Reading Lolita in Tel Aviv: ‘We must not assimilate into Israel; we must assimilate Israel into ourselves’

Thanks to its intrinsically conflicted nature, the Yiddish literature of the young Israel has been exceptionally potent in exploring the thematic proximity between the Holocaust and the Nakba.    

In a striking scene in the documentary film, Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever (2018), the poet, translator, and editor Dory Manor explains how he met the great Yiddish poet Sutzkever for the first time in the 1990s. The then 19-year-old Manor found a collection of Sutzkever’s poetry in Hebrew translation, and was immediately hooked despite the middling quality of the Hebrew translations. Manor was flabbergasted when, a few months later, he received a telephone call in his parents’ house; the caller a man who spoke Hebrew with a heavy diasporic inflection: “May I talk with Mr. Dory Manor….Here speaks Avrom Sutzkever.” To Manor, it was as though he had heard a voice from the dead; he was certain that the poet had perished in the Holocaust. In fact, Sutzkever was alive and had lived in Tel Aviv for decades, not far from Manor and from where the latter had purchased the book of poetry, during shv’ua ha-sefer, the annual Hebrew Book Week. The phone conversation was the starting point for a friendship between Manor and Sutzkever, which lasted until the older poet’s passing, in January 2010, at the age of 96; the poetic bond established between the two endures to the present day, however.  

The encounter between the young literary editor and a poet from another time prompts a fundamental question: Why would anyone in Israel read, or even be interested, in Yiddish today? Like the young Manor, most Israelis would probably associate Yiddish with the East European Jewish world that was destroyed in the Holocaust, with sentimental and outdated Yidishkayt, or with the Haredi community that continues to use the language; in short, with everything antithetical to “standard Israeliness.” Little wonder few native Israelis are even aware of just how much that has been written in and about Israel in Yiddish. Violence, migration, and the upheavals of the twentieth century, coupled with a Zionist ideology that championed Hebrew as the national language, relegated Yiddish into an odd status, both a “foreign” language and a language of Israel and the Middle East. A recent award-winning documentary film about Sutzkever, and a number of new books of translated Israeli Yiddish poetry and prose (some in bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew and Yiddish-English editions) indicate renewed interest in Yiddish in Israel. The current translations, as well as academic and some media attention, have teased knowledge about an authentically Israeli Yiddish literature out of obscurity.

But how does thinking about Israel’s history, society, landscape, and culture change when we read what has been written about it in Yiddish? To answer this question, one must first acknowledge an important paradox about Yiddish in Israel. Yiddish, as Yael Chaver put it, was “the language that must be forgotten” in the creation of Hebrew, Zionist, and Israeli culture. Yiddish occupied a very low position in the Israel of the 1940s and 1950s, as the diasporic language whose shackles the Sabra, the new Jew reinventing himself, labored to shrug off. But at the same time, and despite the fact that Yiddish had almost been wiped out along with the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, there were people anxious about Yiddish’s continued existence, as a diasporic language that should not be completely forgotten. Yiddish was the mother tongue of many of the Ashkenazi Jews who created Israel—and shunned the language in the process. It was also spoken by a significant number of the new immigrants who found a home in the new Jewish State. This paradox goes some way toward explaining why, in the 1950s, the Israeli government restricted the publication of Yiddish newspapers and the performance of Yiddish theater productions; but at the same time, it also enabled a limited Yiddish literary and cultural activity, means of showing how the new Jewish State preserved bygone diasporic Jewish cultures from around the world.

Among Yiddish-speaking newcomers to Israel, mostly refugees and Holocaust survivors, numbered quite a few writers, poets, and journalists. There was the poet Avrom Sutzkever, mentioned above and the novelist and short story writer Mendel Mann; there was also the somewhat younger poet H. Binyomin, better known as the translator and scholar Binyamin Hrushovski (Benjamin Harshav), and the Yiddish poet Rivka Basman Ben-Haim (still active today, at the age of 94). They were all born in the 1910s and 1920s, in Poland and Lithuania, in a multilingual world of Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Hebrew, and German. Because Yiddish is itself a language of multiple origins (what the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich called a “fusion language”), and few, if any, Yiddish speakers are monoglots, this generation imbibed the rich and worldly Yiddish secular culture blossoming in Europe, America, and even the Yishuv  during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This generation was caught in the midst of the devastation of World War II; they lost their families, survived the Holocaust, and experienced all of this in Yiddish. Quite understandably, their commitment to the language and culture of their formative years endured, even after immigration to the Middle East.

