who had visited his father’s house was enough to interest him in me. He began to tell me all about Nevel. In turn I asked him about the school for healers where he was studying. Thus we became closer acquaintances. . . . Tropanov was avid for my friendship, and made me his most intimate confidant. So it came about that Tropanov once told me in confidence that there was a man called Belkin who had come to Mohilev to register young men who wished to go to Palestine.

“I am telling you this because I know you’re no ordinary man,” he explained to me. “You don’t think I really believe that you are running away from the priziv? Tell me, who are you?”

He assured me that he could keep a secret. But I denied that I had any secrets, and aloofly poked fun at his suspicions. But I did want to see Belkin. So I asked him to bring Belkin to see me.

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III

1 The columns of the Russian Jewish weeklies Rusky Ievrei, Rozsviet, and Vozchod were at that time full of debates between proponents of two parties, the “Americans” and the “Palestinians.” This was after the series of pogroms which broke out in southern Russia in 1881, on the heels of the assassination of Alexander the Second by terrorists belonging to the revolutionary Narodnaya Volya (“Back to the People”) movement. As a result of these pogroms a section of the young Jewish intellectuals concluded that Russia could never be a home for Jews, and that it was necessary to find a true home for the Jewish people elsewhere. But where? Some were for America, others advocated Palestine.

Here is an incident typifying the mood of many young Jewish intellectuals at that time. A group of Jewish university students entered a synagogue in Kiev that was crowded with melancholy, tearful worshipers. One of the students, a slim young man called Alenikov, took the dais and addressed the audience in Russian:

“We are your brothers. We are Jews like you. We regret that until now we have always considered ourselves Russians, and not Jews. The events of the past few weeks—the pogroms in Yelizavetgrad, in Balta, here in Kiev, and in other cities—have convinced us that we were terribly wrong. Yes, we are Jews.”

It is unnecessary to describe the effect of these words on the Jewish community.

These students belonged to the “American” party. The nationalist movement began to make inroads among young Russian Jewish intellectuals at that time. Some of them became so ardent in their convictions that they practically stopped speaking Russian altogether and began speaking Yiddish exclusively, although their Yiddish had deteriorated through disuse. Other enthusiasts discarded their Russian-style names and began to use their Jewish equivalents. Yakov, for example, took to calling himself Yankel; Natasta would answer only to the name of Etel.

However, there were very few such extreme Jewish nationalists, and the proportion of even moderate nationalists to the total Jewish intellectual movement was inconsiderable. It sounds incredible nowadays, but there were some Jewish intellectuals who went so far as to regard the anti-Semitic riots as “a good thing.” Their theory was that the pogroms were the “instinctive” outbreak of the revolutionary Russian masses. The benighted peasants knew that the Czar, his officialdom, and the zhids were blood-sucking parasites. So the peasants of Malorussia [the Ukraine] had attacked the Jewish usurers first of all. The revolutionary flame had first consumed the Jews, but would inevitably fan out to include the chinovnikes [government officials] and eventually the Czar himself.

Such, in brief, was the explanation for the pogroms that many Jewish and non-Jewish revolutionaries offered. Some of the members of the underground Narodnaya Volya movement issued a proclamation to the pogromists in the Ukraine based on the reasoning I have given above. (It was published in the sixth number of Narodnaya Volya, their official organ.) The proclamation concluded by encouraging the pogromists to finish their revolutionary work—the extermination of the Jews was not the final goal. One of the authors of this manifesto was a Jew.

The provinces of Vilna and Vitebsk were some distance from the areas where the pogroms took place. We only heard of them at second hand. But I remember quite distinctly a conversation I had in Vilna with another member of our revolutionary circle. We had read an article about the whole subject of the relation of the pogroms to revolution and I recall that we both agreed with the author of the article that the pogrom had been aimed at Jewish “exploiters,” and was destined to be the first flaring up of that revolutionary flame which would eventually consume the throne, the capitalists, and every form of oppression.

I was then still a raw youth, and had very little knowledge of the world. I read a great deal and felt strongly; but my reading and feelings did not lead me to any clarity of conviction. My opinions were definite, but insubstantial. And, truth to tell, almost the whole revolutionary movement of Russia at that time consisted of raw youths like me; even if our leaders were comparatively mature men, their actions were nevertheless juvenile.

However, not all the revolutionaries interpreted the pogroms as a sign of imminent revolution. Many held a contrary opinion, namely, that the government had itself instigated the pogroms to save the throne from the threat of revolution. That is to say, the spirit of uprising had really expressed itself—but the government had diverted it from its natural channel by making the Jews the scapegoat. The government agents had persuaded the peasants that the Jews, and not the Czar and his despotic, corrupt government, were responsible for the country’s unhappiness.

It was common then and for many years afterward to describe the Russian government’s policy as that of using the Jews as a “lightning rod.” As proof, advocates of this theory cited the fact that in almost all the pogroms the government, instead of dispersing the pogromists or arresting and punishing them, actually encouraged and incited them to new acts of terrorism. There were exceptions; but generally speaking the police and other government officials acted outrageously. It was rumored that the new Czar had ordered the peasants to make pogroms against the Jews. The government did not deny these rumors—in many cases it turned out that the leaders of the pogromists were government agents disguised as peasants. Though it would be foolish to say that the government officially organized the pogroms, there can be no doubt that unofficially the police and many government agents directly or indirectly encouraged them after they had once broken out. Thus the first pogrom, which took place in Yelizavetgrad, was certainly unpremeditated. It began with a conflict -between a Jewish innkeeper and a drunken peasant. But the attacks on Jews immediately spread to other localities; many people argued that the government had seen the Yelizavetgrad pogrom as offering it a good opportunity, and had, directly or indirectly, sanctioned the pogroms in other cities and towns. And indeed there was very convincing evidence that all the anti-Semitic incidents, which fell into a characteristic pattern, bore the imprint of the same hand. . . .

