Journey of a Thousand Miles

When Haim Be'er planned his new novel, he imagined a Hasidic leader seeking a yak-like incarnation of the biblical red heifer. This led Be'er himself to embark on an eye-opening trek to Tibet. Now the book is out.

The admor of Ustyluh, the holy sage who is the hero of Haim Be'er's new novel, secretly escapes from his Hasidic court in Bnei Brak, from his embittered wife and his children, and embarks on a search for the holy yak in Tibet that has appeared before him in a dream.

Haim Be’er
David Bachar

"I remember being moved by a story I read about a Jew who established a farm in order to raise a red heifer," Be'er explains. "According to Jewish law, a red heifer is needed to atone sins. Then I thought of the [extinct ox-like animal called an] aurochs - that the sage should search for this sort of wild cattle. Then I wondered, where would it live? It would have to live at high elevation. I learned that yaks are raised in Nepal and Tibet. I thought I might travel to Nepal. I started to look into it, and it became clear that the trip involved a trek of three weeks.

"Then I met my friend, the writer Dov Elbaum, who told me about his visit to India. He said I should not travel alone, that these places are too taxing for someone my age. He sent me to a young man named Niso Kedem. I liked that name, Niso Kedem. I found him and explained that I wanted to visit a place where there were a lot of yaks, without having to climb too much. He said: Tibet."

Be'er was joined on his journey there by a friend, Dr. Michael Bizer, who was designated as the expedition's physician, and Be'er's young son. The writer had already begun to envision the main elements of the novel, but recalls that he still didn't know exactly what would happen in the Tibet part, and how the rabbi from Ustyluh would respond to such a journey.

"When I reached Tibet, I felt as though it was extraterritorial," Be'er relates. "I can understand betrayal by a loyal wife who finds herself in an entirely different place [like this] - in a kind of new time capsule. Loyalties don't evaporate, but they belong to a different territory. Fortunately, or frustratingly, I did not have an affair on this trip because I had two bodyguards," he says, laughing. "But I grasped that this was a place where things might happen to you. When we were there, I didn't know what was going to happen; I just collected material. I am a person who lacks imagination, and I have to look around and take notes on what I see. I jotted down comments, and returned with a bag full of material.

"At any event, I returned to a long, hard year of teaching, in which I traveled three times a week to Be'er Sheva. I was tired. But then my middle son, who lives in Austin, proposed that I come visit him. I went there for six months, and worked round-the-clock. I wrote for 16 hours a day."

The result is Be'er's new book "El Makom Sheharuah Holech" ("Back from Heavenly Lack," Am Oved publishers ), which the author dedicated to Sholem Yankev Abramovich, the given name of the classical Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Seforim. The novel's epigraph comes from Mendele's tale "The Travels of Benjamin the Third": "From that hour onward, his place in his town was narrow and hard. His soul longed for there, for places in the world. His heart would carry him great distances ... "

Looming before Be'er's eyes was a contemporary Jewish version of "Don Quixote": "Cervantes wrote 'Don Quixote' without any connection to the Jews; Later, Mendele appeared, and wrote 'The Travels of Benjamin the Third.' He based the story on the myth of Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew who embarked on a long journey. Think about a Jew who lives in a small, provincial town, who has virtually no economic means, and yet fantasizes about seeing the world. He wants to discover the world's secrets; he has a kind of lust for travel. But how can he leave his town? What economic leverage does he have for travel?"

Be'er has written a sharp, mystical and humorous Hasidic tale. An imaginative story that's filled with realistic details. The story conveys pungent criticism, and also a sensual sort of love, not just between a man and a woman, but also between a writer and words.

The novel's protagonist, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Halevy Hurvitz, the admor of Ustyluh, who leads a group of Hasidic followers from Bnei Brak, is a descendant of the "Seer of Lublin," on his father's side, and of the "Holy Jew from Peshischa," on his mother's side. These are two genuine characters of note in Hasidic history.

Reb Yaakov Yitzhak is known for his magical powers, especially his acute powers of divination; his Hasidic followers call him the "divine catheter." Thousands visit his court in Bnei Brak. Be'er writes: "By closing his eyes and concentrating on the forehead of a person sitting across from him, he could penetrate the other's heart, clean the passageways and corridors besmirched by sin and by ailments of the flesh."

When the venerated man decides to travel to Tibet, his follower Simcha Dantziger, a diamond merchant from Brussels, accompanies him and finances the journey. Dantziger's entourage is joined by a young woman, Dr. Selena Bernard, who is doing post-doctoral work at Beijing's Institute of Zoology, under the guidance of the world's leading authority on yaks. The holy sage and the scientist fall in love, in Tibet, against the backdrop of the breathtaking mountaintops, the Tibetan monks, Buddhist monasteries, herds of yaks and the kosher meals which Dantziger has flown in for both himself and the beloved rabbi, who is seeing the world for the first time.

"This economic dimension interests me," Be'er says, "the fact that someone is prepared to throw money around. Rich people for whom money is no object. They look for someone who has the imagination that they lack. Together, they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza."

Haim Be'er was born in Jerusalem, in 1945, although today he lives in Ramat Gan. He is a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and a winner of the Bialik Prize for Hebrew literature. His books include "Feathers" (1979 ), "A Time for Trimming" (1987 ), "The Pure Element of Time" (1998 ), and most recently, "In that Place," from 2007. (The first two have been published in English translation. )

Be'er says that all of his previous books were influenced by matters connected to his mother, whereas this new novel bears an imprint of his father.

