Michal Govrin: Jewish Literary Manifesto (in First Person Feminine)
1. Portrait of the artist as a young Jew: Tel Aviv – Paris – Jerusalem
In both a literary and Talmudic spirit, I will present here my personal experience as a writer and theater director, in order to shed light on the role of artistic creation in the development of a contemporary Jewish identity. One may learn from Jewish history how a common cultural affiliation preserved the Jewish people’s unity despite its dispersion in the Diaspora. From the earliest stages of my artistic career I have sought to maintain an openness to current trends in world culture, while searching for a fresh dialogue with Jewish heritage. The artistic process has been, for me, a framework for cooperation not only with Israeli artists, but also with numerous Jewish artists from the Diaspora. Thus, my path might indicate how artistic creation and groundbreaking cooperation between Israeli and Diaspora artists can serve today as a cornerstone in the building of “Jewish peoplehood.”
In the fall of 1972, as a young woman, I traveled to Paris to do doctoral work in theater. I left an Israel brimming with self-confidence in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, and Tel Aviv as Israel’s mainly secular (to the extent that anything in Israel is completely secular) cultural center – and went off to ask questions, from a distance. Like many before me, beyond the student alibi I was exposed to Parisian “spleen” in my eight-floor “maid’s room” on Rue de Rivoli, at the Place Châtelais. During my days of feverish writing, far from the tumult of the city below me, I dreamed of Jewish theater while composing prose and poetry. The pages filled with Hebrew letters, first in longhand, later in print using the Hebrew typewriter that I found, my heart pounding with excitement, at “Chez Durant” on the Boulevard St. Germaine. I disconnected from the collective Israeli biography, from the protective envelope provided by the Israeli cultural leadership, those who set the tone. I became an alien, a minority, an exile, akin to the Parisian street-corner vagabonds. Although I had traveled to the city of culture and freedom, the city of Piaf, Brassens and writers in exile, I was nevertheless exposed to yet another kind of foreignness, a Jewish one. In Paris I found myself in the heart of the Jewish-European historical entanglement, and during periods in which I traveled from Paris to New York and to Princeton for research I was exposed to the completely different experience of American Jewry. A Jewish community exceeding that of Israel in size and in the process of creating a Jewish cultural alternative. In the works of American Jewish artists infused with Jewish awareness I found an echo of my own search, and the friendly and creative relationships that I developed with them have continued over the years to inform my work.
However, at first I had to “settle my accounts” with Europe. The Universite de Paris 8 Vincennes campus where I studied was a center for PLO gatherings, and in its corridors Israel’s right to exist was not necessarily recognized. And when I had to answer the question, “Where are you from?” I would get the response, “But you don’t look Jewish!” As a child, to my embarrassment, my mother’s Holocaust survivor friends would praise my “Aryan” looks in a frightening way. Suddenly, without being prepared for it, the Holocaust was present in the City of Lights, in mutterings, in the film The Sorrow and the Pity that was being screened in the cinemas, or in the Paris Opera, where I worked as an assistant director and where to my astonishment the hero’s entrance in Wagner’s Parsifal echoed Hitler’s welcome at the 1936 Olympics, all against the background of the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich that same autumn at the 1972 Olympics. All of that drove a wedge of suspicion between me and European culture. In my “maid’s room” I found myself reading more and more, in “square letters,” Buber, midrash, the writings of Reb Nachman of Breslav. And the next autumn, in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, I founded the “Seven Beggars Troup,” mounting, in its world premiere, The Harvest of Madness, a theatrical adaptation of Reb Nachman’s tales, named for the fable in which the king and his steward are informed that anyone who eats from the next year’s harvest will go mad. They decide to eat from it anyway, but first they place identifying marks on their foreheads so that when they see each other they will remember that they are mad.
As a child, beyond the secular-socialist atmosphere in which I was raised, I absorbed echoes of Jewish tradition through my father’s family’s deep roots in Ukrainian hassidut. However, in order to turn these roots into a relevant and timely asset I had to undergo a revolution in consciousness. The Parisian exile, and the encounter with American Jewry, enabled me to deviate from the Zionist aspiration to become “a people like all other peoples,” from the limited vision “in favor of normality” in the words of A.B. Yehoshua, and from the historical circle of “young culture” that sprang on Tel Aviv’s dunes straight out of the Bible and the archeological foundation, while negating the “Diaspora” and its glorious creative enterprise.