In 1948, Avrom Sutzkever, the most established and well-known of the Yiddish writers then in Israel, founded the Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene Keyt (“The Golden Chain”—named after a well-known play by Y.L. Peretz). Against all the odds, it secured financial support from the Histadrut (Israel’s labor union federation). Sutzkever was the editor of the monthly journal for the entirety of its 46-year lifespan. Mendel Mann, the short story writer, was the journal’s editorial secretary in the 1950s and early 1960s. In his introduction to The Full Pomegranate, a new volume of Sutzkever’s poetry featuring the original works alongside English translations, literary scholar Justin Cammy quotes the poet as saying: “We must not assimilate into Israel; we must assimilate Israel into ourselves.” Sutzkever understood that in order to live up to this ideal, it was crucial that  a new generation of Yiddish writers be nurtured, in Israel; he took upon himself the role of mentor to a new poetic movement, Yung Yisroel (“Young Yisroel”), founded in 1951. Members of the group and their associates produced some of most interesting Yiddish literary texts written in and about Israel. In their meetings, and in the pages of Yiddish journals and newspapers published in Israel, they vigorously debated not whether Yiddish had a place in Israel’s literary stratosphere, but what that place should be.

One of the most difficult challenges faced by these Yiddish writers was the challenge of depicting and interpreting the traumatic events that took place in Israel during the tumultuous period between the end of World War II and the hostilities of 1947-1948. Many Yiddish stories, poems, and novels focus on the latter war: the uprooting of local Palestinian-Arabs from their villages and neighborhoods, and the repopulation of these “abandoned” spaces with Jewish refugees, both Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors and Jews from Arab counties. Some of these young Yiddish writers were enlisted into GACHAL (Giyus Chutz La’aretz)—the Overseas Recruits units fighting in the war—straight from Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Europe. Some lived, for shorter or longer periods, in “abandoned” Palestinian houses, and others in transit camps. Their experiences, as depicted in their writings, connected the Holocaust and the Nakba in ways that Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals—as well as scholars around the world—have only begun to explore recently.

In their landmark 2019 volume The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, editors Amos Golderg and Bashir Bashir maintain that the “Zionist and Palestinian mainstream national narratives are very different”; yet, they share “a remarkably similar syntax and grammar.” One of the main building blocks of such “grammar” is the fact that “they are narratives based on binary opposition…Each side is convinced that it is history’s ultimate victim, while denying or downplaying the suffering of the other side in order to validate its own claim.” However, in the 1950s, anticolonial discourse was closely intertwined with the legacy of the Holocaust, in what Michael Rothberg has called “multidirectional memory,” the fact that collective memories of seemingly distinct histories that nevertheless emerge in dialogue with one another. Such was the case of the Holocaust and the 1948 War. The connection between the Holocaust and the Nakba was inescapable for many, irrespective of their political or ideological affiliations—one event succeeding the other in such close proximity fusing together into a single body of historical and moral images. Nazism became the epitome of evil and a powerful metaphor for unbridled cruelty; meanwhile, the image of the hounded refugee, fresh in the mind of Jewish migrants when they arrived from Europe, was reawakened by the Arab exodus of 1948. The European language of metaphors was transposed into a Middle Eastern reality.

In his 2019 book, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Rothberg offers a new theory of political responsibility, using the figure of the “implicated subject”: “neither a victim nor a perpetrator, but rather a participant in histories and social formations that generate the positions of victim and perpetrator, and yet in which most people do not occupy such clear-cut roles”. The notion of “the implicated subject” brings Bashir and Goldberg’s “ethics of disruption” to mind, a conceptualization which refuses to consider the Israel/Palestine experience through the zero-sum logic that characterizes competitive approaches to memory. Rather, it transcends antagonistic binary politics, facilitating an approach to the question of Israel/Palestine vis-à-vis the memories of the Holocaust and the Nakba.

