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
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
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
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
In retrospect, I can now see that many of the non-Jewish pupils at
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
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
I went home to the
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
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
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
I had seen two Danish films at the old Thalia movie theater on Broadway and
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
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.
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
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"
“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
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
The same “Longing for
Va Pensiero, sull'ali dorate
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
Ove olezzano tepide e molli,
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
Di Sionne le torri atterrate.
Oh, mia patrie si bella e perduta!
Oh, Membrenza si cara e fatal!
Perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel peto raccendi
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 the desolate towers of
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
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