The Z Word and a Search for Personal Identity

by Norman Berdichevsky (Dec. 2006)

The most grotesque aspect of the intense anti-Israel campaign orchestrated by the Arab states and Iranian President Ahmadinejad is their stated obsession to wipe Israel off the face of the map and “imagine” (which is all they can do at the moment) a “World Without Zionism”. They have at their beck and call a large “pliant majority” of U.N. member states ready, willing and able to join this crusade or keep silent. In so doing they ignore not only the millennial old tie of the Jews to their land but distort an important theme in Western civilization stemming not only from the Bible and two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition but even the Koran (Surah 17: 104). The “Z word” has been pirated, perverted, parodied and prostituted and linked with a hideous and infamous “racist”, “apartheid regime” tied to a pariah state and people.

No matter that a million Arabs are citizens of Israel and are found at every level of society enjoying a standard of living and rights beyond the fondest expectations of most of the region’s population. This minority is guaranteed full cultural expression of its identity and participates in the government, police, the universities, arts, sports, and business whereas practically no more than a handful of Jews remain in the Arab states as if they were exotic plants on display in a hothouse when in 1948 they numbered more than 800,000 including large sections of major cities such as Baghdad and Cairo.

The Danish philosopher Andreas Simonsen, has remarked on the great respect most Jews feel towards the past, old friends and their parents as well as the long historical memory of nationhood and the many religious obligations and commemorative holidays. This is what he termed the Jewish ability “to carry their past with themselves and be nourished by it”. It is the best definition of Zionism, but a characteristic completely out of tune with most of contemporary culture and its anti-historical attitude. According to Simonsen  “Jews live because they remember, anti-Semitism lives because people forget”, and “the better people remember their past and are able to integrate it with their appreciation of life, the better they are able to develop their intellect, humanity and vitality”.

Although my father never preached Zionism, he had a deep admiration for Israel. The warmest memory of my father is our attendance at a soccer match at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan in 1956 on Israel’s eighth anniversary to see a top Israeli club play a major European team. I will never forget the expression on my father’s face on hearing both the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva played. It was the one occasion when I remember him–a henpecked husband who had fought in the Red Army in 1920 against the Polish invasion, and who was too old for World War II – -standing proud and tall. His look was one I would later see again on the faces of Holocaust survivors at celebrations of Israel‘s Independence Day. In those days of my childhood in the Grand Concourse –Melrose – Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, support for Israel was universal, the one issue that united everyone I knew.

Generations of Christian clergymen and statesmen from Disraeli through Sir Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman came to advocate the Zionist cause. Without their help and encouragement there would be no Israel today – “a world without Zionism” as the Iranians would like to contemplate. Israel cannot be undone and not just because of the heritage of the Bible alone. As early as February 1941 in spite of the wholehearted desire of the American Protestant establishment not to risk involvement in World War II, Reinhold Niebhur spoke out convincingly through the journal he founded “Christianity and Crisis” and sounded a clarion call of warning about Nazism.  Its final goals were not simply the eradication of the Jews but the extirpation of Christianity and the abolition of the entire heritage of Christian and humanistic culture. This is the only kind of “World Without Zionism” that the Iranian and many Arab leaders long for. Niebhur based his views not on any literal “Evangelical” interpretation of Biblical promises but the essentials of justice for the nations and also called for some form of compensation to those Arabs in Palestine who might be displaced if their own leaders refused to make any compromise possible.

Oceans of ink have been consumed, spilt and wasted on the subject of Jewish identity. The traumatic events of the last few months have given me great anxiety yet the approach of the 59th anniversary of an independent Jewish state provides a fitting opportunity to take stock and add another few drops in the hope that at this stage of my life (age 63) I can put things in perspective for myself and readers interested in how the success and challenges involved in the creation and development of the Jewish state have affected individual lives in the Diaspora.

My childhood environment of the late 1940s and early 1950s was among the most densely populated Jewish neighborhoods of the largest Jewish city in the world. A look at the school photographs taken at my graduation from P.S. 90 and Junior High School 22 reveals more than 90 per cent and 75 per cent Jewish names respectively; the remainder with Italian, Irish, mixed East and Central European and Puerto-Rican names and also a few black faces. My high school environment was somewhat more cosmopolitan and slightly less Jewish – perhaps only 65 per cent, although its all male student body was drawn from all the five boroughs of New York City,

In retrospect, I can now see that many of the non-Jewish pupils at Stuyvesant High School came from homes with as ancient traditions, and exotic languages as the Hebrew I had acquired in preparation for my Bar-Mitzvah. These other non-Jewish pupils of Chinese, Armenian, and Greek origin as well as a few others with whom I became friends were in many respects typical American teen-age boys who shared the same passions for baseball, popular music and science fiction films with others of our age. I came to understand with heart and soul that through a long perilous history Jews were not alone in having created a rich and ancient culture albeit marked by melancholy. The ability to retain a sense of an historic past and a deep sense of solidarity with a “Zion” state was something I shared with others. Like them, this in no way detracted from the love and pride I felt in being an American.

Yet there was also an added dimension with my friends- one that bespoke a tie with an old world civilization older than even Christianity! There was another cuisine, another literary and philosophical world of great classical books, another language, another music, another interest in political developments half-way around the world which made me feel that ‘being Jewish’ was of a much higher spiritual order than the inane, materialistic and ceaseless quest for wealth, professional prestige and social status that has been endlessly parodied by books, films and plays as the hallmark of ‘how Jews live’.

In my fantasy world of escape from an unhappy family life at home, I was drawn to “great ideas”, all of which shared an utopian vision and all of which have been regarded as “losing causes” – Socialism, Esperanto, the Single Tax, soccer, and finally Zionism. I must have subconsciously seen it as the only great idea that actually succeeded as a fact “on the ground” and that this was achieved by the unconditional idealism of a small elite and gifted minority who achieved their goal through a total renunciation of much of the Diaspora mode of existence that led to those conditions set the scene for the Holocaust.

The Eichmann trial at this time close to my graduation from high school only confirmed these feelings and set me on the path which for a greater part of my life led me to espouse the Zionist cause and renounce the benefits so highly held by my Jewish friends and colleagues – a guaranteed free university education and a head start on a profitable respected professional career with all their enticements. Later, I would try to forgive my case of “terminal idealism” by identifying with personalities I admired such as Arthur Koestler who had gone through much the same progression of idealism and identities, changing languages and professions and who finally flourished in his adopted home in London.

I left university after my initial very successful first two years. I had a straight A average and enjoyed all my courses immensely but still felt compelled to go and spend a year on the last Zionist training farm (Hachshara) in North America – at Hightstown, New Jersey, where I struggled with the arduous physical labor of farming within a collective community of no more than 10 other teenagers and a few older camp ‘madrichim’ (guides), a farm manager from Israel and the occasional helpful advice and companionship of a nearby Jewish farmer – one of the few remaining in New Jersey from the small number of German-Jewish refugees admitted into America who went into farming just before the outbreak of World War II. Charley was a real farmer with livestock and not just a “chicken farmer” like the other refugees admitted from Germany to America in the late 1930s. It was a wonderful introduction to a life imbued with a love of agriculture and nature.

It was such a remarkable contrast to spend an evening with Charley and his wife Sadie who, in many respects seemed like the other Jews of my parents’, uncles’ and aunts’ generation. Although my Uncle Max had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and came back home with a captured German helmet, I too longed for a sense of the heroic – more easily obtained in Israel than in New Jersey. My personal problems with a girlfriend made me miss the historic March on Washington to hear Martin Luther King’s – “I have a Dream” speech. This was of course, the great idealistic cause of American youth and I had missed this historic event due to my own “trivial” preoccupations with myself and self-pity.

I went home to the Bronx but not to live with my mother. I would earn money working in the post office and agreed to share an apartment with a close buddy from City College. We moved to a place on trendy Avenue C at the farthest edge of the East Village in Manhattan – considered “real cool” in those days and you just couldn’t get further away from the mainstream of Jewish middle class society. The death of my father put an end to my new independent existence however and I felt obliged to return to my mother for a time before leaving for Israel.

