A Magical Number

An invitation to celebrate a personal jubilee.

Those who are unimpressed by jubilees, centenaries, bicentenaries and tercentenaries are unlikely to be turned on by the celebratory atmosphere currently prevailing in Israel. We are in the throes of a massively expensive jamboree to celebrate an anniversary of the foundation of the Jewish state. What is puzzling is that we are not talking of 25, 50 or 100 years - periods that are customarily used to justify such extraordinary revels. Except for the fact that it ends with a zero, 60 is as bland a number as you will find anywhere. Fearing that I might have missed something, I checked the entry for 60 in Wikipedia, the indispensable standby of the lazy columnist. Despite its reputation for inaccuracy I could not fault the online encylopedia's proposition that: "60 (sixty) is the natural number following 59 and preceding 61."

I readily concede that I might have missed something and that there might be some magical property to the number 60 that has so far eluded me. With that in mind I invite readers to join me in celebrating a 60 of my own: A recent edition of the English edition of Haaretz contained my 60th column. Sixty articles in five years is a bagatelle for a professional journalist but for me, a lawyer with zero prior experience of writing for a public, the task has been Sisyphean. Still, the compensations have been great and I look back on the five years I have been writing this column as among the most pleasurable of my life. This is not to say that I have enjoyed the actual process of writing. I found composing my first article totally agonizing. Sixty columns on, nothing has changed. It has become clear to me that, as long as I write, producing a completed article will remain about as enjoyable as being a guest of the Spanish Inquisition.

If, when I took the job on, I did not, perhaps, appreciate the difficulties that lay before me, I also did not foresee the heady feeling I would experience when I discovered that there are actually people out there who read me. And I record with deep gratitude the number of nice people who have taken the trouble to actually tell me that they like my stuff. To this day if I get a fan letter or meet someone socially who admits to being a reader, it makes my day and though I do not see myself exclusively as a humorous writer, it is nice to hear from time to time that I have made somebody laugh.

Another pleasant surprise has been the latitude that has been shown to me throughout by a succession of editors at Haaretz. I have been granted unfettered freedom to write on any subject I choose. Although I have generally steered clear of controversy, I have occasionally raised my head above the parapet. In a notably ill-advised piece on the last American presidential election, for instance, I reluctantly plumped for George W. Bush in his contest with Senator John Kerry. I think I would rather not have written that article. But I do not regret all I have written on politics. I remain unrepentant in my views on jihadism, on Israel's disastrous electoral system, on its iniquitous marriage laws and on the catastrophic settlement enterprise.

I am happily aware that I occasionally infuriate readers. In the early days of the column I succeeded in generating a gratifying quantity of hate mail. Latterly the choicest angry correspondence has dwindled from a spate to a trickle. I hope that the reason is not because my articles are getting dull. I like to attribute it to changes to the Haaretz Web site that have put me out of harm's way by placing my column three clicks away from the casual surfer.

If I have given offense, I hope I have been an equal opportunity offender because I have managed to upset readers on both sides of the barricades. I spent a pleasurable hour or two this week looking back at some of the juicier mail I have received over the years. A correspondent from Ireland, for instance, was incensed that I, a loyal Israeli, should object to boycotts in general and to boycotts of Israel in particular. But I admit that it is from the religious right that my favorite mail comes. It is not always possible to predict what subject is going to render somebody incandescent with rage. It was an article I wrote on the writer Arthur Koestler that prompted "Jeff" to write that I was an anti-Zionist asshole and should go to hell; it was a piece on noisy Israeli weddings that made another correspondent assure me that my grandparents and great-grandparents would spit on me if they were alive.

Brooklyn screwballs

I think I was aware that my essay on Bible translations would attract the attention of every screwball in Brooklyn. In the course of the article I chose to poke gentle fun at a particular translation of the Hebrew Bible into an approximation of English. This translation, brought out by the Orthodox American publisher ArtScroll, has achieved iconic status among the religiously literal-minded. I did get a fair amount of laudatory mail, but some of it was plain abusive. One correspondent referred to my dime store Jewish education. Another was amazed at my ability to parade my ignorance in print and called me a self- hating Jewish Haaretz writer.

I am sometimes asked whether I find it hard to come up with a subject for my periodic rambles along the byways of memory. It never used to be a problem. When I started, my difficulty differed from the one I face today: New topics jostled each other for my attention. Only recently have I become conscious of a drought of ideas. I now have to wrack my brains each month for a subject. I have almost exhausted my pet hates; if only I could always write on the "Da Vinci Code." Even my stock of enthusiasms is running low. I have written on my hero George Orwell and covered other loved writers - P.G. Wodehouse, Gilbert and Sullivan, Koestler, A.A. Milne and the poets of Tin Pan Alley. But I know my limits. I am not a literary critic. I would love to write on the pleasure I derive from reading Jane Austen, Proust, George Eliot or Dickens, but what can I say that has not been said better before? As it is, it is rare that I write on any subject without receiving a courteous (not all my critics are abusive) correction from an erudite reader.

But I shall continue to stick my neck out. I have the sense that I may have misled readers into believing that I have written a kind of farewell. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike Prospero, my revels have not ended and I plan to continue with this column for as long as they will have me. I have after all been awarded the accolade of a self-hating Jewish Haaretz writer. It is a badge I wear with pride.