In Govorovo, the town in Poland where my great grandfather grew up, there was no library. By the 1940s, Bundists and Brennerites may have competed with Zionists and Socialists for the attentions of the youth of the town with their respective ideologies and libraries. But for my great grandfather Velvel, the town that he knew passed their Saturday mornings after synagogue by the two communal brick ovens, relating fantastic legends, stories and tales about kings, princes, magical creatures and Golems.
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Velvel was a jeweler, though in the imagination of his landesmen, he was Bezalel, from out of whose tinkering with gold, silver and precious stones, he conjured idiosyncratic treasures, reminding the mostly religious townspeople of the artisan of the Biblical sanctuary in the desert. Velvel was a conjurer in more than one way: the children of the heder, the religious day school, remembered his elongated limbs, a Hasidic figure styled like an El Greco painting, dramatizing the story of the Exodus, Moses’ encounter with Pharoah, Velvel’s arms reaching forth in imitation of the outstretched arms of Israel’s redeemer. Between pogroms, Velvel’s fantastical stories of magic and salvation provided a respite from the shtetl’s hardships.
If I were to find myself, on that October day in 1943, in the back room of the synagogue where the men were huddled in their prayer shawls before the Nazis took them to be shot in the town’s field, I would want to tell Velvel one last story. Though, by then, he would have known that his wife, daughter and four remaining sons in the shtetl would be slaughtered with him – seven of them altogether – he would not know the full fate of his five surviving sons in America, how one son Abe, my grandfather, took his father’s conjuring trade to New York; how in the twenties, he made cocktail watches for flappers; and how by the seventies, his factory in Newark was manufacturing luxury watches, laid out in advertisements on slices of Emmental cheese in up-market magazines. For the weekly letters from Velvel that my grandfather Abe and his family received in their Forest Hills mailbox had already stopped coming, months before Velvel sat cramped with the other men of Govorovo, in the back of the synagogue.
It would be then that I would want to tell him that one last story: How one day he would have descendants living in Jerusalem, seven children singing joyfully at a Shabbos table overlooking a rebuilt city, learning Torah in the State of Israel. I never met my great-grandfather, but I can imagine the family gesture that I’ve inherited, a slight roll of the eyes, a waiving hand gesture – Velvel was a conjurer, but not one easily conjured – ‘don’t give me such fairy tales!’ But he might have re-considered that act of gruff dismissal in the split-hypothetical second that never happened: ‘So the Messiah finally came,’ it might have crossed his mind, ‘that’s the only explanation.’
I would have liked to have offered Velvel the gift of that momentary realization, as much for myself to experience through him, sharing in his gasp at the recognition of Jewish survival, before the bullets killed him, his body later dumped in the city’s only Jewish cemetery, today with only a single headstone remaining. Though the possibility remains that, in the end for Velvel, it would only have been just one more fanciful dream, too hard to believe, the coming to life of one of his own fantastical renderings, a magical story of Jewish salvation, not with the heroic King slayer, or even Marx’s proletarian Golem as the story’s protagonist, but the Messiah.
And if so, if Velvel were alive today, perhaps he would be as disenchanted as the rest of us. Maybe he would be a post-Zionist skeptic who can’t imagine that the Fairy Tale should have turned out this way. Or maybe he would be an embittered religious Zionist, who already claiming the Fairy Tale was ending in 1967, discovered that later events, like the disengagement of 2005, did not provide for anything like the expected ending. Or maybe he would be an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist who could always only imagine a Fairy Tale version of the story, the Third Temple falling miraculously from the skies, or at least a story with suitably religious protagonists without whom it could not be a Fairy Tale at all.
Indeed, for those who only live exclusively in fantasies and fairy tales, reality will always be disappointing. ‘History,’ as James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus says, ‘is what hurts.’ For centuries, fairy tales like the ones my great-grandfather purveyed, insulated Jews from the pains, as well as the responsibilities of history.
But waking up from dreams and acknowledging fairy tales for what they are – distractions from confronting our manifold challenges – does not however have to mean the end of belief, or even the end to our sense of the miraculous. Perhaps we can still cultivate a belief in the Zionist enterprise, however incomplete – it will always be so until the Messiah really does come – without, losing the elation Velvel might have allowed himself to feel for that moment, before dying in a pit in Poland, dreaming about a future Israel he never knew.
Professor William Kolbrener, Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan University, is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his introduction to the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica was recently published by Shalem Press.