What is the myth of the ‘circumcised Cossack?' - opinion

While journalist Anton La Guardia’s flawed thesis is that the State of Israel is a modern version of ancient Sparta – totally dominated by the military – we need to ask about Amos Oz’s observation.

COSSACK MAMAY – the ideal image of Cossack in Ukrainian folklore. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
COSSACK MAMAY – the ideal image of Cossack in Ukrainian folklore.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The original version of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, one of the greatest short-story cycles of the 20th century, concludes with the “The Rabbi’s Son.” In the story, Lyutov – Babel’s alter-ego who hid his Jewish identity from the Bolshevik-supporting Jew-hating Cossacks with whom he served as a correspondent – discovers the dying son of a rabbi he had encountered earlier. 

Ilya, the son of the Zhitomer rabbi, is fighting and ultimately, dying for the Reds in the Soviet war against a newly independent post-WWI Poland. 

Babel writes: “I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of the political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side – the gnarled steel of Lenin’s skull and the listless silk of the Maimonides portrait.” 

In a train car, Ilya dies with both identities. Babel continues: “He died before we reached Rovno. He died, the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body – I received my brother’s last breath.”

Babel never wandered from his Jewish roots or the reality of being both a Jew and a communist. Yet, in a strange twist, he added a number of stories after the 1926 original publication of Red Cavalry that seem to question his Jewish identity. 

In the added story “Argamak,” appended to the ending of a revised version of Red Cavalry, Lyutov masters horsemanship and gains the respect of the Cossacks, expert horsemen themselves. It seems that Lyutov needs to shed his Jewish intellectuality and become a Cossack. 

Earlier in the story cycle, Babel’s alter-ego refuses to shoot a Cossack who is mortally wounded and wants to die quickly. He curses Lyutov for his cowardice. 

A Jew from bourgeois Odessa just could not get himself to shoot a living man. He never believed he was one of the Cossacks until he mastered horsemanship.

What intrigues me about “Argamak” is that taming horses and riding them was, to the early pioneers in Eretz Yisrael, central to defending the Yishuv and a palpable symbol of the Jewish rejection of Exile. 

It was as important to them as it was important to Babel, although Babel and the Zionists were pursuing separate identities. In Sir Martin Gilbert’s 1998 study of Israel’s history he discusses the Second Aliya’s Jewish self-defense unit, Hashomer, in the early 20th century: “Blending in with local customs, the watchmen spoke Arabic, wore a mixture of Arab and Circassian dress, carried modern weapons and were, in many cases, expert horsemen…The motto of Hashomer was “By blood and fire Judea fell; by blood and fire Judaea shall rise.”

In his study of Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians, War Without End (2001), journalist Anton La Guardia refers to a bitter comment by Israeli novelist Amos Oz that described Israelis as a race of “circumcised Cossacks.” 

Amos Oz in Germany in 2013 (credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Amos Oz in Germany in 2013 (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

While La Guardia’s flawed thesis is that the State of Israel is a modern version of ancient Sparta – totally dominated by the military – we need to ask about Oz’s observation. Yes, Hashomer prided guards on being excellent horsemen. And that shares something in common with the Russian-Jewish novelist Babel and his alter-ego Lyutov in Red Cavalry. Babel was trying to break away from an upbringing in Jewish bourgeois Odessa. He even wrote a short story cycle before Red Cavalry – published individually in Soviet magazines between 1921 and 1924 – and collected into a book in 1931 titled The Odessa Stories. 

In these stories about his hometown, Babel extols a group of Jewish thugs that live in Moldavanka, a ghetto of Odessa. Babel could not be one of them, but he admired these “tough Jews.” Although Babel lived in the USSR, his goals were not so far removed from the pioneers of the Second Aliyah.

Yet, La Guardia and Oz were wrong.

HASHOMER’S MASTERY of horsemanship adopts aspects of Cossack life. But the Cossacks were brutal and violent, and their attacks on Jews were horrific. 

The pioneers did what they did in the same way as the Hebrew Bible’s Jacob adopts the ways of Esau to fool his father Isaac for the blessing of the elder son. He does it to survive and thrive and carry on the destiny of his people. And one can hardly accuse the IDF of behaving like “circumcised Cossacks.” The ethos of the IDF is not one of pogroms, rape, and mass murder. It is armed defense of a vulnerable Jewish State with an emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties – though that is a tragic result of fighting with enemies who hide behind “human shields.”

Can we really claim that Israel is a modern Sparta? 

It is more like cultured ancient Athens. Israel, for a country its size, puts a premium on education, culture, and technology with 10 universities and 54 colleges throughout the Land of Israel. It can boast poet Yehuda Amichai, Torah scholar Professor Nechama Leibowitz, Talmud translator and interpreter Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, countless museums, a symphony orchestra, the plays of Habimah, and many other cultural and intellectual achievements and personalities. 

Is this really a modern Sparta?  Although war and terrorism are a reality and have been for more than a century, Israelis have held on to their humanity and are not a Jewish version of Cossacks.

In the end, however, Oz deals with a related reality in Israel. As I have done in a previous essay, I return to Shalem College’s Daniel Gordis in his excellent Saving Israel (2009). He writes: “Yet the extraordinary accomplishment of the revitalization of Hebrew ought not delude anyone into believing that accomplishment alone can safeguard the substance of Israeli discourse long into the future. Hillel Halkin, the Israeli literary critic, writer, and translator, is correct when he asserts that the secularization of Zionism has been so successful that it has rendered a generation of Israelis so ignorant of their heritage that they could well be called ‘Hebrew-speaking gentiles.’”

“I do not believe,” he wrote, “that a polity of Israelis who are not culturally Jews, whose roots in this land go no deeper than 30 years and no wider than the boundaries of an arid nation-state, has a future in the Middle East for very long. In one way or another... it will be blown away like chaff as though it never were, leaving neither Jews nor Israelis behind it.”

What can Zionists learn from the writing of Isaac Babel, a Jew and a Communist who disobeyed Stalin’s genre of Socialist Realism and was executed in the cells of the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow by the Soviet secret police in January 1940? 

While the taming of horses and the rejection of meekness demonstrated in “Argamak” and The Odessa Stories, respectfully, is necessary for Jews to survive and thrive in the Jewish State, so must Jews delve into the worlds of “The Rabbi’s Son.” That was the original ending of Red Cavalry and that should be our ethos. To embrace modernity but never forget Maimonides, never forget our Jewish roots, spiritually, intellectually and genetically. 

Our future existence – In Israel and the Diaspora – depends upon it.

The writer is a rabbi, essayist, and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida.