One on One with Avraham Avi-hai: A labor of Jewish love

A novel approach to a book about two protagonists: writing part in modern Hebrew and part in medieval.

Avraham Avi-hai 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avraham Avi-hai 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Overarching theories are among the greatest dangers we have," says Avraham Avi-hai, referring to a passage in his recently released novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams (Carmel publishers). "I think they constitute a form of idolatry." Indeed, says Avi-hai - who stresses that the book emerged "out of a deep love of Judaism" - rabbinical control is not what Jewish life is supposed to be about. Avi-hai, originally named Syd Applebaum, ought to know. The 77-year-old resident of Jerusalem's Yemin Moshe neighborhood was born and raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in Toronto - and in the movement, Hashomer Hadati, which preceded Bnei Akiva - and made aliya in 1952. A former staff member of the Prime Minister's Office under David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, politics and economics reporter for The Jerusalem Post, world chairman of the United Israel Appeal-Keren Hayesod, Avi-hai was a founding dean of the Rothberg School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University. His 1974 book, Ben-Gurion, State-Builder: Principles and Pragmatism, 1948-1963, was translated into Hebrew, French and Spanish. He published the critical analysis, Danger! Three Jewish Peoples, in 1993. A Tale of Two Avrahams, at once fictional and historical, is the story of two characters, one in modern-day Israel, and the other in medieval Italy, both namesakes of the author. The book's literary device is the shift in Hebrew language style, according to the era. What especially pleased Avi-hai was being told by experts in the Italian-Jewish community here that he had accurately captured the language and life of Italian Jewry during the medieval period. "That means so much to me," admits Avi-hai. "Because I see that type of Jewish life as a possible model of what we should - and can - be." Why did you employ a literary device involving two different styles of language, and using your name for the two heroes who live hundreds of years apart from one another? The intertwining of names represents different facets of what I am, was or want to be - partly consciously, partly subconsciously - because the characters dictated the developments to me, and the book basically wrote itself. Why a novel? Why now? The book was born out of my fascination with Judaism, the Bible and Jewish history on the one hand, and my fascination with the Jews of the Mediterranean basin on the other. Though I have a PhD, I don't enjoy typical academic research. But here, I could take knowledge and incorporate it into a story - a living situation - and this was great fun. It was a labor of love. I thought I could relate to the interworking of Judaism, Christianity and, to a small extent, Islam from the perspective of religious persecution by the extreme Orthodox in Israel. It is from this kind of persecution which our modern hero runs. He has a din rodef [law of the pursuer, according to which a Jew can pursue another Jew and kill him if he endangers the life and property of another Jew] pronounced against him, because he has turned up too much dirt on the ultra-Orthodox. The medieval hero, meanwhile, is being pursued by the Inquisition. He must live as a Roman Catholic, while trying to practice his Judaism, in a sea of Greek Orthodox, and in interchange with Islam. The language is as close an approximation as I could achieve, based on all the writings from the rabbis in the 1600s. And the endeavor represents my fascination with Italian-Jewish history, which was the most open. It had a pre-Enlightenment enlightenment period. In the midst of persecution, you would also have Jewish professors of medicine and Jewish professors of Hebrew. There was even great interest in Kabbala. In fact, there's even such a thing as Christian Kabbala - and I'm not talking about that nonsense that's fashionable today or its practitioners, who I think should be investigated one day. Are you drawing a parallel between the persecution of Jews in the Inquisition and the haredi persecution of other Jews today? First of all, I let the reader draw his own conclusion. Secondly, I don't think there is haredi persecution. I see it as an ultra-right-wing fanatical closedness - just the opposite of what Italian Jewry was in medieval times. And that is the main point. If we do not insist on open Judaism, of whatever variety - including humanistic, though I personally prefer traditional - we will be facing the need to battle extremism. And I don't want to define "battle," because it's very wide-ranging word. I mean, the teachings of Maimonides were not those of the intransigent Hungarian rabbis. And [Spanish-Jewish philosopher] Yehuda Halevi did not resemble the Chief Rabbinate. This basic Judaism we had in Spain and Italy, and in a good part of Eastern Europe, was killed in the Holocaust, and is being choked today in the US and in Israel by an establishment that engages in successful brainwashing. Do you see a distortion of Judaism going on? There has been a distortion of Judaism going on from the moment the Reform Movement started, ultra-Orthodoxy was born and the Hungarian rabbinical authorities declared that any innovation was forbidden. Well, as soon as you forbid innovation, it's not Judaism any more. The Judaism in which I was raised was lay Judaism - where rabbis were teachers. The idea was not to submit your most personal questions in life to the direction of another person; you would take responsibility for yourself. The basis of Judaism is the Ten Commandments, and they're written in the singular, not the plural. They tell you what you shouldn't do. They don't say, "Go ask your rabbi whether you can do this or that." Take a look at Shabbat. Shabbat is the cornerstone for human, and even animal, freedom. One day a week, you don't belong to anyone else - nor do your children, animals, slaves, maidservants, whom you're not allowed to work. This proclamation of freedom for mankind was tremendously revolutionary, at a time when there was no such concept. In Roman times, a son or a daughter could be killed by a parent, and a slave by his owner, just like that. Does this notion of Shabbat as an