Category Archives: English

Here I Am, By Jonathan Safran Foer – A review

This review of the Hebrew translation of "Here I Am", was first published in the Israeli Daily Yedioth Aharonoth

by Arik Glasner

One could cut out 200 of the 635 pages in Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel and even then, of the remaining 435, there would still be fields of kitsch, but it would be impossible to remove them surgically without killing the novel. Even so, this is not only Safran Foer's best novel to date, but a generally very impressive work.

The novel, which was published this year in the U.S., describes the separation process of Jacob and Julia, a 40+ American Jewish couple who live in Washington. Jacob is a novelist and script writer, Julia an architect. The couple has three children.  The couple are fully and consistently non-believing, non observant Jews, but their connection with Judaism is important to them, and they preserve a few rituals, among them the upcoming Bar Mitzva ceremony of their firstborn son, Sam, during the harried preparations of which the novel begins.  In parallel with the family plot, there is a broader plot that depicts how as a consequence of a natural disaster (earthquake), Israel is forced to struggle for its existence in the face of a war that breaks out as a result of what is perceived as Israel's improper treatment of the disaster's aftermath for the West Bank population under its control, with its Palestinian population, and also its treatment of the Temple Mount, which was also damaged in the disaster.  During this war of survival, the Prime Minister of Israel calls upon American Jews to volunteer for active support in the war, so that the issue of Jacob and Julia's allegiance to their Jewishness or to Israel is put to the test.

This is an impressive work, first of all because Safran Foer succeeds in escaping from the stance of the cute boy, both from the kitsch in describing nice smart kids and also from the stance of a narrator who shows off his talents as a boy wonder expecting applause. That is the malady shared by his contemporary writers, Jews and non-Jews, the refusal to become men (Michael Chabon, for example, and also Foster Wallace, the older of the two). In place of the "great male narcissists", as Foster Wallace referred to Phillip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer, The male American writers have found the single substitute for their guilt feelings about their masculinity: the child's standpoint.  But except for this typical American neurosis (within the literary milieu), negatively related to emerging masculinity, in the case of Jews it was a calamity.  The emergent masculinity of Phillip Roth is the secret of his literary strength, since it occurs against a background of the emasculating Jewishness of a stifled, rationalistic culture.  Roth's extrication is in exchange for the moralistic suffocation of the "Mentsch"ideology. As Safran Foer and his contemporaries retreated in horror from this attitude, they actually became semi-impotent in literary terms.  Jacob's struggle to break out of his marriage is also the writer's struggle to attain the level of his great literary forebears. Jacob's increasing maturity is also literary maturity.  This struggle is carried out over hundreds of pages here.  Actually, this novel with its wildly sharp wit as well as its treatment of the question of Jewish identity (with justified hostility toward what for Heller in the '70's were the buds of Jewish neo-conservatism and is today the full bloom of the genre), recalls chapters of Joseph Heller's "Good as Gold", as well as with a different sort of humor and primarily in the main theme, masculinity and maturity, the works of Phillip Roth.  And that is a great compliment.

Aside from the main theme, there are impressive philosophical sections here (for example, against Jewish self-victimization and focusing Jewish existence around the Holocaust); there are witty, lively descriptions of family life and intimacy, not without kitsch, but also filled with insight, humor, sharp bitterness and emotion.

Joining Jacob and Julia's private story with a catastrophic event emphasizes Safran Foer's weakness: his attraction to the sensational, the sentimental and the kitschy (little children and great catastrophes star in his novels).  But here this joining also constitutes a powerful tool for advancing the novel's main theme, and therefore we can't chop it out of the text.  In a terrific satire on Jacob's Israeli relative, a successful high-tech entrepreneur, Safran Foer illustrates the recoiling attitude of a cultured American Jew toward the harsh, braggart, materialistic, national emotional extortionist Israeli. But this Israeli also poses a model of masculinity of which Jacob, restrained and neurotic, is jealous. Thus the Israeli, Israel, is involved in an issue that preoccupies Jacob in his private life.  If Phillip Roth's Mickey Sabbath expresses his explosive masculinity so that he never takes interest in Israel's fate, Jacob momentarily considers expressing his emerging masculinity by volunteering to help Israel.  Pairing together the destruction of a private home with the destruction of the National Homeland enables Safran Foer to introduce another theme: the clash between commitment to people close to you and national commitment.  In a marvelous midrashic excerpt, Jacob confronts the "Here I am" that Abraham answers G-d who is sending him to bind his son, with the "Here I am" with which he answers his son Isaac, on the way to slaughter. Sometimes one needs to choose between commitment to family and theological or ideological commitment.  And for Jacob it's clear, through most of the novel, that the choice will go to his family.  In an aside, the novel points to the worrisome alienation from Israel by liberal Jews, on the verge of a divorce decree to Israel, alienation, divorce, that should worry us very much.  But in a way that the author is unaware, in  my view, this linkage between the family story and the national story places Safran Foer at the forefront of written literature today (Houellebecq , Knausgård, A.B. Yehoshua, for example). The great subject placed at the forefront of this literature is whether atheists can really devote themselves to the great sacrifice required in order to establish and maintain a family.  Isn't our demographic fate sealed, to lose to traditional populations? As though the novel asks unconsciously: Were it not for national commitment, national identity, revenge against the Nazis, concern for Israel and the Jewish People, etc., wouldn't the question arise whether to raise a family at all? Thus, it's not just positioning the family vs. the nation, a somewhat banal subject, but rather the nation and the family as one vs. bachelorhood, vs. individual existence. Individualism splits the family and nationhood together.

Thus despite the manic load of the text, its verbosity and kitsch, Safran  Foer has succeeded in turning contemporary American Jewish existence into a significant work of art, and has succeeded in ascending to the league of his American Jewish literary forebears.

——-

Translation by Roy Abramovitch

 

 

Reserve Duty

Engaging before disengaging

By Arik Glasner

At the central bus station in Be'er Sheva, as I'm waiting with dozens of soldiers for a bus to Tze'elim, a balding guy with a receding chin and lips that seem to stick out in childlike defiance seeks me out. "I'm not doing this reserve duty," he says to me. I give him an astounded look and he immediately explains the blood ties between us: "You also belong to Yosri, right? You're from Misgav, right?" I'm not too sure that I "belong to Yosri" and I've never been in Misgav, but this exchange prompts me to take a closer look at my reserve duty call-up notice and, sure enough, he's right: I do "belong" to an adjutancy officer by the name of Yosri. I have to admit, it's quite reassuring to know that I "belong to Yosri." To know that someone is watching over you.

The bus glides into the station and the column of soldiers and reservists tenses and straightens like a snake that has just eyed a mouse. "I don't care," says my new friend. "Let me finish 30 days in jail and go home to eat lunch with my family. I'm not going to Gush Katif." We move up to the bus and I put my backpack in the baggage compartment. I hate this part where you have to part from your stuff. My new friend looks and laughs: "I didn't even bring clothes," he says.

The bus proceeds further and further away from civilization, into the desert.

 

 

 

 

Yearning for Rafah

Two days later, before boarding the bus that will take us from Tze'elim to Kissufim, my friend motions me aside. "You see? They're threatening to trial me and saying that I'll be doing reserve duty in another few months anyway. But in another few months, there won't be any Gush Katif – you see? The main thing is that I'll be home with my kids now." I tell him that I have to get back to the bus and he suddenly understands the abyss that has opened up between us. "Take care of yourself, and the next time I'll bring you a military snowsuit from home. I've got everything there."

The concentration of dozens of people around the bus allows for a few brief sociological insights. First, I take note of the very large proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union among the soldiers. Second, the very large proportion of kippa-wearers among the officers. What's a little confusing about this statistic is the habit of some religious officers to wear a hat or remove their kippa during training exercises, as if they want to make their presence less prominent. Third, the presence of a woman officer.

It falls to me to do guard duty for Rafiah Yam, one of the two secular settlements in Gush Katif. On the one hand, there will be fewer cakes for the soldiers, I'm sure, but on the other hand, I won't run into acquaintances here and will be able to think in peace about the things I want to think about. It turns out that the woman officer, Renana, will be our commander in Rafiah Yam.

We drive to the Kissufim checkpoint, which looks like part of a movie set of Stalingrad in 1943 (concrete barricades, tanks, a mobile kiosk, makeshift parking) where we are put on an armored bus that will disperse us among the settlements. Renana is not permitted to come with us because a minimum of two women is required on an IDF base, so we say a quick goodbye.

We 15 who are being sent to Rafiah Yam are the last ones left on the bus; Rafiah Yam is the southernmost settlement in Gush Katif. We get off next to a building opposite a concrete tower; the little yard in the middle is surrounded by concrete barricades. About 800 meters away, the outskirts of Rafah are visible. Within a few minutes, before we've had a chance to be brought up to speed by the reservists we're replacing, the ravshatz (Hebrew acronym for the military security officer), who is the local commander, drives up in a field vehicle and urges us to take cover behind the concrete barricades. "There's a sniper here who knows his work, so you ought to find a hiding place," he says.

The security officer is very tan; his face is etched with the lines of life; a shortened M-16 is slung over his shoulder and he carries a pistol in his belt. He chooses a cheerful-looking young man with a small build as his victim and says to him: "You look like you're from Sheinkin." Then he addresses all of us, with the same wooden humor: "First, the good news: Our women will prepare a Shabbat meal for you. Now, the bad news: You're spending Shabbat here." When one of us points out that the officer is standing exposed to the sniper, he replies with a tired smile: "I already have a gravestone with my birth date. Only the date of death is missing."

Now he turns serious: "First of all, no one here is going to go settling scores with Arabs, including anyone who knows someone who died in a terror attack. If Ahmed from Umm al Fahm with a blue ID shows up – you let him through. We're not a militia here. Now follow me."

We're asked to walk in the dunes; the road is exposed to snipers. The officer takes advantage of the trek to stick it to the smiley fellow, Yehuda, again: "Even in Sheinkin they walk faster than that. Come on." Yehuda is from Bat Yam. Our commander has us walk all around the settlement, which is surrounded by dunes and located one kilometer from the sea and hundreds of meters from the Egyptian border. All of the obscure-sounding places from the news are within spitting distance: the Girit outpost, the Tencher road, the Philadephi corridor – and this is not the least bit reassuring. To a quiet and melancholic Russian, he says on the way: "What's wrong? Did your ships sink?"

After the briefing, with four of us already manning positions, we return to our quarters. The building is small and filthy – two bedrooms with four bunk beds each; the bathrooms are right off the kitchen and on their lockless doors, someone has hung up a cardboard sign that reads "vacant" on one side and "occupied" on the other.

The schedule for guard duty has to be prepared. Idea for a start-up: producing software that can automatically put such a schedule together. Preparing this schedule is an extremely complicated affair, because it comprises countless parameters (variety of posts, consideration of the desire by some to be on duty together, replacements every time someone goes home, and so on). The task requires a volunteer with a mathematical mind – a doctoral candidate in physics, say – who will stay hunched over the rapidly filling pages and mutter aloud to himself as he makes his various calculations.

I'm supposed to go on guard duty at 10 P.M., so I try to sleep. As always happens with bunk beds, I somehow end up with a top bunk. But I derive satisfaction from my ability to leap smoothly (stepping on just one rung!) up to the top bunk. The proximity of the bathrooms to the "dining room" is more disturbing. There's no chance of any real privacy in a place like this. In this way, too, reserve duty takes you back to adolescence. I fall asleep and in my dream I'm a married man, but for some reason, I'm chasing a teenage girl who is not my wife along a long hallway. Suddenly an alarm goes off and I run to look for my bulletproof vest. A strange dream. What could it mean?

Different discipline

My partner on my first shift is the taciturn Russian, Maxim. We climb up into the guard tower together and for the next four hours exchange maybe five sentences. There's something nice about this total absence of prying. I can sit and think in peace and listen to the radio.

One of the few pleasures of reserve duty comes from an appreciation of the difference between the "discipline" here in comparison to compulsory service. In Tze'elim, I derived real pleasure from jauntily and showily slinging my weapon over my shoulder. Here, with all the snipers, the infiltrations, the scares and alerts, I clutch the rifle butt like an American fighter in a Vietnamese jungle. But in the guard tower, after a little while, I'm once again enjoying the difference between this sort of duty in the reserves and in compulsory service: I adjust the radio, sit down on the chair and smoke. A chilly wind is blowing in from the sea. Life isn't so bad here – until the gunfire starts. We suddenly hear shots and jump up. But then the signal operator notifies us that the gunfire is "okay" – as he would report about every half hour over the next couple of weeks – and we go back to our musings.

In the 1 A.M. quiet and darkness, the radio plays song after beautiful song. One gets carried away listening – until the commercial about prostate exams comes on.

Life enters a loop: four hours of guard duty and six hours of rest. It soon becomes clear: Guard duty in the daytime is preferable, because then you can read without interruption, and at night, the best post is at the front gate, because there's electricity there and you can make coffee. Also, at the front gate
, we get to enjoy the company of sand rats (pale white and not disgusting like their gray brethren in Israel proper), who come out of their holes at night and nonchalantly scamper about near us. My regular partner so far is taciturn Maxim. One night, I'm startled from my reverie by a suspicious murmuring, only to discover that it's Maxim singing an old Russian folk song to himself. It's very cold and you have to warm up somehow.

The writing on the wall

One can learn a lot from the graffiti in the army. Ten years ago, when I was stationed in a bunker, the Kama Sutra-inspired etchings that a gifted soldier had inscribed on the walls of the position drove me crazy. Other graffiti was dominated by crudeness and despair. These days, such crudeness is hard to come by. Instead, there's a kind of nerdy, "Talmudic" humor with a clear tendency toward moral homilies. For example: "Endless patience brings immediate results." Or: "Live life as long as you're alive, because you'll never come out of this alive."

There are rhymes like: "Don't want tuna/ don't want halva/ until when?/ August arba (fourth)". Then there are the more optimistic and accepting ones, like: "I've been guarding here for four and a half hours and I'm still smiling." There's also a classic, whose broken Hebrew attests to the author's origins: "We're here and the world is silent." The only coarse graffito reads: "Handsome blond hunk, blue eyes, powerful physique and nice shaved ass" (followed by a phone number; anyone who's interested can contact me). The only straight erotica is romantic: "I can't get you out of my head, 31.12.04". Maybe the reason is the preponderance of religious people serving in the army, or maybe just a general moderation of machismo.

A friendly chat

Relations among the 14 of us (one of the soldiers immediately asked to see a mental health officer when he arrived, because of the sniper), are surprisingly gentle. There's no yelling or hassling and people even try to show up early at their positions. The whole thing seems to be taken with a sort of tired irony that doesn't cross the threshold of despair. We politely pass things to each other at meals. One of the best decisions we made was to appoint one of us as cook and exempt him from guard duty. The maternal presence of someone looking after our meals is soothing.

This is how Andrei, a 30-year-old forklift operator from Holon, described it to me: "At work, I'm stressed. I curse. Here on reserve duty, it's quiet. This is new for me." Andrei immigrated from Kiev, "10 minutes from Babi Yar. So many people were killed there." On guard duty and in between, there is time to talk. Andrei is happy with Ariel Sharon "because he didn't give in to them, even though he's terrible at economics." He reveals to me that because of "economics," there's "a big aliyah to Poland now."

He "sometimes misses the way things were before Gorbachev. You had money, you had whatever you needed. I'm making a decent living now, but there are no luxuries. I used to love being with people. Now, If I happen to not be working, I close the windows. Don't put on the television or anything. I just sit with my legs up, alone, and listen to a little music."

He served two years in the Russian army without getting to go home even once. "In Russia there's no such thing as open fire rules. A shot in the air and then boom." In response to my kidding question – I thought it was just legend – he tells me how in the Russian army they made alcohol from shoe polish: You spread the polish on a slice of bread and let the bread absorb the alcohol fumes. Then you scrape off the polish and chew the intoxicating bread. The Kiddush wine was finished off very quickly, thanks to me and my Russian comrades.

On one night shift, I hear shouts from afar in Arabic and turn to Andrei. He has also heard the shouting, but "they said `Yallah' and `Yallah' is Hebrew, isn't it?"

The Russians are coming

If the IDF is the "people's army" then, according to what I saw in Rafiah Yam, in Israel there are three million Russians, 1.5 million Sephardim, a half million religious and a million Ashkenazim (and 1.5 million Arabs). The Israeli elite – according to this mistaken key – is religious. Of the 14 of us, seven are new immigrants: They are divided into two groups between which there is neither hostility nor closeness: the plebes and the intelligentsia. Andrei is one of the plebes.

