Commentary Magazine


Custom and Costume A Story

I am a professor of Jewish Studies at a very respectable American university. So it is not unusual that I found myself at a certain stage in my life becoming more and more intrigued (obsessed, I might say; compelled is, perhaps, too strong; yet it is a correct description for the feelings that swayed me some of the time) with an interesting possibility. The more intrigued I became, that is to say obsessed, or compelled, the more the possibility magnified itself into the grander proportions of probability. However, the only way in which a probability can be reduced (or enlarged, depending upon one’s point of view) to a certainty, is by proof. And therefore it was in search of the evidence I needed that I took leave from my duties at the university and flew to Israel.

I knew that Israelis dressed in a very casual fashion. That members of the Knesset—or parliament—often found an open-necked sports shirt and slacks sufficient clothing in which to carry on the affairs of government. I recognized the leveling and liberating nature of this behavior. And, while I was quite aware that climate had not a little to do with it, this realization could not prevent me from experiencing a great admiration toward the people of Israel. Too long, it had been my feeling, had Jews been unable to wear garments of the soil. Their dress had not fit their habitude. Nor, unfortunately, had they wanted it to. It is, of course, no accident (if I may be permitted a slight bit of pedantry) that the word habit refers to both costume and custom. It is natural that the two should match. Yet, this was an interrelationship that Jews in the past had not had.

I do not mean by the aforementioned to plead a people’s cause, or to lament their past. I only mention it for one reason. Perhaps two. The second—and I hope the one of lesser importance—is that I am an academician, and a historian at that; or a scholar, if I may be permitted to say so myself. Which means that I have been conditioned for many years to think in terms of antecedents, consequences, conditions, and implications. I think often in origins and developments. That is, to make a pun, my habit. I cannot quit so easily. My habit also is always to wear a suit, and usually a dark one. This mode of dress is appropriate to my calling. So, there again, costume and custom. Which relates to the important reason why I even bother to bring up the subject of dress. Simply, I wanted to blend in. I wanted to appear, at least outwardly, like a typical Israeli. Why I felt this deception (as some might call it) was necessary, should become evident later.

Since I arrived at Lod airport with the intention of presenting the appearance of any Israeli, there was no need for me to bring my American suits, shirts, and ties along. I would purchase what I needed in Tel Aviv. Consequently, aside from underwear and handkerchiefs and personal accessories, my suitcase was packed with manuscripts. These manuscripts were in the nature of diaries, autobiographies, clippings of articles from American-Jewish newspapers, and notes I had taken during interviews, which some distinguished American-Jewish psychoanalysts had been kind enough to grant me. Each source touched on a similar very strange phenomenon. Some, to be sure, were questionable. Some unreliable. Some, to say the least, highly suspect. Some dealt with the subject in great depth. Some, indeed, could scarcely direct their attention away from it. They were—and I do not, by any means, use the word lightly—haunted. Still, others only mentioned it in the most perfunctory way. Nonetheless, each document, in its own way and from a unique perspective, cast some light on the same mysterious problem.

It was, as a matter of fact, as I stepped my feet down for the first time on Israeli soil, that I could add my own, non-academic, non-objective experience to the data already assembled in my suitcase. It was the end of March; the last day, in fact; and the first day of Passover. (This was in 1969.) I recall that there was a delicious flavor threading the air. I am an ignoramus when it comes to botany (spending so much time, as I do, in my office and classroom). Yet I knew that this redolence was of honeysuckle; for it reminded me of my youth. I was born in Vilna in a time when even the city could be considered a suburb, in that it had a rural quality. One felt, even when in the heart of the city, that one was still surrounded by countryside. One could breathe in nature through his lungs. It was the air of a pre-industrial world. (I am aware, of course, that Israel is not an underdeveloped country, that it has factories and a highly skilled technological elite. The air that surrounds Lod airport was, nonetheless, pre-industrial.)

