Commentary Magazine


My Uncle Simon

In a Tale of Love and Darkness, his highly praised novelistic memoir of a Jerusalem childhood and adolescence in the 1940′s and 50′s, Amos Oz mentions my uncle, the Hebrew poet, novelist, and literary critic Simon Halkin.

My Uncle Simon was appointed in 1949 to head the department of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to which he moved from New York; until then, the position had been held by Oz’s great-uncle Joseph Klausner, who vacated it for a chair in Second Temple studies. In his memoir, Oz records that in the late 1950′s, his father Yehuda Arieh Klausner, who was Joseph Klausner’s nephew and a librarian with unfulfilled academic ambitions, sought, after receiving his doctorate from London University, “to secure a foothold in the literature department in Jerusalem as an outside lecturer.” But the application was turned down. My uncle, Oz writes, had made “a fresh start [in the department] by eliminating the heritage, the methods, and the very smell of Klausner and certainly did not want to take on Klausner’s nephew.”

There are two other, briefer references to my Uncle Simon in Oz’s book. One mentions him as the Hebrew translator of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The other lists a “Professor and Mrs. Halkin”—my uncle and my Aunt Minnie—among the condolence callers at the shiva for Oz’s mother, whose suicide in 1951 forms the climax of A Tale of Love and Darkness (the book jumps back and forth chronologically).

My aunt and uncle would not have had to walk far to the shiva, because they lived in Rehavia, the neighborhood of Jerusalem to which Oz’s parents had moved a few years previously and in which many university faculty members—what Oz calls “the Rehavia intelligentsia”—resided. Gershom Scholem lived a few blocks away; Martin Buber, a few blocks in the other direction, across the border of Gaza Road, in the adjacent neighborhood of Talbia. Jerusalem was a small city, further diminished by its physical division into hermetically separated Arab and Jewish halves, and Rehavia, which is now at its center, was then at its western edge. With its quiet, tree-lined streets and small, stone-faced apartment houses, it was a pleasantly middle-class area—keeping in mind, that is, that Israel’s middle class was in those years its upper class and lived in what might today be considered lower-class conditions. My Uncle Simon’s apartment was dark and had four rooms plus a tiny kitchen, a little washroom, and a separate, cramped toilet that smelled of the matches lit by my aunt in place of deodorizer.

Oz’s “Uncle Joseph” was an exception. His residence in Talpiyot, then in the far south of the city, was a private house that, at a time “when the whole of Jerusalem was cramped into one-and-a-half or two-bedroom flats,” struck the young Amos as a “mansion” fit for a “sultan” or a “Roman emperor.” Over its front door hung “a fine brass plate” with the motto, “Judaism and Humanism.” Its library, with 25,000 volumes in “Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, classical and modern Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, medieval Arabic, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Polish, French, [and] Italian,” plus “languages I had never even heard of, like Ugaritic or Slovene, Maltese or Old Church Slavonic” seemed like “the antechamber of some palace of wisdom.”

My Uncle Simon’s library, in the back room of his apartment, was far smaller and had only seven or eight languages—none, except perhaps for the classical Greek he had taught himself, on the order of Ugaritic or Maltese. Yiddish was the language of his White Russian childhood; Hebrew had been drilled into him by his father, a heder teacher; Aramaic came with the Talmud lessons that followed later; Russian was picked up from the Gentile neighbors; English was learned in America, to which the family emigrated on the eve of World War I; and German . . . but what shtetlborn Jew could not master German (which was, as Jews joked, merely badly spoken Yiddish) in a few hours by putting his mind to it?

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Such Polyglots were not unusual among Jewish scholars who had had the head start of an Eastern European childhood. Oz writes that his father could “cite lines of poetry in ten languages.” My own father, Abraham Halkin, my uncle’s younger brother, an Arabist and professor of medieval Jewish philosophy, knew languages I didn’t know he knew. Although I was aware, for instance, that he could read Spanish along with a dozen other European and Semitic tongues, I had never heard him speak it and had no reason to think he could. Yet a year or two before his death from Alzheimer’s disease, when his mind was already destroyed, an Argentinian gerontologist who examined him told me he had enjoyed the visit greatly because he had not heard such beautiful Spanish—un castellano tan puro—in years.

