It's sadly ironic that traditional Jewish folk humor should expire with a whimper in - of all places - the renascent Jewish state. The wiseacre exploits and shenanigans of Hershele of Ostropol (Hershele Ostropoler), the impoverished shtetl's generic survivor-by-his wits, are at best esoteric for Israelis.
But alas, there's one Israeli who isn't ignorant of Hershele's shrewdness and sometimes even takes a leaf out of the mythic prankster's yellowing old book. Unlike penniless Hershele, this uncommonly erudite Israeli is no lowly commoner, but the one whom Israelis elected to head their government - the wily Ehud Olmert, also a man who survives by his wits.
So, while the vast majority of Israelis may be unaware, it's obvious to a few tiresome eggheads among our compatriots that Olmert had carefully studied Hershele's career as his town's matchmaker, especially the episode wherein Hershele earmarked a particularly dim-witted eligible bachelor for the daughter of a well-to-do storekeeper.
First step: Hershele must introduce the prospective groom to the would-be bride's family. On the way, Hershele quotes Proverbs 17:28 to the boy, stressing that "according the Wisest of All Men, King Solomon himself, 'even a fool when he keeps silent is counted wise and he who purses his lips is esteemed as a man of understanding.' In other words, I advise you to say nothing and pretend to be preoccupied with deep thoughts."
Silence can indeed be golden and then some - and not only in Ostropol's quaint setting. Just see how it paid off for Olmert. He even managed to accrue a few additional popularity points. Though still far below any previous prime-ministerial flunky's approval ratings, things are starting to look better for him.
The credit indubitably must go to Hershele, because Olmert's greatest climb in the polls came when he stayed quietest - by no means an ordinary occurrence for our PM. As the world's media buzzed with speculation about what may or may not have happened over Syria when Israeli fighter-jets may or may not have performed incredible feats there, Olmert sat back, rubbed his hands with glee, said nothing and raked in the PR profit.
Uncharacteristically, he let all the scoop-driven talking heads and pen-pushers vie with each other and regale us with tales of Syrian missile-plants, subterranean nuclear hanky-panky, chemical warhead-facilities, fissionable imports, arms shipments, Hizbullah involvement, Russian complicity, North Korean collusion, Iranian intrigue, Turkish connections, mercenary foreign atomic experts, ground commando operations - and that's just some items on the fanciful list. The variety is limited only by any given pundit's imagination. No one can prove or disprove anything. The longer and more twisted the yarn the better.
All Olmert needs do is deny nothing, pretend he's preoccupied with deep thoughts and regain our admiration as a hero after all - one who restores Israel to its old-time glory as the marvel of hush-hush capers.
INTO THE fray merrily waltzes Meretz's ever-voluble MK Zehava Gal-On, righteously demanding the attorney-general instruct Olmert to blab and clue in his loose-lipped parliamentarians on whatever clandestine wonders our brave pilots may or may not have pulled off. Binyamin Netanyahu played right into Olmert's hand when saying he backed him in this case. By adamantly refusing to open up to Zehava and availing himself of the opportunity to whack his rival, Olmert comes off as the valiant protector of the nation's top secrets, even in the face of pesky political provocation.
The posture of taciturn gallantry is moreover bolstered from all directions. Assorted overseas meddlers relish veiled conspiracies and enjoy embarrassing Pyongyang, Damascus, Teheran and even Moscow. There's no need for Olmert to pooh-pooh any wild invention. In fact, the more outlandish the conjecture, the greater his achievement appears to be. In his world, everything considered, appearances count above all.
But Olmert is a flawed hero. He can't maintain the pose and keep unnaturally mum for too long. Thus he expounded to Russian-language journalists on how much he "respects" Syria's gangly despot Bashar Assad and how ready he is to engage him in "unconditional negotiations." That was a serious breach of Hershele's "say nothing" stricture.
Olmert's redundant prattle perforce awarded Assad at least some semblance of clout and undeserved prestige. Any mention of his name - especially in the context of appeasement - constitutes an effective boost. The very thought of parleying and haggling with Assad's terror-sponsoring sort ought to be banished, never mind enunciated to members of the press. Assad is best left to wither in unsplendid isolation instead of being fawned over, aggrandized or accorded even token public attention.
The very indication of willingness to discuss concessions to Syria, the only plausible bottom-line end-product of any bargaining process with it, superfluously emboldens the Assad coterie and runs counter not only to Israel's fundamental existential interests but to those of the rest of the free world.
If Olmert is to retain the gold his silence prodigiously yielded him, he ought to quell the chatter not only in regard to the mystery foray. Otherwise he'll sooner rather than later be exposed as less of a strategic genius at work than his carefully cultivated aura of inscrutability suggests. Poses, Olmert need remember, are fragile - not only in Ostropol. The pretense, he mustn't forget, didn't ultimately work even for Hershele's client.
One of the relatives scrutinizing the matrimonial candidate opined he was engrossed in profound philosophical ponderings. Another envisaged him as a meditating poet. The girl's father preferred talmudical ruminations. But an uninvited guest who wandered in announced that the fellow was "nothing but a fool."
At this point Hershele gave up. "Let's go," he said to the young man. "You've been found out."
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