Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear?

Avi Garfinkel
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Avi Garfinkel

"Meayyin Nahalti et Shiri, Sofrim Umeshorerim Medabrim al Mekorot Hashraatum" ("Writers and Poets on Sources of Inspiration") edited by Ruth Karton-Blum, Yedioth Ahronoth Books, Sifrei Hemed, 335 pages, NIS 88

This collection originates in two series of lectures that took place on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in which major writers came to talk about their literary loves. The No. 300 hall, so named because of its seating capacity, was too small to hold the audience, and book-lovers, young and old, filled the aisles like fans before a rock concert. The narcissistic but fascinating words that attracted these crowds have now been poured into print in this collection, which contains 15 essay-conversations with writers such as Haim Be'er, Ronny Someck and Maya Bejerano.

In the opening essay the editor, Prof. Ruth Karton-Blum, criticizes Harold Bloom's idea concerning writers' Oedipal revolt against writers of preceding generations. In her opinion, the admiring attitude of the participants in this book toward their literary parents proves the limitations of Bloom's theory. However, it must be recalled that the writers Karton-Blum invited have already attained the status of parents themselves, and now - after they have earned a place for themselves in Hebrew literature - may allow themselves to display the generosity of victors.

It is difficult to suppose that those whose words appear in the book would take advantage of the respectable platform Karton-Blum offered them to badmouth other writers. And most importantly: It is possible to rebel against a parent - literary or otherwise - even if you admire him, and perhaps precisely because you do admire him.

The ambivalent attitude toward the parent, and toward the past in general, comes up in the remarks of most of the writers. David Grossman, for example, sees in the books of Shalom Aleichem that were given to him by his father, a tunnel that leads him from his childhood to his father's childhood. One end of this tunnel opens into "the young State of Israel, which believed that its strength also depended on its ability to forget, so that it could forge a new identity for itself; and the other opening was in the land of `There.'" But writers, those agents of the past, are very bad forgetters. Grossman, fortunately for him, can excavate this tunnel more easily than the generation of his predecessors, who encountered the resistance of the hard Zionist bedrock to dealing with the past.

Yoram Kaniuk writes of a similar resistance: "The school laughed (at a story he had written) for an entire day, because Zionist socialists were forbidden to touch upon emotions. In the youth movement up the hill, they discovered that I wrote and painted, and scorned me because this was bourgeois and imperialist and therefore I wrote and painted in secret."

Today, because of the need to preserve identity and justify our presence here, there is a demand for tunnels of the sort Grossman noted. "I imagined that now I had some sort of responsibility thrust upon me," he wrote, "to remember all those people - The first part of `See Under: Love' - tries to understand the Diaspora in Israeli terms. This is the only possible way to gather the tatters of identity and put back together the shards of the world that crumbled. Many characters in the book are looking for a story they had lost."

Search for lost stories

Not only characters, but also entire societies, like Israeli society today, are looking for lost stories of this sort. "In difficult moments, when a person's language cannot carry him any more," writes Agi Mishol, "he suddenly collapses into his mother-tongue, as in one of Pinhas Sadeh's last poems: "If only I could, if only I could return to the dream that I dreamt before dawn / A young girl, beautiful with a strange beauty, sings in a landscape of light, and she was my mother. / But in my memory nothing remains but the words: Ich zing vi a fegele - I sing like a bird."

The collapse into the mother-tongue (Yiddish, Ladino, Moroccan) and into its related values (religion, tradition) is a central process in Israeli society, which is losing its foothold in the existing experience and is beginning to recall better days. In such circumstances, according to Fouad Ajami, nostalgia becomes a social force. It is no coincidence that in her essay, Maya Bejerano mentions Nissim Aloni's "The American Princess," in which, she says, "there is a lack and a longing for another world ... that has been lost and has changed - and also sadness for the royal and the sublime, for the beauty and the nobility that the modern world has lost for the sake of values like materialism and the lust for power."

Were those days really better? Nostalgia is a doubtful force. On one of the many occasions in which the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is mentioned in this book, by various writers who of course did not consult one another, Avner Treinin writes: "Whether or not it was a garden of Eden - the expulsion from the garden really happened."

The cautious and complex attitude toward the past is exemplified in the remarks of Shin Shifra: "Father is divided in his feelings toward the city (Jerusalem), on the one hand looking for the scenes of his childhood, for the courtyards where he grew up, and on the other hand, did he not rebel against his fathers from the old Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Palestine] and run off to begin a new life?"

Or for Haim Be'er, in his remarks on Yitzhak Kumar, the hero of S.Y. Agnon's novel "Yesteryear": "His inability to leave his father's house and his mother's memory will block his way - until his terrible perdition." Be'er also mentions his own book, "The Time of Trimming," which dealt with the absurdities and the disasters that in his opinion can derive from casting the mythical past into the present, as when the messianic delusions spread with the victory of the Six-Day War.

