If you are over sixty, as am I, you lived through the birth of the State. Possibly you remember standing up and singing Hatikvah, swelling with pride as the words poured out. You were part of a fresh beginning, relating to this new land as a proud American Jew connected by a shared history to the ongoing story of the Jewish people. Maybe, like me, you put money in the Blue Box and bought Israel bonds, finding small ways to feed the dream. Maybe you fed the dream by going on trips to the so-called Holy Land, studying and touring. Perhaps you even went so far as to make aliyah, casting your lot in completely by moving there. Or you found ways to connect by reading Israeli newspapers, joining American based support groups like AIPAC, giving large donations to the Jewish National Fund or Hebrew University.
What a joy it was to bear witness to the Jews coming home at last. Israel, the land of milk and honey, was ours. And there we would build an amazing country, a place of safety. The Israeli army would insure that never again need we be afraid of annihilation. The kibbutzniks would show us how to live a life deeply connected to the earth. Ancient holy sites would be restored and modern universities spring up. All Jews would be welcome; no social ills would push people to despair; health care and housing for all would be a matter of course. To call oneself a Zionist in the fifties and sixties was to proclaim a proud affiliation with a history and a people. No apologies, no explanations, no ambiguity.
And then for me, as perhaps for you, the innocence of our early Zionist days began to shift towards a time of shadows. Where there had been unfiltered light, now we began to perceive areas of darkness. As the dream of homecoming replaced the reality of exile, we became aware that we Jews could also create conditions that were less than perfect. Like all other nations since the beginning of time, having our own place did not free us from having our own problems. Some of us realized that in claiming a place for ourselves, we took from others pieces of land they also name as home. We began to understand that while the word ‘Jew’ may encompass us in a common identity, the word ‘Judaism’ has many ways of dividing our identities. The years went by and the borders remained undefined; the gaps in Israel between haves and have-nots intensified; in the world, the US-Israel partnership came under increased scrutiny for policy decisions and military forays. Perhaps with a sense of shock, we understood we had left the beginning far behind. We were no longer young, nor was Israel. It had changed, and so must we. Israel was not intrinsically pure. It might still be our beloved, even if it broke our hearts. But we began to know that we must re-appraise this land, and look anew at our relationship to it, if there was to be any integrity in our profound connection. The search to replace an old mirror with one where the glass is less wavy may take awhile. It’s not always apparent where to look. Furthermore, there’s more than a single place where one may find replacement parts. Looking for tools with which to understand my own changes as I sought to understand those in Israel, I turned to contemporary Israeli novelists. Literature has always spoken to me, the insights of artists revealing truths about the human condition that enable me to grapple with my own contradictions. I wanted to get to a new place in relation to myself as a Jew for whom the centrality of Israel had been part of my identity as a young woman, but was now in serious flux. Reading the works of Yoram Kaniuk, Orly Castel Bloom, Michal Govrin and Zaruya Shalev was balm to my inquiring soul. Their works portray Israelis struggling to live in a modern nation-state where all is not well. Their fictive characters challenge all aspects of the conventional Zionist dream I had internalized, forcing me to re-consider previously unquestioned assumptions. Kaniuk made me re-examine the ongoing negativity engendered by the centrality of the Holocaust in Jewish memory. Castel Bloom sent me into fits of laughter with her hilarious, Swiftian satire lampooning the insanity of Israeli institutions. Michal Govrin’s knowledge of classic Jewish text brilliantly illuminated the world of young Jewish women destroyed by fundamentalist energies that overpowered them. Shalev’s portraits of disintegrating marriages pointed to intersections between a troubled culture and its impact on everyday domestic arrangements.
I read and re-read their novels. I wrote a book about them. I laughed and I wept and I thought. Their books changed me, once again demonstrating the ways great art can make everything old seem new again. As I wrote in the conclusion to my book : “I came to challenge Israel’s exalted status from a distance. Israel’s writers grapple with its tensions as residents for whom this land is home. We meet in their books linked by a desire to explore a place to which we are deeply attached.” The exploration continues.
Rose Levinson, Ph.D., teaches courses related to Jewish identity as Adjunct Professor in the University of San Francisco’s Jewish Studies and Social Justice Program. Her book, Death of a Holy Land: Reflections in Contemporary Israeli Fiction, is available on Amazon in both hardback and Kindle.