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IV

Two factions had sprung up. One, the “Americans,” believed that Russian Jews should seek a new home in America, the country that was the most prosperous in the world and offered the best prospects for immigrants. The “Palestinians,” on the other hand, agitated for emigration to Palestine, the ancient home of the Jewish people. Israel Belkin was one of the first “Palestinians,” and he had come to Mohilev to register anyone who was willing to accompany him to the land of Israel to establish a colony. He was one of the pioneers of the Zionist movement.

I was a regular reader of the Russian Jewish press, and I had read many articles pro and con on both sides. But I had never really been interested in the subject. Now, however, when Tropanov told me all about Belkin and what he was doing, I was intrigued. Belkin struck me as a mysterious individual, and his registry aroused my curiosity. Besides, I longed for an intimate conversation with an intelligent man. I was isolated from my friends, and this Belkin, an active public figure of the new mold, and an idealist to boot, caught my fancy—he was one of us. Perhaps he could give me some good advice, or the address of a Swiss contact.

The next morning Tropanov appeared with Belkin, who was a medium-sized young man with blond hair and a frank, honest look about him. I asked Tropanov if he would mind leaving us alone for a few minutes, and he left. After a few minutes of conversation Belkin impressed me favorably as a serious man. He explained his idea to me and the plan to emigrate to Palestine. He tried to propagandize briefly, but soon perceived that his words were falling on deaf ears.

By the time we had been together for an hour I had come to feel that this was a man I could trust. So I told him the true reason for my desire to leave Russia. However, I did not go so far as to tell him my plan to get to Poland eventually, and join Yatzkowitz. I merely informed Belkin that I was going to Switzerland, and that I was a Socialist first and foremost and did not believe in the Palestinian solution.

As I remember it, we did not spend much time debating principle. Belkin soon began to appeal to me on the ground of my personal future. I would eventually be coming back to Russia as an illegal with a false passport, and would take part in the revolutionary movement once again. Sooner or later, they would arrest me. I would be committing suicide—and for whose sake? For the Russian peasants, the pogromists! But in Palestine I could help realize an ideal that would bring happiness to my people—at the same time I would not be risking my freedom and life. And if I really wanted to serve my socialist ideal, why was I intent on going to Switzerland, of all places? Why not America?

Belkin then told me that there were many Jewish Socialists who were emigrating from Russia to the United States, with the idea of setting up communes there. He told me some of the details of this plan. I replied that if the Russian people were free and could be told the truth, everything would be different. The Russian people had first to be liberated. Then there would be no more pogroms, and Jews would enjoy the same rights as non-Jews: all men would be free and equal.

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Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the notion of Socialists emigrating as a group to America. I conjured up a fantastic picture of what Socialist life would be like in far-off America, of a society where there was no such thing as mine and thine, where all people would be brothers, and happy. I had used to imagine that such an ideal could be realized only in the dim future. Now I visualized the prospect of Utopia’s being realized immediately—and I would participate!

True, I had read about the “Socialist” communes that Robert Owen had tried to establish and which had failed. But they had all been founded along fallacious lines. On the basis of Belkin’s few words I concluded that the new Jewish colonies in America would realize Socialism as it should be realized. Thus Belkin, the “Palestinian,” made me an “American.” More specifically, he made me enthusiastic over the possibility of establishing Socialist communes in the United States.

What Belkin had told me was that there were thousands of prospective Jewish immigrants to the United States who were gathered in Brod, in Galicia, waiting transportation. These included many Socialists eager to go to America and, in founding Socialist Jewish communes, to begin a new chapter in the life of the Jewish people.

The reasoning behind this project ran something like this: Jews were generally condemned for being merchants, middlemen, and usurers. Well, they would show the world that they could do useful and productive work, preferably on the land. Traditionally, work on the land was considered the most noble kind. Perhaps this idea stemmed from the fact that at that time the largest Jewish populations were concentrated in countries like Russia that were primarily agricultural. The early Russian revolutionaries idealized the peasant as the true provider of Russia. Jews, however, could not and did not work on the land. They were in business, as middlemen for the peasants. Hence in Russia both the “Palestinians” and the “Americans” agreed that the chief hope for the Jewish people lay in their transformation into a people of farmers. They differed only in that the former regarded the land of Israel, and the latter the United States, as the fit place for this transformation to take place.

It would have been dangerous for the Russian Jewish periodicals to have written openly about Socialist communes. That is why I was not aware until I spoke to Belkin that the “Americans” included Socialists who were intent on emigrating to the United States to establish communes there.

Belkin bade me a cordial farewell, wishing me a happy journey to wherever I was going. He left me in a fever of enthusiasm. I walked up and down my room in great emotion. America! To journey to that far, far land! To build a paradise on earth! Men to be transformed into angels! All my earlier plans suddenly fell apart. I felt myself an “American.” I was walking on air.

Right there, in that room in Machover’s inn, my decision was born: I would go to America.

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