The community of great Jewish teachers in 1970s Paris provided both the conceptual tools and the opportunity for a deep encounter between Judaism and Western culture. The voices of Manitou (Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi), quoting from the Zohar in a guttural North African accent, or the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas quoting from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in a Lithuanian accent – all against a background of Sephardi-Ashkenazi commingling which was also unheard of even in Israel in those days. And from the United States came the first echoes of the “chavurot” and their innovative learning methods. A trip to Poland, to “my mother’s story,” in 1975 led to a commitment to the memory of the Holocaust, while the decision to observe Shabbat and kashrut, though it ultimately dwindled into isolated gestures, nevertheless represented a radical violation of the Israeli-secular taboo. Before leaving to study in Paris I submitted a proposal to the University of Tel Aviv to research Jewish theater. My request was immediately rejected with the explanation that “there is no such thing,” a response which reflected the cultural zeitgeist. In Paris, with the encouragement of Professor Andrei Weinstein, I researched “Contemporary Sacred Theater” and its central theatrical elements of hassidic ritual , and my research trips took me to Jerusalem, Boston, New York and Paris, to the National Library and to the JTS Library, and to encounters with Gershom Scholem, Rabbi Kook, and Rabbi Soloveitchik.
All this set the revolution in motion and turned learning, “lernen,” for me into an intimate part of life and of artistic endeavor. Only years later did this revolution spread to Israeli culture generally. During the mid-1970s, while studying in Paris, I experienced this revolution in a state of menacing solitude, as expressed in the poem “Fathers”
Like a stone stopping a burial-pit
Their shadows close over the sky.
They greet each other with a handshake
As though it were an everyday thing.
Winds of other times emanate
From the points of their beards
And the urgent pigeon-wings of their pilpul
Make a cloudy canopy
Under the open sky.
Hanging by a thread, my fathers jostle together,
A sleeve of Hispania cloth permeated with the scent of jasmine
On an austere robe from the lands of years gone by
On a breeze bearing blows, payes and pelts
Smells of walled houses in Gentile cities
A screaming child
And their covenant of blood will close the heavenly ceiling
With joined hands.
They will not know that they were visited
By the fruit of their loins.
I went to Paris to study as an Israeli and returned as a Jew, with a different awareness of the “story” to which I belong. I did not return to my city of birth, Tel Aviv, but rather chose to live in Jerusalem, where I enjoyed open access to the generation’s great scholars, Gershom Scholem, Shlomo Pines, Rivka Shatz, Yosef Tal, Stefan Moses, Moshe Idel, and Yehuda Liebs, and where I found numerous other artists and students with whom to share my search. At the same time the dialogue continued with Paris, with Jacques Derrida and with Haim Brezis, my future husband.
Nevertheless, an artist’s real beit midrash is located in the depth of his creative work. This is learning through creating, and creating through learning. And in faith (in Hebrew “emuna,” which is related both to “ma’amin” (religious believer) and “oman” (artist)) in the power of creative learning to innovate, to generate, and to repair the world. And thus, I brought the fruits of my learning with these valued teachers and peers to theater rehearsals and to the writing table. The essential biography of an artist, with its peaks and plummets, also takes place in the secret chambers of the creative endeavor. Usually one does not see what goes on backstage. I will try in the following pages to reveal some of the dramas that have engaged me during my artistic career – and in first person feminine.
2. A Jewish avant-garde?
A. The search for Jewish theater
Starting in the late 1970s, alongside my directing work in the Israeli repertory theater, I staged experimental Jewish plays in the heart of the Israeli and international theater community, which, each in its own way, created new forms of Jewish theater. In my artistic creations the unique ritual nature of halacha served as the basis for the development of a theatrical avant-garde. This was an implementation of the theory that I had formulated in my doctoral dissertation, based on a dialogue with the works of Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski, on the one hand, and on a fresh reading of the hassidic traditions and writings. In this approach, the mitzvoth constitute the material language of a cosmic theatrical event, which forms – existentially – its “actor”, enabling him/her to participate in the creation and repair of the world. And thus a large number of my dramatic productions have been avant-garde directorial interpretations of aspects of halacha or Jewish ritual. In Variations on Morning (1980), which was performed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and in which the audience was drawn into involvement with the actors-worshippers, the halachot of rising in the morning and the first pages of the prayer siddur are the dramatic focal points. In The Journey of the Year (1982) the drama was based on the cycle of the Jewish year, on its movement from creation through latency and redemption, to revelation and destruction, and again to a new beginning. In the performance, which was conducted as a kind of theatrical journey, the audience went into “slichot” in a space cleared by bulldozers, then continued on to the sounds of a klezmer band, arranged by the composer, Andre Hajdu, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, and on to the other stations, through the seasons and “acts” of the Jewish calendar. In That Night’s Seder (1989), which was performed around a huge seder table, the participants-observers (rabbis, painters, dancers, politicians and writers such as Aharon Appelfeld and Yossel Birstein) presented their interpretations of the Haggada through a variety of media, all against the background of the first intifada. And in 1993, after years of preparatory teamwork with the set designer and plastic artists Frieda Klapholtz, Doron Livne and Orna Millo, I established, in cooperation with artists from diverse fields in Israel and abroad, the Gog and Magog Laboratory, which ran for two years. The starting-point for this work was Martin Buber’s historical-hassidic novel, whose stage version was performed at the Israel Festival. And the artistic issues that came up during this project (acting and prayer, song, dance, language, story) served as the basis for the future work of the laboratory’s participants, who are among the leaders of world Jewish theater (Bruce Meyers and Serge Ouaknine) and today in Israel (Eitan Steinberg, Etti Ben-Zaken, Baruch Brenner, Avi Asraf and Mendi Kahana).
