Walking on the Edge \ Hava Pinhas-Cohen (English)

It is Friday morning.  I am in the midst of cooking for Shabbat and reviewing and completing this essay.  On the radio, I hear the rabbis’ heartbreaking eulogies for the eight teenage Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva students murdered on Rosh Chodesh Adar, killed by a terrorist while they studied the Talmud. Just describing these facts sends shivers of terror and memories from different times, when the lives of Jews and their children were expendable.

Outside it is spring. The almond trees are in full blossom, the fields are blooming, but the bloody talithot overpower the red of the anemones in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross.

And you asked about reshit tz’michat geulatenu, the first “flowering of our redemption,” a mythical concept coined by Rav Kook which sanctifies the establishment of the State of Israel. Interestingly, this is the same rabbi who founded the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in 1921, which became the core of Religious Zionism.

This concept does not necessarily represent my own terminology or way of life, since I am not a part of that society, but I definitely can understand and experience the tension between the mythical and the existing realms. Israel’s sixtieth birthday is a time for personal and national soul-searching. A time for retrospection.  I do not write as a “religious” person. My “voice” reflects my Israeli and Jewish identity. As such, it is not clear where the line crosses. This intricate “voice” guides me and my being, the choices I make in life and in my work as a creator and editor.

Between Biography and History

I was born in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, in a young State of Israel, to parents who emigrated from Bulgaria. My family was very Zionistic, with a strong political consciousness. They had a keen passion for Tikkun Olam and they were very involved in the Communist- leftist-atheist arena of Israeli politics.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Israeli Communists were not popular, nor were their out-of-place, abnormal-sounding concepts such as “one land for two nations.” They also viewed the workers as a class capable of uniting Jews and Arabs. In those days, I used to suffer beatings in school because of my family’s politics. I must admit that I did not understand back then (I was six or seven years old) what sin I had committed to deserve that punishment. But I remember the beatings and abuse, and since then I’ve harbored a deep love for those driven by an ideological devotion on one hand, while unwilling to see every reality through the prism of politics.

Being a child in the 1950’s and 60’s meant walking on the edge, keenly aware of the very thin line between the Holocaust of the European Jewry and the nascent life taking form in Israel. For me, Israel was Tel-Aviv, Jaffa and Bat-Yam. The Holocaust took place in Europe, and only the Eichmann trials first brought home the extreme horror. In my childhood, grandparents were people from another place, who usually did not speak Hebrew, and sometimes spoke Yiddish or Ladino.

 All the kids in my neighborhood spoke different languages at home. My next-door neighbors spoke Bulgarian, while the parents of the twins across the street spoke Russian. My nursery teacher and her husband spoke Hungarian. Near the Bulgarian grocery shop at the end of Nissan street, lived a family from Morocco, down Golan street there were some Yugoslavian families, and at the end of that same road was a synagogue for Chinese Jews from the city of Harbin, where they gave out the best candies on Simchat Torah. As children, our world was one of many languages, and we taught our parents the Hebrew we learned in kindergarten, school or the library.

The milkman who used to leave bottles by the door every morning had a number tattooed on his arm. The lady who sold eggs was missing fingers, and I used to watch in amazement as she filled the egg cartons without dropping one egg. Every strange thing we saw had the same explanation: don’t look, don’t talk. They came from “there.” When I’d ask where “there” was, the answer was either “Germany” or “the war.” Our world was full of shadows and fear from “there,” and light and happiness from “here.”

Sometimes, when I meet people from different cultures and tell my biography, it suddenly sounds like a succession of wars. As a baby, I experienced my father’s absence when he was drafted to fight in the Sinai war. Later, we would hear time and again about penetration of Fedayeen and other terrorists to Kibbutzim and Moshavim, where they would carry out attacks on people and agriculture. Then it was the pre-Six Day War era, a time of tremendous anxiety and the feeling that the Jewish nation would again be forced to stand alone in the face of five Arab nations.

The unbelievable happened. As kids, we were delighted when the war, which had posed an existential threat, ended with a victory over the Arabs. Once again we used the mythical concept of “few vs. many,” connecting to Jewish history from the Hasmonean era.  The Jewish nation that lost its human and national conscientiousness, returned to its rightful home, fought for it and restored the human image of Israeli identity. This long process was accompanied by wars and by meeting “the other:” the local Arabs, those native “others” who proclaim the fact that we are strangers in a place which is both an idea and a home.

