Haaretz as a House of Prayer to Yekke Culture

The longtime editor of this newspaper's 'Culture and Literature' supplement looks back at the spirit of longing for European culture that has infused the section since its creation nearly 50 years ago.

After a lot of rummaging through the Haaretz archives on the basement floor of the editorial offices on Schocken Street in Tel Aviv, I found what I was looking for: the eulogy published by the late Gershom Schocken, at the time the editor of Haaretz, in the Culture and Literature supplement on May 15, 1970, immediately after word was received that Paul Celan had committed suicide by jumping into the Seine in Paris. In the piece, Schocken describes a visit by the German-Jewish poet to Israel a year earlier, during which, at a literary evening in his honor, Celan read from his poetry to an audience of Yekkes (German-speaking Jews ) from Czernowitz (today in Ukraine ), where the poet was born.

Thus wrote Schocken: "Celan read his poems with quiet emphasis and precise enunciation, poems that are 'hard to understand,' and especially for listeners who are unaccustomed to contemporary lyric poetry. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a synagogue in Central Europe before the destruction, with the congregation of worshipers not understanding the language of the service but participating eagerly and with ceremonious solemnity in the religious rite of the High Holidays."

Reading between the lines, one understands that Schocken was pained by the fact that German culture had lost its natural audience in Israel, but that at the same time he was suggesting a remedy of sorts: Just as secular German Jews might have attended synagogue without understanding a word of the language of the prayers, and even still they participated in the religious rite purely out of respect - so it was perhaps possible to found a "synagogue" like that here, where even those who were not knowledgeable about German or European culture could pay it passive respect. This synagogue, it seems to me, was the culture supplement of the newspaper he owned.

One of the proofs of this hidden intention to see that Haaretz supplement as a house of prayer to German culture can be found in the somewhat puzzling name that was given to the section when the decision was made to give it a name sometime back in the 1960s (until then it didn't have one of its own ): "Culture and Literature."

Why "culture" first and "literature" second? Here we see the guiding hand of those raised in the lap of classical German culture, which above all sanctified respect for culture - that is to say, respect for the cultural hierarchy - and looked with suspicion, if not downright scorn, at the mass of the self-satisfied semi-educated who were certain they were civilized people only because they chased after every cultural fashion and devoured books indiscriminately.

Avant-gardist control

The German language was the first to find a name for them, this pretentious community of ignoramuses: Philisters - or, Philistines. That is, those nasty barbarians from the Bible who restricted the heroic Samson's movements and brought about his death. The scorn for these new Philistines can be found under every stone turned over in the byways of German philosophy and history. It is there in Nietzsche, in the chapter of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" that mocks the self-styled intellectuals, and it is there in Heinrich Heine, who followed in the footsteps of Goethe, and from there the term spread throughout Europe.

The scorn for the superficial "Philistine" consumption of culture naturally also became a value of the Jewish enclave within German culture, in the bosom of which Haaretz editor Gershom Schocken and his father Salman Schocken before him had been raised. It was in the spirit of this classicist elitism that they undoubtedly decided to support S.Y. Agnon. And it was in the spirit of this classicist elitism that Salman Schocken established the Institute for the Study of Medieval Liturgical Poetry and other cultural projects. And in this spirit "culture" came first in the title of the supplement.

It is not at all to be taken for granted that a literary supplement promoting such elitist and classicist values would work in the Land of Israel, either in the pre-state period or in the initial years after statehood. When Haaretz came into the hands of the Schocken family, in the mid-1930s, the Hebrew literary street was controlled by an entirely contrary spirit: the avant-gardist spirit largely imposed by Avraham Shlonsky, who ironically was also the editor of the literary section of Haaretz at that time. Encouraging literary creativity as such in Hebrew was Shlonsky's top priority, not barricading himself behind walls of elitism. Therefore it was not long before he ceded his place at the paper to his friend Dr. Yaakov Horowitz, who though a member of Shlonsky's literary circle, quickly found it necessary to subordinate his taste to the demands of his new boss, Gershom Schocken.

In 1989, about a year before Gershom Schocken's death, researcher Rachel Frankel, who at the time was writing a book about Horowitz, gave me the draft of a very angry letter addressed to Schocken that she had found among her subject's papers. In it, Horowitz bewails the bad treatment he receives at the hands of the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, who criticizes him endlessly and is satisfied by nothing.

Horowitz enumerated a long list of such cases to prove that Schocken was harassing him systematically. I showed the letter to Schocken and asked him whether he had received any such letter. He denied it strenuously but he invited me to sit down across from him (a rare occurence ) and began to tell me the background that could have led to the writing of such a letter.

Schocken talked about the tension between the "Russians" and the Yekkes who had begun to take their place in the literary world of the Land of Israel, and who represented a kind of taste alien to the pervasive intellectual environment, which was deeply embossed with the Russian seal.

The head-on clash between Schocken and his literary editor erupted around S.Y. Agnon, and more precisely, when Agnon researcher Baruch Kurzweil began writing the essays which for the first time systematically examined the connections between world literature and Hebrew literature and put Agnon in the first rank, alongside the great international modernists.

Horowitz, no doubt as instructed by his teacher and rabbi Shlonsky, refused to publish Kurzweil. Kurzweil complained about this to Agnon. Agnon wrote to Schocken and Schocken called Horowitz in and told him - and I am quoting this verbatim from the mouth of Schocken himself: "Either you print Kurzweil or you are fired." And thus Kurzweil began publishing regularly in the literary supplement.