B. Between Hebrew and Jewish literature
However, if Hebrew theater, which was created against the background of a culture lacking in theatrical tradition, originally drew for its inspiration on the entire range of Jewish life , then the new Hebrew literature became, primarily, the arena of Zionism’s struggle against the Old World, and against its jam-packed bookshelf. The destruction of Eastern European Jewry, and the uprooting of the Jews of the Arab and Mediterranean countries, only deepened this divide. The dominant stream of Israeli literature continued, for the most part, along this path – from Brenner through the “Palmach Generation” and the “Generation of the State” writers, and on to Oz, Yehoshua Kenaz (in the generation preceding mine), and my generation – Grossman, Castel-Bloom and writers of the “Want of Matter” school. Referral to Jewish sources was limited to the literary dialogue – a fascinating one in itself – with, primarily, the Bible. The linguistic, stylistic and thematic break with the Jewish people’s religious-national creative heritage in the Diaspora remained near total. Even the most eminent critics viewed Hebrew literature as the vanguard of the struggle for secularism – a struggle that was not untainted by political ideology.
At the end of the 1970s, in the wake of my “Jewish French Revolution,” I decided to mount a resistance to this dominant cultural stream. The Hebrew literary voices expressive of the “Jewish” dimension of whom I was aware were few and included, in the generations that preceded mine, the poets Avot Yeshurun and Harold Schimmel and the prose writers Aharon Appelfeld and David Shachar. I conducted a dialogue mainly with Bialik and with Agnon, with whom I had a sense of thematic and formal intimacy across the generational divide. A visit to Agnon’s workroom, its four walls covered with thousands of “sforim” containing his reading notes (Kafka and Mann are in the adjacent corridor), was one of the most meaningful writing lessons that I have ever experienced. And Bialik’s poems, stories and essays always astonish me anew.
For years my main literary dialogue with writers who, like me, were engaged by the aspiration to create a Jewish literary avant-garde, took place on both sides of the Atlantic. Present in the background was the American Yiddish literary tradition, and the preceding generation of American Jewish authors writing in English. With regard to my own generation, the thoughts that I could not share with my Israeli colleagues I shared instead with many American writers and poets, some of whom became my personal friends: David Rosenberg, Nessa Rappaport, Grace Shulman, David Shapiro, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Shulman, Alicia Ostriker, fiction editor Jonathan Rosen. For a decade my yearly lectures at poet David Shapiro’s seminar at Cooper Union in New York constituted an intellectual and creative laboratory on the encounter between halacha and the artistic process.
C. A poetics of Jewish consciousness
The ideological-political Zionist-Israeli clash, which cut Hebrew literature off from its sources and blocked off any possibility of direct dialogue with these sources (whether out of a sense of continuity or out of rebellion) also retarded the development of an original Hebrew avant-garde literature. This, at least, was my assumption at the time that the “sea of Torah” was flooding my writing-table with waves of language, and with a wealth of unique textual forms.
In the beit midrash of artistic creation the “Jewish book” was opened before me, with all of its linguistic layers and its multiplicity of genres – the book that had been composed over the course of hundreds of years and across a huge geographic and cultural expanse. And in contrast to the European languages, which broke off from ancient Greek and Latin, the Jewish tradition bore, in all of its wanderings and amid the echoes of a multiplicity of tongues, its full literary and linguistic load, in continuous succession up to the era of contemporary Hebrew, via the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, liturgical poems, prayers, the Zohar, the rabbinical responsa, the commentaries, the Shulchan Aruch, reflection, ethics, Hassidism, invocations, missives … A unique rainbow of linguistic colors. At the same time the myriad layers of the Jewish book revealed to me a wealth of original literary genres, which by their very nature reflect the human consciousness in a unique manner. Genres which, surprisingly, reverberate more strongly through the prism of scholarly or scientific innovation. And thus brain research and artificial intelligence or postmodernism enable us to appreciate the Internet-like “windows” of the Gemarah or Mikraot Gedolot page, the behavioral language of the mitzvoth, the realism of the rabbinical responsa, and the stylistic pastiche of the Zohar, to mention but a few.
