If the members of the Swedish academy were to suddenly start awarding a Nobel Prize in alchemy - the ancient science that purported to transform non-matter into matter, and to turn straw into gold - I'd have a ready candidate: Mr. Yoram Kaniuk, who managed to do the impossible. He took a Jew (himself ), did a bit of hocus pocus, and presto! He became a non-Jew. Through legal casuistry that will not be discussed here, Kaniuk bent the arm of the Interior Ministry's Population Registry and made it erase the word "Jew" from the "religion" rubric in his file.
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That, incidentally, doubled the number of religionless Israeli citizens. As it was revealed shortly afterward, 60 years before Yoram Kaniuk, Uzzi Ornan - a veteran warrior against religious coercion and a member of the Canaanite Young Hebrews Movement - went to court to order the Population Registry to stop categorizing him as a Jew. So, in general, this campaign against the religion clause is as old as the State of Israel.
Ostensibly, one would expect masses of secular citizens who view religion as outmoded to avail themselves of Kaniuk's (and Ornan's ) alchemical invention to turn Jews into non-Jews. And in fact I read about several hundred enthusiastic citizens who convened on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to fill out the forms and take them to the Interior Ministry, demanding that it recognize them as religionless. Have they indeed done so already, or are they waiting for the end of the holidays - which, naturally, they no longer celebrate, seeing as they will soon be non-Jews?
I would gladly join this potential freedom-advocating horde but for one little problem with Kaniuk's magic formula. And the problem is Shakespeare. Yes, the famous English playwright. I reread his play "The Merchant of Venice," and what did I find there? That the most characteristic mark of the Jew, that which distinguishes the straw and dross of the rest of humanity from the Jewish gold, is not the length of his nose or any other physical quality, but rather his zealous, absurd adherence to the written form and the dry letter of the law.
Shylock nearly succeeds in getting a pound of flesh from someone's body, only because the deal has been written up and signed, until a craftier casuist beats his legalese. And now behold the case of Kaniuk. Utterly akin to the Shakespearian case: He nearly succeeded, by means of legal casuistry, at cutting his pounds of flesh from the body called the Jewish religion. But only nearly: What could be more Shylock-y than the absurd preoccupation with this formality of changing a line in his Interior Ministry file to "non-Jew"?
And what could be more Jewish than the self-satisfied flaunting of the place on the form that states "religionless," and the desire to be a wiseass and annoy folks merely so they pay attention to your intellectual originality? The problem of our automatically being considered Jews is burdensome and there is no denying that. But even 1,000 authorizations from the Interior Ministry can't change this, and won't turn Kaniuk the Jew into Kaniuk the non-Jew.
He who does not want to be a Jew must first start behaving like a non-Jew. And how does a non-Jew behave? He first of all lives his life in an orderly fashion, calmly, without the need to invent exclusive solutions to the absolutely final tikkun olam (repair of the world ), merely so he'll be noticed. I didn't come up with this: It was the French and not-at-all-Jewish philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who ruled, in a well-known essay, that what makes a Jew a Jew is not something in an official government record, but rather his authenticity as a Jew.
And what could be more Jewish than two Jews in our town, Reb Kaniuk and Reb Ornan, who founded a club of people without religion, but cannot decide who will run that club? And when the feudal lord appointed Reb Kaniuk to be the pope of the religionless, Reb Ornan sprang up and said: But I've been the pope for 60 years. This one says this and that one says that. Nu, Hag Sameah.