Mikhail, of the intelligentsia, brought with him to reserve duty a case filled with dozens of books that he reads by candlelight in the tower at night. Alex, a computer engineer from Herzliya, serves as the spokesman for laconic Mikhail and explains that Mikhail developed a technique of "diagonal" reading that enables him to polish off books at record speed. Mikhail emits a small chuckle, but not because of our conversation, which I suspect he doesn't understand, but because of the book he's reading. Alex goes on to explain that Mikhail really loves doing reserve duty and even asked the army for extra reserve duty, but the army told him there was no budget for it.

Mikhail stands up to stretch and smokes one of the cigarettes he's rolled himself. He glances at us and at our small courtyard, looking like Napoleon as he slides his left hand into the opening of his jacket. Alex, the computer engineer, is married with two children. He named his daughter, who was born in Belarus, Darya, but his son, who was born in Israel, is named Yonatan. He has never been to Tel Aviv and wants to know what places are worth seeing there. When one of the Russian reservists returns from a visit home, he brings vodka and dried fish, and we all sit down to drink. Brotherhood.

A week later, the Russians have become cognizant of their power and in a non-violent putsch, Alex takes over responsibility for the guard duty shifts. Now it seems that the Russians are guarding less. But this is apparently a figment of the imagination. Alex claims that "people want to maintain their partnerships on guard duty" and that he's working hard to ensure this.

The relative scarcity of reservists from the elite "First Israel" cannot be ascribed solely to differences in motivation among the sectors. It also derives from First Israel's intimate familiarity with the system and the ways to elude it. At any rate, Assi Dayan's 1977 film "Givat Halfon Ayna Ona" ("Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer") still resonates with the veteran Israeli reservists, and we quote it all the time. The Russians can't figure out what we want from them.

Renana

The anomalous situation of a unit without an officer is resolved after a few days, when Renana is housed in an apartment meant for female soldier-teachers in Rafiah Yam. The most notable change brought about by the presence of our commander is a moderation of the distracted gropings some of us had been doing to that package at the front of their pants. The rest of the changes, if any, are subtle. To the best of my knowledge, there are no sexist comments. It certainly helps that Renana, who is upbeat and quick to laugh, immediately volunteers to help us with guard duty even though she doesn't have to. When the cook is about to go on a furlough, she also volunteers to substitute for him, but warns:
"Cooking, yes. Dishes, no."

The army has its own gadgets. At Tze'elim, we were given the hottest new item: a fleece vest. The cook in Tze'elim offered to release me from my shift in return for it. But Renana isn't pleased with my military appearance. My epaulets are torn and I look like "a sad puppy." I snap that if she's not happy then she can sew them for me. She smiles, my commander, but she rises to the challenge and sews.

Avner

One day, I have a new partner on guard duty – Avner. He's not tall, but handsome, and has a quiet but strong presence. He speaks softly, as if to temper the intensity and fury in him. He is 28, from Ariel, and is studying reflexology at Ohalo (a college on the banks of Lake Kinneret, near Zemah). He was on drugs for years, he says, and tried it all: from marijuana and cocaine in Israel to heroin in Australia. Until he realized that it was all a mask, a pose, to be "the druggie."

He used to be a rabid fan of heavy metal bands, and on his shoulder is a small tattoo of the devil. When we hear a Guns N' Roses song on the radio, he is still overcome with admiration. But he's trying to wean himself from it. He puts on tefillin every morning, but doesn't say anything when we use the same dishes for meat and dairy. He says that yogis in India send Israelis home, telling them that "with a spiritual civilization as developed as yours, you don't have any need to come to us." When he comes back from a visit home, he brings an air purifier for the bathroom and a bottle of whiskey, even though he doesn't drink.

At the end of our shift, at five in the morning, we go back to our quarters and I ask him to give me a reflexology treatment. "Finally, you dared to ask," he smiles. I lay down on the bed and he massages my foot. The guys are a little worked up at first to see this massage, until they see that he is a professional. Anyway, it feels good and I fall asleep in the middle of it.

Disengagement and connection

The government has approved the disengagement and the residents we meet at the front gate are depressed. The security officer comes over to us to ask how we're doing, and then he says sadly: "They're taking our home from us. You don't get it, do you?"

That evening, he comes to our quarters and asks if everything is okay. To Yehuda he says: "If there wasn't a Sheinkin, they'd have to invent it, believe me. Someone in this country ought to be happy, right? Someone who hasn't heard of child allowances." His phone rings and he says to the caller: "There are three problems, my friend, that put you at the bottom of the Jewish people: You're a settler, you're Moroccan and you're in the regular army." He gets to me, all of a sudden.

On the way to the guard position, kids from Rafiah Yam bombard us with questions, and then, "One, two, three – When will the evacuation be?" From there, they proceed to shouting things like "crazy Arabs" and "I'll peek up your ass." At the front gate, one of the residents comes up and says to us: "Look, they want an evacuation? Okay, but give me what I deserve. Restore me to age 25 and I'll evacuate from here."

I go over to Neve Dekalim, to look at my e-mail in the library there, and it's quiet and sad there, too. I go to see the memorial wall for Yamit that was built in the Hesder yeshiva there and then to the surprisingly well-stocked zoo. One of the peacocks spreads its wings and leaps out of the cage to the dunes outside. Will it return?

In Gush Katif, of all places, relations of coexistence, problematic though they may be, have been preserved between Jewish employers and Palestinian laborers, who have practically disappeared from the landscape of Israel proper. Every day, hundreds of laborers come in from Rafah and one of our jobs is to secure the settlement when they go in and out. A resident of Rafiah Yam was killed by one of his laborers a few years ago. The security officer says that he proposed bringing in Thais, but the Palestinians are cheaper and the government wants to see them come into Gush Katif because this acts as a pressure valve to alleviate some of the economic distress in Rafah.

The laborers are wearing old clothes and some of them are in sandals, despite the cold. When they pass by us in groups, they don't openly look at us, but when they pass by individually, one of them will occasionally look up and wave in greeting, and be greeted in return. They carry see-through plastic bags with tempting pitas inside.

Women's Day

On the radio they're talking about International Women's Day, and Avri Gilad says that women are "the thing." Men are nothing special, and it's too bad he didn't notice this before. In the tower, Yehuda, 24, is telling his life story. His mother died a few years ago. His father left home when Yehuda was a baby and he is now suing him for NIS 350,000 in child support.

When he was 15, he met his father for the first time: "Suddenly he remembered that he had a son. Suddenly, in the middle of your life, a father shows up. No thank you, I told him." The army paid for his college studies, "but I said – shouldn't we contribute a little in reserve duty?" He works as a "nightlife promoter" and sometimes makes as much as NIS 3,500 in a weekend. But he wants to study design. The most important thing in life, he believes, "are connections – at the garage, at the grocery store … " He is only 24, but already "feels like an old man."

Toward the end of my reserve duty, my mother surprises me with the announcement that she will be in Gush Katif the next day. She is going to march with a group of women who were once evacuated from Sinai, from Kibbutz Saad to Neve Dekalim. When she comes to visit me at the front gate, I'm glad, but a bit embarrassed to have the other guys watching and seeing my mother come to visit as if I'm still a baby in compulsory service. She tells me about the hardships of the day, how the army stopped their bus in Kissufim and the police made them turn back, and "What are we, anyway? A bus full of grandmothers! In the end, they finally realized that it was stupid and they let us in."

Occupation and release

On the last night, in the tower, a loud explosion was heard. Probably a Qassam falling, we were told. That's not something that's reported in the news. However, a few days earlier, the news did report on the killing of two infiltrators in the Philadelphi Route, half a kilometer from us. If it weren't for the news, we wouldn't have known about it. On the radio, a female singer taunts, "You're not Solomon and I'm not one of a thousand," and I think about Israeli men, one of the world's most denigrated minorities. What hasn't been said about them? They're rude, they're vulgar, they're insensitive, they're "occupiers." I think about the Israeli "occupation army" that is composed of quiet and softly-singing Maxim, of Mikhail the speed-reader, of smiling Andrei the racing-car enthusiast, of Alex the computer engineer, of Avner the soft-spoken reflexologist, of Yehuda the orphan and so on. The problem with the occupation doesn't lie in the cruelty of the Israeli occupiers, as they try to convince us. The tragedy is that even if the IDF is indeed, and despite everything, a moral army, this far from trivial fact cannot dull the sting of the occupation, unfortunately.

The next day, our replacements arrive early. Reservists who are about to spend three weeks exactly the way we just did. At least, that's what I hope. I ride with one of the officers to the Kissufim checkpoint and go over to the mobile kiosk. I order a coffee and ask the vendor, though I'm certain of the
negative response, if he happens to have any sucrazit
– sweet n low (artificial sweetener). "Sure," he replies, and I pour the sucrazit into my coffee in total astonishment. Back to civilization.

 

 

Nationalism – Personal Account

NATIONALISM

 

A.

In the 1992 elections I voted for the NRP (National Religious Party).  I was 19 then (I’m from the children of the summer of 1973, those about whom a song has NOT been written).  I studied at the advanced yeshiva in Beit El , and although in the eyes of a son of Tehiya founders, the NRP was suspected of ideological instability, we said:  “who else will worry about religious education.”  When I returned to the yeshiva after voting in Kefar HaRo’eh, the moshav where I grew up, the study hall was still quite empty.  Many had not yet returned from voting at home.  But this emptiness was somewhat ominous, as if it predicted the outcome of the elections.

Little by little the rumors filtered into the empty Beit HaMidrash.  Worrying rumors.  One of the more realistic Rabbis of the Yeshiva said matter-of-factly, that now there will be no escape from autonomy for the Palestinians.  The content of his words, but even more his matter-of-fact tone, shocked me:  This is a retreat from what they’ve taught us!  From the process of Redemption!  But the shock didn’t last very long.  In those days I didn’t have time for political distress.

B

In the Fall of 1992 during the months between the pre-High Holiday break and Hanukka, I experienced a very compressed emotional and intellectual period, at the end of which I found myself looking at the fluttering holiday candles, and I was no longer a religious person.  With the surprising narcissism characteristic of perhaps everyone who undergoes extreme emotional changes, I analyzed and documented everything that happened to me in those two fateful months.  How I discovered emotional areas not “covered” by the religious life style and outlook with which I grew up.  How I began, in the wake of those discoveries, to attempt to “map”  these new emotional areas by reading poems, and eventually by writing them.  How the thought slipped in, that if so many emotional areas are not connected with “religion” (may I be forgiven the hyperbolic and superficial simplification, which was then typical of my fledgling way of thinking), then religion must not be so important and essential.  And if that is so – after several more days of concentrated tyro thought and emotional storm – perhaps G-d, too, Who still exists, is not so meaningful.  For life here on earth is so complex, stormy, afflicting and pleasurable even without Him, so that possibly G-d is the playwrite of this world, but His performance can now go on without Him (I was very proud of the latter metaphor back then).

At any rate, G-d certainly won’t be angry with me as I uncover more sectors of emotion and thought in the world that He Himself created.  Eventually, as winter in the mountains of Benjamin knocks wildly at my window, I thought:  Perhaps G-d doesn’t exist at all?  That doesn’t really matter, I told myself, maybe yes and maybe no, but maybe He doesn’t.  And I again found a simile that I was very proud of, which expressed the doubt in my faith and its results:  It’s like a trembling person who lurches forward in the darkness, and fears that he is lurching into the precipice, eventually finding himself landing on a step that is only a few centimeters from his jumping-off spot.  Yes, it’s also possible to live without G-d.

The transition, then, was sharp.  Within two months I found myself turning from a believer into a non-believer, from a punctillious observer of mitzvot to a non-observant person, from a yeshiva bahur to …to.what exactly?

C

Over the years, when I read in newspapers about innumerable ‘formerly religious’ people who were interviewed (and I read lots of newspapers in those years after my private “revolution”; that was the way to acquire education about the ‘non-religious’ world), I arrogantly despised  the inevitable passage in which the current ‘reformed’ person describes the first time he tremblingly lit a light on Shabbat.  I distinguished myself fastidiously from the rabble being interviewed, in that my process was philosophical and conclusive, and therefore when I eventually came to profane Shabbat or to transgress another mitzva, I (nearly, I must confess) didn’t have any pangs.  G-d cannot be angry with me about the path I have taken, because I had no choice but to proceed that way, besides which it will be hard for Him to be angry if He doesn’t exist.  However, although I finished this not-very-long process I underwent relieved of mitzvot, yet one small mitzva, not even a mitzva but a custom, remained fulfilled.  I continued to wear my kippa.

I was a 19 year old yeshiva student, and this, as I began to realize vaguely, was not only an ideological but a sociological definition.  I was almost totally unfamiliar with the secular world, I was afraid of army service; what options did I have? The kippa kept me sociologically and at little cost in my social group.  I decided to enter the army together with the Hesder yeshiva students, in order to moderate the leap into the outside world.  After the short term of service together with them (Hesder yeshiva students serve 16 months), I thought that I might be able to continue on my own in the army.

The narcissism mentioned above may perhaps be forgiven if you understand that for the newly secular (and for the newly religious as well), it stems from the person’s feeling that he is at the height of a cosmic drama.  Indeed, through Akiva Zelemayer or Yehuda Gabai, the fate of the universe will soon be decided.  Is there a master in the castle or not?  Is it the Big Bang or the Holy One, blessed be He?  Is it tefillin or Kant? Mussels or gefilte fish?  The painful landing occurs during the years after this cosmic decision.  Only then does it occur to Akiva Zelemayer and Yehuda Gabai that they have human proportions, and that the transition they have made in their lives is not at all so simple; it is more a sociological than ideological transition, and its price is very dear indeed.

D

In the 1996 elections I had already voted for the “Third Way” (Remember? There was such a thing, and I was the one who voted for it!).  I was no longer a Right-winger but I also wasn’t a Leftist, and I was searching… And so, I searched for a third way.  As in the 1999 elections I sought some kind of centrist party, and therefore I voted mirabile dictu for the “Central Party.”  But why didn’t I actually become a “leftist”?  I began to examine myself.  I couldn’t deny that a certain “leftward” erosion had occurred in my attitudes over the years, but it was very, very slow, and had clearly defined limits.  Why, I asked myself, did my ideological-spiritual transition last maybe 60 days, two months that transported me from one extreme to the other, from plus to minus or vice versa, whereas the “political” transition which is far less significant and touches less on my personal life, occurs so sluggishly?  Why does the abysmal skepticism I discovered towards religion, and in fact since then towards all ideologies, every claim of “spirituality” of whatever type, including secular “spirituality,” including pretensions of “spirituality” regarding literature and art toward which I found myself attracted, — why isn’t this skepticism focussed on my political attitudes?  Why, then, don’t I find myself voting for “Meretz” or even better, for “Hadash,” which are the parties constituting the political parallels to the extreme spiritual attitudes that I had reached?

E

Perhaps it’s not true that the spiritual transition I made was so extreme?  Perhaps it actually matches the more moderate political change?

When I finally finished my overly long army service (I was released, due to my studies at the yeshiva, at the age of 23), I looked for a job and found myself working at a sort of secular House of Study (Beit Midrash), working with secular youth on the subject of their (secular!) “Jewish identity”.

However, even during the period of work in the secular Beit Midrash I was feeling uneasy with myself.  The skepticism gnawed and gnawed.  I was preoccupied with it.  What does “Secular Jewish identity” mean?  Should skepticism have to stop right here?  Aren’t the undermining and dismantling that served me so well and so terribly in the collapse of my spiritual world useful here as well?  What is the advantage of national identity over religious identity? The worst thought of all was, for that too young and too idealistic person that I was, was it just my biography that caused me to educate adolescents regarding the importance of  their “Jewish identity”?  Was it just the advantage of my greater expertise in the pathways of Judaism that causes me to exploit my knowledge in order to convince them that “Jewish identity” is something important, and therefore I who am more expert than them, am also a bit important?  Did I arrive at this job simply because my qualifications fit it, and not due to inner conviction of its worth?

In those years I attempted to formulate my position on national identity as one that derives from the individual’s personal needs, not as the dictate of a greater force, whom I didn’t accept and in whom I didn’t believe.  I invested considerable emotional and intellectual effort in this.  I needed to justify myself.  Several years later I published a passage in my novel, “In Those Days”, in which I tried to explain the nature of my Jewish identity in those years.