And so, with a background embracing Bialik and Agnon on the one hand, and the voices of the Western avant-garde (Joyce, Elliot, Beckett…) on the other, and with a deep awareness of the strong affinity between the work of the writer and that of the interpreter-commentator, I began to excavate the “archeological site” of the “Jewish book.” Rather than dusty fragments, what I found there were buried treasures of endless inspiration.
Thus, with the exuberance of one formulating a manifesto, I turned the entire canon of Hebrew writing, with its myriad linguistic and formal layers, into an intimate writing tool. And, as in the field of theatrical poetics in which I was able to innovate by transferring ritual forms into the theatrical space, the traditional textual forms and their language have formed the basis for my books, enabling innovation in the novelistic genre and in poetic structure. My novel The Name was written as a mystical confessional prayer addressed to “Hashem”; my book of prose poetry, The Making of the Sea: a Chronicle of Interpretation, was composed in a style reminiscent of a Gemara or Mikraot Gedolot page, with a central text surrounded by commentaries; and my novel Snapshots presents the “wrenching story” of the modern Jewish saga through fleeting glimpses, succah-like in their transience – the succah constituting the heroine’s architectonic inspiration. (And, as anticipated, the innovation and deviation from literary convention aroused harsh critical reactions.)
The early 1990s saw the beginning of a broad cultural revolution. Alternative batei midrash, mixed secular-religious learning frameworks and women’s Torah study institutes began to appear, and the intellectual and creative ferment (in theater, cinema, art, literature) began to spread to the ranks of Orthodox Jewry, which up until then had participated only minimally in Israeli cultural life. At the same time the Israeli literary landscape changed as well. More and more works began to be published which engaged the entire Jewish bookshelf, with an increasing depth and diversity of voices. And so, along with the developments taking place in the United States and in Europe, a broader context for the search for a Jewish literature – poetic, technical, and critical – emerged in Israel as well.
3. Kol Isha (“Woman’s Voice”)
If the existential and artistic return to the sources necessitated, at first, the breaking of the Israeli-secular taboo, my return to the sources as a woman writer required breaking an additional taboo. In contrast to Christian tradition, which produced many respected women writers, in Judaism the woman’s voice, the voice of “immodesty,” was excluded from the canon. Among the thousands of Jewish writings handed down over the centuries, not one book authored by a woman can be found. (And the few compositions that have some partial female attribution, from the Scroll of Esther to the “techinot” (Yiddish prayers for women), are merely the exceptions that prove the rule). Perhaps because of this, unknowingly, my early books are filled mainly with masculine figures. However, as soon as women began to make their appearance in my writing and their voices began to reverberate – out of the fullness of women’s experience – in dialogue with the sources, a spark was ignited. Its bright light illuminated a hitherto unimagined landscape, a portion of which I will now try to describe, in the limited space available here.
I wrote The Name as a prayer-novel, a kind of stream-of-consciousness that weaves the emotional and belief wanderings of its newly-religious heroine, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, together with traditional Jewish voices. I composed the heroine’s prayer using the “inter-textual” method employed by the composers of the traditional prayers and piyyutim, in which quotations from earlier sources are incorporated into the new work, in order to convey the author’s mood. It was actually the voice of a woman saying the prayers that set off the erotic charge of the prayers’ language. A charge that remains concealed by metaphorical distance when the prayers are spoken in the voice of a man. I will quote here portions of the opening section:
With the help of God
May it be your will, HaShem, Holy Name, my God and God of my fathers, that my prayer come before Thee. For you hear the prayer of each mouth…
And may You want me.
Another forty days. And the body is already burning in Your fire.
Another forty days. Toward you. Body to body and breath to breath.
Everything is ready with me. With complete devotion. Until the last of the Days of the counting, until the Kingdom of Kingdom. Until the last coupling of purity.
And may it be Your will to accept me with love and desire. And may it be Your will to answer my plea. And may it be Your will that my little bit of fat and blood be like fat place on the altar before You.
And may You want me.
The statement, “And may it be Your will to accept me with love and desire” or the expression, “coupling of purity” in the voice of a woman turn the words of prayer into words of explicit devotion, body and soul.
The Making of the Sea: A Chronicle of Interpretation, which was written at the same time as The Name, places the Hebrew language’s Eros at the center. The book, which moves between death and love, between Rio de Janeiro and Jerusalem, is actually a love poem to the Hebrew language, and to its primal erotic tension. It resonates with the voices of those who, early and late, wrote in the Hebrew language – the tongue in which the world was created by the word – the power of renewed creation, in both divine and human speech: in blessings, in learning, in interpretation, or in dialogue. The tension of creation echoes throughout the book between center and periphery, in a dialogue that alternates continually between entrance and acceptance, between masculine and feminine.
