by Phil Cohen
I’m in Israel for a kind of classical tourist visit. My daughter Talia and I will truck around, visiting Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tsfat, the Golan and Haifa. We’ve identified a couple of sites we haven’t seen before, like the newly opened Ein Keshatot, a renovated Byzantine era synagogue in the Golan, and Agamon HaHula, one of the largest bird migration sites in the world with a six mile hike.
Talia lived in Tel Aviv for the better part of a year and knows the city well. She’s been a terrific guide, due partly to the powerful memories of her time here, partly due to the infallibility of Google Maps which gets us everywhere. She has a yen to visit Ramallah, and so we will. Israelis to whom we mention this part of our trip seem bemused, but I’d visited the city a few years ago and it was interesting.
Okay, not doubt news of my travels will not rivet you to this page, but I do have a small observation based on an experience I’d like to share.
This morning we visited the Bialik House, a fairly modest museum devoted to the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934). Not that the house itself, which belonged to Bialik, as houses go, is modest. Quite the contrary. It’s large and beautiful and sits in a terrific neighborhood in Tel Aviv. It’s all the more impressive, considering it was the home of a poet, never among the best paying of professions.
I looking at the room that served as his study, when I overheard a conversation between an employee and a newly employed guide as to the particulars of this room. At a certain point I stuck my nose into the conversation and asked why, on the wall next to the famous painting of Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky (1859-1944) collaborating on their masterwork, Sefer HaAggadah, there hangs a photo of Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927). I knew that Bialik and Ahad Ha’am, who were acquainted with each other. I just wanted to know why in a room with the aforementioned painting and a photo of Bialik’s wife, Dineh-Priveh, the only other image was that of the creator of cultural Zionism.
My interlocutor, named Netta, averred that Ahad Ha’am hung there as a paean to someone who’d had an extraordinary influence on his world view. That being? That in the modern world, the Jewish people’s survival depended on the preservation of its texts and the values to be derived from them, even if religious observance was diminishing among some. (Ahad Ha’am was certainly one of those, as was Bialik.) This cultural expression of Zionism strove to create a world thick with Jewish values even as the religious basis of Judaism was eroding. With cultural continuity there would remain a common ground for conversation among the diversity of the Jewish people all over the world. (Recall that Ahad Ha’am, who died well before the Shoah, did not call for a mass immigration to Israel.)
Then Netta suggested that the task of finding and living by those shared values that people like Bialik and Ahad Ha’am initiated, continues today. I nodded as sagely as I could, but wondered at her remark.
Where does this kind of thinking take place today in America? Who among American Jews strives to fulfill that old mission laid down by those two men, as well as the likes of A.D. Gordon and Mordecai Kaplan? More, who among the Jews of America is sweating over creating an intentional effort of define and clarify a Jewish culture that has both meaning and strives to hold us all together as one people?
In America, for those who even consider the matter, it has become easier and easier to declare that the notion of Jewish peoplehood is a construct, one that has seen its day. Once upheld as an unbreakable the dogma that, despite all appearances to the contrary, all Jews are one people, the notion has sunk with the last sunset. And, the truth is, who could deny that a Satmar Hasid and a Humanistic Jew would have little if anything to say to each other, especially if the Humanistic Jew’s mother isn’t Jewish? Not that long ago, some among us would attempt to make that argument.
One of my visits in Jerusalem will be with Eliezer Schweid. Schweid is the great contemporary Jewish philosopher who devoted a great deal of his intellectual bolstering the ideas of Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon. His was a great effort to build an intentional and sustainable Jewish intellectual culture that would articulate serious text-based Jewish values for the world of secular Israelis.
In contemporary Israel, as Schweid himself admits, this may a difficult ideal to achieve; all the more so in America, where, I suspect, the very notion does not rise to the level of consideration for too many. But as I sit in a coffeehouse on Rehov Dr. Borgrashov Street, where behind me a party of twelve is celebrating someone’s birthday in Hebrew, I have to think that some small measure at least of Jewishness is innate.
I recall a conversation in Israel years ago, long before the floodgates of the Former Soviet Union opened wide and Israel became the home to over a million Jews. If you recall, in the old days, when a Soviet Jew received an exist visa, it was always for Israel. When that person arrived in Vienna, he or she would then declare his or her actual destination, more often the US than Israel. Israelis weren’t happy with that state of affairs. Israelis reasoned that at least in Israel a Soviet Jew would remain a Jew simply through Israeli osmosis of land, language, shared politics and destiny.
I’ve always believed there was something to that argument, complex (like all important arguments) though it may be. The struggle to define a values-laden Jewish identity in Israel surely persists, but the substrate grants the Israeli Jewish identity a strength that the American Jewish identity, I would argue, cannot.
Be all of that as it may, at least in the Bialik House, in the work of keeping the legacy of one of Israel’s greatest poets alive, there survives the vision that struggling for Jewish unity and Jewish ideas remains alive and well.