"My mother came from a family of [anti-mystical] mitnagdim, students of the Gaon of Vilna; they were not Hasids. My father was from a region that belonged to Russia, and is today in Ukraine, and which was heavily influenced by the Hasidic movement. All my life I identified with my mother's family ... Since writing 'The Pure Element of Time,' I've attained a degree of empathy for my father. I've stopped judging him from my mother's perspective, and have begun to judge him on my own terms."

Synagogues and Jewish life in general have changed considerably since he was a child. "When I was a boy there were a lot of people whom [the late journalist and critic] Adam Baruch called 'Jews in any event.' He prays; he doesn't pray; [either way,] he's a Jew. My father established a synagogue in our neighborhood; I wrote about it in 'The Pure Element of Time.' It was a synagogue for transgressors. People would turn up to it clean-shaven, on a Shabbat; you could see that they had shaved that same morning.

"In synagogues today, on the third day of Rosh Hashanah, when it's a three-day holiday, as it will be this year, everyone looks as though they are in mourning; each male face is full of stubble by the last day. In our old synagogue, every worshiper looked as though he had just taken a shower. Most of the people would eat all sorts of [non-kosher] things, but they would walk to the synagogue. Why? Because they loved the synagogue, loved the cantor, loved the surroundings. It wasn't like today, when you have to say where you're at, who you belong to, whether you are with us or not with us. It was after the Holocaust, and nobody asked anyone any questions, because it was none of your business - the atmosphere had something to do with the absence of God. God had gone away. Whether he would return or not was anyone's guess, but there was a feeling that he was nowhere to be found in the surroundings."

Be'er explains that he wanted to write a novel about new love and a change of heart. "Can an older person truly experience a 'change of heart'?" he asks. "In the case of someone from my generation or your generation, who has a partner, if it doesn't work out, he or she finds a new partner. That's not really a change of heart. But in the case of someone as rigidly defined as this holy sage - the persons who are the most 'square,' who have the most to lose, are the rabbis. I was not interested in an affair of an adulterous sort; instead, my interest was in the religious dimension. The love he has with Selena is a religious matter. He fulfills his identity as a person in the fullest possible way."

The writer emphasizes that in mystical Judaism, in kabbala and also in Hasidic belief, coupling between a man and a women is a "miniaturized" act of the coupling between God and the Shechinah, the divine spirit and his female consort.

Be'er: "When we perform any sort of mitzvah, we cause God and the Shechinah to unite. But Christianity nudged Judaism aside in this respect. In Judaism, for instance, no synagogue will be built without a restroom; travel to Europe, and you won't find a church that has a bathroom. That represents absolute denial of the body, of the body's needs. In Judaism, you say a blessing when you need your female partner, and that is beautiful and correct; in contrast to the Christian approach, which says that there are unworthy acts, things that must be swept under the carpet. Classical Judaism did not sweep anything under the carpet. That is beautiful with regard to responding to the needs of the body. The body's needs exist. When you sleep with the woman you love, the Shechinah and God are united high above."

So what went wrong?

Be'er: "The encounter with Europe, with Christianity, the need to change according to their values."

You describe a person who is, on the one hand, a revered rabbi: People come to him, he performs miracles, he is a person of highly developed spirituality. On the other hand, he is naive about the ways of the world, almost completely ignorant.

"Correct. For example, I had to make sure he was born in America, because otherwise how could he have spoken to Selena in English? In China, when he meets Nancy, the Chinese tour guide, he suddenly discovers that he can converse with a woman. They live in a type of total isolation. On the other hand, they are very curious. But that is comparable to the way you are curious about what happens in the ultra-Orthodox world, the way you receive the information flickeringly, in a manner than never gives a complete picture."

You describe his Hasidic community in Bnei Brak, and say that there is wire-tapping equipment installed all around, so that the rabbi's assistants can listen to discussions and relay information to him.

"Yes, what do you think? How else would they know everything?"

What about God? What about the fact that lying is prohibited?

"Listen, God is flexible."

The organizer of the journey to Tibet depicted in the book is reading Martin Buber's "Gog and Magog," and the rabbi becomes aware of it there, for the first time.

"One of the books that influenced me when I was young was 'Gog and Magog,'" explains Be'er. "I became acquainted with Buber in several phases. When I was very young I would go to hear him lecture at Beit Hillel in Jerusalem. Then one day I arrived early, and I saw Buber stand with the lighting experts, and he made sure that the spotlight was directed at the speaker's lectern from below, so that he would look like a prophet. That moment I saw him as a different Buber.

"The second Buber was the one who collected the amazing stories in 'Gog and Magog,' and who had a strong influence on me. The truth is that he distorted the Hasidic movement; he abridged it. He excised from Hasidism all of the sociology and insulting travail; he refined it, and turned it into something very spiritual. I noticed that he purified Hasidism, but that is what an artist does, a great artist takes something out of its context. I don't have any quarrel with him, because he was a great artist.

"There is the prosaic Buber I saw [too], but today I have empathy for that scene with the spotlights, because Buber was also a type of revered sage. It's like the wiretaps in the sage's courtyard; even people of Buber's type needs all sorts of gadgets."

Asked about his attitude toward God and religion, Be'er responds that he doesn't know whether he is secular or religious. "It is just like the fact that you are not required to describe the character of your relations with your husband, or even with yourself. People are very much no longer members of youth movements, and the question of whether one is religious or secular is a youth-movement sort of question."

What about fear of God?

"Perhaps the juxtaposition of words most foreign to me is 'awe of God.' I've never felt such trembling and awe. I've had all sorts of relations with him, but I was never afraid of God. Sometimes I believe more, sometimes less. Among most Jews, a child is taught to be afraid of God, and that lesson never leaves him; Even when you deny the existence of God, you continue to fear. I wasn't taught that way. I was wrapped in love."