expression of freedom connect in some way to the persecution of the hero during the Inquisition? Yes, because it is a Christian monsignor and a Catholic Jew who provide this man cover against the Inquisition, maybe not always for the right reasons, but this doesn't matter. And it's about how the hero is able to find love - both physical and spiritual - in a strange society, while striving to maintain his Jewish identity, without betraying it. From all this, you might get the impression that my book is very heavy, but it's not. It's a story - a modern thriller on the one hand, and an historical novel on the other. How does the State of Israel fit into your view of Judaism, to which you give expression in the book? I came here to be a total Jew. The kibbutz and egalitarianism were values I had received at home. They were essential parts of my Judaism. Therefore, coming to Israel was an important part of my Judaism. At the time I was more halachic, and as I've studied over the years, I am trying more and more to internalize the human side of the commandments - the mitzvot between man and man - how we relate to other people in everything we do. In business, for example. There wouldn't have been this crash on Wall Street if there hadn't been so many people putting greed and total lack of control above everything else. And I'm afraid we're getting that same thing here. I was hoping there would be a blend of socialism and capitalism in this country, based on Jewish law, tradition and point of view. How do you think Ben-Gurion would view today's Israel? First of all, he'd say, "I told you so" about the political system. He wanted a parliamentary democracy with direct elections of representatives. In addition, I think he would say, "Wow, look at what the IDF has become! Look what we've done with our military industry!" He always said that we have to rely on quality not quantity. From that point of view, he'd be happy. If he saw the Hebrew University and Weizman Institute, the Technion and others making great strides in science, he would be delighted. On the other hand, if he saw the school system, he'd probably say, "What? You don't know Bible? Every Jew has to know Bible!" In fact, he had a group that met every week to study the Bible with the greatest scholars. He was also against television - and when you look at television today, you might think the had a point. He'd be delighted to know how many Jews are now living here - about 10 times more than there were in 1948 - and thrilled with the advent of one million from the former Soviet Union. In 1961 or 1962, in a speech he gave in Tel Aviv, he predicted Soviet Jews would leave, and Teddy [Kollek] asked me to request of the foreign press in attendance not to mention this. All but Al Rosenfeld of the International Herald Tribune agreed not to carry the story. We didn't want to offend Russia... When I got out of the system - when I decided that I did not want to go into politics - I saw in the eyes of the leaders who came after Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, or they saw in my eyes, that I was measuring them by a different standard, and I don't think they were ever comfortable with me. I tried to hold myself up to that standard, and in so doing, I may have become somewhat of a curmudgeon in public life, in the Jewish Agency and in the Jewish world. What concerns me about the state today is not where it is lacking, because that will be corrected, and the poisonous boils will be lanced, slowly but surely. What concerns me is the need to have leaders looking forward and anticipating what will be. That was Ben-Gurion's greatness. Speaking of looking ahead, can you envision any positive outcome of the fact that philanthropy from the Diaspora is being seriously affected by the global financial crisis? I'm afraid not, though I'd like to, because I believe that, basically, we have enough wealth in Israel to cover our philanthropic needs. On the one hand, I don't think it's good for Israel and Israeli institutions to rely so much on the Diaspora. On the other hand, as somebody who wanted, and wants, Diaspora Jewry to live and have a relationship with Israel, I tried very much to turn the United Israel Appeal into an educational movement. Rather than say, "Gevalt! Missiles are falling here, so give money," I was saying, "We are giving you an opportunity to share in state-building. We are partners. If you can't come to Israel, or don't want to, at least pay taxes." This was not philanthropy in the usual sense. The Diaspora is said to be in danger of dying out due to intermarriage. Is the solution aliya? It's the solution I would prefer, but it's not realistic. Jewish history shows that Jews move too late. I have a very strange attitude about this. I ask, "Is Jewish survival without content Jewish survival?" And I don't think anyone has faced that question. On the other hand, every people has a right to survive. But I would welcome everyone who wants to join the Jewish people, with one requirement: If you want to convert, to whatever strand of Judaism, your Jewish mate, who is probably as ignorant as you are, should have to take the course as well. How would you feel if one of your children left Israel? I was interviewed once on Army Radio by Ya'acov Agmon, and he asked me whether a sabra can be a Zionist. I said no. He asked why. I said because Zionism means making a choice about where you live, and a sabra has no choice; he's born here. Then I came home and played the tape for my children. [He has three children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.] They disagreed with me. They said, "We do have a choice. We can leave." Therefore, I saw to it that they had dual citizenship, because I don't think anyone should be in Israel under duress. How I would feel if they left Israel? The question doesn't arise. They don't want to leave, even though they all have easily transferable professions and are bilingual. And though we had a very observant household, they were always exposed to a wide range of culture and knowledge. I believe that just as the religious children here have been deprived of a richness of general knowledge, the secular younger generation, in addition to a lack of general knowledge, has been deprived of Jewish knowledge. And they don't even know what secular means. Secular does not mean a lack of observance. It means knowing what your Jewishness is, and celebrating it the way you celebrate it.