Of course, the Eastern European shtetl, which was looked back on without affection by most Jews who had left it, offered no courses in Spanish. Yet, if born elsewhere and educated differently, men like this would not have become what they did. The onerous schooling that subjected them as small boys to dawn-to-dusk days in the classroom taught them what Yiddish calls zitzflaysh, the ability to concentrate on a text for long hours; trained their memories to perform athletic feats; and stocked them with a wealth of Jewish knowledge that they retained after turning to secular studies. My father, who had been required by his father to read extracurricularly, every night before going to bed, five chapters of the Bible, which he thus went through book by book many times in the course of his childhood, had the lifelong ability, as uncanny as a mind-reader’s, to finish any biblical verse whose first half was read aloud to him.

The accomplishments, starting with the late 19th century, of the Eastern European Jewish mind, honed to a fine edge by the endlessly repetitive study of the same religious books and then let loose from its confinement in the schools and universities of Europe and America, comprise one of the great intellectual stories of modernity. Important scientific discoveries and great works of literature and the other arts form only a part of it. Within the space of two generations, Jews like Joseph and Yehuda Arieh Klausner, who studied in Odessa and Heidelberg and in Vilna respectively, or like my father and uncle, who went to high school and college in New York, passed from a Jewish cloister to the domain of universal culture where they applied themselves to Homer and Virgil, Dante and Goethe, as assiduously as if they were sacred texts. For those among them who at the same time remained loyal to the world of their fathers, if not in outward observance then in inner identity, the synthesis of “Judaism and Humanism” was an existential imperative.

Many such men found that synthesis in Zionism, which they felt so strongly about because it was their way of remaining whole within themselves. “To absorb alien culture and turn it into our own national flesh and blood,” Oz quotes Joseph Klausner as writing, “is the ideal I have fought for most of my life.” Both Klausners were ardent supporters of another polyglot, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder and leader of the right-wing Revisionist party. Uncle Joseph even ran unsuccessfully in 1948, against Chaim Weizmann, as the Right’s first candidate for president of the state of Israel.

The Zionism of my Uncle Simon, who had lived in Tel Aviv in the 1930′s and returned to America until his invitation to Jerusalem (where my father also settled upon his retirement in 1970), was less partisan. Yet, an emotional man, he could be just as passionate about it. I once heard him say: “If I had known how all this would turn out, I’d have gone to North Dakota and lived as a Red Indian!”

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This was in the early 1980′s. In those days, I sometimes accompanied my father on Saturday mornings to the Conservative synagogue on Agron Street, in which he was the regular Torah reader—a task he had previously performed for decades at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. On our way back from services we often stopped at my uncle’s apartment, which lay on our route.

My Uncle Simon never went to synagogue, not even on the High Holy Days. He read the Torah on his own. If we were the first to arrive, we would find him, a yarmulke on his head, still bent over a Bible with its commentaries, studying the weekly portion—which this Sabbath was B’shalach, the installment of Exodus telling of the crossing of the Red Sea and the miracle of the manna in the desert. However, today we were not the first. As I recall (like Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness, I have here and there allowed imagination to come to the aid of memory), while waiting in the ground-floor hallway for my aunt to open the door, we heard voices arguing inside. One belonged to my uncle; the other, to his upstairs neighbor Ezra Fleischer, who taught medieval Hebrew poetry at the university.

On a coffee table in the living room my aunt, an indifferent housekeeper, had put out the refreshments for the usual Saturday-morning guests: a plate with some disassembled squares of milk chocolate, a bowl of salty, doughnut-shaped biscuits, and a bottle of 777 Carmel brandy. “Nu, Avreml,” my uncle said to my father by way of greeting, picking up the bowl in one hand and the brandy in the other, “which of these is an ashisha?”

“The bottle, the bottle,” Fleischer said impatiently, as if the argument should have been settled by now.