These insights shed new light on the work of Yiddish writers from the 1950s onwards, and allow for the consideration of similarities and differences between them and their Hebrew-language peers; writers of the “1948 Generation” like S. Yizhar or Moshe Shamir, and poets like Nathan Alterman, Abba Kovner, and Avot Yeshurun (who blended Yiddish and Arabic into his Hebrew poetry). For example, in Mendel Mann’s short story “In the Ruins of Apolonia”—published in the recent volume Seeds in the Desert—the unnamed narrator, a survivor of the Holocaust and (understandably) emotionally troubled wanders from Jaffa along the coast of the Mediterranean. By the ruins of the ancient fortress of Apollonia (Arsuf in Arabic), near Herzliya, he meets Mustafa, an elderly man originally from a nearby deserted Arab village. The Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, and the Palestinian refugee of 1948, discover a mutual empathy, and from this try to develop a common language. Both had lost their home and their family; both were trying to find a piece of ground to stand on, in the radically new physical and social landscape of Israel/Palestine.  

The story, like others by Mendel Mann featuring Palestinians and Jews from Arab countries together with Yiddish-speaking refugees, echo aspects of his novel In a farvorloztn dorf (“In a Deserted Village”).  The novel, translated into Hebrew soon after its 1954 publication in Yiddish, tells the story of newly arrived Jewish immigrants placed in the transit camp of Azur, hastily built atop the ruins of the Palestinian town of Yazur, south-east of Jaffa.  The plot of Mann’s novel bounces back and forth between the present (1949-1950) and the period before World War II and 1948. Its focus is the character Monye—a man from a small town in Poland, forced to flee the Nazi occupation of his country—and his attempt to find a new place in the transit camp, and in Israel. The daily life of Moyne and the other refugees in the transit camp is interrupted one day, when they meet a Palestinian man, who has returned to what was once his village. The responses of the refugees, Yiddish-speaking eastern Europeans, to his presence range from confusion and suspicion, to the clear understanding that they might be living in a house that belonged to the Palestinian not long ago. The story also employs the narrative device of a “yellow dog,” which wanders back and forth into the village. Through the dog’s eyes, the reader gains access to the lives of Yazur’s Palestinian inhabitants, before and after the traumatic moment of occupation and expulsion. There is a parallel, in Monye’s memory, with his Polish life before the War, and his attempts to imagine what life in Poland could be after the Holocaust.  What is unique about Mann’s Yiddish novel is the extent to which the encounter with the deserted village and with the former inhabitants is shaped by an analogy with the trauma of the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba

Tsvi Ayzenman’s short story Vu der himel mitl yam (“Where the Sky and the Sea Meet”), lacking a specific location, depicts a family of Jewish refugees somewhere south of Jaffa, possibly in the depopulated neighborhood of Jabaliya, the setting for a number of Yiddish stories and novels.  Jabaliya was captured by the Etzel militia (Irgun) in 1948, and quickly re-named Givat Aliya.  In this neighborhood, many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel from DP camps lived side-by-side with the few remaining Arab families, and with Jewish families who had just arrived from North Africa—all in houses that still carried clear traces of their former Arabs inhabitants. In the short story, while the father of the central family joins his fellow Jews and Arabs to play cards and backgammon in a shack bearing the highly-ironic name “Café Moledet” [Homeland Café], Mendel, his child, imagines the house being carried on the waves of the Mediterranean to the horizon, the “place where the sky and sea meet.” The story evokes beautifully the precarious existence of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors in the new environment: supposedly a new “homeland,” but nevertheless haunted by experiences of violence and uprooting.