B. The conjugal nature of the covenant
The writing of The Name, a novel which directly addresses God – the One Who “hears each person’s prayer” – and in the voice of a woman, shed new light for me on the conjugal nature of the dialogue inherent in the prayer of the individual Jew, and on the mythical union between God and Israel. The novel’s heroine has stormy relationships with the men in her life: her father, her lovers, her fiancé and the rabbis with whom her path in Jerusalem crosses. Yet her relations are no less stormy with the object of her prayers and passion: God. The “realistic resemblance” between the two kinds of relationship guided me in the writing of the sections in which the heroine discerns echoes of her own life in the life of the “young couple,” God and Israel, and in their evolving relations – from the “betrothal” of the Exodus from Egypt – the heights of untrammeled devotion – to the abyss of jealousy and unfaithfulness.
“We are your wife and you are our husband,” says a Yom Kippur liturgical poem of the relationship between Israel and God that stands at the center of the Jewish myth. Images of betrothals, nuptials and love between the “dod,” the husband, the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He or the “Zeir Anpin,” and the wife, the Shulamit, the Shekhina, Knesset Yisrael or “Nukva” describe the relationship between God and the Jewish people from the Bible onward, particularly in the Song of Songs, and through the entire range of the later literature. All of these contexts convey, in varying styles, the story of God who creates the world in order to enter into a nuptial covenant with His chosen people, and of their passionate, erotic, far-yet-near relationship.
The myth of conjugality expresses the Jewish belief in a world that is continuously re-created through the union of its contradictory elements. But what is the “reality” behind this image? What “really” takes place in this ancient couple’s secret chamber? And what has kept them together between a few instances of exaltation, across a history filled with persecution and destruction?
The prayer of Amalia, the heroine of The Name, bursts forth through the gaping wound of the Holocaust. During my work, voices rose up through Amalia, ancient echoes, particularly of women, or, more precisely, echoes of the feminine voice. This is the voice that erupts in the myth during times of crisis, hurling its protest up to the heavens, remonstrating with the divine attribute of “Midat Hadin” (“Justice”), and struggling to revoke the heavenly decree. This is the voice of those who insist on drawing God out of his hiding-place and who take it upon themselves to heal Him (See Reference 10). This is the voice of women: Rachel, Hannah, the Jerusalem of Lamentations, Knesset Yisrael, the Shekhina or the abandoned wife. But certain male voices, those audible in moments of crisis: Moshe, Choni Hamagel, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, or Rabbi Kalonymus of Piaseczno, whose work Holy Fire was found under the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, also express the feminine attribute of the conjugal covenant.
The protest’s vociferousness succeeds, in the mythical moments of salvation, in reversing the divine decree and in making words of solace heard. And with this same dynamism that exists between the masculine and the feminine attributes, the merciful, comforting God becomes a God with a womb (the Hebrew word “rechem,” womb, is related to the word for mercy, “rachamim”)(Jeremiah 31:19-20).
Generations of male writers have succeeded in beautifully rendering the woman’s voice in the Jewish myth, by means of fine analysis and depth of understanding. They have thus given a voice to the feminine attribute that is present in the world, and in themselves. However, writing in the first person feminine drove home for me the magnitude of the challenge posed by the introduction of women into the canon, by the opportunity of formulating – out of the fullness of the feminine experience and consciousness – the feminine and the masculine attributes of humankind and of the world.
C. The anti-Semitic relationship – the woman and the gaze of the Other: the Jew as object of desire
It was while writing Snapshots that I came to understand just how essential the “gaze of the other” is to the mythical Jewish union – both the internal and the external gaze. The mythical Jewish perspective describes the covenant between God and Israel as an exclusively conjugal relationship, one which contrasts with the relationship between God and the Gentiles – the chosen wife versus alien women. Moreover, the public display of the covenant before the Gentiles – at times of joy or of crisis and divisiveness; or the consideration, “What will they say?” may fundamentally be regarded as factors in the covenant’s establishment. Nor does the act of keeping the couple’s “secrets” serve merely to conceal the “mystery of Israel” from the Gentiles; rather, it increases, at the same time, the desirableness of what is “hidden from public view.” From the external perspective of Christianity and Islam, religions which share Judaism’s God, the Jewish claim to exclusive occupation of the place of the wife makes any other kind of union with God illegitimate – an “intolerable scandal.”