The scent of the air, perhaps, made me feel as a child. But I am sure that it does not explain the sensation I am about to report. As I have mentioned, this was Passover. So the airport and its grounds were filled with thousands of people. There were crowds of Israelis who had come to meet their relatives from the Diaspora, especially America. There were brothers screaming for brothers; sons shouting for fathers, and vice versa; grandparents embracing their children’s children for the first time. It was an international family homecoming; a reunion that in many cases must have spanned the chasm of a three-generation separation. A meeting of—at least in my experience—unprecedented proportions. Its enormity has even caused me to have a recurrent dream. A very symbolic one. I see half-people approaching one another. A man without arms, but with powerful legs and a generous, blushing, full face rushes toward the open arms of a pale, sad-faced man in a wheelchair. There are other unions as well, some sadder, more pathetic; many more that are joyous and inspiring. But, being a scholar, a man who proceeds on facts (even today), I am not inclined toward or talented in describing affairs mystically, or supernaturally. So I will describe no more. The closest I will come is to say that custom and costume were reuniting. Mystical sociology at best. Yet, there was a moment at Lod; more real than, yet unreal as, my dream—it was very brief; instantaneous—where everywhere I looked the people embracing looked alike. The resemblances seemed perfect. When the age difference was immense, as with grandparents and their grandchildren, the child would appear to me as a perfect representation of how the old person would have looked in his European youth, in the old country. Astounding. And many of the people holding each other were most certainly not even related. My data were now no longer only in my suitcase. They had extended to my brain.

But I was fatigued. It had been an extremely long flight. Perhaps—and I recall my reservations—these were merely altered images. Perhaps they represented a false creation of wish fulfillment on my part. I wondered whether I had not come under the spell which is an occupational hazard in my line of work; a force which has corrupted many good minds: that of being moved. Being moved away from dead center by the accounts of witnesses. Was I taking sides? Was I being transformed by the evidence? My images, I cautioned myself, might certainly be a creative way for my subconscious to be saying that a Jew was a Jew, ultimately, despite the heterogeneous history of nations. Until that moment, I had not been aware that a very substantial and influential part of me desired the accounts to be true. Altered images, in any case, I consoled myself, were more philosophical and real than hallucinations. The existential, or metaphysical, is always a welcome relief from the psychological. Even at the very least, I could satisfy myself that I remained sane and healthy.

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Hyman say swore he saw neither an image nor an hallucination. I will let him speak for himself:

. . . “Rega, rega [Wait, wait]!” the man called. The word was not familiar, nor the tone, which was a high-pitched mixture of order and plea. Yet I felt as though I had heard this man speaking before. Somewhere, sometime in my life. As I turned there was no longer anyone screaming. So I had no way of knowing who it had been from among the hundreds of people walking and running in the street. Most likely he had boarded the bus.

Two days later, the same voice wept. “For this I came here. For this. All the way. All the waiting. All the money. All I lost. . . . For this!” Then he looked at me. Directly up at me. My head held itself rigid, as though it was clamped tightly within a vise. “Where are my children?” he cried. To me! To me? His lament and his question were in Yiddish. His clothing was torn and very old and ill-fitting. It seemed as though he had worn them since the day of his immigration. He was curled up in the middle of Jaffa Street. His blood was on his wretched clothes, and on the fender of the car which had struck him. He moved his lips, but I heard nothing. I bent closer. Down to him. He reached up and grabbed at my lapels, trying to pull himself to me; or to bring us together. He was ME! He was ME! The clothes and the dirt and the blood and the language did not matter. He was me! how could I be mistaken? We were face to face in those moments that extinguished rapidly with his death.

Mr. Say tells us in the next paragraph that the man had no identification on his person, and that no one—neither friends nor relations—claimed his body. It was Mr. Say who paid for the man’s funeral.

Hyman Say was a wealthy American furrier (Say & Co. of New York) and a noted philanthropist. (He is the Say of the famous Say Library at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.) His story must therefore be given a great deal of credence. Mr. Say died in 1967. The foregoing account is taken from his autobiography, Mr. Chinchilla (p. 182).