However, it seems the return to the country, to our national home, is not enough and that other challenges await: the search for our place in the geographical, cultural and international realm. The return to the country is a process. As children, we thought peace was around the corner and that our generation would not experience war, but the backdrop to my high-school years was the War of Attrition taking place in the south, on the border of the Suez Canal. During this war, our school had to double its memorial plaque. But then we did not know that the worst was still ahead.

A month after I was drafted into compulsory military service, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Fear and the war became too close. I lost many friends who were my age, friends who grew up with me, went to school with me. This is a loss that cannot be cured. Since then I termed us the “Yom Kippur War generation.”  We are a difficult, latent generation; a vulnerable generation. The sandwich generation, in-between the pioneers and the younger generation, whose biography includes Lebanon and Judaea and Samaria, the “enemy” across the border, and the “neighbor.”

The Yom-Kippur war evoked within me a profound need to deepen my knowledge and understanding of my connection to the country. To attempt to comprehend beyond my Israeli identity, expressed in the Hebrew language, Israeli culture and personal and familial commitment of us all to be ready to give our lives. But I asked myself why. In those days I discovered the Mishna, Talmud and the language of midrash, an entire literary and cultural world that evaded my eyes at school, yet was well versed among my new friends who grew up in the religious world. I was very envious of the new horizons which I circuitously discovered. I embarked on a journey to discover the Jewish world, its books and way of life. And I wasn’t alone. After the Yom Kippur War, a plethora of seminaries and schools opened because so many of us discovered our thirst. The war created a wound in our Israeli identity and awakened the yearning for the “Jew” within us. We searched for our pre-war, pre-Zionist origins.

In college, I married Yossi. He was the son of a rabbi from Marakesh, a Moshavnik and an economist who came to Israel at the age of five, and I was a young woman from Tel-Aviv. We searched for a place to live, and as children of immigrants we could not afford a house in Jerusalem. We did not want to live in a homogenous “religious” or “secular” surrounding. We sought a place in keeping with our social and Jewish outlook, and found ourselves involved with a group of religious and secular people establishing a community in Anatot, in the Judean Desert, above the Quelt Wadi. Some may call the place a “settlement,” while others consider it an expansion of Jerusalem. Our eldest daughter was born during the first Lebanese War. When we were on shlichut in 1986, the first Intifada broke out. From the TV screens in Louisville, Kentucky, we viewed the tires burning and our country changing face.

My personal biography is marked by wars and events that place my personal life, life in Israel, on probation. An Israeli citizen is forever overly alert, and forced to be involved in political, military and social decisions that influence his/her life and that of his/her family and children.

This is the realm in which biography meets chronology and history. I am telling my personal biography to emphasize that when we discuss sixty years of the State of Israel and Israeli society, one must beware of stereotypes: in the 1970’s, a child from a Communist home becomes identified with religion and settlements; an immigrant from Morocco, son of a prominent rabbi, marries a girl from an atheist home; together they raise four girls in the religious-feminist education framework. This is an unexpected course.


The Mythical Realm

But there is also the mythical realm, the subversive realm within which we walk each day. The “place,” i.e., the country, the Land of Israel. The fact that we use the term “Eretz Yisrael” is in itself loaded. It is not merely a political or geographic term, but rather a personal and national journey. A “Lech Lecha,” (“go forth”) but not in the footsteps of Abraham from his motherland to a specified country, rather as an internal journey from the external world to the internal, textual, mythical dialect. And when we look inside, we discover a great passion for the country, its landscape, the grapevine, the olive, Jerusalem and the blue ocean. However, this passion is accompanied by a recoiling. A refusal to be an organic part of it, a great will to fight for it, while at the same time, denying the need for war and its consequences. Foreignness and identity are intertwined. The Land and life within it are the epitome of the Jewish will to be as other nations, to possess a place of our own, while knowing that the attachment to our land is very ambivalent. Its implications are history, wars and bloodshed, encompassed by responsibility and a great deal of ambivalence.