And thus, in the quarrel over God – a quarrel rooted in love, jealousy or proprietorship – something develops which may be termed an “anti-Semitic union” between the Jew, God’s chosen spouse, and those who seek to replace him. The Jew standing at the gates (of law, or of the heavenly palace) blocks the way to God, and those who wish to replace the Jew cling to him. The Jew functions, in this coerced relationship, as the “loved-despised woman,” the object of an archetypal passion, and the focus for the transformation of this passion into jealousy and murderous hatred (for which de Sade’s orgiastic rituals can be used as a basis for description). In addition, alongside the Christian and Muslim relationship with God, each in its own terms, the “anti-Semitic relationship” – with its alternating love and hatred of the Jew – functions as a major component of identity (“Verus Israel” or the “Muslim” victory). In this conflicted, perverse relationship the Jew crosses gender boundaries. Just as the mysterious rite of circumcision removes a portion of the Jewish male’s sexual organ, so in the anti-Semitic relationship does the Jewish male, and particularly one who bears obvious signs of his Jewishness (a beard, a traditional prayer shawl, an IDF helmet in its current version, or their “loathsome” combination with settler-style “tzitziot” [ritual fringes] and Uzi machine gun) turn into the object of devoted passion, no less than the Jewish woman.
The story of Snapshots takes place in 1991, but the anti-Semitic activity that was then rumbling under the surface of the European continent lies at the center of the world of Alan, historian and Nazi-hunter, husband of Ilana, the narrator. Ilana tries, at first, to hold onto the Israeli faith in the “normality” of the Jewish people as “a people like all others.” However, upon returning from New York, after a desperate night of love with her Palestinian director-lover, she takes upon herself the role of the Jew, the stranger, the pariah. From her son’s sickbed she calls upon her dead father and hallucinates, sarcastically, the Jew as the object of passion, the great temptation, the Don Juan, man or woman.
[Between two and three]
And perhaps Don Giovanni is also a Jew – after all, Tirso de Molina wrote Don Juan immediately after the great auto-da-fe of 1605 at the Piazza Real. Forty burned at the stake, and dozens of straw figures sent up into flame in representation of those who escaped the dungeons of the Inquisition. A thrilling scene for the impassioned balcony spectators, one meant to ease the labor of the frail Queen Isabella…
Perhaps Don Juan was one of the anussim, the forced converts, Father. Rabbi Yochanan. Escaped from the Inquisition, from one woman’s arms and into another’s. A mystic who openly denies the story of the Immaculate Conception. Disseminates among the women of Europe the law of Eros of the living God, who recreates the world anew each day through unions of man and woman.
Don Giovanni, student of Rabbi Akiva, of all those who burn on the pyre of love. Sings from amid the flames: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. Viva la liberta!
David sleeps with his arms, legs outstretched. Yonatan still tosses and turns, with his three pacifiers. One in his mouth and two clasped in his fists.
And so, Father, we are also a late incarnation of Don Juan. Wandering with our dreams, ablaze with yearning. Peddlers loaded with bundles, notions, fabrics, books, pots. Our restless tribe’s bearer of Eros. Unceasingly devoted, the yeast that rises the dough. Like those boys, lovely as the sun, who were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, their legs bound, “and the Chaldean women saw them and dripped with lust. They told their husbands and their husbands told the king; the king ordered them killed. And still they dripped with lust. The king ordered that their bodies be crushed.”
The humming of the highway from afar. The dawn greys the suburb.
The outbreak of the new anti-Semitism, which adds a “blue star” to the yellow one and which also denies the State of Israel’s right to exist, makes it even more urgent that we learn to understand the many aspects of “femininity” that characterize the mythical Jewish male-female union and the anti-Semitic relationship. A portion of my ongoing work is devoted to this issue.
4. The feminine attribute of halacha
The “beit midrash of creativity” led me to the question of whether the feminine voice and attribute of the Jewish tradition – in contradistinction to its masculine voice and attribute – remain merely within the boundaries of story and myth. Or do they also find expression in halacha and in the 613 commandments – the “material holy tongue” of “yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26)?
This question sent me on an investigation of the extensive halachic literature that deals with the mitzvot, the details of their observance and their meanings, from the Torah through the Acharonim. This investigation testified to the existence of two opposing and complementary attributes of the mitzvoth, which may be referred to as the male and female attributes. On the one hand, the “male” attribute is described in the scriptures as representing strength, justice, action, constructiveness, penetration and ownership. The “female” attributes, by contrast, are described as those which “leave an open space,” and as a moderating force of relativity: partialness, transience, changeability, incompleteness, conditional ownership, and a powerful affinity for the factor of time.
The male and female attributes are dependent on each other as part of a dynamic whole that continually renews itself. And at times (as, for example, in the blowing of the shofar), observing a particular mitzvah necessitates a transition between the male and the female attribute.