Dr. Irving Kahnweiler, the respected psychoanalyst and author (Proust: Marcel or Moishe? Heine: Heinrich or Haym?) and, above all, my dear friend, considers Mr. Say’s experience in a clinical light. In the concentration camps, the furrier had lost, among other members of his family, an older brother named Willy. As a child in Warsaw, Hyman had looked up to Willy. He had attempted to emulate him. But, as always, this was impossible. For where Willy was powerfully built and athletically inclined, Hyman was frail. While Willy was extroverted, Hyman was retiring. And where Willy was a promising Talmudic student, Hyman had set assimilation as his goal; perhaps as compensation for the inadequacies he felt in all the other areas. This was why, when the opportunity presented itself, Hyman emigrated to America, where, it was reported, acculturation to a relatively traditionless society could more easily be accomplished. Perhaps, also, Hyman wished to escape a daily life in which he constantly walked around in his brother’s shadow (see Mr. Chinchilla, pp. 22-37).

Irving feels, therefore, that as the younger brother became more and more a success in this country, achieving his original goals, he grew more and more guilty about abandoning his brother and his background which he both loved and hated. Perhaps, as Irving notes (“Schizophrenia as Visual Time Preference,” Journal of Popular Psychopathology, XXVI, 6/65, pp. 102-13), the man who was run down in the Jerusalem street did possess some quality, some characteristic, vocal or otherwise, which reminded Hyman Say of his dead brother. Perhaps it was merely that the other man was dying. At any rate, the psychological effect of being in Israel, the new homeland, and of being painfully implored by the bloodied man as he died, triggered a temporary, though acute, schizoid delusion.

Though my interpretation was guided by Irving’s at one time, I now disagree. Mr. Say himself decided that the dying man, purely and simply, resembled him. No more, no less. This opinion was doubtless based upon a recollected confrontation, however; upon a memory tranquilized by the distance of a decade. Yet the philanthropist obviously considered the affair significant enough to merit telling in his life story. One wonders.

As I have said, however, in the beginning I was inclined to go along with Irving. My studies of Jewish and German literature, and of Heinrich Heine particularly (who suffered in a tug-of-war between the two throughout his life), has taught me that the image of the double—or Doppelgänger—was not an uncommon theme. Nor was it unique in mythology. The Jews of Northern Europe had for centuries told myths of the Golem, who could be created by a Wonder Rabbi in the image which the creator wished (which was often his own). But this was literature and folklore. And though in many ways the two are mirrors of society as it exists, they are translucent and refracting ones. They do not reflect the actual world. Hyman Say had seen his double. And I, personally, had seen hundreds. Hyperbolic anticipation? After all, I had not viewed my own.

