The first Yiddishe mama’s biographer

French-Polish writer Marek Halter talks about why ‘Mary of Nazareth,' should be read as a Jewish story.

‘Once upon a time’ is the way every sentence uttered by Marek Halter seems to begin.
Halter, here for the launch of his new book, Mary of Nazareth, is unequivocally a storyteller who loves fascinating and enthralling his listeners. Uncompromisingly, the man is a purveyor of memories, ideas, concepts, one who wants to transmit and make people think.
“That’s the strength of the Jewish people: to be deep-rooted in the land as much as in the books. The strength of our people is to have understood that the land cannot be brought with you wherever you want, whereas the book can,” he says.
Halter’s recent writing endeavors have symbolized a return to these Jewish roots. After writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (The Madman and the Kings, 1976) and about the Jewish people (Abraham’s Memory, 1983), Halter wanted to tell stories about women.So he undertook to rewrite the Bible – in the feminine, this time. Considering the Bible to be not divine, but human – and humanity not only a male preserve – Halter paid homage to those heroines, demystifying them.
The women he portrays in his biographies suddenly appear beautiful, reckless, intangible. Sarah embodies the problems of infertility; Tzipora, the black wife of Moses, personifies the fight against racism; Lilah, Ezra’s sister, represents one of the first feminists fighting religious obscurantism; and the queen of Sheba embodies the power and mental alertness of an educated woman.
In Mary of Nazareth, Halter explores the story of one of the most famous biblical women. Mary is known as the mother of Jesus, a subdued woman with eyes downcast and a modest look. However, Halter speaks of Mary in his own words.
“It’s a Jewish story – that’s what we forget very often. Monotheisms are like Russian dolls. They all are embroidered in a larger religion: Judaism. And Mary was part of it. She came from Magdala, a very wealthy region of Galilee, and spoke at least three languages:Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek,” he points out. “Three languages for a young woman of those times, coming from the fief of resistance to the Romans!”
Halter recreates the setting to show that these mythologized biblical characters had strong feelings and rebellious struggles as well.
“Mary was the first Yiddishe mama,” says Halter, smiling. “She didn’t think her son would be the greatest lawyer or the best doctor ever; she simply saw him as ‘The Savior.’”
But at 30, her fatherless child has not yet accomplished anything. Mary forces Jesus to reveal himself during the wedding at Cana, where he performs the miracle of changing the water into wine. It is Mary, the woman who gave birth to him, who makes Jesus become the Christ.
Behind every great man, then, there is a woman? “No!” shouts Halter. “Next to every important man, there is a woman! Don’t forget, we were created side by side, and nothing else.”
For Halter, “The real revolution will only come from women. Today, the only group that is on the margins of society and that represents more than half of the worldwide population is women.”
The storyteller adds, “I am happy that Mary is coming out in Hebrew. First of all, because Hebrew looks like my mother tongue, Yiddish, and second, because I would like the Israelis to understand that Mary is part of their history as well. I want them to be convinced, and withhappiness and satisfaction, that all the wars eventually end up with peace.
“Every human being just wants to be spoken to in the language he understands. Everyone wants the others to use his language to describe universal realities – which can, however, vary a lot.”
HALTER WAS born in 1936, in Poland, and left the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. A hellish journey from Nazism to sovietism followed, taking him from Moscow to Uzbekistan, and finally to Paris.
His saving grace came in the form of a thirst for beauty. At 15, as a mime in Marcel Marceau’s company, he was accepted to the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. After graduating, between painting and biennial exhibitions around the world, including Argentina, Belgium and France, he became familiar with politics. Some of his experiences in the political sphere enabled him to embark on a fight against racism, anti-Semitism and for peace in the Middle East.
One of the issues that disturbed him as an idealist and a Zionist was that Israel was gradually becoming a country like any other.
“[Prime minister David] Ben-Gurion spoke to me, the first time I met him, in 1951, of a country where alcohol and prostitutes were a random thing, whereas I dreamed of a perfect and exemplary country. I was fed up and mad at him,” he says.
In an attempt to alleviate his disillusionment, in 1967 he founded, together with some other friends, the International Committee for a Negotiated Peace in the Middle East, which aimed to bring together Israelis and Palestinians in a forum other than the battlefield.
Halter found it easy to listen to politicians.
“Being a storyteller helped me a lot in talking with politicians,” he recounts. “[Anwar] Sadat, for example. He loved listening to stories! Those in power have forgotten how to be spoken to normally. They are used to arguing endlessly and to waiting for the complimentary newsthey are given. Thanks to the use of metaphors, as with Joseph and his dreams, those in power always understand the lesson that the storytellers want to teach them.”
Speaking the “other’s language” is Halter’s signature technique. He put this method into practice when meeting Yasser Arafat: “The day the PLO leader agreed to meet me, I knew it wouldn’t take long before he met with [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin or [Shimon] Peres. If your enemy agrees to talk to you, he has lost, since it means that he already has recognized you.”
AS FOR his own language, Halter is fluent in many. During theinterview, his phone rings several times. He picks up – and speaks inRussian, in English, in Hebrew, in French.
But in which language does he think – and dream?
“Idream and I think in French, my first language of freedom. In Molière’slanguage, I’m not afraid of saying foolish things. The other languagesare, for me, expressions of totalitarianism, of fear and restraint.”