A Man in the Heart of History

A friend and follower mourns the recent death, at age 60, of American-born Zionist activist, political journalist, editor and writer David Twersky.

In 1977, two years out of college, I lived in a squalid boardinghouse room on New York's Upper West Side, where I banged out short stories about the Holocaust and about Jewish immigrants that only the rarest among rarefied publications would deign to lend space to.

David Twersky
New Jersey Jewish News

One of these was Shdemot, the magazine of the kibbutz movement, to which I sent a story about a sculptress who perishes at Auschwitz. The editor, David Twersky, fired off a letter of acceptance that arrived in an onion-skin envelope with Israeli postage bearing the image of Herzl.

I couldn't have been more thrilled. Included was a handwritten note from Twersky himself to "drop in at the Shdemot offices" should I ever find myself in Tel Aviv. To me, someone who had no connection to Israel or to anyone who did, it was like receiving an invitation from Ben-Gurion himself to hang out at the Knesset.

In 1978, I landed in Israel, where I headed for 10 Dubnov St., the offices of Shdemot and Ihud Hakibbutzim. Twersky wasn't in, but not to worry, they said. He'd get in touch. They placed me on a kibbutz [as a volunteer]. Shortly after that, I received a note from Twersky inviting me to visit him at Kibbutz Gezer and to publish more work in Shdemot. I sent poems. They appeared.

I was a lonely young man without family to love him and with no one to turn to and with the burden of an ambition to write that I had no real faith that I could discharge.

At Gezer, Twersky received me like a visiting dignitary and insisted I stay over as a guest. I think he sensed my loneliness. He was an astonishingly kind man, and looked like he could have played a young Ben-Gurion in a film, with a wild halo of red hair, piercing blue eyes behind aviator glasses, a sharp nose that seemed to sniff out cant. He possessed an air of compelling intellectual and political authority that bore the stamp of irrefutable experience, for already Twersky was a legend among the English-speaking immigrants of Israel - a former aide to Abba Eban and the man to whom the Labor Party turned for advice about the concerns of North American immigrants and America itself. And yet he treated me, a broke kid with two cents in his pocket, as if I were the most important man in the room. For that alone, I will love him forever.

That night, he regaled me with tales of Abba Eban, and of the time he hosted American actor Elliott Gould, and spoke at length on a breathtaking array of topics that included Partisan Review, Delmore Schwartz, the New York Yankees, Isaac Babel, Lionel Trilling, the situation in Lebanon, and the regional prospects for peace and war. He was, bar none, the brightest man I had ever met.

When I departed Gezer that first time, I was the newly appointed poetry editor of Shdemot. I had entered his door, feeling so lost. And when I left, I felt proud new ground beneath my feet.

Over the years, we collaborated on numerous projects. We introduced, together, the "Spoken Word" poetry readings on a grand scale to Israel, culminating in a year-long program at the Israel Museum that helped change the face of Israel's literary culture. We worked together on Spectrum, the Labor Party English-language political magazine, which David brilliantly edited and I wrote for. When I entered the army, having no family in Israel, I spent leaves on David's sofa on Gezer. He fed me and listened to my stories and concerns. When my heart was broken by romance, I cried on David's shoulder. During the war in Lebanon, in 1982, he was the first among us to be called up and was sent to Beirut with his artillery unit where he engaged in frontline battles.

He was a great-hearted man living in the heart of history and took us all, his friends and colleagues, along with him. He had a sense of the momentousness of his times and of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life. His was a voice of reasonable assessment in a field given to wrong-headedness.

He had the heart of a poet and wrote beautiful poetry that he would share with me on occasion, reading over the phone in a voice that contained the deep and soulful yearning of the immigrant heritage that he embodied.

When we each left Israel for our various reasons and arrived back East, I to New York, he to New Jersey, it was a homecoming of sorts. We were, after all, true New Yorkers: had each grown up in the Bronx and attended the City College of New York. But though we hadn't known each other back then, now we knew each other in a special way, one that was hard to explain to those who hadn't shared what we did.

It was the loneliness of those who have lived through peace and war in another country and are haunted by a constant sense of displacement, of American Jews who had become Israelis and then returned to America again; of IDF veterans without an IDF to go to, Israelis without an Israel to walk in. So, we served to be those things for each other when we could, exchanging reminiscences, keeping Israel alive between us.

When he stepped down from editorship of Jewish Frontier, the organization journal of the Labor Zionist Alliance, a post he had received from his dear friend and colleague J.J. Goldberg, he turned it over to me and the sense of succession and of ongoing literary collaboration continued. Even when long times passed without communication and we diverged down very separate paths - he to raise a family and engage more closely in Jewish communal affairs; I to write books - there was, spiritually and intellectually, a constant exchange going on between us.

For David was my Jewish political and cultural soul collaborator. We each venerated the same things. Our little secret pride, for instance, in each having been published in Partisan Review (an American political and literary quarterly published from 1934 to 2003 ), when doing so hardly mattered to anyone anymore. It still mattered to us. We each carried within us a shared love of what was great in Israeli and Jewish American culture and life. We spoke of Philip Rahv, Irving Howe and Diana Trilling as though they still walked among us. The echoes of their disputes still echoed in our voices. As long as we lived, a love of those things would not fade.

This was our secret unspoken pledge to each other. And now he has gone and without his greatness to shore me up, I feel as if the whole world has gone. Because to me, he was the world at its very best; a human being as God intended human beings to be.

I must believe, I do believe, that what I learned from him still lives on in me and that I may continue to carry the work and the dream forward, though how lonely to do so without him. In my heart, I will be in dialogue with him until the day that I will join him in whatever place that Jewish writers go when the ink that is our blood dries up and blows away.

David Twersky was a great man, by every definition of greatness. A brilliant polemicist and political analyst. A fiery leader on behalf of young Jewish students, a combatant for the liberation of Soviet Jewry, and later a lighthouse to English-language immigrants in Israel. He was a groundbreaking editorial innovator and encourager of talent. A brave soldier in defense of the Jewish state. The founder of a kibbutz. An emissary to Jews to whom he reached a hand, sometimes across continents, to bring us home to who we are. He was, as such, my truest rabbi, descendant of great rabbis.

And my rabbi is now gone. And I will say Kaddish for him to the end of my days.

Alan Kaufman is a poet who lives in San Francisco.