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I walked along the boulevards of downtown Tel Aviv. Ben Yehuda Street has outdoor cafés and expensive clothing stores. Alien-by Street too. It has hippies, who look exactly like the long-haired students I often teach. (I would not, certainly, consider this as Doppelgänger evidence, except of course sociologically.) The city has soldiers. Very young ones. They are everywhere. There are uncountable old people too. The sea front has enormous white, glass, sand and sea-glazed hotels. It is in stretches like Miami on the Mediterranean. I saw the photograph, enlarged, plastered on a granite wall, of a famous general. The man is a hero, and the sight of his face called back to my mind the amazing experiences of Leonard Feldgott. (For obvious reasons, this is a pseudonym.) Leonard was—and remains, I presume—a patient of my friend Kahnweiler. He visited Israel in January of 1957, shortly after the ’56 conflict. Leonard had been a counterman in a highly successful Jewish delicatessen in Baltimore for most of his life. He was unmarried, and consequently had been able to save a fairly large sum of money over the years; even from his modest salary. At that time he was fifty years old. He was a shy man, but he was also a person who liked people. He had always been a great lover of sports; especially of boxing, horse-racing, and baseball. Leonard was, on his first day in Tel Aviv, walking along a major street when he was suddenly approached and surrounded by a crowd of boisterous teen-agers. He was, he told Kahnweiler, scared to death. He feared that he had done something wrong. Or that these young men were Arabs. He would have run, but there was no break in the group through which to dart. He shook, and awaited a beating. Then he realized, despite the barrier of language, that he was being cheered. When he could not sign their little books in the way they evidently wished, they left him. But, even so, they were not angry. Time and again, Leonard was involved in similar confrontations. Even his hotel-keeper looked strangely reverent toward the delicatessen counterman. Hundreds of people, every day, mistook Leonard Feldgott for Yoram Barnea, a national hero of the Sinai campaign. Leonard was forced, even, to purchase sunglasses for privacy. But basically he loved being famous, even though his fame was an unearned one. Even though he was a counterfeit hero. Even though the adulation of the masses was misdirected. Leonard told Irving Kahnweiler that he had wanted to spend the remainder of his life in Israel. Where he was a personality. But time continued, and his stockpile of money dissolved, and there were few jobs available for a man who could not learn Hebrew. He simply could not, maybe because of his age, master the language. There was, he admitted, some work available like being a counterman. However, a national hero could not be seen cutting meat with a filthy apron for a uniform. So Leonard returned to America, where he now dreams, in his sleep, that he is a general. But, perhaps because of the language, and perhaps because he is an American, the war in which he fights, and the victories he wins, are in Vietnam . . . not Golan, not Sinai. Leonard’s parents were born in Odessa. General Barnea’s family has its origins there too. Leonard is very unhappy.

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A week of investigations, of genealogies, turned up some clues and curiosities, but nothing nearly conclusive. A golden menorah—given by a Haifa stevedore (he attested to this when I interviewed him) to his less muscular double, a realtor from Shaker Heights, Ohio—proved to have been fabricated in Yemen, of all places; not Lodz, where the mystery surrounding the ancestry of both men appeared at first to have originated. . . . An old man whose eyelids fluttered, and who operated a kiosk in Tiberias, swore he had seen thousands of doubles. He was quick to confirm my every speculation and intimation. He more laughed than spoke his stories. He rocked his head up and down as rapidly as his lids quivered, laughing “Ken, ken [yes, yes],” at every perfect pair I mentioned. He could not be halted. With his tangled chattering he tied me to him, as if with a strong, tight rope. But he was “the madman of Galilee” to everyone who knew him. . . . The great-grandfather of Tami Ilsar, a beautiful social worker from Jerusalem, had the same last name—Blumenthal—as the great-grandfather of Roni Schwartz, an equally beautiful social worker from Pittsburgh. Further investigation, however, showed that one Blumenthal had been a Frankfurter, and the other had lived in Dessau. Beyond that it was impossible to trace. So, the two girls may well be distant relatives. But it is more likely that they are not. . . . I was thinking of the nineteen-year-old Richard Schoenbaum, a conscientious-objector emigré from America, and what he called its “imperialist mentality,” who had met an Israeli man in uniform—a man of nineteen—on the dangerous road to Eilat. Richard had been carrying a backpack and a copy of Alan Watts’s The Book. The soldier, who was Richard in features, was carrying a knapsack and an Uzzi submachine gun. They had talked, but their minds were too far apart to meet. The soldier, Yigal, was now dead. Richard was back in America. I was thinking of Richard and Yigal, and the others at dusk at the Wailing Wall. I was not unhappy; I was not remorseful. There was at least the fruit of sentimentality and nostalgia and sympathy hiding inside my failure to redeem the past. I felt as though, like the Wall, there was a partially visible monument, or remnant, in existence near me. And though it was untraceable and untouchable, the fact that I believed that it was there gave me a secure feeling.