“At the top of the page he wrote in large letters, “Why am I a Jew?”.  Here he paused, suddenly afraid that he would really stop here, too, but he immediately knew that from the very moment he marshalled the strength to raise the question, he knew that  he would in fact find an answer.  But this fact, that as it were nullified his daring skepticism, didn’t really bother him.  He bit the pen between his teeth and then wrote in small letters: “Bible,” and drew a line under the word.  He let his thoughts drift freely, to be anchored only on what attracted them by itself, without navigation of the will.  Now he wrote down the number 1, circling it with a pencil.  Next to that he wrote “Abraham barters with G-d over Sodom,” and next to the line, in square brackets, he wrote “Morality.” Below that, next to number 2, he wrote “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting the Song?”, although the verse quoted digressed beyond the small headline, beyond the category.  Now the thoughts flowed more easily. Next to number 3 he wrote “The Story of Joseph and his Brothers,” and next to that line in square brackets, he added “the literary value.”  He wandered along and wanted to write down the poem “Ha’azinu” (Deuteronomy 32, “Give ear O Heavens”), but avoided doing so. He suddenly didn’t know, didn’t remember, whether the pleasant feeling welling up within him was connected to the passage being short, which augured a shorter morning service at the synagogue, or because of its beauty.  Instead of this, next to the number 4, he wrote “David refuses to harm Saul, in the cave.”  At 5 he wrote two verses from the Book of Kings that occurred to him:  “Ours are more than theirs,” as the prophet asked that it be made known to his young man, and “We knew that the kings of Israel are benevolent kings,” but then he hesitated for a moment, extended his hand and paged through a Bible.  He rebuked himself (the correct quotes are “Those with us are more than those with them,” and “We have heard that the kings of the House of Israel, that they are benevolent kings,” but nevertheless he left the text as he had recalled it.  For 6 he wrote “David and Batsheva” and in square brackets he recorded “Both the sin itself as well as the allegory of the poor man’s lamb.”  For 7, without checking the accuracy of his memory, he recorded the words of Samuel to Agag, “As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women.”  For 8 he decided suddenly to digress from the category, erasing the subtitle “Bible” and wrote next to the number, “Nachmanides Commentary on the Torah,”  On the side in square brackets he wrote, “A scoundrel in the realm of Torah, introduction to the Book of Genesis” (….) For 9 he wrote “Maimonides’ Hebrew.”  At 10 he wrote “Job Chapter 3”, but did not restrain himself, and added, smiling to himself in amazement, produced by the initial meeting, “May the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said , ‘A man-child is conceived’”.  For 11 he wrote “Midrash of the Sages”, but suddenly couldn’t remember any specific midrash, thinking with some anxiety, that perhaps there are only a few score appropriate midrashim, that have already been over-discussed in various situations, when people came to glorify the value of Judaism, and so over used and embarrassed due to their false representation, they evade him.  (….)  He became a little impatient, and decided to skip ahead hundreds of years.   For 13 he recorded “Hasidism” and in square brackets he wrote “Kotzk, the Hasidic stories of Rav Zevin” and also “Joy”, but immediately erased the word in disgust (….) Finally, at 16 he wrote, “Modern Hebrew Literature.”  And when he asked himself whether it is possible to lay responsibility for his pride and the sense of his belonging on the shoulders of seven or eight people, he replied to himself immediately, almost without hesitation, that Yes (…)  And then he thought, that actually the whole essence of this matter, the entire essential importance of these things written in your language, all the rich “cultural heritage” that is always found there, that one can always return to, all this is perhaps no more, but also no less, than a sticky infusion, warm and pleasant, swishing around in the abdominal cavity.”

F

I stand behind this passage even today, despite a certain kitschiness and arrogance, that I admit it contains.  (Wasn’t  it Tolstoy, no less, who said: “I hate Russia, but love Russian literature”?)  But is my national identity really just a textual-cultural-physical identity?  What kind of pale national identity is this?  I don’t particulary like Israeli folksiness or “folklore”,  I abhor many aspects of Israeli elite groups, I don’t accept any version, however secular and sophisticated it may be, of the “Light unto the Nations” doctrine, and I view it as a ridiculous and disastrous conceit.  And what about the existential heritage that I admire so much?  The emphasis and the self glorification of the insight regarding man‘s being alone in the universe?  And aside from that, the question remains valid, Why can’t such a refined identity fit the post-Zionist or the the more radical Zionist Left world-views?

Over the years I thought of several solutions for this gap between the religious-ideological revolution that I underwent, and the slow political change.  Of course, the least flattering solution of all pops into my head, the utilitarian solution.  Performing mitzvot is a demanding life style, as compared with observing political commandments.  And therefore, remaining within the bounds of the political camp, I can, for a small price, remain in the bosom of the society within which I grew up.  Once ever few years I vote for a consensual, “Nationalist” party, spout off a few appropriate bon mots at social and family gatherings, and I get to be part of the camp.

That solution to the riddle would have been valid in the first years of the transition I made.  During those years I was in any case quite indifferent to politics, and was focussed on my life that was turning over in front of my eyes, and thus for a negligible tax I was able to create “industrial peace” for myself at least in this sector.  In the years of difficult separation from the world I grew up in, that seemed an appropriate explanation.

But as the years went on, as I entered a new world at Tel Aviv University, in the city of Tel Aviv, this solution seemed inadequate to fully exhaust the issue.  During those years there was sometimes a price for political “centrism” from the opposite side of the socio-political map: a ticket to enter the club whose price I refused to pay, in the hard cash of political extremism.

G

Two year ago I sat together with friends in a Tel Aviv flat.  It was Saturday evening after Shabbat, and the friends were getting organized to go to a huge Left-wing demonstration, that took place at Rabin Square, and they suggested that I accompany them.  The declared goals of the demonstration were not so remote from my political positions, but I hesitated nevertheless.  I had never been at a Left-wing demonstration until then.  When I finally did join them, I escaped as soon as I could.  It was a really huge demonstration.  Tens of thousands.  And I felt that I didn’t belong.  Other. I felt like the enemy.  It was an obviously irrational feeling.  First, as noted, ideologically I was not far from the declared goals of the demonstration.  Second, I’m already a pretty veteran Tel Avivian, and I lead a Tel Aviv life style.  So why this foreignness?

The foreignness, of course, derived from the thick tribal feeling at this demonstration.  Israeli society, as you know, has become a tribal society and what is less well known, is that this process has not skipped over the “rational”, “universalist” Left, as it were.  The tribe I encountered at the Square is fighting against the tribe in which I grew up, and I couldn’t bear being present there.  The early hour, relative to the end of Shabbat, also determined that I would not meet religious people, Leftist members of my tribe, at the demonstration.

Another incident:  Seven year ago, my first long trip abroad.  Erev Yom Kippur and we were in Paris.  I don’t fast, on principle (I can’t forgive the discomfort and guilt that were laid on my skinny shoulders before and during the “Day of Judgement”), but at my mother’s request, we went to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei, and afterwards reserved places at a restaurant.  The service begins and I begin to weep.  Why? What’s happening to me?  But I can’t stop myself, weeping and weeping.  I recalled my late father, I recall myself with him in the synagogue, I recall later on, myself alone in the synagogue.  It’s stronger than I am.  The weeping is over, the prayers have concluded.  Yes, we went to eat.  But as Kosashvili showed so beautifully in “Late Marriage”,  we apparently have powerful, hidden forces, familial and tribal, that are greater than us, than the autarchic individual that we in our arrogance imagine ourselves to be.

Is this the solution to the riddle? Do my relatively centralized political positions stem from my difficulty in changing tribes? That is, my positions don’t stem from a “rational” analysis of Israeli reality, but rather from a sense of tribal belonging that I am unable to uproot from within myself, and that the ‘receiving’ tribe cannot help ease my transition into itself.

That is certainly a partial solution.  The process of becoming secular is a migration process that lasts many years and perhaps an entire life time.  However, the fact still remains that I have already forgone many dimensions of my tribe, and if so, what keeps me from collapsing into the open arms of my new tribe?  To peg my refusal on the noble motives of someone that does not wish to betray his origins, would be too flattering an explanation for myself, and inaccurate.

H

One of my criticisms of the religious Zionist public, is connected with their exaggerated idealism.  This desire “to be OK”, to be “good”, to be “excellent”.  This super-ego type approach places unbearable pressure on a portion of the children of this public, particularly on the sensitive and excellent among them.  Aside from the pressure, it is also unrealistic, and does not fit human nature.  However, after many years I understood that the source of this approach isn’t specifically “ideological,” it doesn’t necessarily flow from the specific spiritual springs that nourish the religious public.  I understood that it would actually be worth analyzing the relations between

religious Zionists and the secular majority, using structuralist tools that are not connected with the specific content of religious Zionist ideology.  In brief, I understood that this need “to be OK” originates primarily from classical majority-minority relations.  The minority, in order to justify its way of life to itself and also in order to find favor with the powerful majority, must always be “representative,” always “idealistic”, always having “pure” motives, always “successful” and “better than all the rest.”

Part of this idealism, with which I was educated, had in the past made me despise the newly secular who simply wanted to be “like everyone.”  Not like those who became secular from apparently complex emotional and philosophical motives, like me, but rather “simple” people that found it hard to bear their differentness in the army or at work, and therefore became secular.  However, observation of this phenomenon along with an understanding of majority-minority relations between the religious and the secular in Israel, has brought me to the solution of the personal riddle that has troubled me with regard to my political and national positions.

 

I

The thought that the attitude toward the religious in Israel is at times parallel to the treatment Jews received in the Diaspora, flutters in the consciousness of nearly every religious person, and in recent years has also been voiced aloud and in public forums.  This claim is sometimes self-righteous and sanctimonious, but more frequently it fails to find the reason for this feeling.  The relation between hatred of the religious and antisemitism is sometimes similar (I refer, of course, to very moderate disclosures of antisemitism, and not to its harder manifestations, and certainly not the murderous type, as there is no place for such a comparison), not because of hatred for Judaism or specific religious content, but because that is the character of  majority-minority relations, that is the character of human nature.  Differentness creates curiosity, attraction but also alienation, separateness and sometimes hostility, and the majority is naturally perceived of as threatening on that account.

I therefore wish to argue, and I attest for myself, that a religious person, or one who had been religious, is better prepared to understand, instinctively, the secular Zionist Fathers (primarily: Herzl, Pinsker, and Brenner) who spoke of the pathology that exists from the very character of Jewish-Christian relations, which is unconnected with the specific content of Jewish religion, but is rather structural and derives from Jews’ differentness, from their being a minority in their places of residence.  That person is more prepared to understand the Fathers, just as he is also better prepared to understand Frantz Fanon, who about 50 years after Herzl’s analysis, analyzed in a very similar manner the pathological relations between blacks and whites in his book, “Black Skin, White Masks.”

Incidentally, the newly secular person is also better prepared NOT to enthuse about the post-modern existential proposal.  The newly secular person is already a “disassembled and torn subject”, and he is aware of the price he pays for that, and is therefore very skeptical regarding the colorful, joyous whirpool of identities, as it were, heralded by several post-modern thinkers.

J

I am planning to vote for Peretz in the 2006 elections.  In the previous elections I also voted for “Am Ehad” under his leadership, so that the Leftward erosion has apparently reached its limit.  If Peretz were to lead the Labour Party, I wouldn’t vote in the upcoming elections. Even though I am politically leftist, I don’t feel I belong to the Labour “tribe” and certainly not “Yahad,” and the economic positions that I support wouldn’t have a spokesman without him.  But my reservation about the post-Zionist Left is not just tribal.  As a member of a minority I am prepared to understand better what it means to be a minority, and what type of pathology this situation creates.  Solutions like “A State of all its citizens”, various sorts of multi-cultural solutions, seem to me naïve, and the post-modern minorities festival seems childish to me.  I want to be in the majority, and am therefore a Zionist.

K

“There are worlds,” wrote Brenner with bitter sarcasm in 1908, “in which total silence rules.”  Due to acknowlegement of infinite pain, endless injustice, or due to some non-existent ephemeral enthusiasm, that one way or the other, are essentially one (…) In that world people don’t talk and don’t argue, not about national Jewish morality (…) and not even about that we were given Erez Israel.”

Indeed, at the conclusion of this personal discussion of politics and nationalism, I remind myself that there are not a few hours in which national and political identity are quite secondary to my ongoing existence. Yes. However, on the other hand, there are moments when my national identity, both that which derives from the emotional layer, from the sense of belonging; and that which derives from the cultural-physical stratum, from Hebrew culture; as well as that which seeks to exit the minority trap, which is very essential.  I have tried in this paper to describe the journey of one man through Israeli society.  It seems to me, nevertheless, that in recent years increasing numbers are proceeding down the path sketched above.          

 

 

Thoughts of a Security Guard

Thoughts of a Security Guard

Arik Glasner

 

 

1. August 2003-october 2003 (or: Etiology)

 

 

 

In our society, people holding a weapon are powerless people. I, too, was granted powerlessness when I received my light blue uniform in November 2003 and began working as a security guard at the Tel Aviv University dormitories.

 

In August 2003 my work at a Jerusalem research institute had ended. For two years I had studied and worked there, playing well my part in my solid middle-class life, watching with well-masked indifference, the economic deterioration of Israeli society. Friends had been fired from their hi-tech jobs, others gone back to live with their parents and I – who, incidentally, was paid my salary in US$, which made the figure rise steadily – well, I … did go back to live with my parents too, but this was more due to my lifestyle, rather than market economy.

 

That August, however, it was all over for me. 'Come back next March,' said the head of the department where I had been teaching for the last two years. 'We're overstaffed, bursting at the seams, and timetabling is already closed.' No doubt I am not a particularly effective economic unit – I had arrogantly resigned from all my previous jobs, thinking that there is no point in working like a donkey. But history didn't wait for me – buses were exploding, university faculties were exploded. And the museum where I had worked for three years has shut down.

 

At first I found my new proletarian image amusing, leafing through wanted-ads, just to get by, living modestly, and writing literary reviews in the papers. Then, living even more modestly, waiting for phone calls, leafing through the wanted-ads – this time not quite getting by and spending because I was tired of living so tight, buying all the papers for the wanted-ads. In short, downsizing on life.

 

I took a test to work as a proof-reader in one of the newspapers – either I wasn't good enough, or, as they said, they just didn't need any workers at the time.

 

Another time, I went through several excruciating stages in the recruitment process for an elitist private educational institution, only for the interviewer to point out at the final stage that I am a writer, and so can not truly commit to teaching – he wasn't born yesterday.

 

And then when I deliberated too openly over whether I really wanted to be a university entrance preparation teacher, they didn't like it. In short, it was a problem.

 

 

2. Yechezkel (or how cultural wealth charges/fuels? mobilization)

 

I met my friend Yechezkel Rachamim at university. "We're like the barbarians invading Rome," I once said to him. "You're from Yaffo and I'm from Kfar Hare, and we're both at the heart of Tel Avivian decadence: starved, envious and furious.

 

"I'm not comparing our difficulties," I hastened to add, "but there is some resemblance."

 

Yechezkel is studying for his masters in sociology, and makes a living as a security guard at the Tel Aviv University student dormitories. He is most certainly the only security officer in the country who has published children's books.

 

"Look," he said to me, "why don't you work as a guard with me until you find a proper job? It's probably only a matter of weeks."

 

The weeks turned into six months, and I had several problems, so I accepted the offer.

 

"You can read here too," Yechezkel said. "Your visiting me in the dorms and getting paid for it. And the surprisingly human university security staff that the university employed via a private company helped me to reach a decision. I began my security career.

 

I leafed through my old documents and to my surprise found my IDF release certificate (Arieh Glasner, Gunman 0.3 has a highly developed work ethic, good critical skills, he is devoted, attentive and caring). I traveled to the security company offices in south Tel Aviv (which brings Shalom Chanoch's descriptive phrase "its rear end" to mind), put on my uniform and reported to the student dorms at 11 that night. I arrived early, to create 'a good environment', as instructed in the security briefing folder that rested on the counter. I switched on the radio and heard 'ten years anniversary of the death of Benny Amdursky, as the broadcaster advertised a new album. Exactly ten years ago, I had heard about the death of Benny Amdursky at an army checkpoint near Nablus. But in our society now, armed people are powerless people.

