Monthly Archives: July 2012

Israel and Palestine, revisited

Israeli home damaged by Qassam rocket attack

Israeli family members survey damage to their home by Qassam rocket from Palestinian territory

One reader, responding warmly to my previous post on this subject, nevertheless reflects on his own ambivalence on that question as an American Jew. “For a balanced, pro/con discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict issues,” he therefore writes, “you might refer your readers to this link”: http://israelipalestinian.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000632#7.

I am happy to oblige. (And for the site that I then recommended, if you missed it, see also my July 15 posting at this site.)

Israeli settler burns tires; Israeli soldier watches

Israeli settlers burn tires in Palestinian neighborhood while Israeli soldier passively watches

Clearly, given all the Arab and Palestinian hostility for so many years against the very idea of a Jewish State, the origins of Israel’s peculiar mix of defensive and aggressive posture is not difficult to understand. In my own historical memory, the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat for his negotiation of the Camp David Accords, with Israel’s Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, was especially traumatic. I was 18 at the time of the negotiation, 21 at the time of the assassination, and regarded Sadat as a hero among the Arab nations for his bold move for peace. As for Jimmy Carter, I came to think of his work on that accord as the highest achievement of a troubled but honorable Presidency.

But the example surely bespeaks the extremely precarious nature of any such peace that we might establish. It would be irresponsible then to assume at this time when Hamas, for example, has as far as I know still not formally denounced its opposition to Israel’s right to exist, and when however remote its actual nuclear threat Iran does undeniably present a real and potential danger to a historically embattled Israel – it would be irresponsible to assume that all of the present evil exists on Israel’s side and all the good with the Palestinians.

Sadat, Carter, Begin at Camp David

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at Camp David in August, 1978

I hope, given my lengthy introduction by way of my own journey through Jewish literature, that no one took my meaning as hostile to Israel’s existence or to the basic project of its intended reparative enterprise. Though I do object to the notion that the present evil is wholly on the side of the Palestinian opposition and all the good on the side of Israel’s most virulent defenders. Some of whom may well risk becoming – against which Nietzsche advised – the monster they have hoped to destroy.

My reader’s ambiguous feelings put me in mind, anyway, of a few lines of verse in Yehoshua November’s very good book called God’s Optimism. The book, a major accomplishment by a young Jewish American poet, is the winner of the 2010   Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. It was also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize.

God's Optimism, by Yehoshua November(For information about his book see its page on the publisher’s website: www.mainstreetrag.com/YNovember.html.)

The poem, “The Eternal Communists,” begins by calling out a part of the intellectual wing of Israel critics, some with “short pointy beards” and others, university professors, with longer ones. “From their mouths,” he writes, “bloom eloquent arguments / about oppression and poverty. / They speak as though they would tenderly give / half their beds to refugees, / though they can’t even live / with the women they love, / and they don’t know / the history of the war / or that the refugees have explosives / hidden in the fillings of their teeth.”

This constitutes the only overtly political message in the book. And at the time I wished there were some rejoinder, some acknowledgment of the humanity of the other side who themselves are not all suicide bombers and among whom some might even be quite holy – as made explicit to me by an anecdote from another book by an ecumenical and nonpartisan religious Christian, who had lived and worked for some time in Israel.

poet Yehoshua November

Poet Yehoshua November

But Yehoshua November is no facile sentimentalist, and the images in all his poems are precisely drawn and based in an undeniable reality. On the whole the overall impact of the poems is refreshingly redemptive, wholly lacking in cynicism. In the title poem, for instance, he speaks of a teaching of “the inner Torah” that since the world was created from nothing, it remains in motion only so long as God wills that motion. He writes, addressing his words to the Norman Maranz of the poem’s dedication: “Think of the optimism of God, then, / how, every second, He recreates our lives – / I who have not served Him honestly, / and you who believe you have never served Him.”

“And the rock-throwing Palestinian youth,” he might have added, “allied like David against the perceived Israeli Goliath.” (Leaving aside an Israeli self-perception of being that very David, surrounded by the Goliath of the combined weight of Arab nations.)

Just a few more words, in any case, will perhaps help clarify what I hope is my not too simplistic thinking on this Israeli/Palestinian question. I am drawing on a late passage in an essay I wrote in graduate school, on the subject of competing modernist and postmodernist tendencies in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. In this passage I am likewise drawing on an essay, “The Linguistic Turn Along Post-Postmodern Borders: Israeli/Palestinian Narrative Conflict,” by Nancy Partner, published in 2009 in the journal New Literary History (available online, for anyone interested in probing deeper, at the following address: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/nlh/summary/v039/39.4.partner.html).

