Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Funny, you don't look Jewish

In the course on Israeli literature and culture that I teach at the University of Toronto, I frequently ‎include a poem by Yehuda Amichai called, “Jews in the Land of Israel.” It is about the profound ‎and often painful process of change accompanying the Jews’ transition from being a homeless ‎people to an autonomous nation. ‎

Some of these changes in Jewish life might not always be obvious. One line from the poem that I ‎always like to bring to the attention of my students is: “our children are beautiful.” I ask them if ‎this statement surprises them. The students generally stare at me with a look of perplexity: why ‎would I ask such a thing? They take it for granted that Israelis think of their children as beautiful, ‎and that it would be a natural thing for an Israeli poet to include this in one of his poems. I then ‎go on to explain that (from my perspective) this is one of the most radical statements in the poem. ‎

I point out that it was not so long ago that Jews did not think of themselves as beautiful at all. To ‎‎“look Jewish” was something to be ashamed of, and in fact it was considered a compliment if ‎someone told you that you don’t look Jewish. ‎

After this, I would look around the classroom and watch as the floodgates would begin to open. ‎The Jewish students would start to admit that yes, they still sometimes feel that way today. In ‎their minds, “Jewishness” is still not associated with beauty. Tales of personal humiliation would ‎often emerge. Sometimes their stories would be funny; often they were sheathed in self-‎deprecating irony. This would lead to a discussion of Jewish stereotypes, and the ways that Jews ‎have internalized these negative conceptions about themselves without even being aware of it.‎

I would then ask the students to re-examine the phrase “our children are beautiful” (actually ‎stated twice by Amichai in the poem). Suddenly, a look of recognition would appear on their ‎faces. They would grasp that it is no small thing that the Jews can finally call themselves ‎‎“beautiful.” In fact, it is one of the major differences between Jewish life in Israel and the ‎Diaspora. This is an achievement that most people hardly think about and may even consider ‎trite. But for the Jews and their sense of internal dignity, it is one of the swiftest and most ‎revolutionary changes to have come about in modern times. ‎

Jews in the Land of Israel

by Yehuda Amichai

We forget where we came from. Our Jewish
names from the Exile give us away,
bring back the memory of flower and fruit, medieval cities,
metals, knights who turned to stone, roses,
spices whose scent drifted away, precious stones, lots of red,
handicrafts long gone from the world
‎(the hands are gone too).‎

Circumcision does it to us,
as in the Bible story of Shechem and the sons of Jacob,
so that we go on hurting all our lives.‎

What are we doing, coming back here with this pain?
Our longings were drained together with the swamps,
the desert blooms for us, and our children are beautiful.
Even the wrecks of ships that sunk on the way
reached this shore,
even winds did. Not all the sails.‎

What are we doing
in this dark land with its
yellow shadows that pierce the eyes?
‎(Every now and then someone says, even after forty
or fifty years: "The sun is killing me.")‎

What are we doing with these souls of mist, with these names,
with our eyes of forests, with our beautiful children,
with our quick blood?‎

Spilled blood is not the roots of trees
but it's the closest thing to roots
we have.‎

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Being "Between"

I call this blog “between tradition and modernity,” with a definite emphasis on the word ‎‎“between”. As I see it, to be a Jew today is to be pulled in two directions—to the world ‎of tradition where religion, language, and nationhood offer an all-embracing form of ‎collective sustenance, versus the world of modernity which grants almost boundless ‎freedom and tolerance to all individuals, including Jews. Both worlds have attractions ‎and detractions, and it is nearly impossible to choose one over the other, if one wants to ‎enjoy the benefits of modernity and remain Jewish. Indeed, it is this state of constantly ‎being caught “between” that characterizes the modern Jewish experience. ‎

I define Jewish literature along similar lines. If I were to add anything to the long-‎standing debate about “what is Jewish literature”, it is this: Jewish literature is the act of ‎writing between tradition and modernity – between the ties that bind the writer to his ‎Jewish heritage and the forces that (for better or for worse), offer to break those ties. In ‎this sense, one can say that all modern Jewish literature is by nature “dialectical.” This is ‎perhaps the reason why S.Y. Agnon (the Nobel prize-winning Hebrew author) is ‎considered to be the quintessential modern Jewish writer. His heroes almost always find ‎themselves vacillating between the worlds of tradition and modernity, unable to decide ‎where they truly belong. Perhaps that is his point. Being a modern Jew is to live in the ‎irresolvable tension “between” these two poles. ‎

Thursday, August 26, 2010

אופרה בהפתעה בדיזינגוף סנטר - A Surprise Opera in the heart of Tel Aviv

A surprise burst of song in a Tel Aviv food court. Trust Israeli ingenuity to think of novel ways of bringing opera to the masses! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNqosHRbWog

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Since this is my first post, I thought I would explain my choice of picture which ‎seems to encapsulate the theme of this blog. In the photo, I am standing in front of a ‎booth at the well-known book festival in Jerusalem called Shavua HaSefer (Book Week). ‎This annual week-long celebration of books takes place in numerous locations all over ‎Israel. Since I happened to be in Israel this June, I was finally able to attend this festival ‎for the first time. I must say that more than anything, I was struck by the sheer vitality of ‎the event. ‎

Not only was I impressed by the enormous number of Israeli book publishers ‎displaying their wares (and in a country as tiny as Israel, this alone deserves mention), ‎but the different sorts of people buying books was what astounded me most. From men in ‎Hasidic garb to women with shaved heads and tattoos (with most of the crowd falling ‎somewhere in between) the people were certainly as colorful as the displays themselves. I ‎found it fascinating to observe this full range of types ---religious, secular, Jew, Arab, ‎old, young--- all coming to the same place for the singular purpose of finding that right ‎book. And done with such fervor. I sometimes found that I could barely get close to some of ‎the booths as the hunting was so intense. ‎

‎ I was also impressed by the large number of families with children attending
the ‎festival. There were no rides or amusements for the children (other than a few free ‎balloons at some of the booths) ---just heaps and heaps of books. As I roamed between ‎the rows of books, I couldn’t help thinking that this may be one of the most telling ‎features of life in Israel: despite all the anguish of the past, the people of the Book, like ‎wide-eyed children, are still excited at the prospect of a book.‎