Today, I feel that a very large part of my decision stemmed from the sense of outrage, of a deafening silence from people I respected to the question – “Why the Holocaust?” and helplessness it generated that burned within me. I simply had to do something to express myself as an individual, a Jew, and doing something that would count in a historical sense to atone for the passivity manifested by the Diaspora during the 1930s . I finally realized my Zionist ambitions and sailed for new York to Haifa on one of the old Zim ships in November 1963 stopping at Madeira, Gibraltar and Piraeus.

I settled in Kibbutz Sasa on the Lebanese border and started an intense “love affair” with the soil and a new Hebrew identity completed with a Hebrew name and a routine as a Galilee cowboy on horseback, cutting alfalfa with a John Deere combine and hauling in fish in the ponds the kibbutz managed in the Hula Valley under the shadow of Syrian guns. Less than 20 miles away lay my great-grandfather buried in the Jewish cemetery in Safed. He had left Russia as an old man to realize his dream to die in the Holy Land circa 1895. Mine was to live there.

After an initial joy, I began to regret the absence of a cohort of friends my own age. I had arrived at the kibbutz without the company of those I had spent the year’s training on the New Jersey farm. The Kibbutz children were too young and the kibbutz members from the U.S., Canada and Eastern Europe were at least 20 years older than me. So I soon found that the “foreign volunteers” from Europe and mostly non-Jewish were easiest to make friends with. It was among them that I met my first wife – Bente from Denmark. These volunteers in the early 60’s felt a natural sympathy for Israel because of what had happened in Europe during the Holocaust and their support for the Kibbutz idea. My new Israeli identity did not share any of the “hang-ups“ about “mixed marriages“. In retrospect, I probably also had a positive inclination towards the Scandinavian way of life – its healthier approach to social relations, love of the outdoors, modesty, rejection of the hard-sell American approach to commercial success, anti-militarism, humanist traditions, anti-snobbery, and as a psychiatrist would have guessed – beautiful women.

I had seen two Danish films at the old Thalia movie theater on Broadway and 95th Street and they had made an enormous impression on me – Dreyer’s “Ordet” (The Word) and Ditte-Menneskebarn (Ditte-Child of Humanity) based on the book by the great proletarian writer Martin Andersen Nexø . They intrigued me – how did these writers – much like Hans Christian Andersen use the tiny canvas of their small country and “minor language” (about the same number of speakers as Hebrew) to paint such a great universal work?

My love affair led to marriage, a continued involvement with Danish culture, eventually leaving Israel to complete my education (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in Geography), six years residence in Denmark and a continued Danish connection through my son Ruben, now a physiotherapist with his own family of three sons residing in Svendborg on the island of Funen near Odense – Andersen’s birthplace.

My five years at Madison Wisconsin brought me into close contact with the serene landscape of a beautiful nature as transformed by the generations of pioneers from Central and Northern Europe, many of them of German, Scandinavian, and Polish ancestry with family names of ten and twelve letters like mine who had played such a formative role in the development of the American Midwest and American character. It was here that I came to realize not only the beauty of America but the basic goodness and generosity of its people in the heartland – not the superficial and trite caricature of leftwing propaganda displayed so often by unthinking critics on both coasts who were as mindless then of the inhumanity of the Vietcong as they are today towards the Taliban and Al-Qaeda or the three generations of catastrophic Leninist-Stalinist misrule in Russia.

My academic career was shaped by the close association and friendship formed with Erich, my major professor at New York’s City College who had been a volunteer in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and had also left the country disillusioned but whose erudition and scholarship formed a mentor role that has remained a permanent part of my nature. Following a divorce after sixteen years of marriage, I returned to Israel for another “tour” that lasted six years and resulted in marriage to Raquel – originally from Argentina and whose life and interests in many ways had run parallel to mine – cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, translation skills and an attachment to the Land of Israel and its modern Hebrew language and music – the product of our Zionist sentiments.

The disinterest in the modern Hebrew language and the poor quality of instruction throughout the Diaspora are an unfortunate result of the decline in the world wide devotion to the national rebirth that Zionism sponsored. For most Jews outside Israel the language is still perceived only as part of the religious liturgy and ceremonial rituals. During the pre-statehood period, Jews in the Diaspora sympathetic to Zionism regarded it as the creator of the new and dynamic largely secular Hebrew culture, the product of three generations of pioneers.

