Stations of the Six-Pointed Star


The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel.

Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Bob Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.

One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise. But both these grand inventions have two things in common.

One is Jewish writers. We all know about the importance of Jewish writers in Hollywood — we wouldn’t have “Porky’s 3” or “Halloween 4” without them.

But Israel also was birthed in the mind of a Jewish writer. It began as an idea, and then as a series of essays, then some books by a fine journalist and mediocre playwright named Theodor Herzl. Last year at UCLA, the great Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua said he always wondered what would have happened if Herzl had been a better playwright.

The other commonality is that both Hollywood and Israel provided a means of refuge from the real world. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; they founded Israel to help Jews escape the world.

Thus, 60 years ago this week, the State of Israel came into being to provide a refuge for the Jewish people.

So, how’s that working out?

For one, it’s clear the idea of Israel as refuge has evolved over the past six decades. In 1948, Israel was the place Jews could go to recover from the last Holocaust and the place from where they could defend themselves against the next one.

To this day, many — if not most — Jews hold to the belief that Israel’s prime importance is as a kind of safety zone if or when things start to go south on us again.

But for American Jews, who make up the bulk of the Diaspora, this Panic Room Zionism is a hard sell. We may still feel that Israel is a place of refuge, but reality, whether we acknowledge it or not, argues against this.

Our life here is more stable and secure than that of Jews in Israel. Many more Jews leave Israel to come here than leave America to settle there. We also know, without actually saying it out loud, that Israel is only safe so long as America is. If the situation worsens for Jews in America, it won’t bode well for Israel, either, because Israel depends on America’s support.

If Israel is no longer our physical refuge, it is nevertheless a kind of psychological and spiritual refuge, a place we American Jews can escape to in our minds. Instead of becoming, as its founders hoped it would, our final destination, it is has become one more station on our pilgrimage of spiritual growth.

And this holds true at every phase of life. For young Jewish men and women, in college or just out, Israel is a place to visit for emotional and intellectual growth, and even, perhaps, to explore their sexuality. It is but a chapter in the bildungsroman of Jewish life, where you can deepen your youthful soul in an ancient land.

When we reach middle age, Israel also holds a powerful psychic allure. Not long ago, in the same week, a major Hollywood producer and a prominent politician each confided to me that they constantly toy with the idea of chucking it all to go and live in Israel — just drop everything and go.

They won’t. They’re too old to pick oranges, and anyway, in Israel, Jews no longer pick oranges — they import cheap Asian or Eastern European labor to do it.

But the idea is that Israel can give meaning to your life. That you can renew your aging soul in a new country.

Retirees dream of going there to make those golden years useful, to make a statement, to finally put their bodies where for so many years their mouths and their money had been.

And finally, many elderly American Jews dream of going there when they die, to rest, so to speak, until the messiah arrives and from where, as the Talmud promises, one’s soul “will rise directly through the gates of heaven.”

It is very difficult to find statistics on the number of American Jews who go to Israel to be buried. I suspect because it’s much higher than the number who go there to live.

It is a great gift to have a home away from home, to know there is a place, to quote Robert Frost, where if you have to go there, they have to take you in. Sixty years on, Israel has become the “Cheers” of the American Jewish soul. Go there, even for a visit, and you will find, inexplicably, it is more like home than home.

None of this is to take away from what Israelis have achieved, what a remarkable, accomplished society they have built against debilitating odds. I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about us.

The reality is, we Jews in Los Angeles don’t need Israel to live, to survive. But 60 years on, when we search our hearts and souls, we need it to thrive.

Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’


Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”

 

Arts and Entertainment


 

Few academic disputes are fiercer than among biblical archaeologists, and “Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land” is bound to raise the tone of the arguments by a few more octaves.

The hour-long NOVA documentary, airing on PBS station KCET on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., follows an expedition to a remote cave in Israel’s Judean Desert, initially excavated by famed soldier and archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960.

In the so-called Cave of Letters, west of the Dead Sea, Yadin found skulls, artifacts, documents and, most startling, letters from Shimon Bar Kokhba, leader of the revolt against the Romans from 132-135 C.E.

It takes a certain chutzpah to presume that the iconic Yadin may have overlooked and misinterpreted some of the evidence, but historian Richard Freund, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford (Conn.) is a man not easily intimidated.

Gathering experts from 10 other universities and the latest equipment, Freund set out in 1999 for another dig at the cave.

Freund thought that the Yadin expedition had not penetrated through the thick layers of debris covering the cave floor to a depth of 15 feet, or explored all three chambers of the cave complex, cutting 300 yards into the cliff’s side.

Using technology not available to Yadin, Freund found new artifacts and bones.

He believes they indicated that the cave had been used as a refuge before Bar Kokhba, probably by Jews fleeing after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

But his most controversial conclusion centers on the ritual bronze vessels, decorated with a sea goddess and other Roman mythological figures, which Yadin had discovered in 1960.

Yadin believed that the vessels had been stolen from the Romans, but Freund believes that the artifacts were in actual use in the Temple in Jerusalem, and may be its only surviving items.

Freund’s conclusions point to an intermingling of Roman and Jewish cultures, even in Judaism’s holiest site, but the very idea appalls most biblical scholars.

“I cannot believe that the priests allowed Roman mythological figures on Jewish religious objects,” protests Dead Sea Scrolls expert Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, adding that the political, as well as archaeological, implications of the dispute help account for its intensity.

For more information on the program, visit www.pbs.org/nova/holyland.