Partner’s essay confronts the fact that while each dominant culture (in this case Israeli) has its official history, so does the “Other” (Palestinian) that exists as a contrapuntal entity. “And these histories,” I paraphrase in my paper, “take the form of ‘narratives’ that, while revolving around a single pivotal event, such as the year 1948 in the history of Israeli/Palestinian conflict, are often violently opposed to each other.”

But trying to get each side to really hear the other’s narrative, and to recognize each other not as monster but as feeling and thinking human being, is often a matter of great difficulty, perhaps near impossibility. In my essay I quote John Donne, who in his book Time and Myth expresses the point that
“there is some profound link, it seems, between the story of a man’s life and the story of his world. The story of the world is his myth, the story in which he lives.” Any view that seems to threaten that myth is thus suspect, and the conflicts that emerge particularly thorny. The chance of both sides gaining a common understanding of their intersecting histories, one upon which they can reach assent on the terms that would allow them to live henceforth together with mutual understanding, acceptance, and tolerance, seems at best not too likely an occurrence.

The challenge between Israelis and Palestinians, then, becomes not to create a shared national narrative that brushes over points of difference but rather, as Partner expresses it, this: “Until each side recognizes the validity of the other’s narrative – until conditions exist that permit a mutual, cross-national examination of the opposing narratives – conditions conducive to a reduction of conflict, or to delegitimizing the quality of the existing conflict, will not emerge.”

Tragic, I would say, if such conditions cannot be established. Because surely both narratives contain enough of a common humanity from which a reasonable if imperfect peace – even a precarious peace; which surely must be preferable to perpetual war – might be established.

Imagine a world in which no one tries.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

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“And they returned to their beasts and to being beasts…”

Ron Singer, writer (in Turkey)

Ron Singer in Turkey

Like the poetry of Ronald Pies, whose latest work (Heart Broken Open) I featured in a recent posting, I first encountered the poetry of writer Ron Singer in my capacity as managing editor at the now defunct online magazine New Works Review. I recall a strong Native American influence in those earlier poems, and his internationalist vision also extends to Africa. Though he is equally at home describing the very particular realities on the ground in 1970s-era Brooklyn, New York, for example, as in his new book / novella The Rented Pet.

About that book, more later. First I am happy to share the text of a poem that Ron has just had chosen for a forthcoming anthology called American Society: What Poets See (Future Cycle Press). The print edition is due out in August; the poem may already be up, or soon will be, on the press’s website (www.futurecycle.org).

The poem, dedicated to one Butchie Maxwell, is called “Listen Hard Enough.” Ron informs me that he read it at a memorial for poet-activist Dennis Brutus in Durban, South   Africa in February 2011. The text follows:

The quiet seems absolute

but, if you listen hard enough,

you can hear children’s voices

from the other side of the world.

It is a beautiful day,

weather “like it used to be.”

Clouds roll through a dark-blue sky,

wet snow in a dogless city,

so white, so heavy, so clean.

The wind, of course, you can hear

without trying. Crickets, birds, too.

But, if you listen hard enough,

certain sounds from deep in the woods

seem a mingling of children’s voices.

Picture these kids, if you will,

begging, selling petty goods,

running in and out of traffic

on a teeming African street,

or perched high on a garbage hill

in the heart of some favela.

One looks up, perhaps, and sees

wet-white clouds in a dark-blue sky

and, who knows, he may be listening

to you. He hears your distant heart.

You can see what I mean about the internationalist vision, grounded none the less in the very particular. The allusion in a single stanza to kids “selling petty goods, / running in and out of traffic / on a teeming African street,” and to Brazilian kids “perched high on a garbage hill / in the heart of some favela,” is a perfect example.

art for Ron Singer's The Rented Pet

Art for “The Rented Pet”

What the poet has to say about American society is made explicit in The Rented Pet, which he describes as “a bittersweet 14,000-word story about two dogs and the humans in their constellation.” It is set, he adds, “in a specific neighborhood in 1970s Brooklyn” and “chronicles social change: specifically, gentrification. In so doing, it serves as an elegy for a passing world.”

The book is available in a Kindle edition for the bargain price of $3.99 (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?rh=n%3A133140011%2Ck%3Athe+rented+pet&keywords=the+rented+pet&ie=UTF8). The story will also be published (in installments, starting on August 13) by Piker Press (www.pikerpress.com). I have just downloaded the Kindle edition myself and look forward to a leisurely reading of it in the comfort of my evening armchair. Meanwhile, the author’s own summary should more than suffice to suggest whether or not the book would be of interest to you:

Principal Characters:

Rex, The Rented Pet. An old German Shepherd trained as a blind dog.