It is a bit hard to imagine today that publishing Agnon or critical essays about him could be considered tantamount to subversion. Nevertheless, in my opinion, there was something subversive, or at least definitely non-Israeli, in the Thomas Mannish envelope of respect donned by the Haaretz literary supplement concerning Agnon, in part with Kurzweil's help. And it is entirely possible that in Agnon, the Schocken family saw the embodiment of the German-Jewish fantasy of continuing to be an enclave that would nurture the idea of the universal contribution made by Jews to German culture, and would contribute to the post-Kafka world a Hebrew Kafka in the shape of Agnon.

Here is one version of that German-Jewish fantasy. In a letter from January 1923, Franz Rosenzweig, the German-Jewish author of "The Star of Redemption," wrote: "Germany will respect us for our work at most after our death but nevertheless we are doing it ... for Germany's sake."

And this is very similar to what our contemporary, the Polish-born German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, writes at the end of his autobiography: that to be a Jew means spreading German culture in the world. And I believe that to this day the literary supplement of Haaretz also has this mission imprinted in its DNA, sometimes indirectly, to be a weekly reminder of the idea that the only validity Hebrew culture has is in its being an enclave within the broader culture, an enclave that must continue the classical universal Jewish mission - to be a light unto the nations and to provide the world, unceasingly, with proof of the validity of the idea of the Jewish genius and the Jews' cultural mission in the world.

If this is so, we nevertheless have a problem.

It is difficult to explain the fact that around the Haaretz literary supplement, that same supplement that nurtured Agnon and Kurzweil, gathered so many representatives of the "Young Hebrews" or "Canaanites" movement. Foremost among them was Benjamin Tammuz, who wielded great influence over the supplement from the latter half of the 1960s, hiring veterans of the Canaanite journal Aleph after it closed - and served as a platform for former Canaanite activists such as Avraham Rimon and Amos Kenan. Schocken supported the latter, in fact, even after he was involved in a terrorist attack on a religious government minister.

Ostensibly, what does the Canaanite option, which upheld the idea of the return of the Hebrew nation to its natural space in the area of the Fertile Crescent, have in common with nurturing Agnon and the idea of the universal Jewish mission? What is the meaning of this dual and contradictory affection on the part of the Haaretz literary section for the Agnon-Kurzweill axis, on the one hand, and the anti-Jewish Yonatan Ratosh-Canaanite axis on the other?

German Expressionism

Perhaps the answer to this, too, must be sought in Germany. My conjecture is that Gershom Schocken saw the "Canaanites" as the closest thing to the part of German Expressionism he admired, from which he had to take his leave upon his forced emigration from Germany.

And here the name Gottfried Benn almost automatically comes to mind. Benn was perhaps the favorite German poet of Schocken, who published his own translations of Benn's work in the Haaretz literary supplement over the years, without noticing the fact that in Germany, Benn was among those who were suspected of a certain enthusiasm for the Nazis, and without taking into consideration the anti-German atmosphere that prevailed in Israel in the 1950s, the 1960s and even much later.

A thin envelope in the Haaretz archives tells the secret story of the exiled son of German culture who decides he will not be politically correct and will continue his love affair with the new German poetry that had enchanted him in his youth, with its admiration of paganism and its demonstrative scorn for Judeo-Christian morality and the constraints of religion, and for that well-known German proprietary tendency and gemutlichkeit. And there is nothing closer in Hebrew to Gottfried Benn's spirit than the New Hebrews movement, which called for an extreme disengagement from Jewishness, which fought religious coercion and David Ben-Gurion's compromises with the religious parties and preached a renewal of the connection with the pre-monotheistic cultures of the ancient Near East.

Thus the Haaretz literary supplement, in the Canaanite spirit that received a German seal of approval from above, became the permanent stage for translations of the literature of the ancient Near East, something that continued until the death earlier this year of the outstanding translator of the ancient languages of Mesopotamia, Shin Shifra. Isn't it strange to think that the Canaanite movement, after it had expired officially, continued its life in the Haaretz literary supplement as an echo of Gottfried Benn's German poetry and German Expressionist poetry in general?

In 1986, a conference was held in Haifa to mark the 15th anniversary of Paul Celan's death. At the time, I was working as a copy editor at the newspaper, in the same room as writer Yehoshua Kenaz. In the adjacent rooms sat the deputy editor and the editorial secretary. It was evening. The two of them were called into Schocken's office, which they departed with fallen faces. They came straight into our room to tell us that Schocken had informed them he wanted to publish letters written to his father by someone called "Porcellan."

"Porcellan? Who is Porcellan?" they cried out in distress. We reassured them. Not Porcelain, but rather Paul Celan. Schocken, who no doubt had been driven to despair by the blank looks cast back at him by people from his own newspaper who had never heard of such a major German poet, finally decided to publish those letters in the literary supplement, the last lovers' nest that remained to him for carrying on his secret German-Jewish romance.

When I look back at the 23 years of my work as the editor of the Haaretz literary supplement, I believe I have succeeded in internalizing a passion similar to that in my day-to-day practice. For example, a series of articles written regularly in his day by the intellectual Mordechai Shalev about the Jewish elements in the works of Kafka or Beckett, or the series of equally long articles on Kafka by Dan Miron, published in the holiday issues of "Culture and Literature." These, after all, are suicidal with respect to ratings. But we feel a sacred obligation to continue doing this, for the sake of that unwritten commandment that this is the supplement's role.

When a few weeks ago, on the lawn of a courtyard in Metula, translator Shimon Sandbank read his new translation of poems by Else Lasker-Schuler from "My Blue Piano," I instinctively grabbed the pieces of paper from his hand at the end of the reading and published them in "Culture and Literature."

And thus our secret love affair continues with the German culture that long ago shed its original shape and become an abstract fantasy - a fantasy about this cultured "place" looking at our small enclave, and we looking back at it in hope of recognition of our contribution or, as in Rosenzweig's words cited above: "Germany will recognize our work at most after our death, but nevertheless we are doing it for Germany's sake."