"Haim Be’er: Back to the "Jewish bookshelf


חיים באר

The fish doesn’t know what water is, until he is taken out of the water. Then he suddenly underst ands the significance of water, understands that he was born and will die in water, and that he lives and breathes water; in water he hurts and is hurt, leaves and is left. That is my relationship with Judaism. Now, in my later years – this winter I will be 70 years old – I know that my Judaism is like water for the fish. It wasn’t and couldn’t be my choice, since man doesn’t have choice but compulsion. A single, solitary option.

I was born into an intensive Jewish experience, Jerusalem in 1945. In the late 40’s, as I became aware, I saw great longing for the new format of Judaism – Jews in a sovereign Jewish state. I remember my father’s great joy in bringing me the first Hebrew postage stamp to affix to an envelope with a letter to my grandmother. The new Israeli Jewishness tasted like glue, the unique connection between the stamp, the Israeli flag and private life.

I also remember the intoxicating smell of the ink on the first bank notes. We had a corner grocery and my father exchanged the old, British Mandate-era bills, bringing instead a stack wrapped in a banderole. I remember the intoxicating smell of the first Hebrew, Jewish money since the days of the Bar Kochba revolt. To this day, living in the Land of Israel is the only picture of authentic Jewish existence for me. For me, everything is interconnected – the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, Jewish existence.

Over the years, Jewish existence became more exact for me, as a new element entered the picture: the Jewish bookshelf (a concept I legitimized in cultural circles, although I did not originate the idiom). If I am called on to define “Who is a Jew?” for me, it is a person who lives in the Land of Israel, speaks Hebrew, and is at home on all levels, or willing to be at home, on each of the shelves in the Jewish bookshelf.

For me, every Jew has an extra point. Unlike the a-national humanism of the daily “Haaretz,” for instance, the fact that a Jew has an extra point does not mean that a foreigner should be treated differently. Nonetheless, there is a special bond with those willing to join this tremendous journey from the age of Babylon, into exile, through the gates of Auschwitz and the gates of immigration and into the Promised land – and then he is Jewish.

Any effort to define a Jew according to the Jewish laws of halakha or civil law, is nothing more than the mirror image of the Nuremberg race laws. If Nazi law determined that anyone who carries 25 percent Jewish blood is Jewish, then for us in the State of Israel, that person is Jewish according to the Law of Return. We declare to the world that anyone the Nazis sought to eradicate is invited to join us on the journey. Anyone touched by the Jewish fate – anyone who wants to take part in our lives, “of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart” – he is our ally.

I am a Jewish fish. This is my ocean. And in this ocean, there are areas that are stormy and areas of calm seas. There are even disastrous Bermuda Triangles. There were those who said of the ultra-nationalist politician Rabbi Meir Kahane that he wasn’t Jewish. But Kahane was Jewish, one of our Bermuda Triangles, an area of sandbanks and dangers that must be circumvented, as we have no other ocean.

Finally, as one who has lived his entire life with intense awareness of language, I wish to highlight the wonderful bond created since the beginning of modern Jewish presence in the Land of Israel between modern Hebrew poetry and ancient Jewish texts. I believe this phenomenon is the perfect melding of Jewishness and Hebrewness. There is something touching in that poetess Rachel, whose mother tongue and culture were Russian, came to the Land of Israel, adopted the Bible, and wrote in such vivid Hebrew. She wrote about Michal, King Saul’s daughter, as a “distant sister,” and of the biblical Rachel “whose blood flows in my veins.”

My greatest sorrow as a literature teacher, editor and journalist, and as one who meets many young people, is their distance from Jewish cultural treasures, from the continuum, from the achievements of generations of Jewish artists – starting with the writers of the Bible, the sages, the poets and composers of prayer, the philosophers, through to the fabled Hassidic storytellers.

But we must not only return to the Hebrew “Jewish bookshelf,” but to the worlds of Jewish artists who wrote in other languages. We must add more and more shelves to the bookcase, for the wonderful works of Isaac Babel in Russian and Bruno Schultz in Polish, for Franz Kafka who wrote in German, Albert Cohen in French, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud in English, and of course for Shalom Aleichem in Yiddish.

What is likely to happen here, in the Land of Israel, in the Jewish ocean, in another 70 years, makes me both sad and happy.

Happy, because there are hours and even days when I am optimistic. In the past, if someone in a kibbutz wanted to study Talmud or just flip through a prayer book, they would have been stoned to death. But today, there is an unbelievable array of organizations and groups that study Jewish texts.

But sad, because I fear the final takeover of Americanization, the dictatorship of the language of icons and instant messages, will be destructive. I fear the result will be the withering of the language, the loss of reference, the lack of depth, and the loss of the ability to use metaphor. At least I will not be here for “I cannot watch the boy die.

Haim Be’er is an author and professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University