Julia: His female companion.

Mildred Schaap: bookkeeper.

Jerry Kaplan: carpenter.

Joe Bassano: supervisor of a moving van yard.

Charles Miller: a blind poet who operates a newspaper kiosk.

Dr. Matt Brunn: a veterinarian.

Contents:

Part One: Renting the Pet.

Part Two: The pet is menaced. A romance begins.

Part Three: The romance blossoms. A companion is  acquired for Rex, who is also seriously injured.

Part Four: At a party to celebrate Rex’s recovery, his past is revealed.

Epilogue: Both dogs die. The Funeral.

Then there is this absolutely charming elegy, written in the style of Mark Twain’s “Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts, Dec’d”:

Let men be bold, let truth be told,

These two were a king and his queen.

Of noble scions, their hearts like lions’,

No bone in their bodies, mean.

To the lonely and the blind, ever were they kind,

These paragons of canine race.

They came, they saw, they overcame,

Leaving Earth a worthier place.

So let’s raise a cup, drink it all up,

Here’s afterlife to Rex and to Julia,

Let’s hope where they are, whether near or far far,

There’s food, water and sex, hallelujah.

As it turns out, I have also just written a story that prominently features an old dog. The specific incident of the dying of that old friend is drawn from my own adolescence. While that incident as portrayed at story’s climax is a sad one, it is situated within what I think of as essentially a comedy, and the fictional dog’s dying has the effect of precipitating the modest but not insignificant changes of heart of the two principal characters, an unlikely friendship between protagonist and antagonist.

descent of man art

The Descent of Man

The story’s thesis involves an English teacher in a rural high school who decides to teach a rhetorical / persuasive unit centered on the writings of Charles Darwin, and a local preacher who gets wind of what he’s up to and proposes to derail that anti-Creationist pedagogy. What starts out contentiously winds up in a relationship of mutual respect if not agreement. In the end, at least, they have each gained a deeper appreciation for the other’s position.

The story, as pointed out the other day by my rhetoric professor Thomas M. Rivers (U. of Southern   Indiana, retired), is polemical in structure, a plot built up around an idea. He suggests, though, that it is largely successful at presenting both plot and idea without falling into the common rhetorical error of either-or thinking. The idea, briefly stated, is in favor of Darwinian science but, at least as importantly, the importance to our national future of a civic rhetoric of dialogue that probes far beneath the facile either-or charade of contemporary politics. Idea and story both had indeed, before I actually wrote, been percolating for a period of a few years, during which time (and especially during the drafting itself) I was at considerable pains to see that plot and characterization convince on their own, independent of the polemic – and that both protagonist and antagonist are presented with humor and dignity, each one contributing something valuable to the discussion. Though, on strictly scientific grounds, as a matter of established and well-vetted fact, Darwin does necessarily come out on top.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

I think I have succeeded fairly well at that complex task, though time of course will tell, and I don’t rule out further re-writing. My manner of working is very intense, anyway, involving a great deal of editing and fact-checking and fine-tooth combing as I go, so that the first draft in this case might be someone else’s second or third. The story that I wrote previous to this one, in March, went into a second draft after much tweaking of the first and consultation with readers. That one, called “The Recruiter” and weighing in heavily on the tragic side, is now in circulation, and I awaiting results from the first mailings.

I don’t want to say anything more specific on this blog about the present story while I also have ambitions of sending it around and finding a journal to publish it. I will only add that I have called it “The Brotherhood of Man and Beast.” And that it begins with a brief epigraph from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: “Y volvieron a sus bestias, y a ser bestias” (And they returned to their beasts and to being beasts).

For those who know me best and exclaim, “Oh, God no! There he goes again about that damned Quixote!” – be assured that I have completed the draft without a single reference, in the text itself, to that eternal fountain of amusement and inspiration. At most the comedic style, earnest as it also is, imitates the light touch of Cervantes’ story that is at once comic and deeply poignant.

On Israel and Palestine (with a shout-out to Bumba Broadsides)

In my early twenties I went through a period as a reader and writer that a friend who thought I had the potential to be a great writer – thinking, perhaps, of Picasso’s “Blue Period” and such – vaingloriously called my “Jewish Period.” (It came close upon my “Steinbeck Period,” which was in fact a continuation and expansion of my earlier reading of that American author in high school.) During that period, anyway, I read a variety of works by such as Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (I loved “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” including Barbra Streisand’s particularly American adaptation!), and Bernard Malamud. I also read the screenplay of the documentary Shoah and other Holocaust-related works, as well as the paperback of popular Jewish-American writer Chaim Potok’s history of the Jews called Wanderings.

Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok

            But my obsession at the time were Potok’s novels starting with The Chosen, that masterful tale of friendship and its “worth and choice” (he cites Ben Jonson’s phrase in an epigraph), and its sequel The Promise; followed immediately by My Name is Asher Lev, the moving story of a Hasidic youth whose artistic gift leads him toward a painful break from his family and faith tradition, and In the Beginning, about which more later. I became particularly fond of The Book of Lights with its departure from primarily American to Korean soil, a novel whose protagonist was a Jewish chaplain during that 1950’s-era conflict and which explores quite intriguingly the world of Jewish mysticism. Davita’s Harp was I believe his only novel that was written from the perspective of a young woman, and the female protagonist was as sharply drawn and as strong a character as any of the men. Later would come The Gift of Asher Lev, which revisited from a later perspective the terrain of his third novel.

Potok was criticized sometimes for being a popularizer as well as writing children’s voices that were much more sophisticated than the voices of children that we commonly know. But as for the latter criticism, I think that he wrote mainly of children who were indeed much like he must have been as a child and youth, embryo really of the man who brought such intellectual rigor to his writings. Perhaps the focus on mostly male and always precocious characters represents a literary limitation in his work, but that hardly diminishes the achievement. The first three novels, in particular, remain popular classics for young readers as well as adults, and they are remarkable for the apparent ease with which he establishes for non-Jewish readers the background necessary to understanding the world of Hasidic Jews and their more liberal counterparts inNew   York City, in particular.

During that period, though I am not a Jew, I also wrote a “Jewish” story called “Joseph bin Jacob,” which however flawed was I like to think a rather majestic failure in terms of the promise it contained. A particularly strong passage dealt with an encounter with Gypsies inArgentinawhere as a yet younger man I had served a Mormon mission. The central encounter between a Jewish-Mormon missionary and an old French immigrant gentleman who turns out to be a rabidly irrational anti-Semite was also strong, I think, though a Jewish professor whom I asked to read it commented that while quite interesting a Jewish readership would probably not relate to it. There were other problems with the story, but Potok’s influence was also present in it as I imitated his tendency to delve into psychological realms by staging hallucinated or dreamt dialogues between living beings and their dead ancestors.

Asher Lev

Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev

I mention all of this to demonstrate that at the very least, though not a Jew, I am no anti-Semite. My own practice at the time of Mormonism was in fact much indebted to Judaism for its keen sense of intellectual engagement with Talmudic sources and with the Torah, an intellectual rigor so expertly and movingly captured by Potok in his novels. Some images from those novels continue to stand out vividly in my memory, none more than the image of Asher Lev’s agnostic teacher of art drawn on the occasion of Simchas Torah – by his still devout young protegé – into a religious ecstasy of dancing:

“… I danced with a Torah scroll – and there on the edge of the crowd of thousands that always came to watch our joy on that day was Jacob Kahn. I pulled him into the line and we held the Torah together and danced. His small dark skullcap was as awkward on his head as was the grasp of his fingers upon the Torah. But we held it together and we danced.”

Potok’s central theme was always the beauty that occurs at the often intensely painful meetings between cultures. It is in this context that I refer back to the novel In the Beginning, in which the young David Lurie is a naive observer of his father’s passionate conversations with like-minded friends on militant Zionism. It was Potok’s gift to reveal with deep sympathy the understandable passion of the immediate victims of the Holocaust while simultaneously revealing those same violent impulses for what they are: human passions that left to fester might be damaging to the religious spirit inspiring them.

And so I approach at last the reason for this post, which is related to the so poignant and so discouraging Israeli-Palestinian conflict of our present day. I should hope it would be understood that to criticize an Israeli policy of excessive force and obstinate provocation of their Palestinian neighbors is not to be anti-Israel or even remotely anti-Semite. Voices of sycophantic flattery who allege that, because of the great crime of humanity that the Holocaust represents, Israel can now do no wrong in its war of self-defense against an eternal Arab enemy – well, these flatterers and hounds of perpetual war are no true friends of Israel given the very great price that everyone involved in that conflict is bound to pay without a genuine effort on behalf of human understanding and peace. Surely no greater evidence of Potok’s thesis on cultural conflict and beauty exists than in the contestedterritoryofIsraelandPalestineat the present moment.