In perusing the Aramaic version of Exodus attributed to Yonatan ben Uziel, which describes the manna in the desert as being like zera kusbar heyvar ve-ta’amei ka-ashishin b’dvash, “white coriander seed tasting like wafers with honey,” it had occurred to my Uncle Simon that the word for “wafer,” ashisha, which also designated a drinking vessel, might be a suitable equivalent for the Greek krater, a wine bowl, in a satiric dialogue of Lucian’s that he happened to be translating. Fleischer, an Orthodox Jew, disagreed. “It’s in the tractate of Shabbat,” he pointed out, citing a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, “that you mustn’t remove a cloth plug from an ashisha on the Sabbath because you might perform forbidden work by squeezing liquid from it. How can you plug a bowl?”

“Ezra, Ezra!” my uncle retorted. “Think of your medieval poetry. Ve’hashkeni yeshisha ba’ashisha, Shmuel Hanagid says: pour me some old wine in an ashisha—not from it!”

“Who drinks wine from a bowl?” asked Gentilla Broyde, who was there with her husband Ephraim, the editor of the literary periodical Moznayim.

“Brush up your Shakespeare, Gentilla,” Broyde said to her. “Give me a bowl of wine./I have not that alacrity of spirit,/Nor cheer of mind, that I was wont to have.”

“Macbeth?” Gentilla asked.

“Richard the Third,” my uncle corrected her. “Greek wine was such rotgut that it had to be mixed with water in a bowl—kratera kerannunai—before serving.”

“Speaking of rotgut, I’ll have some more yashisha,” Fleischer said, reaching for the brandy while punning on the Hebrew word for it, yash.

“A clever Jew, Lucian,” said my uncle.

“What Jew?” my father protested. “A Syrian.”

“Oho! You too, Avreml? A Syrian who laughed at every god and religion in the Roman Empire except one?” My uncle tapped his shut Bible. “About that one, not a word. A Syrian? A clever Jewboy from Syria-Palaestina!”

These conversations could continue, while the brandy bottle emptied, for an hour or more, caroming off languages, texts, authors, and subjects, from the weekend papers to the sonnets of Petrarch and the Hebrew poet Emmanuel of Rome, like a dizzying game of billiards. This was a period of my uncle’s life when, retired from teaching and dark with grievance against old acquaintances and students for having (as he thought) abandoned him, he saw his circle of Sabbath visitors shrink. Besides Fleischer and the Broydes, there was the writer Yudka Ya’ari, who sometimes entertained us with stories of working on road gangs in the Valley of Jezreel, or as a kibbutz shepherd, in his pioneering days in Palestine. The poet Dan Pagis and his wife sometimes dropped in, too. Ya’ari, a small man with a sweet, shy smile, had a library with a large collection of hasidic literature, and he and my uncle liked to swap hasidic tales.

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On Saturday mornings in Jerusalem, men met like this in hundreds of apartments. On their way back from synagogue, their prayer-shawl bags beneath their arms, they stopped by friends and neighbors for kiddush, ate a cookie or a piece of honey cake, and chatted before going home to their Sabbath lunch. Amos Oz, too, remembers Sabbath gatherings at his uncle’s, to which he and his parents took the long walk from one end of Jerusalem to the other. Uncle Joseph’s guests, though, arrived in the afternoon, after their Sabbath nap, and the famous scholar presided over the table like a rebbe at sholosh siddes, talking, as Oz describes it, “in his reedy, feminine voice . . . about the state of the nation, the status of writers and scholars, [and] the responsibilities of cultural figures” while his guests “listened in respectful silence, or expressed agreement in a few quiet words, so as not to interrupt the flow of his lecture.”

The atmosphere at my Uncle Simon’s was different. That particular morning, my uncle and Yudka Ya’ari became embroiled in a dispute over the relative merits of the Polish Hasidism of Kotsk and the White Russian school of Habad, or Lubavitch, in which my uncle and father had been raised. When my uncle declared that, philosophically, Habad remained Hasidism at its most profound, Ya’ari remarked scornfully (the Lubavitchers, while not yet openly swept by messianic fever, had already taken to the streets in those days to hector Jews to hasten the Redemption by donning phylacteries):

A corporation of tefillin salesmen!

“Let them hire Yonah Wallach,” Gentilla Broyde suggested.

Wallach, a talented poet, had just caused a scandal by publishing a poem called “Tefillin” in a literary magazine. She had written there:

Put tefillin on me
Bind my arms with them
Play them over me
Pass them deliciously over my body
Rub me hard with them
Excite me everywhere
Make me pass out from the feeling

Pass them over my clitoris
Tie them around my hips
So I come quickly

Shmutz,” my uncle declared.