Our attachment to the country is not based on “nativity,” on the natural act of being born to a place, but rather on a promise, a concept that preceded the actual life in the country. For me, this is the root of the discomfort we feel towards our country, revealed in the questions we constantly ask about our future. It embodies the tension between the idea, the dream and actual reality, firmly integrated in the psyche of the nation and our relationship to the country.  Tension and insecurity color our relationship with “a place.” Our movement into it, the acts of our children, the attempt to know it, to fight for it, while on the other hand, leaving it, taking journeys away from it, unable to come to terms with the price it exacts, which, among other things, means hurting “the other,” a people who covet this land as much as we do, except they are not led by an “idea” or “promise.” They do not live a conditional life; they live a battle.

You asked if I am proud of our sixty years of existence. Yes, I am very proud. I am happy and proud to belong to a generation of post-destruction, with one third of the Jewish nation annihilated in a catastrophe of colossal proportions. The generation that built our national homeland. I am proud of the Hebrew language which is spoken on the streets and in universities. I am proud of the rich, turbulent and fearless culture that is developing here. This is a society that is undergoing a process of maturity, where its main experience is self-criticism.

It seems as if I’ve ignored the current battles on the Gaza border, not mentioning the ugly wall which splits the country nor the constant battle against Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian threat. This is because I experience such a reality on a daily basis. I write about it in my poetry, prose and sometimes in political journalism.

But I’ve made my choice. I have come to the conclusion that peace in the land of Israel will not prevail in the coming decades. The Palestinians are a transit-society which gathers tribes and clans into an organized fellowship. One which cannot yet reach self-government, where forces and values are different from the traditional Jewish society. The relationship towards women and the value of human life are far from the norms by which we live. The Moslem world is not one that respects the “other.” Life of the “other” is not worthwhile in its eyes, while it places “respect” over life.

Neither I, nor Israeli society, can establish Peace between us. This is why I have decided to devote all my efforts, on a personal level, to knowing the Palestinian people who comprise Palestinian society. I want to make human contact. This is where I feel that I am making a difference.

On the other hand, I am placing a great deal of effort and time on the internal occurrences of the Israeli and Jewish world as well as exploring the definitions of being Israeli and Jewish, attempting to make peace within the soul of Israeli society. In 1989, upon our return from the United States, I established Dimuy, a magazine for Jewish literature, art and cultureThis periodical gives voice to religious and secular writers, creating a “Jewish” cultural language which stems from Jewish sources. Dimuy was the first of its kind in Israeli society, expressing the natural connection between the “Jew” and “Israeli,” “Religious” and “Secular.” It attempts to break the dichotomy and stereotypes which were fixated within Israeli dialogue.

Over the past years I have met with many Jewish writers from all over the world, who write in a variety of languages. I’ve reached the conclusion that the world of Jewish literatures is very rich and unknown in Israeli society. Very little has been translated into Hebrew, and vice versa; few Hebrew writings have been translated into foreign languages. I’ve realized that there is a thematic common denominator, very vast and undefined. Hebrew literature lacks a “Jewish writings” shelf and the Jewish world lacks a connection with the polyphonic and poly-generation of Hebrew literature.

I came to the understanding that Jewish literature must be made available, while creating a dialogue between Hebrew writers and Jewish writers who compose in various languages, as well as Israeli writers who do not write in Hebrew. In April 2007, we organized the first Kissufim Conference which brought Jewish writers from around the world together. For four days, 30 visiting writers and poets and 60 Hebrew writers and poets met in Jerusalem to discuss “being a Jewish writer.” The unforgettable intellectual experience attracted Jewish intellectuals from Israel and the world at large.

Several months prior to this conference, the second Lebanese War broke out in the North, and though we were very busy preparing for the conference, we did not send out invitations until a final cease-fire was announced. Among the many soldiers killed in that war was writer David Grossman’s son Uri. Grossman’s eulogy for his son became deeply engraved in the painful Israeli existence. Once again we learned that there is no boundary between reality and the mythical power of the Hebrew word. One must be on constant search to find the delicate balance between the two.

These are 60—maybe 100– years of an ongoing lesson of how to live independently in this country, where every moment is a human and national challenge. If I could describe the Israeli experience based on my life, it is a life of no compromises, where one must become addicted to the frantic rhythm of this place as it moves from one extreme to another, demanding full attention.

Translation by Aliza raz

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