The Zionist cultural revival

Israel is now mature enough to tolerate us as American Israelis or Russian Israelis or Ethiopian Israelis – no longer forced to jettison our previous identities – or any part "of our souls."

Michael Oren, former ambassador to the US, speaking infront of  Christians United for Israel.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Michael Oren, former ambassador to the US, speaking infront of Christians United for Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, Michael Oren, the deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy, read some of his short stories at Tmol Shilshom, the legendary Jerusalem café.
Yes. That Michael Oren, the historian, diplomat and politician, is also a novelist and short-story writer.
In 1962, president John Kennedy hailed 49 Nobel Prize winners as “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” In the future, Tmol Shilshom can salute any impressive audience as its most talented since Michael Oren performed alone.
Beyond showcasing Oren’s Jeffersonesque virtuosity, the evening epitomizes the Zionist cultural revival we take for granted.
Oren’s short stories sent the standing-room-only audience all over the world – without moving a centimeter.
A story about a dad’s love for his autistic son could be set anywhere.
A story about a female archaeologist discovering a pagan female idol is an only-in-Israel tale. And a story about a Jersey boy in the 1970s feeling enslaved to his uncool family at Passover seder and concluding: “Why is this night different...
because this night truly sucks” pops because it’s set in American suburban Jewville.
The charming, accessible stories often reveal what Oren called his “dark” side. The title of a 50-story collection he’s completing quotes his therapist-mother Marilyn Borenstein’s favorite line: The Presenting Problem Is Not The Problem.
The work invites readers into worlds within the worlds Oren constructs so deftly, so economically, with a delicious word here, a sharp phrase there, topped by an unexpected O. Henryesque twist.
While addressing universal themes, many Oren stories reflect a Zionist sensibility. In the Q and A, Oren noted that the “realities of Israeli politics” often loom in his stories, including Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protests in his archaeological tale. Oren expresses the patriot’s non-negotiable love for his chosen home. Sometimes, it’s like “being a parent even when things are bad.” Mostly, he remains exhilarated “that there exists a sovereign Jewish state and I get to live in it and serve it.”
A Zionist critique, not just the common kvetch, shapes his skewering of the American seder, and his rendering of “a semi-literate” 26-year-old serving as a “Jewish reenactor” in modern Poland. Philip Roth often leaves you hating American Jewry and America. Tom Wolfe often leaves you hating humanity.
Oren’s critiques are less nihilistic – and ultimately optimistic. Beyond the rays of Zionist hope that sometimes shine through, simply writing in the resurgent Jewish homeland makes this Herzlian Political Zionist by day an Ahad Ha’am Cultural Zionist too.
Oren said something poignant emphasizing the weirdness yet significance of an Israeli politician reading English stories in Tmol Shilshom’s Jerusalem-stoney setting.
Despite making aliya in 1979, he confessed that “the language of my soul remains English.”
Oren contrasted his linguistic discordance with the literary colossus who had died that day, Aharon Appelfeld. Born in Jadova, Romania, now Ukraine, in 1932, Ervin Appelfeld only learned Hebrew when he arrived in Palestine in 1946. Appelfeld repudiated the assimilated European culture, mocking this surge toward “a Jewish universalism or cosmopolitanism of sorts,” just “at that very moment someone came” and rejected them.
Christening himself Aharon, mastering “the main Jewish language,” Hebrew, he steeped himself in Jewish civilization. Appelfeld’s Zionism was natural, cultural, rooted in millennia, benefiting from a Diaspora- style wryness healing in the organic environment of old-new Israel.
Appelfeld told The Boston Review in 1982, “I’m a Jewish writer, I’m living amongst my people, and I’m trying to understand the complexity of Jewish existence.” Remembering the country that welcomed him as originally “a big refugee camp,” he admitted: “It took me years to reconstruct myself as a person.”
For Appelfeld, whose mother was slaughtered before his eyes, “it would be not only a paradox, it would be tragic, to write in the language of the murderers.”
Although, unlike Oren, Appelfeld steered clear of politics, he and Oren, in Hebrew and English, embody a Zionism transcending the political aims of building a Jewish state and ingathering the exiles.
Still, Appelfeld’s Cultural Zionism was political. While branding Zionism “a spiritual movement,” he saw it as reviving “the Jewish identity, the Jewish culture, to connect again Jewish culture with Jewish history.”
Appelfeld represented Zionism 1.0. This was the classical Zionism of the cultured European vomited out of Europe and happily rescued, then rebuilt along rigid Ben-Gurionesque lines, including feeling forced to speak Hebrew. Eventually, Appelfeld became a citizen of the world toasted globally as this oldnew phenomenon, an Israeli literary lion.
Oren represents Zionism 2.0, a modern Zionism attracting Israelis by choice, who haven’t rejected America or other Western democratic homes, because America never rejected us. English remains the language of our souls because our souls are not scarred like those of the refugees from Europe or Arab lands. English is not the language of our murderers but of our friends and former neighbors. Israel is now mature enough to tolerate us as American Israelis or Russian Israelis or Ethiopian Israelis – no longer forced to jettison our previous identities – or any part “of our souls.”
Nevertheless, we have (in)gathered together in the Middle East to build the homeland, revive the culture, and flourish. We hope, as the Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am envisioned, to inspire Jews dispersed worldwide to be stronger, prouder, freer, happier, Jewier; simply allowing themselves, as Oren and Appelfeld and so many others did, to be moved by Israel, whether or not they move to Israel.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.
His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.