“But what’s wrong with it?” Ezra Fleischer asked. “Isn’t that what we wanted: Judaism and Humanism?”

“Where’s the Judaism? Where’s the humanism?”

“And when Shlonsky wrote in the 1920′s, ‘The roads we pave wrap the land like tefillin straps,’ that was Judaism? That was humanism?”

“Don’t compare Shlonsky to Wallach!” My uncle was getting worked up. “You might as well compare the Italian Renaissance to the French decadents. The only difference is that it took Europe 500 years to go from one to the other and our Jewish brain has done it in 50. Shlonsky may have been a man of the Left, but his cultural vision was the same as Klausner’s. And Klausner, my friend, was an innocent. We all were. Who knows that Kurzweil won’t have the last laugh? I tell you, if I had known how all this would turn out, I’d have gone to North Dakota and lived as a Red Indian!”

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I don’t know whether my Uncle Simon ever reached North Dakota or saw Red Indians there. He wandered a good deal in America when he was young, taking with him, he once told me, a few books and a violin that he played badly, and he even got as far as California. There he wrote a long Hebrew poem, called “On the Beach in Santa Barbara,” that ended:

God’s song has fled. Only you, Earth, are left.
Consumed by you, blinded, by you, I
surrender.
Your mountains, molten in the noonday heat,

Your ocean, primping in its quiet bays,
Have made me drunk, decanted in me
God-forgetfulness.
Am I to die in them, inebriate and swooning,
My stunned heart no longer hearing God’s
high music?

The tone was Shelleyan, but the thematics came from Habad, that most dialectical of hasidic schools of thought. Nowhere more than in Habad was Hasidism perturbed by the chasm between a transcendent God and this world; nowhere more did it seek to bridge that chasm by teaching that the Infinite is revealed in every finitude, its dazzling light, too blindingly incommensurate to be apprehended directly by the human mind, dimmed there to a point of perceptibility. On the beach at Santa Barbara, his body offered to the semi-tropical sun (he had not yet been to Palestine, had never experienced such hot, bright sunlight before), my Uncle Simon had a contrarian thought: it was not the Infinite but the finite that was overwhelmingly brilliant. Our reflections on transcendence were a vain attempt to dream the shadows in which God could be made out.

He was a deeply religious poet, which lent an irony to Baruch Kurzweil’s attacks on him.

Kurzweil—it was his “last laugh” that my uncle had feared that Saturday morning of the portion of B’shalach—was a Hebrew literary critic, a German Jewish intellectual who settled in Palestine in 1939 and died in Tel Aviv, a suicide, in 1972. For much of that period, in articles and books, and above all, in his Our Modern Hebrew Literature: Continuity or Revolution? (1958), he scathingly took the Israeli literary establishment to task for living in a Zionist self-deception.

This self-deception did not begin, Kurzweil wrote, with my uncle’s generation. It went back to the beginnings of secular Zionism and its seminal thinker, the Russian Jewish essayist Ahad Ha’am (1856-1926); was handed down by followers like Joseph Klausner, Ahad Ha’am’s disciple in Odessa and successor as editor of Ha-shiloah, the influential literary journal founded by him; and was still being taught by men like my Uncle Simon—who, far from “eliminating Klausner’s heritage” in the Hebrew-literature department in Jerusalem, was its devoted propagator.

It was Ahad Ha’am who, starting in the late 1880′s, had first programmatically addressed the question of a secular Jewish culture. Criticizing Theodor Herzl and the “political Zionists” for simplistically assuming that (apart from having Judaism as its official religion) a Jewish state would be no different from any other modern European country, Ahad Ha’am argued that such a state would be an empty shell unless its inhabitants lived culturally Jewish lives.

But how could there be a secular Jewish culture when Jews had always been defined by their religion? Ahad Ha’am answered that the secularization of Jewish life was not the abandonment of Jewish identity but the rescuing of it. The essential point, he maintained, was that Judaism, far from having created the Jews, had been created by them as a medium for expressing their “national self” in a religious stage of human development. In the post-religious age of modernity, this self would vanish—unless, like that of other modern peoples, it were to take the form of a collective “we” based on such components as unique historical memories, literary creations, intellectual achievements, social mores and folkways, and so forth. The Hebrew language and the land of Israel, Ahad Ha’am held, were the formal framework that the “national self” would fill with Jewish content.

