Israeli finds no escape from the relentless torment of history

January 20, 2008|By Chayym Zeldis

RA'ANANA, Israel -- "History," observes James Joyce, "is the nightmare from which I try to awaken."

My own begins with beatings administered by the neighborhood gentile kids in Buffalo, N.Y. Why? Because, they inform me, I had "killed God." How had I accomplished the feat? "You stuck pins in him," they sneer.

I was 7 or 8 when I was knocked flat in the empty schoolyard and trampled by my attackers like a doormat. The dust that I, and all mortals, would one day inherit as eternal home entered my eyes and nostrils and mouth to advertise the fact.

Those were pre-World War II years. I was, from the instant I quit my mother's womb, at once a son of Israel, a people stretching back some 50 centuries, and a child of America.

Those were the years when a "famous" sign in Mount Freedom, N.J., read, "No Jews or Dogs Allowed." They were the years when Father Coughlin preached Jew-hatred openly from his radio pulpit; when the German Bund, supporting Hitler, marched in Yorkville, Manhattan; when Henry Ford defamed the Jews.

It was a time when American Jews changed their family names to keep a low profile or "pass." On the High Holidays, when we walked from our non-Jewish neighborhood to the synagogue, my father carefully wrapped the prayer books in newspaper; my feeling was that he did it to hide our identity from the gentiles and so keep us safe.

It was not until Israel was established that Karl Shapiro, the Baltimore-born poet who battled anti-Semitism for recognition, would write that he could meet the "blue-eyed stranger's stare" and "say my name aloud." Until 1948, we Jews were what Maurice Samuel termed "a ghost people."

"The child," says Wordsworth, "is father of the man." My childhood (as does everyone's) casts a long shadow over the terrain of my life. A short story called, "A Dream of Jesus," and five novels revolving around the life and death of that same fellow-tribesman, sprang from the bitter soil of my American raising. Said literary excursions were my desperate way of coping with my own, the Jewish people's and the world's history.

As I grew older, I was both drawn and impelled to define my identity. I owed and would always owe much to America, but I had a debt to pay to my Judaism, the Judaism whose influence had partially shaped the land of my birth.

Undoubtedly, the most weighty factor in my decision to settle in Israel in 1948 was the Holocaust. It was clear to me that but for geography, I might well have gone up an Auschwitz chimney; that a host of nations had over the centuries created the atmosphere and paved the way for the genocide; and that many countries had either lent support to it or else remained indifferent and passive. In mind and heart, I believed that Jews had an inalienable right to the homeland they had never given up, and a supreme moral obligation to resettle and rebuild it.

As Jews, we have given much to civilization: in Biblical times, in the two millennia of dispersion, and now in modern Israel. For 10 years, my wife headed her psychological section in the rehab unit of a large and prestigious New York hospital; she gained intimate knowledge of what brutality and violence can do to the human body and psyche.

Reacting to the horror of the wounds inflicted by Arab suicide-bombers - nails imbedded in brains and hearts, shattered spines, smashed-in skulls, massive burns - she rages not only against the perpetrators but also against the world that either fails to react appropriately or encourages them.

"We Jews made a terrible mistake," she tells me, "in giving to the world. If only we could take it all back! The Ten Commandments and the Sabbath; Isaiah and Amos and Job and the Psalms of David; Freud's theories and Einstein's formulae; Heine and Proust and Kafka; Salk and Sabin's vaccines ... " She goes on and on.

I listen. I say nothing. Like her, I am filled with loathing for history. I regularly write in a small room made of reinforced concrete; the one window and the door are steel-plated. It is the bomb shelter that Israeli building code requires. To the east, some five miles distant, lie Samaria and Judea, for 30 centuries Jewish and never abandoned, where Israel fights the same ultimate malevolence that in the 1940s brought the free world to the "valley of the shadow of death." Beyond are the shark states - Syria, Iraq and Iran - and beyond them, an assortment of dismal despotisms.

We here in Israel, and the nations that profess to love liberty, must eliminate the mortal danger these enemies pose. The democracies can rationalize or temporize or even indulge in fantasy or outright denial, but it won't help. As in 1939, we are on the brink.

Inside my shelter, I take a break from writing and switch on the radio for the news. Once again, the Christ-killer accusation echoes from my childhood: presently, it falls from the lips of the Syrian dictator. I shake my head.

"Nightmare," I murmur, "is the history from which I try to awaken."

Chayym Zeldis is the author of novels including "Brother," "Golgotha" and "The Brothel."

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