 

 

3. November-December (or: all beginnings are difficult, but you end up falling in love with the difficulty along the way)

 

On my first night, Yechezkel wasn't there. I listened to the radio, smoked and tried to read. A few students came in and I checked their IDs. I multiplied eight hours by 17.9 shekels, smoked some more, listened to some more radio and at around 4am the newspaper delivery boys came. My replacement arrived at ten to seven. I changed out of my uniform and hid it in a bag. To my superiors, I said from the start: 'only the dorms, no way for the entrance gates. I was a teacher at the university and it could be a real mess.' They promised that they would try.

 

The second shift was at noon on Friday. It was a completely different experience to guarding at night – and here is where the real skill lies. At night, there are no students, whilst during the day there are plenty. 'You're new?' they ask me, and, second time around: 'don't you recognize me? Oh, you're new.' The third time, they don't even bother talking to me any more, just silently showing the ID. But by the fourth of fifth time, we've reached an intimacy. People open up – they ask about my education, or at least try to determine my cognitive skills. 'How can you not know me – I've passed by here a hundred times,' they say. I explain through gritted teeth that there are some 300 people in the building, but the insult remains: 'How? How can you not recognize me? Me? Me?'

 

During the following shifts I try to work out whether there is a rationale behind recognition and non-recognition. One student reminds me of Yuval Banai, which is why I remember him; some other students looked at the books I was reading with interest. But besides these, I could find no rational criterion – no outstanding beauty or ugliness, no Arab or Jew, no clothing or shoes.

 

It's nearly 9 o'clock, Saturday night and I have a date with Keren for the movies at 10. My replacement, Vadim, doesn't follow the instructions on arriving 10 minutes early to create 'a good atmosphere' and is fucking late. At half past nine the son of a bitch finally shows, moving fast as if he has run all the way from Rishon, where he lives. I stand red-faced in front of him: 'What's this supposed to be? Tell me!'

 

'Don't raise your voice at me,' he says. 'The ride was late. Don't shout at me!' I come closer, can't hear his exact words, astonished by his nerve – instead of apologizing, he's busting a gut. 'What do I care about the ride? You won't fucking keep me here for another half hour,' I say. Vadim reddens. 'Don't shout at me. I told you. Learn from me. It's always like that with this company. You're still new.'

 

Finally I realize. On Saturdays, the guards' arrival is subject to the company's transport service, the same on that takes me back to the centre of Tel Aviv. Vadim seems determined to make peace. 'I can't take it when I'm shouted at,' he says weakly. He enlightens me on the principles of guarding: 'always separate the ID card from the student ID, yeah? That ways it's easier to find and give back.' And as I turn to take my ride, he has reached a peak of sweetness: 'And it's better to separate out the boys' and the girls' – that way it's easier to find them when they arrive.' I raise my hand to show I understand – and to stop him patronizing me.

 

In the car sits Ami. He is about 50, dressed in a random unkempt way, with a hungry look. He will also be picking me up tomorrow, Saturday afternoon, for the next shift, he says. I prefer working Saturday morning because it's 150 per cent, meaning you get 27 shekels an hour. The bummer is that the company is very strict, and the rate only applies after Shabbat starts, so that in a shift that begins at three and ends at nine, the guard gets the extra rate for hardly three hours.

 

I get to Keren's. We won't make the movie. I tell her about my experiences. She laughs: 'You're the security guard straight from hell, the bitter type – I know your kind. You're the kind who isn't built for a relationship with the guarded ones.'

 

The following afternoon, Ami picks me up, as told, on Ben-Gurion Avenue. His van veers wildly through the streets. "Arik, look how everyone in this town enjoys themselves. They say there's a recession – where's the recession? Eh? It's only us who have to work on Shabbat, whores". We've reached Ramat-Aviv and I step off to solid ground. 'It's the ride that made me late,' I tell the guard on duty, and settle behind the counter. The radio is to my right; to my left is a small heater, and on the counter is a sheet of paper where I write who comes in. Above me are eight stories, counting some 300 students, and around me is Ramat-Aviv. Very quickly I learn that the 300 students are all the 'others' of Israeli society: Arabs, olim hadashim, students from low income families, and foreign students.

 

Next door is a Chabad synagogue, whose minions rejoice in artificial 'happiness', trying to persuade passers-by to pray or don Tefilin. An Arab student who looks like a young Yuval Banai confuses them. The young Chabadnik manages to overcome his confusion and says, 'never mind, come, pray Mincha.' Both are smiling. And all around is Ramat-Aviv, one of the most comfortable areas of the country. In short, I'm sitting on the top end of a socially explosive tank.

Guard duty is a delight on Shabbat – all those great songs on 88FM and hardly any movement – everyone's asleep or has gone home. But then the door opens and in walks perhaps a student – but definitely a brunette, short and possible Russian. I ask her for ID, but she doesn't appear to hear and just keeps walking. I ask more loudly: 'ID please', but she keeps going towards the lifts. I jump up from behind the counter and hurry after her: images of Entebbe, the Sabena hijacking, Green Island Raid, and the movie Naked Gun flash through my mind. 'ID please,' I say. 'How can you not recognize me?' she shouts. 'I'm sick of this – it's like a prison here. I've already passed by you a thousand times.'

 

'Sorry.' I try to react rationally. 'I don't remember you. Please show me your ID and we'll get it over with.' But she refuses and I feel furious. 'Give me the ID or I'll give your name to the chief security officer.' She's aware, of course, of the paradox: if she doesn't show me the ID I can't give her name to the chief. She decides to make a run for it and heads towards the lift. I jump up and stand between her and the lift. Defeated, she takes out the ID and flashes it before my eyes. 'All right? Now you're satisfied?' she says contemptuously, and steps into the lift. No. Not all right. I sit in the revolving chair and light a cigarette to calm my nerves.

 

An hour later, I notice Adiv, smartly dressed, curly hair, with glasses and a thin moustache. He looks very young. We met once at some literary event but he doesn't seem to recognize me in uniform – or he does, but won't admit it to himself. 'You live here?' I ask. No, he's from Brodetsky dorms, his cousin Samir lives here – but say, why security guard? I tell him pleasantly that there will be a war here – not between Arabs and Jews, but there will be a war.

 

'There will be a war,' Adiv repeats, nodding in agreement, 'not between Arabs and Jews, but there will be war.' And he tells me sadly of his sick father's situation: an Arab intellectual from Baka El-Garbia, negotiating our endless hallways of public healthcare.

 

'There are insoluble problems,' he says. 'But we can live with them…'

 

I complete his sentence: 'We must come to terms with them. But the way people live, the way sick people are treated, one way or the other, there will be a war.'

 

Then we start to talk about literature. I dismiss certain authors on a whim, and praise others. Adiv is excited: 'Yes,' he says, 'all those theories they teach us at university – we must understand them just so that we can despise them. I'm embarrassed by how modern Hebrew writers use language. Just embarrassed for them. You should be ashamed for not knowing Mahmoud Darwish. Shame on you. Show him the ID, Na'im, he's new here, this guard.' Adiv winks at me as he says this.

I step out from behind the counter and stand in front of Adiv. 'Oh yes, literature! Philosophy! Our conversation has turned into a passionate dance, and I start asking for people's IDs in tune. 'You live here?' I sing to a woman entering. 'No? So you'd like to live here?' I give her a witty smile: she's not used to such wit. 'No, I live in Brodetsky,' she says. You're all blind, you only see me as your security guard, but I'm actually here to solve the greater questions: Tolstoy or Dostoyevky – who is greater? Proust or Joyce? Brenner or Gnessin, Mann or Kafka, Shabtai or Kenaz?

 

 

'I have to go and see my cousin,' Adiv interrupts my euphoria and turns cold. The abrupt ending of our exchange disappoints me. 'I noticed,' I tell him as he leaves, 'that the Hebrew word beseder finds its way into Arabic and also the Russian spoken here by olim. Why is that?'

 

'Yeah, beseder where it's not beseder at all.' Adiv smiles and shakes my hand.

 

 

4. A passing thought that one cannot help thinking

 

Again I'm left alone. Alone, alone, alone. I wallow in self-pity. I am alone and unarmed, I suddenly realize. There is a strike at the Ministry of the Interior and we have not received our weapons. 'But we have a permit to employ you without arms for the time being,' our boss murmurs, not necessarily to me but to himself and to the future investigation committee. 'Fact is that at the scene of the crime the guard was unarmed, Your Honour, which may have contributed to his death. But we did receive a permit, Your Honour, we followed procedures, so the incident does not reflect upon us, there is no breach of contract or procedure.

Oddly enough, I hadn't thought about it until that shift. I was actually quite pleased not to be handling that cold burden. But this thought has at last come to me, a thought that did not come even to a graduate of Yad Chana high school, or a former resident of the settlement Yitzhar, and, I allow myself to add, to an Arab or a jew. This is a thought I find it difficult to hide from, especially if you're standing like a blue-striped uniform duck, unarmed at the guard post.

 

I wonder whether the fact that the building has Arab residents decreases or increases the chance of a bomb. Do not underestimate the importance of this tricky, politically incorrect question. I had passed several shifts in its company, until I received the weapon – as ridiculous as it sounds, because how would I actually use it? Inform a suicide bomber who's determined to end his own and my life? The shot would detonate his device, unless aimed at the head or towards the hands as they activate the bomb. Could I hit the head or hands? Only once I'd had the thought did I feel calm.

 

 

5. Sexuality market (or: what Israeli girls want?)

 

Night shift again. Half past eleven and I go on patrol by the dorms, back and forth, finally standing outside with my back to the shut door. Suddenly, a young woman stops five meters away from me. She's looking at me and I'm looking at her. The seconds pass. She is exceptionally beautiful, silent, and she's occasionally peeking at my face. The seconds thicken into minutes.

 

What's going on? Why is she silent? I daren't speak, and light a cigarette. Our eyes meet like spotlights every few seconds: exceptional beauty. I hear the door open behind me and a tall student approaches the woman. They exchange words in Russian and turn towards the dorms. I watch them head towards the elevators, magnetized.

 

I suddenly remember and run after them. 'Sorry, I need the ID.' They laugh and I blurt out, 'she's so pretty, your friend, that I completely forgot to be the guard.' The guy smiles, but the girl reddens. She takes out her ID and hands it over without looking at me. I smile at her, look at the ID and let them go.

 

Minutes later the door opens and a guy of about 30 runs out: high forehead, glasses, and a scarf wrapped round his neck in a non-Israeli style. European? 'They fired me.' He bangs on the guard's counter. 'They fired me those sons of bitches.' He's from South America. You notice his accent right away.  He was working as a waiter here in a South American restaurant in town.


'Daniel, my name's Daniel. Yes, of course I'm a student. You're new here? Here's the ID. Masters in Literature and Film. From Uruguay. Yes, but your mom – when did she come here? The Sixties? Well, I made Aliyah on my own and I'm not a Zionist. I came here because it was intolerable back there, but I'm dying to get out of here to Spain. What are you reading? So you're also a student. Its easy to say: you'll find something else. A pretty girl, you say? There are a few here – don't know that one. What does it matter anyway? – Here in your country a girl won't go out with a guy who doesn't have a car. Yes, I definitely think so. You'll go out with me without a car?'

 

We both smile and I give him my opinion of the current situation. In light of the extensive feminist discussions, as part of  'identity politics' – dull, unattractive, yet pressing issues, such as the relationship of money  to the sexual market, are pushed aside and ignored.. I strongly recommend he read Houellebeq: he's not a great writer, I say, but he's one of the few who really understand what's happening in the West today. More than all the post-modern, post-colonial theorists taught at this university. 'Here in your country it's actually important to study post-colonialism,' Daniel says with a poisonous smile.

 

I tell him I'm an Israeli patriot, and certainly it's important to study them, just to understand the injustice, the injustice in the Israeli context, no? But that's not the point. You're a neo-Marxist, I tell him – so am I – but I don't repeat the fatal error of left-wingers through the generations since Haskala (enlightenment), I do not undermine the positive effect of nationalism.

 

He disagrees but returns to the point of agreement. 'I'm misunderstood at university. When I told a few girls that I found Israeli girls don't date a guy who doesn't own a car, they dismissed the idea. What are you rabbiting on about? They said. What's that compared to the discrimination of women?' I nod in agreement. You don't have to convince me. 'And now they fired me!' He bangs on the counter. 'I'm here in this country all alone. It's not good what's happening in your country.' His eyes glitter evilly. 'This is the only campus in the world with no student life, no cultural life. You know that? How do you explain it? It's midnight and all quiet – what's that all about? It's like a cemetery. No vitality, everyone's walking about with their back hunched as if they were at a funeral. I've been to Spain – trust me, what's happening there…

 

I am silent, then say weakly, 'don't exaggerate, please.' He shakes my hand and goes upstairs.

 

 

6. The Literary circle (or: how many Raskolnikovs are wandering about here)

 

It's getting late and the dorms turn silent. Rachel, the blind American girl, steps out for a walk with her obedient white stray dog. 'What's her name?' I ask when she returns. Rachel smiles: 'Hasha. First it was Penelope, but this is Hasha. Perhaps you may know,' she says in English, 'where I could get a microwave?' Maybe second-hand, cheap – it would help her. I dread the void her disappearance would leave and start reeling off options: The local paper, websites, etc. I write it all down on a piece of paper.

 

'You know Israelis really help you out,' she says. In the US everyone's very polite – they'll always listen to you, but the bottom line is that they won't help. Here, maybe, everyone wants to show you he knows best, I don't know, but they really do help you out. Thanks. Good night. Hasha, let's go upstairs.'

 

 Being a Russian junky culture has made me look for Russian conversation partners, ones who know the great writers in original. But experience has taught me that, to make a wild generalization, Russian literature enthusiasts can be divided into two groups: those who like Dostoyevsky, and those who disagree with him and like Bulgakov or science fiction – or both. Katia, for example, from my building, passionately asserts that Dostoyevsky is depressing and doesn't speak to her.

 

She likes science fiction, fantasy and 'uplifting' books. Nadia, my Russian language teacher, can't stand Dostoyevsky either, preferring the 'liberal' Chekhov, using the same words: 'Dostoyevsky is depressing.' The point is, and it's an important one, that the seriousness characterizing the Russian classics is associated by part of the Russian intelligentsia with the terrifying failure of communism. Western capitalism is perceived as gay, free and enlightened, and the 'losers' shame cultivates resentment towards the 'heavy'; A minor form of self-hatred.

 

One finds, in a minority of the Russian immigrant community, admiration of the US and capitalist, which is at times almost unbearable. Not that I'm one of those who automatically hates anything American – but this admiration of success, coming from the 'losers' side, has a dark, unappealing quality to it.

 

So, as the weeks went by, I finally found a 'Russian' conversation partner at the dorms. Elad speaks Russian but had come here as a child. It was fast turning into quite a literary circle here behind the guard's counter. Elad is skinny, with glowing eyes and a fair beard covering his pretty face. 'How many little Raskolnikovs you find wandering about here,' I dare him. 'Just spark off their fuse and they'll explode.' Elad recommends I read Leonid Andrayev. 'There's a part with a sated lion in it, with tired eyes and small turtle passing by. Go on pass, he says, with the generosity of sated cruelty, go on, pass.' Elad curves the palm of his hand.

 

'Go on pass, the lion says. It's alright, I'm full now.' Elad's eyes shimmer when he speaks of the cruel lions and of his great force, his mercy, the unexpected rescue awarded to the turtle. It's turned into quite a literary circle here, but sometimes you just don't want to say anything, don't want to be forced into conversation. Sometimes you feel like retreating into your book or your cigarette or your loneliness or your anger or your fantasy or all five of the above. To be as correct as you can: you live here? Your ID please. Thanks. To be as correct and impersonal as possible; especially when you see the heart-rending loneliness all around you; Lonely students from the four corners of the earth looking for someone to talk to. Small talk. A word. And you talk to them, throw them a bone, but sometimes you just don't feel like it. They don't pay you to be psychologist, or a friend for that matter. I'm just a guard here. Full stop.

 

One night an older woman walks in. She's well-dressed, from Ramat-Aviv, probably. 'Do something,' she orders me. 'There's a group of boys there – vandals. They're not from here. They're tearing up the bench over there.' She's shouting in excitement. I follow her. 'Do something!' she shouts behind me. To my left, about five meters away, I see a group of 14-year-olds on bikes, their feet up on a torn-up bench, turned on its side. 'They're not from here,' the woman yells, waving her hands. This is the third time I've seen these boys. I take a step towards them and they start to move. I turn round. 'Call the police!' I tell the woman, and head towards the building. She looks at me with tears in her eyes: 'aren't you going to do anything?'

