Essay: Beyond survival

While the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz was no Zionist, his devastating criticism of Jewish life in Eastern Europe carries a lesson for Israeli society

0201-essay (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
More than a century ago, Isaac Leib Peretz made his mark as one of the greatest writers in the history of Yiddish literature. Peretz's most memorable character is certainly Bontshe the Silent, the title of a short story first published in 1894. As I know only a sprinkling of Yiddish, I read the story in a translation by Hillel Halkin edited by Prof. Ruth Wisse of Harvard. Whether Halkin's translation can ever read like the Yiddish original is beside the point. His English rendering of the story of Bontshe speaks to me as a Jew, a Zionist and a human being. Bontshe is the epitome of a loser. His life in the shtetl is one of anonymity and suffering. He marries a shrew, his son beats him and his employer abuses him. When Bontshe dies, the Jews in his village are indifferent; perhaps they did not even know of this suffering and tormented man. Upon his entrance into heaven, the angels prepare for Bontshe's ultimate test - will this suffering man who never once complained of his afflictions receive the ultimate reward in paradise? In the heavenly court, the angel representing the defense paints a portrait of Bontshe as a man holier than the biblical Job, who complained bitterly to God about his afflictions. Not Bontshe - he never once spoke up. The prosecuting angel can only agree with Bontshe's defenders. The angelic judge decides to give Bontshe anything the humble and suffering man would want in his afterlife. Bontshe thinks for a moment, smiles, and finally answers: "What I'd like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning." The angels hang their head in shame, while the prosecutor laughs. I.L. PERETZ was certainly no Zionist. But the portrait he paints of Bontshe is a devastating criticism of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the period of czarist rule. This critique was shared by the masters of Yiddish literature along with such luminaries of Hebrew literature as Chaim Nachman Bialik and Shai Agnon. Peretz does not paint a flattering picture of the Bontshes of the shtetl. They are meek. They accept their fate without complaint. And they aspire to nothing more than their next meal. Is there not more to their lives than breakfast? Do they not aspire to create great works of art, delve into the philosophy of Western civilization, listen with rapture to a Beethoven sonata or even yearn to cling to a transcendent creator? Tragically, they do not. They live only to survive, to make it to the next day. In places like Elizavetgrad and Kishinev, these Bontshes who, in Bialik's words, "are the sons of the Maccabees" who are "concealed and cowering" while they are being murdered and their wives and daughters are raped, they do nothing. Perhaps Peretz exaggerates the phenomenon of his time in Bontshe the Silent. In my mind, the message Peretz conveys is that there is more to life than just surviving. Jews must embrace the loftiest goals in life. Jews must go beyond mere survival. Yosef Haim Brenner, the great novelist of the pre-state Yishuv, wrote in 1914 that while Jews have survived, "survival alone is not yet a virtue." The live dog may be better off than the dead lion, but it is not better to be a living lion? I am sure some Jews in Israel do not want to be reminded of the renaissance of culture, politics and religion that Zionism proposed, opting to live their lives in a normal, peaceful world. I CANNOT blame them. Who wants to be reminded every day about the Jewish state being "a light unto the nations" and reviving the Jews as a people after the disaster of the Holocaust? Why not just go to work, raise a family and live a normal life like everyone else? While I sympathize to a certain extent with this attitude, it does not reflect the reality of history. Jews are different than other peoples. Jewish history is different than French or German history. Israel is a Jewish nation. Hamas knows that, Hizbullah know that and Iran knows that - they will never leave Israelis in peace. The Zionist movement has always presented its agenda as a revolution and a renaissance in all aspects of Jewish life, religion, and culture. Certainly, after the Holocaust, the State of Israel and its people are the hope of the Jewish future. Perhaps, living in the Diaspora of Fort Lauderdale, I am more sensitive to this. The fate of the Jews in the Diaspora, in my mind, is directly linked to the fate and future of the State of Israel. As a Jewish educator, I can never escape the influence of the modern renaissance of Hebrew or the way Zionist pride has affected my students, both young and old. The concept of klal yisrael - a community of the Jewish people responsible for each other and linked by more than 3,000 years of history - is one that we should never abandon. We may gain immediate strength from our communities. But, in the long run, we must live as a people, both in Israel and the exile, despite our differences. As Jews and Zionists, we must walk a fine line between "the cult of the state" and "the cult of the individual." While the role of the nation-state is critical for the future of the people of Israel - both the Jewish majority and the Arab minority - the state and its army cannot be substitutes for God. If we worship the state as the ultimate value, we are entering the domain of fascism. At the same time, we cannot turn away from the idea of Jewish self-sacrifice for the good of the Jewish collective. Israel is a viable democracy in which individuals have freedom of religion and expression. But democracy can be abused as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, corruption, hedonism and base materialism. This "cult of the individual" is as dangerous as fascism to the future of Israel and the Jewish people. We must use our freedoms in the democracies of America and Israel to fashion a future of dedication to Jewish peoplehood. We must make sure that we survive as a people, but we must go beyond survival, ensuring a future of renaissance and revival in a difficult and rough world of threatening enemies and internal dissension. We are a people with a mission. To deny that is to deny who we are.