“Ahad Ha’amists” like Klausner did not consider themselves anti-religious. On the contrary, they harbored warm feelings for tradition and believed it to be the necessary matrix for a secular Jewish culture to grow in. The absorption of its nutrients, as it were—the literature, legends, folklore, customs, values, and attitudes of Judaism—would not take place overnight. But just as when, in a forest, more competitive trees replace older ones, doing so gradually in a soil enriched by decay, so in Palestine the new Hebrew culture would feed off its vanishing predecessor until it could stand on its own. Indeed, this was happening already. Examples were everywhere, none more pithily illustrative than a short poem entitled “Toil” by a young pioneer named Abraham Shlonsky, who was to become one of modern Hebrew literature’s major figures. Its first lines went:

Dress me, good Jewish mother, in a fine coat
of many colors
And lead me in early morning to my toil.

My land dons light like a prayer shawl.
Its houses are boxes of tefillin,
Its roads, paved by our hands, their flowing
straps.

A trim new city prays at dawn to its creator.
And among its creators am I—your son
Abraham,

A poet-builder in Israel.

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Every word of this poem could be taken to demonstrate the secularization that Ahad Ha’am had in mind, starting with the opening appeal to the shtetl mother to offer up her son, dressed as lovingly as Joseph by Jacob, to his pioneering labors as once she brought him every morning to the heder. Nor could Shlonsky have written “Toil” in anything but Hebrew, or anywhere but in the land of Israel. In no other language would the reader have known that oteh or, “dons light,” comes from the verse in Psalms, “O Lord my God Thou art very great; Thou art clothed with honor and majesty; Who donnest Thyself with light as with a garment.” In no other land could the “trim new city” of secular Tel Aviv—kiryah na’ah in Shlonsky’s Hebrew, this time echoing the Psalmist’s epithet for Jerusalem, kiryat melekh rav, “the city of the great King”—be so audaciously yet naturally presented as the new Zion, or the “poet-builder” as its creator-god.

My Uncle Simon had good reason to be upset by Ezra Fleischer’s comparison of “Toil” to Yonah Wallach’s “Tefillin.” Citing Shlonsky’s poem in his Modern Hebrew Literature (1950), he had written:

Revaluating the longings of the Jewish past, and scanning the widening vistas of the new Jewish future, [contemporary] Hebrew literature cannot indeed read into the Palestinian present anything substantially different from the idea of sacredness, of continued self-perfection and self-purification which traditional literature always regarded as the bridge across which Jewry must march, over whatever turbulent gulf, toward salvation. As interpreted by this literature, the glory of halutziut [Zionist pioneering] is not to be gauged by its physical achievement merely. It is rather to be measured in terms of the earnestness of purpose, of the self-dedication to the ideal which must evolve a code of mitzvot, of innerly prescribed and voluntarily fulfilled commandments.

My uncle’s optimistic appraisal of modern Hebrew literature and culture as an organic evolution of the Jewish past was thoroughly Klausnerian. Although he may have come to the university in Jerusalem determined to make a “fresh start” based on Anglo-American rather than Eastern-European critical approaches, his own teaching of literature, which stressed its social more than its aesthetic aspects, was far closer to Klausner’s than to I.A. Richards’s or William Empson’s. He was sincere when he said of Klausner, in addressing a memorial gathering for him after his death in 1958, that he was “my master and teacher from boyhood on.”

Yet for Kurzweil, Klausner’s literary Ahad-Ha’amism, of which he considered my uncle to be the leading contemporary representative, was intellectually fraudulent. The truth, Kurzweil insisted, was that secular Hebrew culture and literature were not a natural continuation of Jewish history but a radical break with it, one that Zionist critics had papered over for ideological reasons. Hebrew creations like “Toil” were glib works of sleight-of-hand, sentimental manipulations of religious symbolism. Although himself an observant Jew, Kurzweil took as his favorite early modern Hebrew writers either defiant radicals like Yosef Chaim Brenner and Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who viewed Judaism as a millstone to be cast off (“We will either be the last Jews or the first Hebrews!” Berdichevsky had famously declared), or anguished souls unreconciled to their loss of religious faith like the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik.

