by Darren Pinsker
When the Israeli writer Haim Hazaz died in 1973, his reputation was so lofty in the world of modern Hebrew letters that one observer would write in the Jewish Book Annual, “He was one of Israel’s most honored writers of fiction and one of her most influential thinkers.” Upon the tenth anniversary of his death, the Israeli critic Dan Laor, introducing an anthology of lectures arranged in commemoration of Hazaz’s fiction, would write, “The work of Haim Hazaz is one of the most important phenomena in 20th century Hebrew literature.” And in an essay on Hazaz written in 2001, the literary scholar Arnold Band would opine, “If we ask who were the leading [Hebrew] prose writers of the 1950s, we would probably agree upon three names: Agnon, Hazaz, and Yizhar.” And yet today, who–aside from scholars of Israeli literary history–is familiar with Hazaz and his work?
It is somewhat haunting to behold a once-renowned writer’s fall into obscurity. For Israeli readers, Hazaz once stood at the center of the Jewish national conversation. The neglect of his work is impoverishing to the reader of Jewish literature because in the breadth of its geographic, historical and ethnographic explorations, and in its crossover between secular and religious realms, his writing is virtually sui generis. And yet, for all the range and diversity of his writing–his exploration of Ashkenazi Jewry and the very different world of Yemenite Jewry, his probing of biblical themes and of the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on the Jews–one motif recurred repeatedly on his prodigious canvas, that of galut and geulah, exile and redemption. This theme took on a visceral importance for Hazaz; it grew directly from a life lived in the epicenter of a tumultuous century.
Indeed, his life unspools like a black-and-white newsreel of 20th-century Jewish history. He was born in Czarist Russia in 1898, lived through the Russian Revolution, witnessed the depredations of Russian Jewish communities during the Civil War between the Reds and Whites, fled his inhospitable Ukrainian homeland in 1921, sojourned in Istanbul for over a year (where he became acquainted with non-Ashkenazi Jewry), lived roughly a decade in exile in Paris, made aliyah to mandatory Palestine in 1931, witnessed the Holocaust from afar, was present for the birth of the State of Israel, suffered the death of his only son in 1948 in Israel’s War of Independence, and lived through the heady Israeli triumph in the Six Day War. He died shortly before the traumatic Yom Kippur War. Given of a mind of a philosophical bent, contemplation of meta-historical issues came naturally to Hazaz and he weaved this into his fiction. His philosophical attitude to Jewish history was fed by two wellsprings, one secular, the other religious, due to his having been steeped in both the classical Jewish religious texts and the great works of Russian literature during his Ukrainian youth.
I “discovered” Hazaz about 10 years ago, a short while after a group of seven eminent literary critics assembled by the Yiddish Book Center published a list of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature. One of the works on the list was a book by Hazaz called HaYoshevet BaGanim (She Who Dwells in Gardens), a novel whose plot revolves around the messianic yearnings of the Yemenite Jewish community in Jerusalem. I was intrigued, due largely to the fact that one side of my wife’s family immigrated to Israel from Yemen. (The other half of her family immigrated to Israel from Poland. It was an ethnic combination Hazaz would have delighted in.) Hazaz spent many years living among the Yemenite Jews of Jerusalem, gained a deep understanding of their society, and represented this ancient Jewish community in both this novel and another work entitled Ya’ish.
I began a search for HaYoshevet BaGanim and was dismayed to find out that it was out of print in Hebrew. The English version, published under the title Mori Sa’id, was also long out of print. During my search for this elusive novel, I came across a venue in Jerusalem called the Haim Hazaz Foundation. I telephoned, and an elderly woman picked up the phone. She was, as it turned out, Hazaz’s widow. Following a perfunctory introduction, I told her that her late husband’s novel had been chosen for the Yiddish Book Center’s list and she, an avatar of his oeuvre and posthumous reputation, became very animated, thanked me profusely for the exciting news, and invited me and my wife to visit her the next time we found ourselves in Jerusalem.
Several years later we did just that. She was a fine host, a charming woman full of energy, articulate and possessed of strong opinions regarding Hazaz’s work. We discussed his novels and stories and Israeli literary society of the 1950s and 1960s. I walked out of this memorable encounter with several volumes by and about Hazaz, including an anthology of short stories that contained his classic tale HaDerasha (The Sermon). The story has the force of a train collision.
The Sermon begins enigmatically: “Yudka didn’t talk much.” Yudka, a diminutive of Yehuda, a name probably chosen by Hazaz to be symbolic of the Jewish everyman, finds his voice before the council of his kibbutz. Yudka has, in fact, called together this meeting, and the council sits and listens as if a panel of judges sitting before a prosecutor, for Yudka is giving an indictment of Jewish history. The language is jarring and jagged, in both the original Hebrew and in Hillel Halkin’s deft English translation. The scene has a surreal, fabulist aspect to it.
Yudka tells the council, somewhat preposterously, that he objects to Jewish history. He is enraged and anguished, and his pain, made palpable by a feverish expression of his views, is rooted in a history of Jewish powerlessness and passivity.
“You see, we never made our own history, the Gentiles always made it for us. Just as they turned out the lights for us and lit the stove for us and milked the cow for us on the Sabbath, so they made history for us the way they wanted and we took it whether we liked it or not. But it wasn’t ours, it wasn’t ours at all! Because we didn’t make it – because we would have made it differently – because we never wanted it to be the way it was.”