A reading from this perspective opens up new, fascinating and even revolutionary avenues in the vast body of the halachic literature, and demands a thoroughgoing investigation. I will remain here within the bounds of the “laboratory of creation” and the way in which I observed in my books the existence of male and female attributes in the “fictional slice of life.” I saw how these attributes had the ability to influence characters’ lives, to generate events and conflicts, and how they lay at the basis of myths, ideologies and stories.
In my writing I have focused particularly on the female attribute of Shabbat, the succah, and the sabbatical year.
The desire to enter the space of Shabbat drove the endings of The Name and Snapshots. Throughout the novel the heroine of The Name likens herself to Knesset Yisrael, the Shekhina, and Jerusalem; she dedicates herself as an expiatory sacrifice to Hashem, and prepares for a mystical union with Him on the night of Shavuot. However, in the throes of a crisis of faith and heresy she comes to recognize the powerlessness of God. And at the end of the novel, which takes place on the eve of the Sabbath, she comes to terms with the imperfection of the world and of God. In the final pages this realization leads her to an acceptance of herself and her memories, and to make her peace with a redemption that is transient and cyclical.
Echoes of Shabbat can also be heard at the end of Snapshots. The book’s final “snapshots” are written just after the Persian Gulf War, as the heroine is on her way to an international conference on architecture. She is early in a pregnancy when she begins driving to her destination; she is happy about the pregnancy although she does not yet know who the father is – her husband, the French Jew, or her Palestinian lover. And on the way, on the Paris-Munich highway, she addresses to her father her thoughts about the “Jewish feminine space,” in a kind of soliloquy of solace:
[A roadside restaurant at the exit from Strasburg]
After one in the morning. Four more hours of driving until Munich. On the way.
A group of truck drivers. Eating sauerkraut. Heavy aroma of sausages, pickled cabbage.
Black night beyond the glass wall.
The urge to drive all the way from Paris to Munich, instead of taking the train. I need the hours alone on the highway in order to get the feeling of Europe in my body, before the lecture tomorrow night.
The life that flutters within me, Father. Yesterday’s ultrasound. The technician’s hand gliding with the probe along the layer of gel on my belly. On the screen a millimeter of tissue with a pulsating vein. The life that I had only expressed in my thoughts, in whisperings to you. I carry it with me again, for a time, your snapshots.
(…) The presentation unfolds in my mind as I drive. – The aspiration that this also will not be something “constructed,” but rather will present, over its various stages, a transient pattern. One whose unifying premise will reverberate differently in the mind of each member of the audience. (Can’t restrain myself. Delivering an entire lecture to you as I drive. I will end up reading it all from your snapshots…) I will start out by talking about the sacred place that is never whole, that by definition cannot be perfect, as Solomon said at the dedication of the Temple: “behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built?” And then I will mention all of the other sacred-open forms: the Tabernacle, sabbatical year, Shabbat. If I can, I will linger for a moment over the idea of the Shabbat, and stress how, in the Kiddush, the blessing is for the very ability to refrain from completing, to cease working in mid-task; the freedom to let go: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all his creative work, which God had brought into being to fulfill its purpose.”
(And perhaps I will dare to speak in the name of the fear on the first nights of the war. And in the name of the mothers. To turn the discussion toward the softness that floods the body.)
After two already. Have to get out.
In any case we will continue this highway conversation, Father, streaking through Germany in the night.
B. The feminine place: the succah and the sabbatical year in Jerusalem
In contrast to their Diaspora Jewish colleagues, Israeli writers cannot escape, whether early or late, from responsibility for Israel’s dramatic reality, each in his own way. Jerusalem, whose beauty and secretiveness exert an unceasing magic upon me, Jerusalem the woman-city, the object of desire, the eye of the storm of the three-way inter-faith conflict – Jerusalem has become for me another prism through which the voice of woman reverberates. Will the feminine voices – or the feminine attribute in halacha – be able to have an influence? To change reality? Will they bring about a revolution in the place of the woman in the mythical and the actual male-female relationship, beyond the trap of jealousy and fanaticism: will they enable Woman to be both wife and woman of the world, and Jerusalem to be at once the place desired by Hashem (Psalms 132: 13, 14) and “a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56: 7)? Will the feminine attribute be able to bring about a revolution in political discourse? Or, in the words of Ilana Tzuriel, the architect heroine of Snapshots: “Think about a place that cannot be possessed! And especially in the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the place that everyone wants to conquer, to possess! Jerusalem the desired city, the woman, the place of ardor … to know how to let it go … “
In the early 1990s Ilana Tzuriel, who had left Israel and has now returned to it after a period of years, is coming to terms with her connection to the country. Her search echoes through her conversations with her Zionist pioneer father during the year following his death, as well as in the split from her anti-Zionist Holocaust survivor husband, in her troubled relationship with her Palestinian lover, in the rift between her and her post-Zionist leftist colleagues, and in her sense of shared destiny with the neighbors in the Jerusalem apartment building where she, together with her two small sons, lives through the Persian Gulf War. Her response takes shape in the plan for a monument, or, more precisely, an “anti-monument” on a Jerusalem hill overlooking the Temple Mount from the south. The plan calls for a “succah colony” to serve as living accommodations for students at the “Sabbatical Year Center” to be established at the site, where they will be taught how to apply the laws of the sabbatical year in agriculture and in financial dealings, in a world characterized by a global economy, and in the loci of territorial conflicts.