 

'Madam, I'm a security guard here. This isn't my business. Call the police if you want. I'm a guard here, just here in the dorms. Full stop.

 

7. The shooting range (or: a bookshelf as an absorbing object)

 

The Ministry of Interior strike is finally over and I've been summoned to the company's office to collect my permit for carrying arms, as well as the gun. 'Come on time, quarter to nine,' my boss says. 'They'll give you the permit; you go out to the shooting range and get the gun.' How long will it take? I ask. No more than an hour and a half, he promises me.

 

I arrive at a quarter to nine and wait patiently for half an hour. At a quarter past nine I step outside for a smoke. When I get back, the person in charge still hasn't arrived. We've been waiting for over half an hour. The secretary at the front desk promises over 40 minutes ago that the person in charge was 'on his way'. I raise my voice: 'we don't get paid for this morning, so make him come.' The secretary seems overcome by the fact that a simple guard, at the bottom of the food chain, has dared to speed up the arrival of the supervisor, but the supervisor shows up a few minutes later and hands us weapon permits, gun and a couple of bullet barrels. We're told to go to the shooting range, which is nearby. On the way I don't know what to do with the strange weapon and put it in a bag. As we reach the entrance to one of the shabby buildings near Hamasger Street, I pull it from the bag.

 

'Hey, don't take out your weapon,' the man behind the counter yells at me. 'You don't know how many misfired shots we've had here.' I replace it quickly and wait as we've been told to. The shooting range instructors wait until security guards from the various companies have arrived so that a new range may be shot. I look around me. We're in a very dusty, wide basement. It smells oily and sour, its rough machismo absorbing those who enter, like dust. A simple coffee machine stands in the corner, on it written 'we grind our own coffee on the premises', a sort of yuppy flamboyance out of context, in a place where decent bourgeois are scarce.

 

 

at the long awaited hour two groups had gathered and each received ear mufflers and we were then taken in a narrow corridor towards a small room at the end of which stood the targets, behind these the wall has been padded with a certain material that will absorb the bullets; a slim rather handsome Russian man, with a grey bohemian hair style Stands in front of us, looking very assertive. He starts lecturing on the mantling, dismantling, and firing of gun. This was a very short lecture (briefing, explanation).by the end of it, I hardly managed to understand how to shoot; definitely not how to dismantle. But, when they aren't paying you for your time you don't really seem to care that the explanation's so short. "When you want to take the gun out of the carrying case? Always use the hand that is further away, in this case for me- it's my left hand. Do you know why?" he asks his improvised class, one of the students who wishes to show he knows best – I know these guys already from the army – says giggling: "so they don't think you want to shoot", "that's right", says the Russian, "if I see someone reaching for the gun with his right hand, a maniac like myself would shoot straight off". Everyone smiles. No doubt, we're faced with a real man. "Now let's talk about dismantling", he continues and the student from before springs out: "First off it's important to dismantle a weapon facing an absorbing object. The best option will be a book case" clearly he mentions a well known convention, and indeed the instructor agrees. "Yes, it's important to remember: dismantle facing an absorbing object, a sofa or preferably a book case, so that if you miss one- there goes a book nothing more"   

 

 

New Year's Eve (or: the food chain)

 

8. My boss calls me begging me to guard on New Year's Eve. "I've got no one, the Russian guys are on leave and I'm desperate" I agree, I don't usually celebrate New Year's Eve; due to biographical issues. When I get there at eleven o'clock the parties are in full swing. Apart from the Israeli students celebrating, there are in the building some "Christians" from abroad, who are taking the event completely seriously. People are passing by me with bottles of Vodka and beers, offering me a sip. I refuse. I'm on duty. Others stop to express their solidarity: "you're stuck here on New Year's Eve?"

 

Around midnight the dorms clear out of people. Everyone's partying outside.  They're partying even on the radio; I turn it off with contempt. Around one AM people start coming back. Girls in all their drunken glory, the guys swaying from side to side, giggling. "You're stuck here on New Year's Eve?"  They stop for a second. I'm finally encouraged by their empathy and end up acting out the most improbable act for my situation. I call for take-out and order the spicy noodle dish, there's a minimum fee per order, so I add another Sushi Cone, sixty shekels altogether and it'll will arrive in no longer than one hour. My hands shiver when I hang up.. I just ordered take-away for half my salary for this long night ahead of me. But I am also human. Forty minutes later the delivery guy arrives, I hesitantly give him the Visa. Half of my salary is wasted on this take-away, I tell him. He smiles suspiciously, this isn't going to be good for him. Do you get your wages for the deliveries or just the tips? I ask. "Bro', give only if you want" he says benevolently. I hesitate for a moment. Usually I'm not bad tipper, but the shock caused by my irrational decision confuses me. For a moment there I'm not myself. He gives me a weak smile and says "bro', don't bum out, you don't have to give", I awake all at once. 'Excuse me, I don't know what happened to me', I reach out and hand him a Ten Shekel coin. "Thanks bro" he answers with a smile. "They've fucked us – working on New Year's, huh?"   

 

January-march (or: over and undone with)

I am less acquainted with the other guards than the residents themselves. After all, I meet them only at shift changes, for brief updates when there are unusual events to report. (Students requesting to bring a friend over to sleep in the dorms, these requests are later passed on by the guard to the security officer; objects that were left at the guard's post, in order to be picked up later etc.). However, I will attempt to give an impression of their character in a few lines.

 

First, the guards are divided into two groups: the young and the old. Among the young, I am practically the only one who isn't originally from the former USSR. The older ones, forty or fifty years old – are what can be referred to as "veteran Israelis". Most of them are quite intelligent, people who have been uprooted from their various working environments. In the meantime they are earning their meager livelihood in provisional jobs like security. People who have failed to find their proper place in the current economic system. Only their "meantime" has suddenly turned into months. For example, Avram, as Yechezkel tells me with a smile, is incredibly devoted to the building. If he is supposed to guard it, then he wouldn't do it half way. Or Yiftach, who comes rushing every Saturday night to replace me, and immediately turns on the radio to listen to soccer. Or Bernard, who dreams of publishing a novel in German and listens to classical music from behind the counter; or Menachem, grumpy and mean, who despite the fact I come earlier than I should have, leaves the post all at once without even waiting for me to set up.

 There is a certain degree of charged irony between these men, especially the older guards, and the "enlightened" feminine youthful students. I would like to comment on that. During one of the long night shifts I discovered underneath the guard's counter an Israeli monthly pornographic journal. There isn't enough privacy here at the post, so I had put it back in its place without leafing through it. But I would like to say something about all the erotic legends revolving around college girls. Yes, all those well-known legends that fuel men's imagination all around the world.

 

What have we got here? Here, in the distant marginal parts of Tel Aviv University, 2004? At times one may find a surprising amount of untamed beauty, the kind that is not produced by a work-out at the gym or by certain Pilates exercises. A strange beauty, unknown to its' embarrassed proprietor. A lot of young embarrassed women lacking in confidence, tensioned, stressed, coming from complicated backgrounds, and here and there, in the midst of all this, banal yet wise insistence to enjoy youth in the way one should. This insistence is evident almost only on Saturday nights.

 

As months passed, I have already grown accustomed to my work. Trying to take advantage of the spare time for reading and writing, and also for conversations with new acquaintances. To the left of the counter a messianic Christian Arab argues with a convert American Jew of Korean origin, on the importance or lack of importance of the Talmud. A student comes running over and tells me he's seen a group of young boys on bikes vandalizing parked cars. The beautiful girl lingers a little too long at my counter. No doubt, compliments pay-off. Adiv comes to say goodbye. He leaves the dorms and moves back home to care for his sick father. Rachel passes-by again with her guide-dog Hasha, and stops me from changing the radio station. She likes  the florid oriental style of singing. 'It's so beautiful' she says, and for a moment there she can see again. That's cool.  

 

Daniel complains again in anguish about how materialistic Israeli girls are, and I can't bear it since I identify with him so profoundly. The door opens and a student walks in. Daniel hisses to me "isn't she cute?" is she available? I whisper back, and he nods, 'I think so'. That's it, I've had it. I get up and turn to her 'what's your name?' Naama, 'look Naama' I say authoritatively. Excuse me for asking but do you have a boyfriend? She blushes and says she doesn't but wonders what I'm getting at. So, I go on 'listen, this is Daniel, you know him, lovely guy, very intelligent, looks good, doesn't he? And you live right here as well, in the dorms. You look like an intelligent girl, and sorry for being rude but you're also very attractive, so what's your problem people?! Why don't you go out for a movie? Talk a little; have a drink, why rot in here? 

 

I glance over at Daniel and there is blind fury in his eyes, but Naama is actually smiling. Come on, go take a shower and get dressed, and in half an hour, meet down here on the way to the movies. Is that clear? Naama says she's not up for a film but she actually wanted to ask Daniel about the computer in his room. They both try to dismiss my suggestions as crazy and bizarre, and prefer to continue their indecisive course till the end of time. But when they are leaving together, I feel content and settle back in my chair.

 

A familiar student walks in and bangs on the counter, he got fired too. He worked as security guard in a Jerusalem hospital. "They fired me for nothing", it's unbelievable, a real slave-market, the whole thing. They can fire me because there are thousands like me. Tell me, how much are you getting here? Also minimum wage?" and when I not in approval he says "it's all the same shit, what else do you do for a living?" When I tell him I feel as if an invisible wall has come between us. "So you write for the newspapers? Well, you've got it all worked out" he looks at me suspiciously, a little alienated.

 

Maybe I shouldn't have told him but why should I feel guilty? Perhaps this is because of the mobilization, I tell myself, that wonderful word, the magic cure of liberal economy. Here I am not an un-talented individual, thirty years old, with no money or a decent job. It is so obvious to me that from middle class I came and to middle class I shall return and god bless the free market. And still I feel guilty. "You write for the paper?" he says "so why don't you write about us and about this slave-market? Could you also give me the number of the security company you work for? Maybe I'll try talking to them tomorrow, what have I got to lose?"

 

Daniel comes downstairs, his face all pale. So, how did it go with Naama? I enquire, although I already know the answer. He dismisses the question. "nothing's right in your country, terrible and vulgar film-making. It's all dead here." You can tell he's on the edge. He's all stirred up, repeatedly throwing the scarf around his neck in violent gestures, banging his fists on my counter. "If I want to go have a drink or two, I need at least fifty shekels. I want to take a girl out but she won't even piss in my direction 'cause I don't have a car." He sits down beside me and then stands up again, all excited. "I heard that in the Nineties it was like heaven here, is that true? I wouldn't know, but now, what is this place, tell me?"  

 

I whisper to him, in trance "you know Daniel; there are old ladies here in Ramat-Aviv, old ladies". Daniel is focused on his own suffering, sitting restlessly on the chair, but I can't resist the temptation: "Alone, Daniel, I whisper," Old ladies all alone in their apartments, with lots of money". I'm shocked at myself but I can't help it. He suddenly realizes what I mean and looks at me as if I was mad. what are you babbling about? "People with money are sitting in their apartments all around us, get it? Old women, it's pretty easy…. "What do I need old ladies for?" Daniel jumps up from his chair," I'm talking about young girls, about finding a girlfriend". I come back to my senses, like waking up from a bad dream. He didn't really get what I meant and that's just as well. What was I thinking? He's more into films, rather than literature, let alone Dostoyevsky.

 

Yosef Chaim Brenner’s view of Jewish Culture and the Zionist Revolution

Wise Old Men and Rebellious Youth:  Yosef Chaim Brenner’s view of Jewish Culture and the Zionist Revolution; A proposal for a revised conception of Brenner’s world-view through a Jungian reexamination of his work

A.  Suppose we were to compare the appearance of the Zionist Revolution on the stage of the Jewish world, with a familial inter-generational conflict: Yosef Chaim Brenner would undoubtedly be considered the wildest, most vocal child in this torn family.

But why suppose this comparison?  Conceptualizing Zionism as a familial struggle of “sons” against “fathers” or youth against old men is in fact one of the most widespread cliches of publicists and Jewish belles lettres in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century.  It was at this point- whether or not by chance – that the central European Jew, Freud, was laboring over the development of his Oedipal model.

Within this struggle between “sons” and “fathers” Brenner was the enfant terrible who rebelled not only against his own parents, but against his forbears and the entire Jewish tradition. He didn’t rebel just against the post-Biblical tradition, as did another impudent son of this despairing family, M.Y. Berdichevsky, but his torrential criticism reached back to include even its misty Biblical dawn.  The actual “fathers” and all of Judaism, are old, too old, charges Brenner time and again in his writings, and they must die to clear the way for their alienated children.

In Brenner’s most  acerbic text on this subject, in the essay “Evaluating ourselves in the three volumes,” Brenner judges all of Jewish reality as weak and anemic, garrulous and noisy, mediating but unproductive, hypocritical and self-righteous, materialistic and filled with moldy, insincere spirituality, isolationist but filled with lust for assimilation.  In this gloomy essay Brenner also discusses the antiquity of the Jewish people, expressing his opposition to the importance some attach to it:

            “This person, for example, reached a ripe old age – that’s good.  But if his old age is not the result of powerful character and exalted life, we will not rise before him, nor shall we honor his presence just because of his old age.  Jews are one of the ancient peoples who survived and continued to exist, … but this fact still doesn’t teach us anything.

B. Conceptualizing the Jewish people as “old” aroused such enmity in Brenner that it lacks almost any parallel among other Zionist thinkers, due to a combination of several unique psychological and theoretical elements.  First, as a thinker who was decisively influenced by Nietzsche,  Brenner loathed the “Judaeo-Christian” ethic nearly as much Nietzsche.  But Brenner went one step beyond Nietzsche, who had explained the circumstances in which the Judaeo-Christian “slave ethic” was created, and by contrast viewed the European Jew of his generation as a powerful race.  Brenner, as oppposed to the latter, held that both the longevity of Jewish existence and its current fragile nature are both a terrible weakness.  Therefore, Brenner created a conglomerate not found in Nietzsche, between  the “biological” longevity of the Jewish people, and its culture and “slave” ethic. Furthermore, in Brenner’s personal mythology,  a connection was formed between the Jewish people’s old age and the erotic weakness of the aged, a weakness which torments most of Brenner’s heroes.  The contempt which his heroes hold for the “weak” in erotic terms, and thereby for themselves, becomes in the public sphere hatred for Judaism and hatred for the Jewish people, the “eldest” and the weakest of the nations.

Given the hatred and these reasons, we could apparently summarize with relative simplicity Brenner’s existential and Zionist thought according to the Freudian family model:  the “young” Jewish Zionist must rebel against both the contemporary fathers and the “aged” Jewish heritage.

One of the leading reasons for the dark magic of his writings until the present, could be explained with similar simplicity in that Brenner, just like Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint, illustrates just how difficult it is for the “sons” to separate from the heritage of  the “elderly fathers’” ethic, to carry off the Oedipal rebellion and to live free, amoral lives.

But there’s more.  The Freudian model for interpreting Brenner’s thought as “Oedipal”, can also help us to understand another central phenomenon of his literary and public activity – Brenner’s opposition to any sort of authority.  Our intention here is not to the authority of Jewish tradition, but rather to the authority claimed by thinkers who shared Brenner’s understanding of the split between “the old men” and the “youth” as revealed in modern Jewish history, and who sought to fill the void created in the Jewish world with an alternative ethical-nationalist ideology.  For the most part the approach of these thinkers was an attempt to mediate between the way of the “old men” and that of the “youth.”

These thinkers – personalities such as Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Rav Kook and Buber – who were outstanding in the field of Jewish thought at the end of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, embody the rise of a spiritual leadership aware of a renewed mission, which adopted as its model the image of the Biblical prophet.  Underlying their mission was the certain knowledge that an historical catastrophe of world-wide proportions was either brewing or already underway, which would involve a profound spiritual upheaval. The leader-prophet, therefore, “forsees for his people a comprehensive social-national vision of exalted moral content, which contains the promise of redemption.”

We can discern in Brenner’s life and works his sharp opposition to these figures, who  proclaimed that they held a complete and harmonious solution for the distress of the individual Jew.  Best known are Brenner’s disputations with Ahad Ha’Am and with Gordon, but Brenner confronted Rav Kook and Buber as well.  When we   consider the motives for this confrontation,  with  those “prophetic” and “harmonious” figures, we can see that at the foundation of opposition to the latter are identical causes, some of which I have already discussed before.  Some may be termed “ideological” (cf. Nietzsche’s comprehensive contempt for “ethical” concepts), and some may be termed “emotional” (indifference that reflects the indifference of these  “ethical” circles to the problem of Eros) and some that may be termed “realistic.”  But beneath these reasons stands the Oedipal factor: Brenner’s rebellion against any authority whatsoever, in any representation of the “father’s” authority.