Today however, it lacks the dynamic attraction and fascination for Diaspora Jews that it once held even for many Christian theologians and clergymen who felt the stirring power of the language they believed God first used to speak to man. This feeling of reverence and power was beautifully expressed by the great German writer Hermann Hesse writing in his largely autobiographical novel Beneath the Wheel:

Hebrew kept all of them on their toes. The peculiar ancient language of Jehovah, an uncouth, withered and yet secretly living tree took on an alien, gnarled and puzzling form before the boys’ eyes, catching their attention through unusual linkages and astonishing them with remarkably colored and fragrant blossoms. In its branches, hollows and roots lived friendly or gruesome thousand-year old ghosts; fantastically fearsome dragons, lovely naïve girls and wrinkled sages next to handsome boys and calm-eyed girls or quarrelsome women. What had sounded remote and dreamlike in the Lutheran Bible was now lent blood in its true coarse character, as well as a voice of an old cumbersome but tenacious and ominous life.

While in Israel, I worked on the translation of books, articles, advertisements and commercial contracts and in one practical way was able to utilize my skills in a project that fired my imagination and taught me a bitter lesson. I was chosen by the Ministry of the Interior to translate the Danish electoral laws as part of a project to reform the Knesset – Israel’s one house legislature – a parliament responsible for much political instability and a succession of “coalition governments” in the country due to its absurd ultra-democratic system of proportional representation.

I flattered myself that at the time I was probably the only one in the country with the requisite knowledge of the two languages and political systems. I was convinced that the Danish system that combines proportional with geographical representation would be the perfect European system to adapt to Israel’s needs. I learned subsequently by glancing at the Hebrew translations of other European electoral systems that I was indeed right but my translation was shelved immediately and is still gathering dust on some forgotten archive shelf. Israeli politicians like those everywhere else in imperfect democracies (such as ours with its Electoral College – hardly adequate even in 1796 and the source of much potential grief in the recent past) will not change a system that through manipulation, gerrymandering or inbuilt safeguards protects the old parties and their hacks already represented from unnecessarily risking their seats.

I retain a great love of the language and especially the music that has drawn so heavily upon Yemenite and Moroccan influences as well as Greek and Russian melodies. It is a disappointment to me that so many Jews in the Diaspora know nothing of artists such as Zohar Argov, Haim Moshe, Boaz Shar’abi, Yehoram Gaon, Shlomo Ber and even of the old favorites from the era of 1948-56 like Shoshana Damari and Yaffa Yarkoni. In a national sense, the Hebrew language so successful in Israel has fallen on its face following the Holocaust and the disappearance of the dynamic atmosphere of the campfire, the pioneers and victorious Israeli army of 1948, 1956 and 1967 that produced dozens of wonderful songs.

There was much about Israeli society and its rough edges as well as what has been called “post-Zionist” Israel that made idealism wear thin. The litany of daily frustrations, the pressure of an intense hothouse atmosphere of constant tension, the political involvement of many ultra-Orthodox Jews and their rejection of any other mind-set or alternative form of Jewish identity as well as an aggressive, archaic, obtuse and obdurate bureaucracy exerted a heavy toll and like so many others the “final straw” issues that drove us away had little to do with great political issue of war or peace.

Nevertheless. Israel has become one of the most vibrant and optimistic countries in the world. where Jewish life blossoms as it has nowhere else. It succeeded due to the devotion, enthusiasm and idealism that its enemies can never erase. This need not have been at the cost of anyone and certainly not the Palestinian Arabs but they and their allies wish to convince themselves and all others (most successfully among those who ironically call themselves “progressives” today) that the “Z word” is an anathema to be shunned. Their obsession is not based on what happened to them but in their own intense hatred and envy projected on to others.

The Middle East has been growing date palms for centuries. The average tree in the region is about 18-20 feet tall and yields about 38 pounds of dates a year. By contrast, Israeli date trees now yield 400 pounds/year and are short enough to be harvested from the ground or a short ladder. The difference is not explained by any exploitation by anyone or seizure of any land or a change in the climate. It is the outcome of Jewish research, the application of capital and hard work combined with a love of the land unmatched anywhere. The same level of accomplishment can be found in fishing and military strategy as well (fields that countless anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers claimed throughout centuries in Europe that the Jews were incapable of mastering) and in practically every field of human endeavor.