But the winds of war disrupt Ilana’s plans. First comes the first intifada, and then the Persian Gulf War. But it is precisely in the “plastic succah” of the sealed room that she conceives of a new dimension for her architectural plan. In a gesture of feminine “defiance” she comes up with a plan to renew the flow of water in the ancient aqueduct that carried spring water from Hebron to the Temple.
In an ironic instance of history repeating itself, in the winter of 2001, at the height of the second intifada, I completed the sections that describe Ilana Tzuriel in the winter of 1991, during the Persian Gulf War. And as the suicide terror attacks increased in number, so did the flow of water – running between the mosque area and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, into a continuous waterfall near the Western Wall – strengthen its hold on the heroine’s imagination, with its symbolic crossing of boundaries of sanctity and hatred, fiction and reality, in an ongoing trickle of life.
5. Conclusion: responsibility for otherness
The Scroll of Esther presents us with an analogy between anti-Semitism (described for the first time) and misogyny. Achashverosh, furious with Vashti, succumbs to Memuchan’s threats regarding a total war of the sexes: “For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes” (Esther 1:17). Haman, full of rage against Mordechai, threatens Achashverosh with a global conspiracy of “the others,” the Jews: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them” (3:8). In both cases only total annihilation may nullify the threat. When Esther comes out of hiding, as a woman and a Jew, she is aware of this double threat, of her and to her. Yet even so she decides to take “responsibility for otherness,” in full recognition of the risk incurred: “(…) and if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
However, Esther’s femininity and Jewishness are also her only weapon. After three days of fasting and internal transformation (as in preparation for “ma’amad Har Sinai,” the revelation at Sinai) Esther stands “in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house,” face to face with the king who is sitting “upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house.” Everything is decided instantly at the sight of the woman at the gate. “Esther put on her royal apparel” – so is Esther’s appearance described in the text. Rashi (on 5:1) says that Esther put on “Ruach Hakodesh” (the “Divine Spirit”), and Gemarah Megillah (14b) describes this moment of feminine presence, body and soul, as prophecy. Her appearance generates a revolution. She “obtains favor” in the sight of the king, who at that moment is delivered from his horror of the “otherness” of the “lawless” woman, and from the “subversive” threat of Jewish “otherness.” With the skill of an analyst, and with complete command of the ruling regime’s intricacies and behavior, Esther brings Achashverosh, step by step, to a state of sobering. She starts by awakening memory, “On that night could not the king sleep” (6:1). And then, from feast to feast, she steers her course on to the exposure of the utter madness of Haman’s passion. Esther does not succeed in entirely reversing the king’s decree (“the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring”) and in extinguishing Jew- and woman-hatred from the world. However, she does manage, for a time, to change the story around and to rescue the Jews of the kingdom.
The power of anarchy, of “to the contrary,” characterizes the woman’s voice in the Jewish myth. It displaces ruling authorities or fossilized truths, thereby awakening rage or mockery. Nevertheless, through the slyness of comedy, the power of passion and eros, or the strength of remonstration it can succeed in overturning even God’s plans. The change in women’s status in global society is generating an unprecedented revolution in the place of women in Jewish culture, as it veers between the poles of destruction and renewal. Will the introduction of women’s voices into the Jewish tradition bring about the needed revitalization? Will it change the status of the Jew among the nations? And will the strengthening of the feminine attribute in world discourse lead to change in a world that is battling the threat of extremism, an extremism whose first victims are usually women? “(…) and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
For years a dialogue with the sources has been reverberating in my study. A dialogue of discovery, of learning, of rebellion and of innovation. It has cut across my life and across historical events, and has informed my existence and my creative endeavor. In many other studies, in Israel and in other places around the world where Jewish artists are active, ground-breaking dialogues are currently taking place with the Jewish heritage. Each of these dialogues, in its own way, is contributing to the contemporary chapter in Jewish creativity, the contemporary face of the “Jewish nation.”