G.

One of the earliest to identify the “Freudian” character of Brenner’s work was literary critic,  Dov Sadan, who in a series of pioneering articles during the 1930’s analyzed central phenomena in Brenner’s works according to the recent theory that had reached the shores of Tel Aviv’s port from Vienna.  Sadan, however, did not connect the Oedipal complex of Brenner’s heroes with their creator’s attitude toward Jewish Tradition or to that generation’s teachers, but he did relate to the Oedipus complex as a very important factor in analyzing Brenner’s work.  Furthermore, Sadan in his Freudian analysis dealt with Brenner’s publicistic, essayist personality and literary works as a single block, moving freely and with virtuosity from one part to the other in order to prove his distinctions.

But alongside Sadan’s “Freudian” interpretation of the father figure in Brenner’s stories and of his heroes’ attitude towards women and mothers, Sadan’s hawk’s-eye perception discovered another central phenomenon in Brenner’s life and works.  In a brilliant article, “Toward the Meek of the World”, Sadan indicates a central line in the typology of Brenner’s heroes.  He discovered that the central character in Brenner’s stories is:” The figure of a young person in Israel (…) that contained the horror of reality and its distress (…) a soul that struggles in its own web within the tragic thicket of its generation, that is composed entirely of fragments of a cry for redemption and wholeness”.

The counter-image of these heroes, adds Sadan, would only appear to be “in those others, whose path in life is successful, whose soul is tranquil and who enjoy good spirits, who are unacquainted with any sense of inferiority or self-denigration, whose position is of self-adulation for their worth and importance.”  However, Sadan notes, it would be mistaken to view this figure as the “counter-image” in Brenner’s stories, for the simple reason that these images are not thoroughly developed by their creator.

     Another type of character that does enjoy this full treatment, is the “counter-image.”  This is the image that “is undeterred by a courageous, cruel introspection, is undeterred by the intense agony of self-exposure, but rather descends into the inferno, reaching the final levels of descent, deriving from that place the beginning of his ascent and the strength of his rising toward wholeness and reconciliation (….)  These images stand before us as though shrouded in mysterious light, (…) hinting at the image of the hidden Zaddik whose light shines , illuminating the crowd of little, afflicted men”.

Sadan then notes that Brenner’s “central-figure” aspires to reach the harmonious, resolved situation of the”counter-image,” but fails to do so.  He ascribes this to Brenner’s “psychology,” which drags far behind the  “ideology” which created that same wondrous image.

Toward the Meek of the World is an outstanding essay by Sadan about Freudian interpretation of Brenner.  Not only isn’t the phenomenon identified by Sadan unexplained by Freudian tools, it actually contradicts the “Freudian” principles in Brenner’s thought.  Brenner’s attraction to the mysterious “counter-image”, as outlined by Sadan, collides head-on with the “Oedipal” rebellion of Brenner’s heroes.  Of course, the Freudian model is sufficiently flexible to include ambivalence toward that same authority figure, but these images that Sadan terms “counter-images” are not the same as the weak “fathers” whom the Brennerian hero scorns or fears.  Even the figures’ influence on Brenner’s hero appears to be of a different, more mysterious sort.  It seems that Sadan was satisfied with the glamorous discovery of the phenomenon, and did not examine the broader implications for understanding Y. H. Brenner’s personality, thought and work.

D.

As we have seen, Brenner’s “Oedipal” rebellion against the “old” Jewish heritage, stems from both ideological (original development of Nietzschean revulsion against the Judaeo-Christian ethic) and emotional motives (the connection between Jewish weakness and erotic infirmity; rebellion against any type of authority).  However, Brenner’s “Oedipal” rebellion is not limited to the world of Jewish culture.  The very same arguments that brought Brenner to rebel against the heritage of the “old” Jewish people, brought him to rebel against Tolstoy’s ethical thought.  Here, too, Tolstoy’s “oldness” stands at the center of Brenner’s criticism of pacifism and Tolstoian moralism.

Brenner emphasizes the “genealogy” of Tolstoian morality.  Vacillation between nihilism, morality and faith accompanied Tolstoy throughout his life, Brenner argues.  Tolstoy, as the man of morality, the prophet, became this only in his mature years, when his “instincts weakened.”  The erotic infirmity of  Tolstoy the “old man” also leads to doubts about his teaching.

But Brenner’s attitude toward Tolstoy the Man of Morality had not always been like that:  in his work “One Year” Brenner sketches out the sobering up process of Hanina Mintz, Brenner’s double, from Tolstoyism.  The work focuses on a description of the process of Hanina Mintz’ moral corruption in his first year in the Russian army.  The decadent process that happens to Mintz is extremely closely tied to his estrangement from Tolstoy’s moral positions.

The young Brenner, like Hanina Mintz, his hero prior to his army experience, is profoundly influenced by Tolstoy.  Brenner’s first novel, In Winter, describes it as follows:  “At that time…. Tolstoy was the prophet of the Man within me.  His plain, logical sayings, the feelings welling up from the heart, the excited attacks upon the decadence of civilization, on egotistic science, upon illusory art, on the degeneracy of life with money – all this made a great impression upon me. I was then an other-wordly young man, seeking truth.  I had few acquaintances, chance acquaintances; …and in this world the Russian writer ruled.

If we pay attention to the formulation chosen by Fiermann, the young Brenner’s double and hero in “In the Winter,” describing Tolstoy and himself as “prophet” versus “young man”, it will be hard for us not to see the similarity between this position and Brenner’s “main hero” and the “counter-hero” identified by Sadan:

            These characters  stand before us as though enshrouded in a mysterious light, (…) hinting at the figure of the hidden Zaddik whose light shones, illuminating the crowd of little, afflicted men.”

E

Sadan did not include historical figures such as Tolstoy as an example of a “counter-image.”  His essay deals only with literary figures.  But if we take a moment with one of the examples that Sadan enumerates, we can see the similarity between its influence on the “main-hero” and Tolstoy’s influence on the young Fiermann.  One of the figures enumerated by Sadan as an example of the “counter-image”, is the figure of Avraham Menuhin in “Out of the Straits.”

The work “Out of the Straits” is told by a narrator and written like diary entries, which are called “scrolls.”  In these “scrolls” the narrator describes the world of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, who had settled in the White Chapel neighborhood in London.  With meticulous detail he describes the life style of people around the publishing house of a ‘yellow’ Yiddish newspaper, for which the narrator himself works as a distributor.

But this way of life only constitutes the background for the exceptional appearance of Avraham Menuhin, who also works at the publishing house as a typesetter.  In the past Menuhin had been a revolutionist and member of the Bund; he belonged to the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, even though he differentiates himself from the latter and from the “new winds” – from the hedonistic anarchists.

Menuhin fulfills a moral function in the narrator’s life similar to that filled by Tolstoy in the life of Fiermann.  Menuhin, relates the nameless narrator of “Out of the Straits” – is not “scared of the word ‘morality’, and he does not view rebels as the choicest of men (….) but rather he views good deeds and desirable relationships as the sole thing without which there is nothing.”

But the similarity of influence is not only in content but in form.  Precisely as Tolstoy was revealed to the confused young man, Fiermann, as a prophet, Menuhin is revealed to the narrator as an ancient, very majestic figure.  Menuhin’s rise from the London darkness – to his first encounter with the narrator –  is described as revelation.  Menuhin is conceived of by the narrator as a representative of earlier generations, high above the crowd, and “a creature not frequently encountered.”

The narrator declares that Menuhin “arises and illuminates” in his presence.  He hesitates  whether to verify in his heart what his eyes behold, since the apparition’s nature is so charged and strange.  His uncertainty makes him like someone who undergoes a religious experience, but whose rationalism makes him doubt this. In brief, as the critic, Fishel Lachover noted:  “In “Out of the Straits” the main Brennerian hero listens to “a voice from without, as though from another world (…) he meets a sort of “wonder” outside, a wonderful person.”

F.

How can we explain Brenner’s attraction to characters like Menuhin or Tolstoy?  Is the Freudian world sufficiently broad to contain “religious” wonder like the narrator’s toward Menuhin, or that of Fiermann toward Tolstoy?  It seems unlikely. Yet if we distance ourselves a bit from the Freudian world, in a short detour from Vienna to Switzerland, we will encounter a psycho-philosophical system that fits such an unusual emotional phenomenon – Jungian psychology.

In Jung we will find what we seek: a father figure that is not just a “father-figure” but “larger than life”, with moral weight and religious attraction, whose foundations we will not find in concrete, personal experience, but which come rather from the depths of the collective unconscious.  In Jung and his archetypal “Wise Old Man” we will find the solution to Brenner’s attraction to the moral characters of Tolstoy and Menuhin.

In several places in his writings Jung counts the “Wise Old Man” as one of the central archetypes of the collective unconscious.  According to Jung, the appearance of the “Wise Old Man” occurs whenever people need insight, understanding, good advice, determination, planning, etc., but the one in need lacks strength to reach them on his own.  The archetype arises in a dream, a vision, in cultural works and in the actual field of culture, compensating the individual in a state of confusion, and everyone during periods of crisis.  On the one hand, “the Wise Old Man” represents:  knowledge, thought, insight, wisdom, cleverness and intuition, and on the other hand – moral qualities which express his “spiritual” aspect.

The figure of the “Wise Old Man” is connected to the figure of the “god”, on one hand, and to the figure of the “father” on the other.  The appearance of the archetype has an explicitly numinous character, defined by Jung as religious experience.  A mystical halo accompanies the archetype’s appearances, who directly and deeply influences the emotions of the subject to whom he reveals himself.

The figures of Menuhin and Tolstoy do fit all these characteristics.  If  the “counter-image” found by Sadan is actually identical with the Jungian figure of “the Wise Old Man”, we can apparently define the battle taking place in Brenner’s work and thought as the battlefield between Freud and Jung.  The Freudian Brenner rejects the “fathers,” but the Jungian Brenner yearns for the “old men.”

An example which will demonstrate that Freud and Jung are struggling on the battlefield of Brenner’s soul, may be found in one of Brenner’s articles, which begins with the following passage:

            “It seems that someone already said:  I don’t like my Jewish father, but ‘touch not our children and our elders’… the Jewish children with their live, pure eyes, and the elderly Jews bathed in the glory of nobility – not nobility of much property, but rather the nobility of a higher inner culture – from the latter we can be consoled a bit, to find a little comfort…our children and our elders show us that our national body “is fashioned from beautiful material”, since the leaven in our dough has great importance.”

Here Brenner adopts an overall positive approach towards the”elderly Jews,” who carry with them “a higher inner culture.”  This inclusive approach (not regarding a specific old person) , and the coupling of elders with children, support the claim that the figure of the “Wise Old Man” constituted an archetypal, ideological-emotional focal point for Brenner; a focal point that collided with the “fathers.”

But it appears that for Brenner, matters were more complex.  It seems that within the soul of Brenner’s central hero there was not only a battle between the Jungian “Wise Old Man” and the Freudian father.  Brenner himself analyzes the Jungian archetype, finds it flawed, and relates to it ambivalently.

 

k

The Zionist Revolution and its attraction toward the figure of the young “New Hebrew” shares several surprising similarities with the cultural revolution that occurred in the ‘60’s in the West.  Opposition to authority, the accentuated rift between parents and children, the vision of the new culture and admiration for youth are shared by both revolutions.  It’s no wonder, therefore, that during the ‘60’s a “negative” revision in Jungian theory was made regarding the “Wise Old Man” archetype, by a thinker who was spiritually close to the counter-culture that developed then – a revision very reminiscent of Brenner’s doubts in the “Counter-image.”

James Hillman, a central and original post-Jungian, deals very comprehensively with the “Wise Old Man” archetype of the Jungian school.  In a series of articles from the 60’s and 70’s, Hillman discusses the “senex” archetype, and particularly its negative aspects.

Senex in Latin means an “old man” (we find this connotation in words like “senile” and “senator.”  In Hillman’s view the senex archetype is connected with the concept of “God”, and is a symbol of old age that appeared in Greek mythology  in the figure of Chronos (in Latin, Saturn).  On the one hand, Saturn is the personification of the “Wise Old Man,” the wise seclusive man, with “positive” intellectual and moral capabilities, the “Old King”, father of all; but on the other hand, he is also the father who nourishes himself insatiably from his children’s flesh. Thus Saturn constitutes a key example of the positive and negative aspects of the symbol of old age, the Senex.

Hillman talks about the Senex-Puer archetype, an archetype of old age-youth, as one archetype with two poles.  The break exposed within this archetype, the gap between Senex and Puer is a very charged topic since it reflects a series of key problems in culture:  The oldness of the deity and civilization and the possibility of their renewal, the gap between generations, father-son relations, master-pupil relations – this is due to the archetype Senex. (when on his own) being the creator of the generation gap and intergenerational conflict.

This polarity which splits between the symbol of old age, the Senex, and the symbol of youth, Puer, causes another split in each of the poles, a value split for the symbol of “good” and the symbol of “bad”, whereby the “judge” of each symbol is its opposite symbol.  To affirm the claim regarding the split between the evil Senex and the good Senex, Hillman notes that of all the gods (meaning the archetypes) Saturn, symbol of the Senex in Greek and Roman mythology, is the most polarized of them all: the dualism of “good” and “bad” that splits this symbol-as-deity is the sharpest of them all.  Since according to Hillman’s conception the ideal emotional situation is that in which the Senex-Puer archetype becomes united, he brings examples from various mythologies to show that this archetype is in fact one.

Healing the rift between the Senex and the Puer is the central goal of therapeutic analysis.  During our lives, we search for the transformation that will lead us from the conflict between the two extremes, the Senex and the Puer, to unity.  Unification of  the sexes, male and female, is not the sole desired unity for healing the soul.  Emotional healing may only be found through unification of the Puer and the Senex, between the “arrangement” of the latter and the dynamics of the former.

M

What are the characteristics of the Senex archetype that turn it into a negative archetype when separated from the Puer, from the symbol of youth? Hillman enumerates a series of negative characteristics which he discovered by means of the typical Jungian cultural investigation technique, termed “amplification.”

The old age archetype is characterized as having a cold temperament. Cold also implies remoteness.  Saturn, isolated and wandering, stands apart.  He observes the world from without; he contemplates the world from the depths, and the world seems to him abstract and structural.  His other characteristics are: slowness, heavyness, colorlessness, dryness, sadness, depression and melancholia.

The Senex is the archetypal principle that expresses “exile from life.”  The Senex as archetype expresses penetration of insight into the illusions of existence, which belong to the sense of vitality associated with the Puer archetype.  The Senex expresses the “bitter truth,” discloses “naked reality,”  and the perspective of death through which the human complexes seem ludicrous.  The Senex is connected to awareness; and awareness, Hillman argues, means absence of contact with life and proximity to death. Therefore, the Senex is reflected in the wisdom of philosophers, as well as in the prophecies of Jeremiah and the cynicism of Diogenes.

Saturn’s relations with women are limited.  Saturn – according to Hillman, the Old Age archetype, the Senex, is not interested in women and thus his name is associated with widowhood, childlessness, and eating children(!).  According to Hesiod in the “Golden Age,” at the time Chronos ruled (the Roman Saturn), women had not yet been created.  In astrological writings the tradition is also maintained that points to the alienation existing between Senex-Saturn and women.

Hillman interprets the mythological motif of the Senex-Saturn’s “eating children” as the ability to suppress infantile urges.  Eating children implies suppression of these urges, which is not always positive.  When we cling to a position that may be described as anti-erotic or anti-emotional, that is the Senex archetype speaking from within us.

Saturn-Senex is very demanding, and can manifest himself in the images of Moses and Abraham; a patriarchal mentor who demands uncompromising obedience.

The negative Senex complex, Hillman emphasizes, is liable to appear in a person’s dreams long before he is considered an old man.  The young dreamer personifies the Senex as father, as spiritual teacher, as a wise old man, before whom the dreamer stands as does a student before his master. Those same authoritative figures, through their counsel, provide wisdom to the dreamer that is beyond his personal experience.  But in the case of an encounter with the “negative Senex,” the advice of these figures is “bad,” causing the patient to be “wise beyond his years” and impatient toward his youth.  Wise, significant  sayings, or even spiritual truths may be “bad advice” in certain situations.  Seclusion, contemplation and “wisdom” are not necessarily positive conditions and characteristics.  The soul needs involvement and emotion; Hillman cites La Rochefoucauld, who wrote:  “This is a great folly, to wish to be wise by oneself.”