Yudka’s rage at Jewish powerlessness and passivity is reminiscent of Haim Nahman Bialik’s anger at Jewish passivity in the face of pogroms, as expressed in his great poem Ir HaHareigah (The City of Slaughter). But Yudka ratchets up the accusation well beyond Bialik’s: It is not merely that the Jews have been passive actors in the tragic history that others have made for them, but that the Jewish people have harbored a sadomasochistic desire for suffering. Suffering is embraced by the Jews because it is suffering that partly defines a Jew as Jewish in his own eyes.
“You see, it isn’t just that we accept our suffering. It’s that we love our suffering, all suffering…we actually want to suffer, we long for it…we can’t do without it. Suffering is what protects and preserves us…without it we’d have nothing to live for.”
Throughout his monologue–and it should be noted that the story has little in the way of action; it is, rather, a febrile exposition of its protagonist’s philosophy–Yudka’s speech enters increasingly more mordant territory. He tells us that there is no limit to suffering, and that, “It’s become our character, our personality – which when you think of it, explains everything: exile, martyrdom, the Messiah…that trinity that’s really one, that serves a single purpose…”
And what is that purpose?
“These three things support each other. They reinforce each other so that the redemption can never come…so that we keep wandering from country to country and place to place, generation after generation to the end of time…and always with new persecutions, and more suffering, and fresh troubles, and enemies and hatred all around…ooof! How we love it and cling to it!”
He then attacks the very messianic concept in Judaism. For messianism, in Yudka’s view, determined the historical essence of Jewish inaction in the face of exile.
“But it’s clear that…that if not for this one myth, everything would have been different. If not for it, we would either have had to return to Palestine right away or to disappear from the world. In either case, we would have had to come to terms with things and do something about them – that is, to put an end to them in one way or another…”
Yudka’s final, dizzyingly unsettling conclusion is that the Jews invented the messianic idea because they did not want to be redeemed.
Aristotle stated, “Tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life, and happiness and unhappiness consist in action.” Aristotle was, of course, speaking of Greek drama in the Poetics, but his insight is uncannily germane because, for Yudka, Jewish history is Greek tragedy. And yet, the radical critique encapsulated in Yudka’s sermon seems paradoxical to the reader because Yudka, having either been born in or having emigrated to Palestine, is the product of Jewish action, not inaction. He is the product of Zionism, a collective Jewish decision to grasp tightly the reins of their fate, to become the actors in their history. Furthermore, it seems paradoxical that Hazaz created Yudka given that Hazaz, too, took an active decision to immigrate to Palestine.
And yet, placing Yudka in historical context, is his philosophy really so odd? While Zionism marked an active decision by the Jews to radically alter Jewish destiny through action, the movement was, for many years, and certainly prior to the founding of the State of Israel, the province of only a small minority of Jews. Additionally, whether or not Yudka’s views represented Hazaz’s own or simply the views of a fictional archetype, The Sermon was published in 1943 when the destruction of European Jewry was in full motion, word of the disaster was making its way to the Jewish community in Palestine, and the future State of Israel probably seemed a fantasy in the face of British hostility to Jewish immigration.
Interestingly, while the story expresses views that negate Judaism’s central religious tenets, much of the story’s engine derives from a religious view of redemption. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his essay Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah asks “What is redemption?” He answers:
“Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center… A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history making, non-history-involved group leads a non-communing and therefore a silent, unfree existence…Redemption…is identical with communing or with the revelation of the word, i.e. the emergence of speech. When a people leaves a mute world and enters a world of sound, speech and song, it becomes a redeemed people, a free people.”
While Yudka’s jaundiced secular-historical view of redemption no doubt clashes with a traditional religious reading of these tenets, Hazaz, who was well-read in traditional Jewish religious literature, may have drawn upon mystical texts as inspiration for developing some of his ideas about silence, speech and the affirmation of historic agency in The Sermon. Hazaz chooses in Yudka a reticent man to express an end to silence and passivity, to represent the desire to move from the periphery to the center of history by way of an end to silence. There is a passage in the Zohar, recounted by Soloveitchik, in which Moses complains to G-d, “Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me, how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips…” The Zohar continues: “When Moses came, the Voice appeared, but it was ‘a voice without speech.’ This lasted until Israel approached Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.”
Moses was, according to the Zohar, arel sfatayim, slow of speech. The Zohar, according to Soloveitchik, expresses that slavery is tied to silence, and redemption comes to fruition “with the finding of both sound and word.” In the case of Moses, this occurs at Mount Sinai; in the case of Yudka, with respect to the as yet unfulfilled establishment of a Jewish State. The Sermon, seemingly a cry of anguish against the ravages of religious tradition in many ways derives its creative impetus from that very tradition, yet another paradox at the heart of the story.
Haim Hazaz indeed has weighty things to discuss with us, and perhaps this partly explains why his writings are no longer in fashion. We do not wish to be reminded of exile and redemption. Redemption has been achieved through the founding of State of Israel. If we are in a state of exile, we remain so by choice. Reading Hazaz, we are reminded that redemption is not irreversible, it is not perforce permanent. It can be dissipated through neglect; decay can set in through centrifugal forces working from within; reversal can come about through hostile forces working from without.
Hazaz tells us that we have work to do, that redemption must be earned, over and over again, by each successive generation.