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II

Two securities. There was the sense—I admit vicarious and artificial—of being a pioneer. My clothing was Israeli; its incidental nature had allowed me to question people at their ease; and it also made me feel rugged. The top two buttons of my shirt were undone. I could be Ben-Gurion if I were older. My chest was stung by the surprising sharpness of a faint wind in the air. A wind that I knew had formed a long time ago near Carthage, and had caused men to create images to represent it; to describe its personality; the miracles it performed; the disasters it had caused; from its origins to Babylon. And now, from those regions near Tangier to beyond Teheran, I imagined, it was still trailing. A wind of the ancient past that had never stopped. It produced what seemed like sparks where my open shirt allowed it to touch me. I was not what I usually was. Europe was distant. America did not exist. I felt superior to the hatted, capped, and caftaned Jews praying at the Wall. They were a European sidetrack. Perhaps a derailment. In that moment I felt each of them to be a distortion.

The leader of the distortions, however, had my face. When he turned I saw that. He was bearded, had earlocks, a fur hat, and a long black coat; but his face, plainly, was mine. It was as if he had turned for only one reason: to humble me from my delusions of grandeur; from my identification with a monumental and infinite wind. For as soon as I had made the recognition, he faced the Wall again and continued his swaying and his praying. And I was left, dumbfounded, to stare at the rocking of his back.

Understandably, I forgot myself and the sacred character of my location, and I ran to him. I grabbed him and wheeled him around. His coal eyes frightened me. They were like mine. But deeper and steadier and stronger; if only because the total blackness of his wardrobe supported them. (Kahnweiler says, in my subconscious, the heavy black clothes became the source of the essence of his eyes. Much as the ocean may be the source of a lake, or bay, or river.) He said “Mah [What]?”, somewhat disturbed, but not perplexed, as I certainly would have been if the circumstances had been reversed. (As, of course, they were; though they were not.) But before I could compose myself enough to be able to say a word, my arms were yanked behind me and pinned firmly together. And, freed from me, he departed, followed by about thirty Hasidim. When he was safely away, the two disciples released me. I was frustrated and confused, but not angry. I should have known better. I had violated the sanctity of a shrine. I was lucky I had not been stoned. (These people had certainly been known to do that.) So, not surprisingly, the disciples refused to enlighten me as to the identity of their master.

Nonetheless, it was only the next day that I heard my voice singing. (I am not a singer. As a child I vocalized often, both popular songs and Yiddish melodies. But when the time for my Bar Mitzvah drew near, the cantor of our synagogue had advised my parents and myself that my vocal cords were not properly suited for that beautiful activity. It would be better, he suggested, if I recited—as a lecture, as a reading—my portion of the Sabbath Torah. I did so. No one was disappointed. Nor, I cannot forget, was anyone moved—excepting my parents. I have not sung since. I dream of it often, however.) My voice cried, and it was answered by a congregation of cries. It was a reaching voice. It reached me nearly a kilometer away. It searched up high. It repeated itself. It came down to earth. It was joined by its followers. It pleaded and it laughed. It seemed to do everything. There was no form nor predictability to it. It even talked softly, as in the harmonies one croons to a child, or chants, even lower, in a playful mumble to a loved animal. It was more moving than any singing I have ever heard.

Do not imagine that this was a mystic experience on my part. It simply was not. I heard the Zaddik’s1 voice because I was within its range. I had come to Mea Shearim—the Hasidic community—to find him. He and his people were praying; and I heard them. No. It was not mystic. Yet, how could a voice which I recognized as my own unmelodious one make words climb into music; into music that was exaltation? I thought of that; though I thought little. The circumstances that prevented reason from working should be plain enough.