N

In summary, Hillman’s discussion of the Wise Old Man and the Senex archetype emphasizes the following points:

a.       The central content and character of the archetype: wisdom, rationalism, dryness, awareness, imposing “order,” giving “meaning,” separation from women, isolation from the world and from Eros generally, melancholia, the moral quality influenced by it..

b.      The archetype is “negative” as long as it is not connected with the archetype Puer, which expresses Eros, searching, vitality and youth.

c.       The modern era may be described as a time that places the problem of the Senex at its center, as the old moral values decay (implying the rise of the Puer archetype).

In such a modern reality, precisely like that just described, a reality of declining old norms of Jewish Tradition, Brenner’s works and world-view were created, the works and world-view in whose heart there existed that same ambivalent attitude toward the figure of the Wise Old Man, cut off from his youth, the “negative Senex” in the words of Hillman.

O

Hillel Zeitlin, thinker and boyhood friend of Brenner, wrote in his essay in Hatekufa, after Brenner was murdered:  HaM’orer (a newspaper edited by Brenner in London, 1905-1907) ceased to awaken and together with it the true spirit of HaM’orer ceased to be – the spirit of freedom of thought that does not bow to party principles.  In the Erez Israel Brenner was influenced by the Poel HaZa’ir and Po’alei Zion parties, and although in the recesses of his heart there remained the same deep hatred of socialist parties in Erez Israel when he was there, his heart went out to the workers and the builders of life in Erez Israel, as he would accept from time to time their  “programs” (….) In his Erez Israel articles Brenner frequently forgot his own identity and will, and would repeat the radical rhetoric of his friends; in brief, he wasn’t Brenner, but a socialist.”

Even if we don’t accept Zeitlin’s judgemental view of this “late” Brenner, it seems that Zeitlin has correctly identified a break in Brenner’s emotional-intellectual biography.  Before Brenner made aliyah (1909), to our surprise we find in Brenner’s writings a hostile attitude toward socialist materialism along with prophetic pathos, a religious tone and yearning for the age-old Jewish tradition.

The “early” Brenner, especially Brenner as editor of HaM’orer, is a most surprising Brenner, given the description sketched out at the beginning of this lecture (which is the very description of his character that has become firmly fixed to this day).  Brenner of HaM’orer is actually not so very far from Ehad Ha’am’s attitude toward the spiritual, cultural heritage of the Jewish people, and he even goes beyond Ehad Ha’am in the pathos with which his words are said.  For example, this is how Brenner writes in HaM’orer:

“They come to us questioningly, in the name of Life:  What connection is there between the language of the past and Life? Or rather not! They don’t come to question, they come with assurance, they come in raging fury: Fetish! There’s no need for this dead language! (…) Yet what shall we do, if we have in this dead language three thousand years of literature which is not dead?  What shall we do, for if we come to totally delete this dead language from the book of our lives, we ourselves will be destroying everything that our spirit has acquired throughout all the generations? What shall we do with this dead thing that has this strange trait, that Arabic and Spanish speakers like R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol and R. Yehuda HaLevi (…) write and create with it, and sometimes just with it.”

Without discussing here the question of what happened to Brenner, who changed his view, it’s clear that in his spiritual-ideological underpinnings Brenner held in esteem – and almost a religious attraction – toward the values of Jewish culture throughout its generations.  Brenner’s restraint, as presented in this lecture, stemmed from the fear that the cultural and moral tradition of Judaism was a tradition of old-age and weakness, enfolding within it the same negative traits enumerated by Hillman in “The Wise Old Man”:  Isolation from Eros, over-awareness and rationality, morality as a substitute for emotion, melancholia in lieu of the joy of living.

In order for Brenner to accept the values of Jewish culture that attract him so powerfully, it is necessary to combine, in Hillman’s words, the Senex with the Puer.  The connection between the insight and the morality of the old man to Eros and youth is that which can save Jewish culture.

Only through this connection could Brenner find a foundation for Jewish culture, and this connection seemed, in his era, and admittedly in our era, difficult to achieve. It is precisely this connection, between the “Wise Old Man” Lapidot, the main  character of the most significant work of Brenner, and his grandson, Amram, which provides the famous concluding scene of “From Here and from There” with its religious, archetypal power.

“Little Amram’s head was still resting on Aryeh Lapidot’s chest, and there was something sad, simple, pitiful and at the same time secret, important and infinitely precious, in this devotion. (…) The old man and the child stood guard over Life, adorned with thorns.  The sun shone as before rain.  The existence was an existence of thorns. The whole account has not yet been settled.”

P

In conclusion, if we can descend for a moment – or possible ascend – from the national sphere that engaged Brenner in the context of the figure of the Wise Old Man, to the area of individual psychology, we will understand that the question about the valid authority of the Wise Old Man had become extremely pressing for Brenner, the more his public influence became established.  For as time passed Brenner himself became a Wise Old Man, who served as a spiritual compass for his contemporaries.  Despite all of Brenner’s opposition to the position of “spiritual leadership,” it’s hard to assume that over the years Brenner didn’t feel that he himself had become that figure.

And indeed, in his last works we see, between the lines, that Brenner was occupied with the figure of the “Wise Old Man” in a new way, that reflects on his own authority.  In “From Here and from There” Oved Etzot is already aware that he is comparable to the moral paragon figure of Lapidot.

In Brenner’s last great work, “Bereavement and Failure,” the figure of the Wise Old Man is depicted as a caricature by the elderly uncle of the work’s hero, Yosef Hefetz.  Hefetz is the “Wise Man, the Considerer”, who reads Spinoza and seeks the “true good” in his books.  He is portrayed as a wholly spiritual scholar, who admires Spinoza for his disdain of concrete bodily pleasures, who maintains his distance from women, all of whose wisdom and asceticism are nullified by the distress of physical existence.  This caricaturistic portrayal does not deviate from what has been presented until now in this lecture.

But what is divergent in “Bereavement and Failure” relates to the names of the heroes.  Various commentators have noted that Yosef Hefetz, the pathetic wise man, and his brother, Hayyim Hefetz, the innocent, bear together the full name of their author, Yosef Hayyim Brenner.  Brenner hints to us, so it appears, that he is aware that his own personality contains much of the character he is so involved with and so rejects – the figure of the “Wise Old Man.”

A tone of conciliation with this position, of the moral person, is found only in Brenner’s last, unfinished work:  the story “From the Beginning.”  The story revolves around the world of young people who are observed by an “elderly man, whom a serious neurological illness has prevented from doing anything, and has left him only to observe and to feel emotions.”  This same older man (40 years old, as was Brenner when it was written…) fears and wishes that the young people will turn to him asking for guidance:

“What if (…) she should fall suddenly at his feet and begin to weep: ‘Father! Tell me what to do!”  What would he answer her, this forty-year-old, this man of experience? (…) What warnings is it possible to caution them? What should he say:  That healthy, ideal, content-giving love is better (…) and that the empty, weakening, caressing, flesh consuming, soul stealing flirt is very bad (….) Can the cry “Watch out children” be of any use to them? (…) Is the disaster not deeper than that?”

This indecision of the 40 year old observer, concerning the extent of involvement appropriate for him in the lives of young people and about the guidance he should give them, may be interpreted as Brenner’s own indecision concerning his consolidating position as a leader with spiritual authority, who is charged with “the right to cry out”, in the developing Settlement in Erez Israel.

 

Israeli Satire

By Arik Glasner

 

From the beginning of the 1990s a permanent sub-headline accompanied the satirical 

section of Nekuda, the journal of the settlers. "There is no satire on the right," it 

said with manifest irony. It also reflected the feeling of inferiority of some 

right-wing activists about the standing allegation against them. In the face of the 

conception that the right engages in action – that it gallops ahead via "horse and 

chariot" – whereas the left is immersed in creative "spiritual" activity – the satirical 

section of Nekuda tried, sometimes successfully, to fight back by unleashing 

intellectual sarcasm.

 

In fact, the Israeli right has produced a great satirist – in fact, the greatest of the 

country's satirists, if you average out quantity and quality: Ephraim Kishon. Kishon is 

a "right-wing" satirist in the European sense of the term, incorporating a bourgeois, 

capitalist outlook toward society with proud nationalism and patriotism.

A refugee from  two totalitarian regimes that shaped the 20th century, Kishon found in the nascent, socialist Israel fertile ground for savage right-wing bourgeois satire. In such satire,  "the state," with its abhorrent bureaucratic machinery, judges Citizen K. )Kishon(. It is the unattainable "castle" that makes its citizens jump agonizingly through hoops, at the end of which the gate remains sealed.

The biting criticism by the bourgeois individual Kishon is intended to topple this old world, as he perceives it, the world of "the state," the socialist-cooperative world.

 

In the "egalitarian," strike-ridden country in which the 25-year-old Kishon arrived in 

1949, in the bureaucracy-laden "state" that is failing to leap forward in the great race 

of nations because it lacks "free competition" steroids, there are inefficient public 

clerks, such as the woman in the postal bank, who try to convince those who use their 

services to stop doing so. In this egalitarian and non-hierarchical country – that is, a 

country with an inverted hierarchy – the nurse in the Kupat Holim (health maintenance  organization( is responsible for everything. What she says, goes. And no one, from the simple doctor all the way up to the minister of health, is going to contradict, let alone disobey, her.

 

The whole conception of the society as an organized community – cooperative, equal, 

unified and bland – is anathema to Kishon the individual, who saw first-hand the danger  of being part of an ostracized group and the terrible injustice that a cohesive group is  capable of doing to fellow humans who happen not to be among its ranks. Kishon learned also that the group erases the personality of those who are among its ranks, erases the possibility of an autonomous way of life and of individual pleasures.

 

The country's sticky "collectivist-cooperativist" ethos reaches the very bedrock, 

the most intimate places, of existence. In the land of equality, the guy next to you 

wipes his glasses with your shirttail. The conclusion is clear: Tuck your shirt into 

your trousers and wrap yourself in an impermeable liberal-bourgeois membrane.

 

Kishon's greatest enemies are the establishment and the bureaucracy. When people unite in groups to organize their affairs better, this is an opening to imbecility, 

wickedness, suppression and insensitivity. So, when Kishon's heroes observe the 

schlemiel who hangs out his laundry in the rain or who tries to kill mosquitoes with a 

towel instead of with a spray, they know straight away who he is. He's the "bureaucratic efficiency expert."

 

The most despicable creatures in Kishon's nightmare world are the functionary and the  clerk. They belong to the establishment, which belongs to the bureaucracy, and do not  operate in the world as rank-and-file bourgeoisie, alone and autonomously. The  "functionary" is the backward avant-gardist of the collectivist, puritanical state that  Kishon found when he got off the boat; the "functionary" talks in a high language, but is suspected of bribery and is to blame for an impossible bureaucracy. Consequently, the handling of the hijackers of the Sabena plane to Lod airport is entrusted to a government bureaucrat, who wears down the terrorists with "civilian" negotiations.

 

The only atom that Kishon recognizes as non-splittable, non-crackable and necessary is  the bourgeois individual who exists autonomously. The only social unit Kishon recognizes is the family, and therefore his preoccupation with it is so characteristic of him, as  opposed to others over the decades of Israeli satire.

 

The corruption, the schlemiel syndrome and the sloth are especially apparent at the two  extremities of the socialist-Zionist hierarchy: in the prole and in the functionary and  the politician, who is the dictator of the proletariat. These two extremities encase the  innocent member of the bourgeoisie in a pincer movement. The urban bourgeoisie is  helpless in the face of the dispensers of the various services: in the face of waiters 

who despise customers who linger at closing time; in the face of insensitive, 

unintelligent and ill-disposed police, the opposite of "the policeman Azoulai" )Kishon's creation(; in the face of "the plumber Schtukhs," whom the bourgeois, Kishon, was forced to apprehend in order to make him show up to repair the leaky faucet, and the like.

 

Pressured in this way "from below," the unfortunate member of the bourgeoisie also 

shrinks in the face of pressure that emanates "from above." There, the enemies of the 

bourgeoisie are the corrupt politicians and their lackeys: the bloated, rotten and 

inefficient "public sector." The politicians, whose duty it is to ensure that the social 

body is functioning properly, are vastly remote from "the people." When a cabinet 

minister's chauffeur goes on strike along with the rest of the union of chauffeurs, the 

minister is astounded at his ability to actually walk. Overcome with amazement, he enters a  shoe store and wonders "whether everyone takes shoes here freely," which is the way he is used to having his needs met, or whether there are "waiters" that serve people?

 

The battle against the corrupt politicians is doomed to failure in advance. "Everyone 

had the feeling that this would be the decisive clash between the minister and the 

public … and so it was. On the eighth day the public submitted its resignation."

 

Kishon's Israel is "a small country that is incapable of producing taxes in the quantity the  government consumes." In a country possessing a corrupt "public sector" of this kind, managers frequently reprimand their subordinates for not having generated appropriate deficits. For example, the members of one of the many honorable and useless "public commissions" that exist  this one discussing a budget of NIS 800 million – are busy passing idiotic notes to one another: "I saw you the day before yesterday at the fairgrounds, when you were riding the Ferris wheel with your daughter. Don't you get dizzy at those heights?" Between one imbecilic 

note and the next, the fate of the public funds is decided. Handling the public's finances is  thus subordinated to the caprices and the petty "a-realpolitik" of people who are worried only  about holding on to their jobs.

 

The position of the state comptroller, the supervisor of the public sector, is thus comparable  to someone who has been appointed by his buddy to warn him about his obsessive fingernail biting. The analogy makes plain the comptroller's impotence. The friend, of course, almost immediately refuses to heed the buddy's warnings: I will eat whatever part of my body I like!  How long are we going to tolerate a parasite like this on the body of the society. 

The politicians view the public coffers as part of "their body" and do with the money as they  please.

Caught in this pincer movement – by the proletariat and the service providers on the 

one hand, and by the public sector and the politicians on the other – the bourgeoisie rebels. Like the medieval knight, like Gary Cooper, like Kishon's character Arbinka, the bourgeois individual acts alone, relying on his individualist qualities, insisting on flourishing by means of his own resourcefulness and not because he is beholden to any class / collective / bureaucratic machine / cooperative / party / ideology.

The problem is that this is an heroic attempt in a country in which every such attempt )and success( to chalk up personal  achievements is perceived as sinful. This is a country that devours its go-getters, where everyone is envious of everyone and where those who attempt to stand tall are quickly cut down to size.

 

"The whole world is fighting poverty. You are fighting wealth," Kishon rails at the 

"socialist" leadership. In such a country, the most profitable industry is misery and 

wallowing in misery. The "deprived" Salah Shabbati takes money from various media bodies for  the right to tell them about his troubles. In a country that devours its go-getters, only Arbinka, Kishon's alter ego, the dark side of the decent bourgeois type, succeeds in  surviving. Arbinka, the capitalist entrepreneur, whose "entrepreneurship" has a crooked side to it, declares he is going on a trip to search for oil in order to get rich, and finds the  coveted deposits in the fuel tanks of cars that he stops on the road.

 

Kishon, though, is a "right-wing" satirist not only in his socioeconomic approach. He is also a patriotic satirist )but not a fanatic nationalist!(. This patriotism is seen mainly in the  wake of the Six-Day War of 1967. However, what is especially interesting about Kishon's perception of the Israeli-Arab conflict is the similarity between his perception of the smart bourgeois entrepreneur who wants only "to be left alone to do things" and "to be left alone to live" amid the vast mechanisms of "the state" and "the Histadrut" )the tentacular labor federation(, who builds his life and generates his prosperity himself, without depressing collectivist frameworks – and his perception of the place of the State of Israel itself, the young and brilliant "Yisraelik," in the heart of the Semitic region, now frozen,  "bureaucracy-ridden" and "socialist."

Thus, in an "open letter" to Nasser entitled "Excuse Us for Winning," Kishon writes: "Unlike you, we, for example, are not busy coordinating our plans with a dozen allies, because we don't have a single ally in the world." 

