The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by S. Ansky, edited by David G. Roskies
It was in Israel, back in 1980 or ’81. A Russian immigrant and I had pulled a long guard shift on army reserve duty and had begun to talk about our lives to pass the time. As we trudged back and forth along a perimeter fence, I found myself recalling a year spent in the mid-60′s in the American South, where I taught at a small-town black college and was active in the civil-rights movement. I spoke of the excitement of it; of how I, a twenty-five-year-old Jewish boy from New York whose previous encounters with the “real” America had been limited to summer vacations, proudly felt I had penetrated its mysteries; of how I believed as never before that its people was mine; of how my Jewish home had never seemed so unimportant to me, so marginal to the struggle I was part of; of how, nevertheless, the consciousness of that Jewish home would not leave me but even became exacerbated in the course of a year which went from freedom songs and Selma to Watts and the first stirrings of anti-Semitism among black activists. Two years later the Six-Day War broke out, and three years after that I was living in Israel.
The Russian had stopped walking somewhere back in Alabama and was leaning against a Quonset hut. “But that’s my life!” he said. It wasn’t exactly, but the parallel was there. In the early 60′s, having grown up in a family that preserved a strong sense of Jewishness despite the Stalin years, he had gotten his degree in petroleum engineering from an institution in Moscow and gone to work in an oil field in Siberia. For the first time he found himself living in rural Russia, away from big cities and Jews and intellectuals. He loved the chaste, immense countryside, the simple goodness of its people. Of his people! He began to dress like them, to talk like them. He tried teaching them about ecology and the need to protect their world from the depredations of big-city bureaucrats and managers. He almost forgot that he was Jewish. And then one day war broke out in the Middle East, and much to his surprise he desperately wanted the Jews to win, while his government backed the Arabs, and the people in their simple goodness backed the government. A few years later he joined the first wave of Soviet immigration to Israel.
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.