The voices belonged to the Vilna Rav,2 Jacob Zalmon, and his followers. They continued even as I entered the main room of their house. This area was not very large, and it was poorly furnished. There was only a long wooden table, surrounded by a large assortment of both wood and metal chairs; no two of them matching. Most of the metal chairs were green, and they were marred by scratches. The table and the other chairs had surfaces like a battlefield. They were scuffed and scraped and pocked with craters and deep ridges. On the floor lay an Oriental rug which had been worn down to thin shreds. It was not a delicate room. It seemed to be at once prayer room, dining room, dance hall, and nursery for little children. I say this because each activity which in our own world has a specific time and/or place was proceeding here in the midst of each of the others. So that one could not legitimately state with precision what the major and defining function was. If indeed there was one. (For further information on this state of affairs, as it relates to the Hasidic personality in general, see my article, “Hasidism, Gestalt Psychology, and the Sociology of Knowledge,” Judean Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 41, pp. 206-22.) Babies and children sat and giggled and cried and played with toys, while women, whom I barely saw, tended to them, and as swiftly, disappeared; reappearing when they felt they were needed. Fully-bearded men prayed as much with their feet and their arms and hands, and their hips and shoulders, as with their mouths. There was nothing they did not put into their prayers. Like the children, they had every variety of expression on their faces. Some wept, torrentially I might add, while others were having a wonderful time of it. Some among them—the less coordinated, or the more entranced—stumbled (no wonder the condition of the carpet). Food was being set out by the quickly materializing and vanishing women. All this simultaneously. It was chaotic. My presence, the intrusion of an outsider, in non-religious (sacrilegious to them) clothes, did not seem to affect them. What difference could I make, what threat could my modernity pose, to the devotion and joy of these people, these Jews, like me, but yet dressed in clothing of more than two hundred years past, their ways originating in an environment that had existed beyond the reaches of the farthest outposts of the civilized world? (This is, of course, hyperbole; but it illustrates that blend of admiration and alienation that I felt.) They were indifferent to me. Were they not shocked that I had the same physical countenance as their adored master? No. Nor was Jacob Zalmon at all surprised. When the agitation and dancing had settled and dinner had begun, I had my chance to talk to this Zaddik, who was my double. He had just completed the symbolic act whereby he tasted a portion of each of his people’s food. (See my article, p. 217; this practice is called shirayim. Intellectually, as you can see, I was no naive stranger to this world.) Then he nodded his approval for everyone to eat. What morsels the Rav had taken to his lips they seized and devoured zealously. As though they had been starved for this very occasion. Those bits and pieces, those scraps of matzos and fibers of meat and fish were obviously holy.

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“So, you are here,” he said to me. He was grinning. His attitude I would call one of patriarchal amusement. Splinters of matzos decorated his beard. “So tell me something,” he seemed to say.

I managed to tell him my name and my purpose. He took these in stride; matter-of-factly. To Rav Jacob Zalmon this encounter was neither fantastic nor fearsome; nor did it require an explanation. It was almost, I might say, expected.

I learned that the Zaddik, like me, had been born in Vilna. What else he told me is open to interpretation. It is in the form of parables. I repeat them here, almost word-for-word; for they are difficult to forget:

A man of middle age had walked since the day of his birth with a pronounced and pathetic limp. All his life this infirmity had prevented his performance of endeavors that engaged others naturally. He was a lonely man. Each morning and evening he wished in his prayers for a relief from his isolation. In the morning, since the day, with all its activity, was beginning, he prayed that his leg would cease to be crippled; that it would become normal and healthy. And in the evening, a time when daily chores are done and one’s attention turns to philosophy, the unfortunate wished for a better state of mind, so that he might adjust to his condition, and accept it as part of his life.

One day a miracle-working Zaddik arrived at this suffering man’s village. The man came to the inn where the Rav rested, and pleaded that he might be cured. The Rabbi assented. However, he advised the cripple that he must make a choice as to the direction the miracle would work; the active morning road or the serene way of the evening.

In short, the man could not decide. All his life he had prayed both ways; and so he was attached in his heart to both cures. He could relinquish neither the one nor the other. Thus, the Zaddik was compelled to touch the man on his leg, on his head, and by his heart, thereby granting both desires.

A double, or twofold blessing; or a curse? For now, instead of one man with an unhealthy body and an unhealthy mind, the man was two. One was hearty in physical attributes and the other was content in his mentality. But how was the latter contented? He was adjusted and accepting of a bad leg he no longer possessed. His peace of mind was wasted. And at the same time it did not even exist. His contentment and the subject of his contentment could no longer live together.