But the dialogue at present is so charged with invective that one can hardly speak a word of reason on that account, and to challenge Israeli policy is to invite the mischaracterization of an anti-Semite. As the editors at the new website Bumba Broadsides suggest, the American public is sorely uninformed or misinformed on this issue. The journalism necessary to really shed some light is out there but only on the margins, scarcely if at all represented in the mainstream media. For that reason I am pleased to publicize an excellent piece of on-the-ground reporting from that website, courtesy of a young American who has just been in Palestine and is soon returning. I urge my readers to check out this important piece of writing at the following address: http://bumbabroadsides.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/the-west-bank-a-view-from-the-ground/. I hope you will find it profitable and that somehow, out of this morass of too often willful hatreds and misunderstanding, the seeds of a lasting reconciliation between two great and suffering peoples might still be planted and grow.

Bumba Broadsides

Bumba Broadsides

On Life’s Truly Religious Moments

Martin Buber            I don’t know about you, but in my case hospital stays tend to turn guardedly hopeful states of mind somewhat darker, more precarious. This time I was feeling unusually optimistic until a full day and a half after surgery when the effects of the spinal anesthesia stopped working its deceptive magic. At that point, through the muddle of narcotic-clouded head, the reality of my situation came much sharper into focus. While my initial right-hip replacement (Dec. 1999) was only being “revised” – to the tune, amidst all the solid steel and titanium, of a worn plastic piece in need of replacement – at that point it felt much like that aftermath of yore, from which it took me months to really get myself right. So growing afraid of going home too early this time, further complicating the recovery, I opted for the additional seven days of rehab that the insurance company offered.

By now I am home about four days, and while the progress has its predictably rough edges it is looking not unreasonable that I’ll have bounced back pretty thoroughly by the one-month point of the surgery in roughly two more weeks. In which case I can’t accuse my surgeon of painting too rosy a picture. Especially if one remembers to take such things within the natural constraints of the contingencies they are offered in, couched in phrases like “depending on what we find when we get in there” and “every body responds differently.” In this case the surgery itself, I am told, went swimmingly, and by all accounts the wound looks exceptionally good. So I think, while perhaps a bit slower than hoped, I’m on my way back to full activity.

In any case, while at the height of my agonies I always wonder how I can possibly go on (and the thought of a potentially imminent left-hip replacement, and further “revisions” of both between ages 65-70, sends me into paroxysms of utter terror and pathos!), in my heart I am conscious enough of the moral or ethical strength that as often as not tends to come through the medium of such sufferings. The truly religious moments in a person’s life, as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggests, occur when that experience is at its most existential and its most endangered: “I who am certainly no zaddik [righteous, proven one], no one assured in God, rather a man endangered before God, a man wrestling ever anew for God’s light, ever anew engulfed in God’s abysses” (the particular quotation I draw from p. 41 of his posthumous collection of short reflections called Meetings, 1973, LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing).

For me such religious wrestling does not require the explicit belief in God, certainly no longer in binding creeds and dogma that only limit what can be apprehended or experienced. As the religious historian and writer Karen Armstrong elaborates in her book on the Axial Period of world history, The Great Transformation, such wrestling might just as well occur within the cathartic looking-inward that was the shared communal experience of Athenian tragedy. I am myself by this stage of my life rather agnostic on such questions, more skeptic than true believer; though I remain sensitive to a sense of mystery that pervades all things and might be identified as religious-spiritual in nature or even scientific, or just an imaginative or fictive visioning: I am thinking of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine poet, fabulist, and prose stylist, for whom too much certainty constitutes a tragic closing off of possibility; and Edward O. Wilson,  editor of an edition of Darwin’s four great works, famed sociobiologist with his exultant hope for “consilience” between divergent modes of knowing.

Be all that as it may, here I am at 53, ever grateful for the good thoughts and non-stifling prayers of my dearest friends. The suffering, physical and psychic, is fairly much a constant for all of us, and each of us therefore needful of each other’s support in whatever form we might be in a position to offer. My own, where the hips are concerned, is owed to a condition called osteonecrosis which I obtained honestly just before age 40. My good surgeon, whose skill and exceptional bedside manner I continue to richly appreciate, told me all those years ago that it was generally caused by one of three factors: 1) alcohol abuse; 2) steroid abuse; or, 3) “just plain dumb luck.” The latter was the only thing remotely applicable to my case, nor have I ever been enough of an athlete to throw a history of sports injuries into the mix. Whatever the origins, my bum hips are undeniably a part of my fate which I might as well get comfortable with.