 

The ideological-political focus of Kishon's "right-wing" satire is seen most sharply in his  brilliant satirical novel, "The Fox in the Chicken Coop." Kishon describes here the  degeneration and destruction of a tranquil village in Upper Galilee, caused by a short but fateful vacation taken at the remote site by a socialist Mapainik functionary )the Mapai  party, the forerunner of today's Labor, became synonymous with bureaucratic technocracy(.. The village is run without social institutions, has no "bureaucratic machine," each of its  residents works to further his own good, and an "invisible hand" ensures that there are no disputes between the villagers. In this "natural state," there is no need even for a "traffic policeman," as the state is described in liberal thought. In short, Ein Kamonim is an idyllic place. Until the arrival of the Mapai functionary.

 

The pompous and honor-hungry Amitz Dolniker brings about a radical transformation of the  village. He starts preaching the secrets of political organizing and the class war to the  residents. His opportunistic secretary cautions him that the class war is unnecessary in the village, as everyone is equal, an argument to which Dolniker responds with a paradox: "This miserable village is so backward that no differences that need to be annulled have as yet been created in it."

 

 

In contrast to the "right-wing" Kishon, "left-wing" satire in Israel illustrates the 

problem of why it is difficult to establish a meaningful political "social left" force in this country.

 

In 1948 – when the 21-year-old Amos Kenan wrote about the dirty wall, the wall on which those condemned to death etched their names with desperate stubbornness, and then along came the man with the whitewash and cleaned it: "and since then, children, a new chapter began in our  lives, a clean and whitewashed chapter. Don't piss on the wall"; when he mocked the Israeli government's "no choice" policy and likened it to the man who gave a cow glass to eat and then, "having no choice," burned the animal; when he described sheep with steel teeth and  shiny talons that forced a lone and hungry wolf to the ground – when he did all this, he was representing the worldview of the left. The Israeli self-righteousness, which likes to describe the violent actions of the state as acts of defense of the few against the many, which is bent on "whitewashing" or plastering over the Palestinians' fate, is subjected to scorn and derision.

 

However, the same Amos Kenan also engaged in "social" satire. In a powerful passage, he  described Israeli conformism through the story of Danny, who does what everyone else does. Kenan told about Danny, who "in fourth  grade joined a youth movement and served in it for 10 years," and later took his own life because he was so lonely, "and to this day no one can understand how he did it alone."

 

The same Kenan was also critical of process of "bourgeoisification" and degeneration in the  Israeli society. For example, in a story about two friends, former kibbutzniks, who became wealthy and hired employees to argue among themselves about financial affairs, while they conversed about "culture and art." Years pass and the two friends hire more employees, who converse about the latter instead of them. "In the morning our two employees would meet to clarify the financial side of friendship – and in the evening, our two employees would meet to talk about the crisis of the young generation."

 

Like Kishon, Kenan is critical of "the Histadrut," but his critique originates from a 

proletarian posture, not a bourgeois one. "Once upon a time there was a Hebrew worker. He was in the majority. He had a majority in the government. He had a majority in the Histadrut. He had a majority in the Jewish Agency. He had a majority in Solel Boneh ]the Histadrut construction company[. There was only one place where he was in the minority – next to his machine in the factory. Because there the government had a majority and the Jewish Agency had a majority and the shipping companies had a majority and the Histadrut had a majority and all of them had a majority."

 

This two-headed, "left-wing" satire was also given expression in the 1970s television 

program "Nikui Rosh" )literally, "Cleaning the Head"(, which engaged in "political" satire and "social" satire )though here the class-proletarian position, from which the satire is hurled, is less clear-cut than it is in Kenan(.

This is how the fraud of the ostensible Israeli search for peace is presented in this program. "We don't want peace, we want to go wild," the Israeli politicians sing with absurd foolishness, in a play on the words of a popular song, "We don't 

want to sleep, we want to go wild."

 The Israeli-Arab conflict overall is presented as an idiotic children's quarrel )and, by the way, on "Nikui Rosh," both sides are depicted as petty and stupid, not only the Israeli side(. 

At the same time, the satire on the program is leveled at social issues as well. When the  indigent junkie enters the bourgeois holy of holies, the parlor at tea time, and asks for  help, the insensitive bourgeois hostess tells him, in a heavy Polish accent: "From my taxes they should distribute drugs?!" One of the guests, more soft-hearted, recommends to the junkie that he suck mints, or maybe "read a good book," in place of the drugs. When the junkie explains that that will not help, the elegant hostess says, offhandedly, "Fine, then die."

 

Israel's transition from a socialist state to a country with a developed and erratic 

capitalist economy is translated by this TV show into a play of the kind that used to be  performed in the early days, in "the ]metaphorically[ little Land of Israel," on agricultural holidays such as Sukkot and Shavuot. One by one the actors take the stage and with the naive pride of children, proclaim: "Yaron planted a melon," "Anat grew a carrot" and  so on. Finally, at the end, a corpulent, cigar-puffing type takes the stage and declares, in a hoarse voice: "The wholesaler Gil has made a killing." 

 

In a takeoff of "Modern Times" on this program, the workers are told that they must "tighten  their belts." When they rebel, a government representative appears and explains to them in dulcet tones that even though he is their representative, the capitalist owner is having a hard time and they have to show consideration for him.

 

This classic, two-headed Israeli "left-wing" satire was greatly strengthened after the 1967  Six-Day War, when "social" satire osmotically permeated "political" satire to the point where the two types merged. The reason for the process was simple: The conquest and occupation of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip brought about a merging of the backward Palestinian economy with the Israeli economy. Now it was easy to portray the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict as being a class war. The Israeli who exploited the Palestinian worker became the ugly bourgeois type, supplanting Kishon's bureaucratic bourgeoisie in that role.

 

In his 1970 satirical revue "Queen of the Bathtub," playwright Hanoch Levin )1943-1999(  created this "merger" in the form of the Palestinian worker, Samatokha. Other parts of the   revue dealt with "classic" themes of "left-wing political" satire, such as the Israeli  self-righteousness reflected in a monologue recited by a Golda Meir figure: "For 71 years I've been examining myself and I discover in me such righteousness that God only help me. And every day it surprises me anew. I'm right, right, right and right again." Levin also cruelly exposed the brutality that underlies the daring warrior with a "pure soul," the war hero, who says: "]I[ envelope myself in a hard shell only to cover up my inner soft-heartedness and my gentleness."; and Hulada Davar who was chosen as the "charmer of the Paratroopers …thanks to my solid yet flexible breasts" and who beneath those breasts conceals a sensitive 

heart and who "possesses a soulful, sensitive and insular inner world- and is very fearful for  the fate of Judaism."

 

It's in the skit about Samatokha that the merger between the left-wing "political" and 

"social" satire is achieved. "We want you to meet Samatokha," say the Israeli bourgeois couple. "He's our Arab. He knows how to stand on two legs, just like us, only at home he walks on all fours. But that's not because he wants to – it's just because of the height of the ceiling." 

 

Moralistically, the couple declare: "We aren't smashing his head in because we are cultured  people." They complain to him: "Where will it all end, Samatokha? Yesterday a bomb in the supermarket, this morning in the offices of the Cameri ]Theater[. Where will it end?" When the wife points out to her husband that Samatokha didn't have anything to do with the terrorist attacks, the husband replies: "Of course I know that, but if I were a primitive guy, I  wouldn't distinguish between an Arab who puts bombs and an Arab who doesn't put bombs. An Arab 

is an Arab." 

 

Samatokha is finally rescued by a noble-hearted Israeli woman: "As the mother of three  children, one of whom is a combat soldier, and as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I am hereby authorized to declare: Don't hurt Arabs. My husband is a contractor and he needs working hands in order to build you two-, two and a half-, three- and four-room apartments, with central heating and fittings for a telephone." 

 

Thus was completed the merger between the "social" and the "political" poles in left-wing  satire in Israel: Zionism as a bourgeois movement that exploits the workers of the world, the Palestinians. In the 35 or so years that have gone by since "Queen of the Bathtub" and "Nikui Rosh," left-wing Israeli satire shifted back to the "political." If there is effective satire in this country – and there is less and less of it – the "social" theme is almost entirely  absent from it. 

 

Here's a provocative thesis to explain this phenomenon. It might be suspected of 

superficiality, but here it goes: We are used to talking about the Israeli anomaly that creates a  political situation in which the disadvantaged groups vote for the right – that is, for  parties whose economic platform is perceived to be "screwing them." We are less used to talking about the anomaly in which, because of historical circumstances that are unique to Israel, the classes identified with the "left" are the more established ones.

 

It's only in recent years that this fact has become clear in all its acuity. For years the 

political left in Israel proudly claimed to possess social sensitivity. The contradiction 

between that boast and the deep economic interests of the country's left-wing voters led, in  this writer's view, to the left's focus of attention on the occupation. We know that in  classic left-wing theory, nationalism and religion are "opiates for the masses," which cause them to be immersed in fantasies and delusions, to avert their gaze from the real state of  affairs. The "occupation," though, is the opiate of the Israeli left, serving as an alibi for  its failure to address domestic issues and as an appropriate cover for the fact that  realization of "left-wing" social principles runs contrary to its own deepest interests.

 

The possibility that "social" satire will osmotically seep into "political" satire, the 

possibility of identifying the Palestinians as "proletarians" who are being abused by the Israeli "bourgeoisie," creates an appropriate way out for the internal contradiction with which the Israeli left lives. The ability to ignore domestic affairs, yet at the same time take pride in a patina of "social" criticism, is perfected with the identification of the  Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a class struggle. As long as the markets of Israel and 

Palestine were locked in an inseparable embrace, there was a smidgen of truth to that 

viewpoint. Since the mid-1990s, it is no longer tenable.

 

This merger was exemplified marvelously in the satirical television program "The Bourgeois."  As its title intimated, the series seemingly symbolizes the return of left-wing "social" criticism: a general, moral critique of the bourgeois value system. However, in the first two  seasons of the series, it became clear that its left-wing "social" satire was being  subordinated and merged with "political" satire, thus becoming ineffective and lurching into a dead end, exactly like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. 

 

"The Bourgeois" is not a series that belongs to the basically European tradition of critiquing  the "bourgeoisie," a tradition that begins, at the latest, with Balzac's "The Human Comedy" in the second third of the 19th century. No. "The Bourgeois" utilizes that tradition, the  tradition of economic-class criticism, and especially the aspect of that tradition that emphasized bourgeois greed and its implications, to critique modern Jewish nationalism and Zionism. As such, the series is an example of the osmotic process by which "left-wing" social satire seeps into "left-wing" political satire. One of the episodes in the first season of the series illustrated well the integration of the critique of the bourgeoisie and the critique of Zionism.

 

The episode had two plot strands. In the first, Israel )Dov Navon( goes to Switzerland in  order to "save" the money of the Holocaust survivors. He spends the evening in the company of  two Mossad agents, without knowing they are agents. In the end, he is imprisoned with them by the Swiss authorities for engaging in espionage activity that subverts Swiss sovereignty.

 

In the second strand, Nili )Tamar Michaeli( tries to dissuade Benny )Shai Avivi( from opening a store to rent pornographic video cassettes. The background to the argument is an  investigation by the income tax authorities that found problems with Benny's tax returns. Defending himself, Benny reminds Nili of her father's transgressions. Nili's father, a contractor, helped build the Bar-Lev Line in Sinai after the Six-Day War, and after the Yom Kippur War was accused of responsibility for the failure of the line to hold.

 

This episode generates two axes of signifiers. One is the "Israeli" axis, which includes the  following elements: Mossad, Holocaust, Bar-Lev Line, Yom Kippur War. All these are elements belonging to the "Israeli" semantic field. The other is the "bourgeois-greedy" axis: Israel the greedy lawyer and the money of the survivors, Benny the greedy and the porno films store, and Nili's father the greedy contractor. By means of these two axes, the episode generates cohesion between bourgeois greed and "Israeliness." 

 

Post-Zionism in part identifies Zionism with the colonial project. Zionism will therefore be  critiqued as "bourgeois," as another case of affluent Europeans dispossessing the poor, indigenous inhabitants. That's why the "bourgeois" Yoni is thrilled at an episode of "This Is Your Life" with Major General Mussa Peled, and that's why Yoni's national patronizing of his "friend" Said, an Arab – a patronizing attitude that is summed up in the sentence: "The best thing is not to make problems" – is analogous )in the same episode!( to the violence he displays at the congress center toward a worker who is carting clothes and accidentally runs into Yoni. The fusion is total. "The bourgeois" are not a sub-group in the Israeli reality, they are the essence of 

Israeliness itself in the face of the Palestinians. "The Bourgeois" is not a series that is 

interested in the distribution of capital and goods in the Israeli society; it is a series 

that judges the Israeli society as a whole with damning severity and without the right of  appeal. 

 

But of course, it's possible to separate the discussions, to decode the "merger." It can 

definitely be argued that the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diverts attention from Israeli domestic relations – and not necessarily justifiably. After all, it can certainly be argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a class struggle, but a conflict between two national movements that are stubborn and probably also stupid. This perception of the conflict, especially now, when it appears to be irresolvable, makes it possible to withdraw into addressing internal affairs of the Israeli society. The separation between the  "political" and the "socioeconomic" discussion can be made, as it is in fact done in the third and last season of "The Bourgeois." 

 

What astounds the viewer in the last season of the series is the transition it makes from  satire to realism. The bankruptcy of the middle class, especially in the past three years, has generated a bitter sobering up and a turning inward. "The Bourgeois" was never an escapist series, but from garbled satire )which aimed its barbs at Israeli "colonialism"(, it became – in the wake of the recent intifada, in the wake of the realization that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not morally unequivocal and is not resolvable in the  foreseeable future, and in the wake of the deep recession – a series that turns its gaze inward, toward the distorted distribution of capital in the Israeli society.

 

That's why one of the episodes concluded with verbal violence spat out by the character played  by Rami Heuberger – and violence suits his television image – prophesying wrathfully that everyone, "the male models, the female models, Channel 2, the ad agencies, the mobile phone companies, the lawyers," everyone, "all the rich people will in the end pay for what's happening here." Accordingly, in its third season the series is trying to find an "external" pivot that will enable ethical judgment of Israeli reality.

 

One such viewpoint was found through bringing in the veteran critic and writer Adam Baruch,  with all the sophisticated irony that accompanies the use of his persona as a "wise sage," to castigate Benny for his shoddy way of life. An external vantage point of this kind is found also in the quest, albeit pathetic, conducted by Nina for an "artistic-literary" existence and  not only an economic-bourgeois one. Yet another, external vantage point is provided by Kobi, who found religion only to lose it )thus expressing the absence of a true alternative to the "bourgeois" ethos(.

 

Above all, though, the external vantage point is found in the fact that the despairing 

attitude that had hitherto characterized the position of the series and its creators, is 

raised to the level of consciousness and placed in Benny's mouth – that is, in the mouth of  one of the protagonists – and immediately becomes a dubious position. When Benny says "everything is collapsing"; when Benny, who allows his nipples to be licked by one of his models, declares, with false sadness, that in a world of corporations nothing can be changed because "everything is pre-dictated, everything is determined at a level to which we have no access," it's clear to the creators and to viewer, for the first time in the series, that this attitude, this attitude of despair, has to be treated with suspicion.

 

There is a certain new melancholic sincerity in the third season of "The Bourgeois," an  exhausted though firm settling of accounts that the characters conduct with themselves  and with their attitude toward money. There is even a kind of sour patriotism. Like "Sex and the City," "The Bourgeois" matured before the eyes of the viewers and became realistic, human, relevant and – yes, there's no way around it, it's the price of becoming grown up – became faded and just a tiny bit boring.

 

Lilach's desire to be famous, "to make it," to be a singer, is presented, and rightly so, as  part of the liberal-capitalist "Kishonist" paradigm that placed the individual who wants it all at the center. In the series' new elegiac hues this desire, too, is painted gray. The  desire to "make it big" brings with it the risk of being alone, which is illustrated when the musical director dumps Lilach in favor of the soundwoman.

 

In the last season "The Bourgeois" also makes ironic use of the theme song, "God gave you the gift of  life on this earth,". The scriptwriter, Assaf Tzipor, thinks, as well he should, that "life on this earth" isn't such a great gift. But the theme song also conceals another irony, which could be aimed at the first two seasons – the "satirical" seasons – of  the series. It's an irony that could be directed at the creators. "Give me just one more gift – peace on earth," the song is concluded. But this is precisely the self-deception of the Israeli left. The gift of peace is still apparently far off, but the Israeli reality could improve and change in other spheres, which do not depend – despite what some people are trying to persuade us of relentlessly – exclusively on the coveted "peace," on the arrival of the Latter Days, the redemption of Zion, the Messianic era, the Second Coming, Nirvana, "eternal peace" and "the end of history."