* * *

In the age of Adam there thrived a beautiful animal, called a Kolail3 It was swift and graceful and immaculately clean, like a cat. But it was also friendly and benevolent and loving to others, like a dog. With the passing of millennia the growing pains of the Earth caused the land upon which this exquisite creature lived to give way, scattering trees and grass and mountains and Kolailim to distant resting places. In the West, the terrain was rugged and unyielding, so the Kolailim who settled there adapted to it by relying on their swiftness and talents for independence. They became cats. In the East, the land was fertile and abundant, and this allowed community and sharing. The Eastern Kolail lived only on their doglike qualities. And, over the millennia, they did, indeed become dogs.

Yet, though ages and distances and changes of the body and the habits came between them, at night, cats dreamed always of dogs. And always the dogs represented their finest ideals. They longed, in their sleep, to be like dogs. And so, as often happens, since these were not humans, but animals, the cats eventually began to bow down and pray to the image of dogs. In their language, the word for dog grew to become the symbol of God.

And for the dogs, in their own world, the same occurred. Cats were the dreamed objects of worship. [There was a pause here.]

My friend [this was the only time during the story that the Zaddik addressed me], do you know how dogs and cats behave toward each other today?

* * *

A very robust and powerful man had never had his own house in which to live. He traveled all his life. From Mezritch to Lublin to Vilna to Berditchev to Zlotchev he wandered; sometimes up and back; sometimes criss-crossing; sometimes without purpose. He learned through his journeys how to survive from the land; from the beneficence of nature. Yet, though he was a capable master at what he did, he despised it. He would wish one day for a large and beautiful house—it would have to be large, since he was so large, and since he was such a roamer—and he longed for a wife and children. But other days, especially when it was spring, and the foliage weaved brilliantly in the radiance of the sun, he would wish it could be like that always, and that he could accept his homeless fate.

When he met his Zaddik, like the cripple, he could not choose between his two desires. What was the result? The man received the bounty of a wonderful mansion, a wife and two sons, and the unconquerable urge to migrate like the seasons. He never occupied his mansion, never touched his wife, never saw his sons; though he longed for them every moment of his “contented” journeys.

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Rav Jacob Zalmon told me these allegorical tales in the order in which I report them here. (The reader will note, undoubtedly, the similarity between the first and the last. It must have been the Rav‘s intention that the third would take on added meaning through the intervening parable. Perhaps not too unlike the approach spelling-bee competitors often use: pronouncing the word, spelling it out, and then re-pronouncing it.) Upon completing the last parable he abruptly terminated our interview. And, over my understandably weak and confused protestations, I was dismissed. I have never been able to see the Vilna Zaddik or his disciples again. One week after the meeting recounted here, I returned to their synagogue. But it was vacant. I was told by a neighbor that the entire community had transplanted itself to a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community, in the hills south of Lebanon. No such moshav exists.

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Irving Kahnweiler believes psychology has the answers. He has explained to me that I (like Leonard Feldgott, and Richard Schoenbaum, and the others) was experiencing the present through my eyes of the past. That I was taking episodes from earlier years in my life and superimposing them on the world at hand. I saw a Hasidic rabbi; I was impressed by his devotion, his spontaneity, his mastery; I wanted to be like him. So I made of him the person whom I had first emulated as a child. I transformed him into my father. To the argument, why did I not then give Jacob Zalmon my father’s face, instead of my own, Irving presents a facile (I think) reply. He says that I (and Leonard and Richard and the rest) do see myself as my father; or, at any rate, that I want to. The remainder of his answer, anyone with even the rudiments of logic can deduce. Irving does have trouble with the fact that this phenomenon appears to happen solely in Israel. For a solution he resorts to linguistics (for the identity of Fatherland and father) and to the later adventures of Freud into the anthropology of universal guilt (Moses and Monotheism, Civilization and Its Discontents, Totem and Taboo). He invents empty phrases and fills them with important sounds. Irving uncovers “The Praxis of the Expectation of Difference and the Assumption of Identity” (in Psychiatry and Jewish Identity, P. Mandelkron, ed).4 Irving ceases to be a psychoanalyst, and becomes (I am sorry) a dilettante. I will not bother anyone with further details. As far as I am concerned, Irving is pulling rabbits out of hats.

