'We Don't Have the Spirit of Our Ancestors'

For a brief moment last week, the figure of the forgotten writer Max Brod came to life, almost 40 years after his death. An audience of a few dozen people, who had gathered in a small auditorium in the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv to commemorate him, fell silent as his voice erupted from the loudspeakers.

"Kabbala [Jewish mysticism], along with Jewish philosophy, are the most important factors that have protected the Jewish people's existence," Brod said in fluent Hebrew in the rare recording. "But what do we see now? People quarrel. The same dangers and persecutions, threats of death, but the nation virtually never comes together except to argue. We don't have the spirit of our ancestors."

Meir Uziel organized and moderated the literary evening, which is part of a series of programs on literature at the theater. He chose to call the program "Brod's Secret."

The secret, he explained to the audience, lies in the fact that although Brod was "one of the great artists of the 20th century," he is insufficiently known, both in Israel and worldwide. He remains perpetually in the shadow of Franz Kafka, the close friend whose writings he saved from destruction and published.

"Everyone knows something about him and remembers that he is somehow connected to Kafka, but not many are familiar with the dozens of books he wrote, most of which have not been translated into Hebrew," said Uziel, who arranged the evening with the assistance of Nurit Pagi.

Uziel managed to enlist veteran actors who knew Brod personally, such as Alex Ansky, Shlomo Bar Shavit and Hanna Meron, along with younger actors such as Yael Abecassis and Yoav Yefet. They presented selected passages from his biography to the audience, including what he wrote on the day he met Kafka at Charles University in Prague.

"After the lecture, during which I so rudely cursed Nietzsche, Kafka, who differed with me, accompanied me home," Brod wrote. "We accompanied each other half the night, back and forth from the place where I was living to Kafka's house. The discussion quickly moved from philosophical to literary subjects."

Other parts of the program dealt with Brod's first love, his life in Tel Aviv and the historical novels he wrote about astronomer Tycho Brahe, Jesus and 16th-century Jewish adventurer David Reubeni.

The scenery on stage recalled a typical Tel Aviv apartment of the period, such as the one in which Brod lived after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia for Israel in 1939. Over the ensuing 30 years, he wrote 35 novels, books of philosophy and plays, all while working as a dramaturge at Habima Theater. However, as he said of himself in his autobiography, his status in the theater, and in the public consciousness, were both relatively marginal in Israel.

"Brod lost to Kafka, whom he revealed to the world, and paled beside him," Uziel said at the event. "And unlike Kafka, he wrote a great deal about Jewish-Zionist topics, which did not interest the world."

Hanna Meron, who was an actress in the rival Cameri Theater during Brod's time, read selections from his works and told about him from a personal angle. "He was a charming man, part of the bohemian world, but really not attractive - rather sickly and crooked."

However, the disease from which Brod suffered, scoliosis, did not prevent him from conducting several love affairs with beautiful and talented women. One of these affairs was with Ilse Esther Hoffe, who was his secretary and inherited his estate. After her death last year, her daughter Hava remained one of the last living people who knew Brod well.

Hava sat in the first row of the auditorium last week, but chose to remain silent. She and her sister Ruth have possession of Brod's personal diaries, which are arousing a great deal of interest the world over. If they decide to publish them, perhaps his secret will become somewhat clearer.

Uziel promised that "Brod will not be forgotten." He expressed a hope that Israeli theaters would once again perform his plays, and called on publishers to retranslate his books, and also to publish the works that have never appeared in Hebrew.