The meaning of Jewish brotherhood

The Meaning of Jewish Brotherhood

Yehuda Avner’s new book, The Prime Ministers (Toby Press, 2010), is the most informative, well-written and heart-touching memoir I’ve read in years. Avner left Britain at the age of nineteen for British Palestine right before Israel’s independence. He joined the Foreign Office and later got a job as an English speechwriter for the Prime Minister –a position he kept under Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin. He was a personal witness to those leaders’ intimacy, dilemmas, and decisions.

Levi Eshkol comes out as a character that was borrowed from an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel to lead the Jewish state, almost by accident, at its most fateful hour (“Vus rett der goy?” [What’s the goy talking about?] he asked his aid, in Yiddish, unable to make sense of President Johnson’s Texan babble as the latter was driving high-speed around his ranch).

Golda Meir emerges as down-to-earth and burnt-out grandma who successfully deployed her iron will after the terrifying setbacks of October 1973, but who would rather have been spared the hardships that life had in store for her (“I like nothing better than to sit in an armchair doing nothing” she candidly confessed to Oriana Fallaci).

Yitzhak Rabin reveals himself as a man of impeccable integrity with a strong analytical mind. Jews around the world came to admire him after the Entebbe rescue operation, though some had an awkward way of expressing their admiration (One entry in the Prime Minister’s official guestbook after a party hosted for American Jews reads thus: “I congratulate you on your extraordinary rescue feat. But as a clinical psychologist I detect in you a bashful timid reserve. Diagnostically, I would say you have a depressive personality. Its root cause is an inability to elicit love. You’re in search of a hero. Henry Kissinger wrestles with the same problem”).

As for Menachem Begin, he is the book’s hero. And indeed, he was a Jewish hero, as well as a true gentleman who, while constantly haunted by a dreadful past, was always ready to crack a good joke (“Marriage is not a word, it’s a sentence” he concluded after unsuccessfully trying to help his wife put on her shoes before landing). 

The book also has an anti-hero, albeit a discreet one mentioned en passant at the beginning and at the end. He caught my attention for a reason that is relevant to us today.

Yossel Kolowitz was an Auschwitz survivor who had lost his family in the Holocaust, and a haredi Jew who was on the ship that brought Yehuda Avner to British Palestine in 1947. In the inner pocket of his long black coat were two letters –both from relatives of his who lived in Palestine and were offering him a home.

The first letter was from his ultra-Orthodox uncle from Meah Shearim who was asking him, as the sole survivor of his family, to perpetuate the Jewish people’s tradition and establish a God-fearing family in Jerusalem. The second letter was from another uncle, a member of the secular Mishmar HaEmek kibbutz. He was imploring him to join the kibbutz, to “get rid of that yeshiva garb” and become “a new Jew.” Yossel was agonizing about what to do, and the reader is left wondering what happened to him.

But Yossel Kolowitz surprisingly reappears at the end of the book. As Yehuda Avner addresses a crowd of Los Angeles Jews in November 1982, talking about his first sight of Haifa in 1947 from the deck of a ship called the Aegan Star, a man with tinted blond hair known by the audience as Jay Cole interrupts Avner claiming that he too had been on the Aegan Star. He had. It was Yossel Kolowitz.

Yossel, at the end, had opted for the socialist uncle and the kibbutz life. He married and had two sons. He served in the IDF, was wounded during the Six Day War, and decided he needed a break. He chose California, where he made a living as a plumber. Soon, his two sons joined him and made his plumbing business prosper.  They too got married, but to non-Jews.

“Don’t think I’m not heartbroken. Of course I’m heartbroken” admitted Yossel to Avner. “I’m forever a survivor. So just keep your opinions to yourself, hotshot, and don’t start telling me what’s right and what’s wrong.”

We are not allowed to judge people whose travails we haven’t experienced, the Ethics of the Fathers (“Pirkei Avot”) teaches us. Surely, no one is entitled to judge Yossel Kolowitz. But there is a lesson to be learned from his personal tragedy.

In truth, Yossel had a choice between two unattractive options. Either continue to live and dress as an eighteenth century Polish Jew and stay out of the Jewish national renaissance after nearly two-thousand years of exile. Or abandon an exceptional culture and civilization, while carrying guilt feelings towards his vanished family. Yossel had a choice between two bad options because too many Jews at the time were torn apart. 

Not that the divisions between the secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, etc. have disappeared. But it is time to get pass them. In the Bible, the hatred between Joseph and his brothers was due to a lack of respect and humility. Joseph eventually learned humility after spending twelve years in jail. And his brothers recognized the folly of their jealousy after realizing what pain they had caused to their father. Only after Joseph came to fully admit the true source of his powers, and only after his brothers had learned to love their father more than they hated their brother, could the family be re-united.

We Jews need to remember and internalize the meaning of Jewish brotherhood. For the sake of Yossel, let us learn the lesson of Joseph.