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Sometimes, when I am bent over my papers (on Heine) in the library, a scene snaps into focus between my eyes and my research. Its duration is no more than one or two frames of a cinematic film. But it is long and dramatic enough to leave me with the distinct impression that the daily world in which I work and contemplate is a partial shell. And that I am concurrently existing in another place as well. The sight which cracks the shell is of myself, as Jacob Zalmon, leading an ecstatic Hasidic congregation in prayer. It is a wonderful feeling. I sometimes feel that I am living for it.

Once, I saw my Zaddik self at a moment when he was seeing me. Like facing mirrors, it was endless. For he was watching me observing him, who was watching me, and on and on. That was frightening. It brought me the kind of panic that must only accompany the most infinitesimal of openings into the infinite. A vertiginous nausea overcame me.

I suppose it is when I reflect on that double-faced encounter that I become somewhat insecure, and wonder if, perhaps, Irving is right. Except in reverse. Perhaps, I think, I am a creation projected out from Rav Jacob Zalmon’s “hallucinations,” from his guilt.

Sometimes these thoughts make me very lonely. They sometimes give me the feeling of isolation, of unattachment; even of sterility. They take my Jewishness away (for it suffers by comparison with Jacob Zalmon’s). Yet, there is even a reward in this. For all of these experiences help me with my perspective and penetration as a scholar. I am intimate with the Golem and the Doppelgänger. I understand Heinrich Heine. I can touch them from inside.

_____________

 

P.S. In his recently completed doctoral dissertation (Quantifications and Structuralizations of Cultural Genealogies [unpublished, but soon to be, under the title Traditions and Turnings]), Tahir Edib has noted an interesting occurrence: Jay Goldenhoof, an American of Indian ancestry and a committed Maoist expatriate, swears he met one Tosun Busbecq in a village in Manchuria (its name escapes me). Tosun was a journalist from Istanbul and a loyal Demokrat of the Atatürk persuasion. The two men were identical doubles. American Indians and Seljuk Turks are assumed by anthropologists to have a common racial origin in Central Eastern Asia. They are both Ural-Altaic peoples.

Professor Edib’s discovery is now leading me toward a theory of universality.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 A Hasidic rabbi. Literally “the just,” or “true believer.”

2 Master, teacher. One may be a Zaddik and not a Rav. Jacob Zalmon, however, was both.

3 I have checked and rechecked. I have consulted experts. No such animal is mentioned in the Bible. Nor is it to be found in Sir James Frazer's comprehensive work, The Golden Bough; nor is it in Eliade, nor anywhere else.

4 Basically his argument (as best I understand it) runs as follows: Jews, unlike other ethnic groups in America, have found it impossible to identify with the people and culture of any particular foreign country (as Italians or Irish or Russian Americans, for example, are able to do). They do, certainly, identify as Jews; but, says Irving, this is too abstract a category and condition—despite Hebrew and the Talmudic tradition—since it has not been rooted (until recently) anywhere—to allow a full emotional commitment. Language and habit (custom and costume) have functioned as barriers to true cross-national identities and authentic senses of destiny. Thus, with the founding of Israel, an actual national home, the Diaspora Jew (and American in particular) has found it difficult to experience the Israel within him in the way that an Italo-American feels the Italy within him. The Jew from the United States is therefore subject to an identity crisis and its concomitant guilt. He finds himself overly patriotic toward Israel, while not feeling himself an extension of it (or a generation from it). His patriotism therefore becomes overcompensation. Consequently, when this Jew finds himself on Israeli soil, he is shocked (so strongly that he does not even realize it) by how much the people resemble him and his parents in the attributes of nation; in manner and aspect. And this shock produces the “hallucination” of the double.

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