Mordechai Geldman also speaks about the importance of detaching oneself from the past in order to form an independent identity: "In my youth, Abraham was already my favorite character in the Bible, because to me he represented the self-definition (individuation, in Jung's terms) that is created by leaving the concepts of the tribe into which one is born. But Abraham is not only the loneliest of them all; he is also the most blessed of them all and also perhaps the happiest of humans."

Synthesis, not surrender

What are we talking about when we talk about the past? Basically, about four things: Judaism, childhood, landscape and also, depending on the case, the Diaspora or the beginnings of Zionism. If it is permissible to page through this book with the crude fingers of statistics, it could be said that the attitude of the writers toward childhood and the landscape is positive. Childhood and landscape are lovely things, which must be rescued from time, oblivion and change.

"In January, 1984," mourns Ronny Someck in his poem "Johnny," "even an orchard was an attraction ... There's nothing to be done, the Land of Israel doesn't live here anymore."

Writers, as Shin Shifra says, must think: "To the fleeting movement: / Please stay a while! You are so beautiful." Or as Treinin puts it: "Creativity is nourished by the world of childhood and tries to rescue it from crumbling."

The attitude toward the beginnings of Zionism, redemption and Judaism is far more critical. The socialism and communism of the fathers of the Yishuv today are to Amir Or "hypocritical or optimistic to the point of being ridiculous." In her journey to her past, Shin Shifra encounters the ruins of the Arab village of Sheikh Munis, upon which Tel Aviv University was erected.

The Diaspora, and the remoteness that is braided through it, look to Agi Mishol, who was born in Hungary, like "the most fateful event" in her life, but at the same time, fertile in the artistic sense. Other participants in the book also admit that alongside the problematics, the stance of the outside observer that accompanied the Diaspora was essential for their art. Asher Reich even wonders whether his work does not owe its very existence to it.

Reich sees himself as an exile, even though he was born in Israel, because he grew up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Batei Ungarin. The newly observant, who tread Reich's path, but in the opposite direction, remind him of a "closing sale because the business is being shut down." A stance of refusal of the Jewish past can also be found in Shin Shifra: "In my writing there is no trace of those days [when she studied Judaism] ... I recognize the tragic rift of our existence here between old and new, but I am not prepared and I am not able to mend it artificially, or to fill it with materials that are not in accord with my world."

But this is exactly what is done by the heroine of Zeruya Shalev's "Love Life," according to Shalev's own testimony, "... in order to achieve her destiny and embark on a completely new life, while raiding the Jewish bookshelf ... This old struggle between the Kingdom of Israel and Judea may be seen as concealing behind it the struggle between Jewishness and Israeliness in the present, secularism and religiousness, exactly the culture war we are experiencing now ... And therefore there is some hope in this comforting connection between the fathers and the sons toward the end of the book, the Jewishness and the Israeliness, not in the form of surrender by the one to the other, but as a kind of true synthesis."

Mordechai Geldman, the title of whose essay is "Religiously Secular," tries to make such a synthesis: "Only from the stance of the secular individual - that is, from a stance that is not bound by any evident coercion of thought - am I able to develop the religious person within myself."

Scalpels of literature

The question of what attitude we should adopt to the past and to Judaism, as a society and as individuals, is one of the most important in Israeli culture today. It is possible to approach it with the sledgehammers of the television show "Popolitika" and daily newspapers, and it is possible to approach it with the scalpels of literature.

On the societal level, the control of the sources is both a weapon and a defense in the culture war that Shalev cites. A weapon with the help of which the supposedly empty cart of secular Israeli culture is filled. On the personal level, the secular rummaging of the Jewish bookshelf is frequently artificial, shallow and New Age-y, and can culminate in the reinforcement of the sense of alienation from the past or, alternatively, in a return to religious observance (which, from the classical Zionist perspective, is surrender). In rare cases this rummaging can culminate in the constructive synthesis that Shalev and Geldman have described.

Hebrew literature is not just the observation from the outside of this culture war - it is one of its active participants. Its tool, the Hebrew language, links us to the past whether we like it or not, and places before us Zionism's greatest and least controversial achievement. Hebrew literature can be a means of survival for the State of Israel and the Zionist project, just as the Bible served as a "portable homeland," as Heine put it, for the Jews in the Diaspora.

A great privilege has been the lot of the readers and the writers of this literature, which is still shaping itself. Yoram Kaniuk, a writer who lives among us, describes 1948 with a naturalness that is not accessible to any American writer, say, when he deals with the founding of his country. A culture is like a human being, and any word that is spoken or written during its first stages has far greater weight than at a stage in which the culture or the individual is growing old and petrified. With all the pain and sorrow, it is good that we have had the privilege of participating in this adventure taking place here and now.