Kurzweil accused my uncle of fudging things. If one could not accept Jewish tradition on its own religious terms, one should do the honest thing and reject it. To want to have one’s cake and eat it like the Ahad Ha’amists, abandoning Judaism while claiming to be its heir, and using the language of the sacred while denuding it of its transcendent justification, was gross hypocrisy. Moreover, Ahad Ha’am was wrong, said Kurzweil: Judaism was the defining mark of the Jewish people, and would continue to be so. In the long run, there was no such thing as secular Jewishness. There was only the transient illusion of it, produced in Jews like Klausner and my uncle by an upbringing that had left them a fund of religious knowledge and emotions that could fungibly be spent elsewhere. Yet this was non-renewable capital, unreplenishable by secular means. Those who possessed it had not bequeathed it to the generations after them, whose own upbringing would leave them disinherited.

In the years in which Kurzweil conducted his polemic, I do not think that my uncle took it seriously. He was stung by its venom, true; but that could be put down to envy of him, the imported New Yorker, on the part of a man, Kurzweil, who, though he would ultimately land a position at Bar-Ilan University, was for many years forced to teach in a high school, denied, like Amos Oz’s father, the academic job that he craved. (Until the 1950′s, the Hebrew University was the sole higher institution for the liberal arts in Israel, making the academic job market extremely tight. This was the reason, too, that my father did not settle in Israel when his brother did.) In those years, Ahad Ha’amism was the regnant ideology in Israel. Although the writers and artists of the “Canaanite” movement of the 1950′s had followed Berdichevsky in proclaiming the native-born sabra to be a new creation, a Middle-Eastern “Hebrew” distinct from the Diaspora Jew, they were little more than a bohemian coterie. Few Israeli intellectuals doubted that secular Jewish culture in Israel was a going concern.

Now, however, on a Sabbath morning in the early 1980′s, my Uncle Simon declared: “Who knows that Kurzweil won’t have the last laugh? If I had known how all this would turn out, I’d have gone to North Dakota and lived as a Red Indian!”

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He had by then reached old age. He had not lacked recognition or honors, and his ex-students, many now prominent literary figures themselves, always spoke of him highly even if he complained that they had forgotten him. Still, he was a melancholy man.

Much of this had to do with his personal life, which had been unhappy, especially in his marriage. Moreover, he felt recognized for the wrong things. His reputation was as a literary critic and educator; his poetry, dense and difficult, was read by few. Yet he had never liked to teach—to the very end of his career, he once told me, he could not face a class without feeling faint with anxiety—and he was a far better poet than critic.

In fact, his verse improved with age. It grew simpier, more conversational; its Shelleyan prolixity turned terse and hard. Even the yearning of his Habad soul became more rugged. There is a poem of his from this period that I often return to. It begins with a scene: a man, the poet, is watching a winter sun set over a crag, which, “steep, ribbed, and black,” makes him think of “a child’s image of Sinai.” The last light beckons; he hurries toward it, not wanting “to miss from close up what seemed a strange revelation,/The main fire in which had already gone out, leaving only/A last sliver of silver to sharpen the top of the crag.” Yet, nearing it,

I could tell I was late. Only a stiff, cautious
squirrel
Still silvered intently. It climbed upward and
stopped, grew grayer and stopped,
Pressing on toward a gleam that shone for its
vision alone
As if tuned, it alone, to a gleaming I am of an
echo

That called from the top of the crag—to a
signal, not much higher than it was,
That flared for its vision alone.

But even this thought was denied me. The
squirrel froze suddenly
As if what it heard, too, the echo that called
from the cragtop,
Was lost all at once and forever.

Perhaps the snap of a branch in some hidden
bush made it freeze. Or perhaps
It had sniffed the despair of an unhearing man
and had hid from that man in a cleft—
All-hearing, all-knowing.

So there was that, too: a religious despair that was not perhaps total, for there was room in it for a creature, smaller than a man, that could still hear God’s “I am.”

