Forward Thinking

Reading Talmud With One Eye on Stalin and the Other on Yogi

By J.J. Goldberg

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Lior Ashkenazi as a second-generation Talmud scholar in the Cannes-honored “He’arat Shulayim”

My jet lag seems to be getting worse with age. I got into Israel on Friday afternoon in a daze, just made it to my friends’ house in Jerusalem before Shabbat and have been more or less in the same daze until now, Monday. So I just logged onto our new Forward Thinking blog and discovered the thread of posts concerning the post-Zionist angst and its counterpoints of Allison Benedikt, Jeffrey Goldberg and company. I relate. Not that I find it hard to relate to Israel, exactly. Part of my soul lives here quite happily. I find it very familiar and relaxing being here. It’s just that that part and my American part have a harder and harder time finding a common language.

No, I don’t share the moral revulsion of some of my fellow angst-niks. I’m deeply troubled by some very important things going on here. No surprise there. I’m also deeply troubled by some very disturbing things going on in America. And I’m horrified by what’s going on in Congo. Some things are deeply troubling. Other things are horrifying. Both of my homes have thoughtless people in seats of power doing bad things to others. But neither is implicated in genocide. Poverty and oppression anger me. Genocide makes me lose sleep.

I usually come to Israel either in August or in the dead of winter. This is the first time in years that I’ve been here in June, when Jerusalem’s National Book Week takes place. Acres of stalls selling everything from embossed sets of Mishnah to Hebrew translations of The DaVinci Code, all at steep discounts. It is a voluptuous experience, but financially ruinous. I buy anthologies of the poetry of Rachel and Leah Goldberg (no relation, though she and my grandfather apparently were friendly), a miraculously portable volume of the Steinsaltz Talmud and a new anthology of Israeli essays on the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. This last I buy mainly for a few laughs, though I’m hoping maybe I’ll be surprised for a change. I keep on looking for signs that Israelis are beginning to think seriously about their relationship with the real-life Jewish Diaspora. It’s a little like Charlie Brown and the football.

After all, something amazing has happened: My friend goes looking through the book fair for the newly published edition of writings of Der Nister (“The Hidden One”), the Soviet Yiddish short-story master murdered by Stalin in 1952. It turns out that it’s sold out already.

Imagine that—a long dead Yiddish writer from Berditchev, reissued in the Middle Eastern country that did its best to bury Yiddish, and somehow it’s selling like hotcakes. In the words of the great Yogi Berra: Only in America. (Relax, kids—it’s a joke. Somebody once told Yogi that a Polish priest had been elected pope in Rome, and his response was “only in America.” I’m borrowing his confusion for comic effect. Get it?)

The following evening I go to a movie. A new film titled “He’arat Shulayim” (The Footnote) by Yossi Cedar, the director of the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort.” This one is a tragicomedy with overtones of Woody Allen about the bitter rivalry between a father and son, both professors of rabbinic literature, who have entirely different approaches to the study of the Talmud. It won first prize in Cannes for best screenplay. Seriously.

Wait, there’s a point to this. This morning I check out the news on line and find an essay at Haaretz.com, “The Dilemma of a Diaspora Jew at an Israeli Peace Rally,” in which a Canadian Jewish professor analyzes her swirl of mixed feelings at participating in a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Does she have a right to protest against a government that isn’t her own? But doesn’t she have a right to give voice to her feelings about something that is so central to her identity? What exactly is the relationship between the Diaspora Jew and Israel? It’s my favorite topic, God help me. I’ve been boring dinner guests with it for years. Now here it is, popping up repeatedly amid the acres of books at Liberty Bell Park in Jerusalem, splashed across the Haaretz English home page and now it’s the central thread on our own editors’ blog.

Oh, wait—I forgot to check Haaretz in Hebrew. Hang on … (interlude) … Okay, I’m back, and of course they haven’t bothered to publish the Canadian Zionist professor’s angst about her relationship with Israel in Hebrew. Sorry, I take it all back. Nothing has changed.


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