The story Tsvishn Ailbertn (“Between the Olive Trees”), by the Yididsh and Hebrew writer Yossl Birshteyn, draws from the 1953 Qibya massacre (“Operation Shoshana”), an Israeli army incursion in the West Bank, which led to the deaths of at least sixty-nine Palestinian villagers. The great American Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshtayn wrote a powerful poem about these events, taking a Jewish diasporic perspective; as the Yiddish scholar Adi Mahalel demonstrated, Birshteyn’s story is a response to this. The story relates the appearance of an old Palestinian farmer, Hassan Abu-Thnoa, and an unexpected interaction with the Israeli Army. Largely told from the point of view of Hassan, it begins with him walking out with his donkey one early morning. He meets an Israeli soldier, who “stood…there, were there were no trees, only the bright light from the sky.” The soldier stops Hassan and asserts his authority, as representative of the armed forces. In the altercation that ensues, a box of oranges rolls over from the donkey’s back. As Hassan goes “on all fours” to collects the oranges that fell, the Israeli soldier towers above him. Their eyes meet for a few seconds. In this brief meeting, the Jewish soldier hears the long shriek by the submissive Arab, and is “bewildered” by it. The bewilderment comes from his waking consciousness, and his memory of his own very recent experience of Jewish persecution and destruction in World War II. Thus, the story presents both characters, the Palestinian-Arab and the Israeli-Jew, as figures who have repressed recent painful and traumatic pasts, and can have only fleeting moments of mutual understanding. It depicts a new kind of armed Jew, one who must deny his connection to the recent past, even though the trauma persists on a deeper level.

These stories and novels, exploring the traumatic events that accompanied the birth of the State of Israel almost in real time, hardly made an impression on Israeli readers. This is largely because Yiddish literature was marginalized, both socially and bureaucratically, and consequently received scant attention in mainstream Israeli culture. Although some novels, stories, and poems, were translated into Hebrew in the 1950s and 1960s, the translations were not very successful; few people noticed them, or were interested in them. For a variety of complex cultural and political reasons, this situation started to change only years later. One key text is The Poems of Gabi Daniel, by the scholar and bilingual poet H. Binyomin (Benjamin Hrushovski/Harshav). Originally published in in the 1990s in Hebrew, a new collection of his poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew has recently been republished. A number of poems in this volume consider painful episodes, such as young Holocaust survivors sent into battle in 1947-1948.

In the last decade, young Israelis have begun to revisit the traumas of the Holocaust, the 1948 War and the Nakba, through the use of Yiddish: a “foreign language” they have learnt in university courses, but at the same time the “silent” language of their parents or grandparents. One example is the 2008 short film Bet-Avi, or Mayn tates shtub (“My Father’s House” or “Homeland”), directed by Dani Rosenberg. The film follows Lolek, a young Holocaust survivor, who arrives in Israel and is immediately dispatched to the middle of the desert, where nothing can be seen but a deserted “abandoned” Arab village. The Hebrew spoken by an IDF soldier in the opening scene is quickly replaced by the Yiddish used for the duration of the film. Rosenberg explained this linguistic decision thus: Yiddish “is an alternative to Hebrew and to representations of the 1948 War in the Israeli films of the state’s first decades. […] It is a culture that was erased, and it is a great loss. […]In the film, I try to protest against the demolition of this culture.”

When Dory Manor decided to dedicate a 2018 edition of his Israeli literary journal Ho! to Arabic and Yiddish literature, he was fully aware of the cultural and the political implications of his choice. In the introduction to the issue, he wrote: “Yiddish and Arabic cultures are perhaps the closest to modern Hebrew culture. But these are also the two languages that Zionist ideology saw as an existential threat: the language of the enemy and the language of the diaspora, the language of the other and the language of the past.” The anxieties about Yiddish and Arabic, about the Holocaust and the Nakba, will not soon disappear from the Israeli psyche. But examining them together creates the potential to discover not only old/new literary gems that had been forgotten and repressed, but also new political and ethical paths forward.

*Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever (2018) by Uri Barbash

*The Full Pomegranate: Poems of Avrom Sutzkever, translated by Richard J. Fein, (SUNY Press, 2019)

*Seeds in the Desert by Mendel Mann, translated by Heather Valencia, (Yiddish Book Center, 2019)

*Kol Ha-shirim [The Complete Poems] by Benjamin Harshav (Carmel, 2017)


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