“Zionism” has endured and become not just an outdated Jewish sentiment or whipping boy of the Muslims and Arab world. Throughout the ages, the Christian scriptures have added to the Old Testament in hallowing the longing of the Jews for a return to their ancestral homeland. Hundreds of gospel songs and Negro spirituals equate crossing the Jordan to return to Zion as the realization of freedom for Afro-Americans. The same “Zionist” image resonated in Christian hymns of the English, Welsh, Scots and other peoples as well as the use of many of the “Zion” psalms in much  “reggae“ music (witness Bob Marley’s big hit “By the Rivers of Babylon“).

Marley was a “Rasta prophet” who used his music to promote the Jamaican cult religion that accepts former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi I, as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah in Pslams 68:4 and part of the Holy Trinity (about ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari). The term comes from Ras Täfäri, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie (Amharic for “Power of the Trinity”). This movement emerged in Jamaica among working-class and peasant black people in the early 1930s. It stemmed from Black social and political aspirations, and the teachings of Jamaican black publicist and organizer Marcus Garvey who preached a “Return to Africa“. Political Zionism and the scriptures’ expression of “Longing for Zion” have inspired many Overseas Armenians, Greeks, Irish, Germans, Hungarians, Finns and Chinese as well to cultivate a close tie with their ancestral homelands.

The same “Longing for Zion” theme is endeared to countless Europeans by Verdi’s first successful opera, “Nabucco” (Nebuchadnezzar), written in 1842 relating the story of the exiled Hebrews in Babylon in the 7th century B.C. In the opera, the chorus “Va, pensiero” (a paraphrase of Psalm 137) is sung by the exiles on the banks of the Euphrates, lamenting the loss of their homeland. In Austrian ruled Italy, Nabucco quickly became a popular anthem expressing the nationalist sentiments of the Italian People expressing their own longing for political freedom. In 1901, a crowd of more than 25,000 people spontaneously began singing the stirring chorus “Va pensiero“ as Verdi‘s coffin was borne through the streets to his final resting place.

 Va Pensiero, sull’ali dorate

Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli

Ove olezzano tepide e molli,

L’aure dolci del suolo natal!


Del Giordano le rive saluta,

Di Sionne le torri atterrate.

Oh, mia patrie si bella e perduta!

Oh, Membrenza si cara e fatal!

Arpa d’or del fatidic e fatal!

Perché muta dal salice pendi?

Le memorie nel peto raccendi

Chi favella del tempo che fu

O simile di Solima ai fati

O t’ispiri il Signore un concento

Traggi un suono di crudo lamento

Che ne infonda al patrire virtu!


Go, my thoughts on golden wings

Go settle on the cliffs and hills

Where the sweet breezes bring

The warm soft fragrances of your native land


From Jordan, the river of salvation

From the desolate towers of Zion

Oh my fatherland so beautiful and lost!

Oh remembrances so dear and so deadly

Golden harps of our prophets and poets,

Why have you changed into weeping willows?


The battered memory in my heart

Which speaks of the time that was!

Either like Solomon to the fates

You present a sound of crude lament

Or the Lord inspires in you a song

Which takes courage into the depths



On Israel’s 50th anniversary my wife and I were in London and at the approach of the 59th we are now in Florida – wandering Jews again ! Even from afar and the inevitable disappointments with this or that aspect of life in Israel today, I retain a pride in having shared in a great historical enterprise – in the spirit of the early pioneers. I retain bonds of friendship with a score of dedicated and generous people who are made of tougher stuff than I and have sunk deep roots so that they will stay and carry on no matter what. It seems to me that Zionism did not attract a random sample of the Jewish People but the more adventurous, high-spirited and daring personality types who came as voluntary immigrants and were not dragged along by the tide of history as refugees. They can be justifiably proud of Israel in spite of all its problems and shortcomings. There is no need to apologize for or hide the Z-word.




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