Israel Is Real
An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History
By Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Rich Cohen claims his new book is about his "obsessive quest to understand the Jewish nation and its history," but it seems far more complex and personal than that. Beneath his perceptive and provocative prose about Jewish history, religion, identity and memory is his own heartfelt struggle to become a good Jew, something he clearly has trouble defining. Cohen has maverick tendencies and a wicked sense of irony, coupled with a bristling ambivalence about all dogma that permeates his search for understanding. He never directly speaks to us about his relationship with God but we sense he has trouble finding Him. If writing can be considered a form of secular prayer, this is surely his attempt to find some sort of spiritual clarity.
Cohen begins his book with a vivid description of Israel's victory in June 1967. He writes, "A wild euphoria swept the country. Israel had defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, conquering the Sinai desert, the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River and east Jerusalem, with its Old City and holy places, which Jews had not been allowed to visit in 20 years. Israelis stood in the street in front of the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews, weeping and praying. It's as if the images minted in the war - tanks wedged in the alleys of the Arab market, jets blazing across the sky, soldiers storming the Temple Mount - were too much. Even atheists felt the press of God."
But Cohen explains that the elation was soon shattered for Ariel Sharon, who played such a decisive role in this victory. Sharon's eldest little boy was accidentally killed playing with a gun that nobody knew was loaded and died on his father's lap en route to the hospital. A friend of Sharon's had found this gun, which looked like an ancient relic, while walking through the Judean Hills and given it to Sharon's son as a present, never suspecting it was still loaded.
Cohen keeps presenting stories like this, extreme euphoria followed by heartbreaking tragedy, and this keeps the reader on an emotional tightrope. One moment we are enmeshed in his description of a brilliant victory against all odds and the next we are sitting shiva for Sharon's son; Jewish life is presented as a series of extreme moments where violence and ecstasy are often interlocked and inseparable.
Cohen's central hypothesis is that when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, a group of rabbis saved Judaism by reinventing it. They took a national religion and detached it from its nation. The Temple and the sacrifices and the religious practices associated with it were replaced by prayer. The image of an ideal or heavenly city was substituted for Jerusalem. He writes, "Jews would no longer need Jerusalem in order to be Jews, not the physical Jerusalem. Whenever a Jew prayed, or studied the Torah, he would be in Jerusalem."
In short, the Jewish religion morphed into pure text until the creation of modern Israel by Zionists turned the book back into a temple. Cohen begins chronicling the lives of the medieval prophets and continues to the present day where he offers his unique perspective on contemporary figures such as Theodor Herzl, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, Binyamin Netanyahu, Menachem Begin, Golda Meir and others.
Cohen is a fearless time-traveler, an acrobat of sorts, who is equally adept at commenting on ancient Jewish history and biblical stories as he is about the contemporary appeal of Larry David or Woody Allen, and he often draws breathtaking comparisons between past and present Jewish life that are wild-eyed and thoughtful.
For example, Cohen is moved by the story of Josephus, the most notorious traitor in the history of Israel. Josephus defected to the Roman Empire and settled in Rome where he changed his name from Joseph Mattithias to Flavius Josephus and spent the rest of his life writing about the fall of the Jewish kingdom with a anxious eye always directed toward the approval of Rome. Originally, Josephus was a kohen, a priest, and a one-time 14-year-old prodigy. He was born in 37 CE in Galilee and spent many years studying and traveling the world seeking the truth.
Cohen recognizes Josephus as "the first writer of the Exile - the first to realize that for the stateless Jew, power comes only by making yourself useful to the goyim." Although critical of him, there is a part of him Cohen understands or empathizes with. He writes seemingly only half in jest about Josephus's self-serving ways, claiming "maybe he wished he had been born Roman. Maybe he wished he could straighten his nose, change his name, marry a shiksa and retreat to a villa overlooking the sea."
Cohen finds the zealotry of John equally troubling. He describes John as a familiar type in Jewish lore, calling him a man "on the fringe, the extremist who takes control in extremis, then steers the ship on the rocks. He is Captain Ahab. He is Meir Kahane. He is the fanatic who believes there is just one way."
But Cohen writes lovingly of Rabbi Hillel, whom he describes as "that odd personage in the family photo, with the white beard and the black eyes and the dark hat and the dark clothes." He reminds us that when Hillel was asked to sum up the entire Jewish faith while standing on one foot, he replied: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole law; the rest is commentary." Cohen sees great wisdom in Hillel's most famous utterance: "If you have a sapling in your hand, and they say to you, 'The messiah has come,' finish planting the sapling, then receive him." It is this blend of wisdom, rationality and centeredness coupled with religious enthusiasm that seems to speak most directly to Cohen's own quest.
Cohen attends shul every Rosh Hashana in America and says he knows the rhythms of the service; he understands when to stand and sit, and can follow along. But he admits he often wanders outside since the rituals do not touch his soul and he feels a certain deadness there.
In Israel, he confesses to feeling unexpectedly the most alive. He began visiting in 1975 and felt a liberation in living in a land where "being a Jew is no big deal," which left his always overactive imagination finally free to ruminate about something else. He revels in the narrative of Israel, is enamored with many of its leaders and warriors and is infatuated with the bronzed Israelis he met in Tel Aviv who stayed up late at night hanging out on the beaches.
But Cohen admits that "nothing is more stirring than Jerusalem itself, wandering in the Arab meat market where the merchandise hangs over arched doorways and the meat twitches fresh on the butcher's line. The light is ethereal, the light in a dream. This is where everything happened, where everything will happen."
But back in the US, it appears that another voice often enters his head, one that also refuses to go away and that the reader can hear throughout his intoxicating narrative. It is the other side of Cohen who believes that being Jewish is controversial, sometimes even too difficult. It is Cohen the post-Holocaust Rosh Hashana Jew who can barely follow the rules in synagogue and still has trouble praying. It is Cohen who, like so many other American modern secular Jews, still defines his sense of Jewish identity primarily as a haunting absence, a phantom limb of sorts, something dangling out there that we occasionally grab for but can't really sink our teeth into.