It was during this period that my uncle read me a letter in Yiddish that he had received from a cousin of his, the last pious Habadnik in the family. The cousin had written:

All my life I have been a Habadnik, and now I am old and I still understand nothing. What, then, has Habad done for me? What it has done is to raise me from a lower level of understanding nothing to a higher level of understanding nothing.

Although this letter came from New York, it bore the spiritual postmark not of the messianic sect on Eastern Parkway but of White Russia—of the old Habad of the shtetl on the Dnieper with its cunning irony or simple innocence, so gently amused by the divine folly of things that it hardly bothered to sing and dance as other Hasidim did, preferring its own calm, sober gaze to the fevers of ecstasy.

“Believe me,” my uncle said, “when it comes to understanding nothing, I’m his equal.”

He had begun to be afraid that perhaps Kurzweil was right after all.

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The 1970′s in Israel were years in which the center fell away, splitting the country into two warring halves, a heavily secular Left and a heavily religious Right, that were no longer talking the same language. It was not just that one camp thought it crucial to keep the territories conquered in June 1967 while the other thought it crucial to give them up. It was that the justifications offered—the Bible, the land of Israel, the claims of history; democracy, human rights, the dictates of morality—came from two different realms of discourse. A particularism that jeered at universal values clashed with a universalism that scoffed at the particulars. It was as if, from the most superficial level of rhetoric to the deepest psychology of those using it, Judaism and humanism had become unglued.

No longer did men of the Left like Shlonsky and men of the Right like Klausner share the same cultural vision. Soon there would be no such men left at all. My uncle and Ezra Fleischer, one of whom never went to synagogue and one of whom went every week, lived in the same mental world. Their children did not. They had been raised differently, educated differently; they had gone their different ways. All the time that Ahad Ha’am was winning in Rehavia, Berdichevsky was stealing the Israeli street. And the street was illiterate: it spoke a wretched Hebrew, could not recall a verse from the Bible, went to the beach on Saturday mornings. Ahad-Ha’amism was indeed an illusion, the foolish belief in one’s own immortality—in the assumption that what has come naturally to us will come naturally to those who come after us, never realizing that the circumstances that made us are gone.

It depressed my uncle greatly. “Khnyokes and amarotzim!” he once raged in my presence. “We’ve become a country of khnyokes and amarotzim!” Religious prigs and ignoramuses! A country of sanctimonious believers and vulgarian infidels! Yonah Wallach was just the last straw. On another day, he might have been the first to admit that she hadn’t written a bad poem. Now, though, its taunting of the tefillin he had once donned in holiness brought out all of his grief and revulsion. He had wasted his life on a mirage. He should have gone back out West instead of taking Klausner’s job in Jerusalem, vanished there with his beloved Whitman:

A California song,
A prophecy and indirection, a thought
impalpable to breathe as air,
A chorus of dryads, fading, departing, or
hamadryads departing,
A murmuring, fateful, giant voice, out of the
earth and sky,
Voice of a mighty dying tree in the redwood

forest dense!

Although I knew it was just one of his emotional outbursts, I couldn’t pretend not to be shocked. His Zionism had always been a model for me.

I wanted to talk to him about it. I never did, though, because not long afterward he had a stroke, from which he never recovered his speech. Now and then, until he died, in the years when my father’s Alzheimer’s was not yet severe, we still dropped in after synagogue to say hello. I would sit there wondering whether, seated blankly in the living room of his Rehavia apartment in which my aunt had placed him like a vase of flowers, my uncle heard anything of our conversation. I felt like saying:

Nu, Reb Shimn! It’s not as bad as all that. It takes a forest a long time to grow. For you it was Sinai, for Yonah Wallach tefillin. Isn’t that the point—that as long as the God we don’t believe in is the Jewish one, there’s still hope?

But my uncle seemed only to wink at me, like the dead Habadnik in a story he liked to tell (who, eulogized at his funeral for virtues he never had, wanted the rabbi to know he saw through him), while repeating:

“Oho! Don’t be a clever Jewboy. If I had known how all this would turn out, I’d have gone to North Dakota and lived as a Red Indian!”

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Footnotes

Translated by Nicholas de Lange, Harcourt, 544 pp., $26.00. I wrote about the Hebrew edition of this book in “Politics and the Israeli Novel,” COMMENTARY, April 2004.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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