- Reporters Desk
By Lionel Rolfe
At a point in the mid-70s, when some nefarious anti-Semitism was rearing its ugly head in the military—I forgot exactly what it was—I took my first trip to Israel. No doubt it had something to do with the oil companies. The trip raised the age old questions: What exactly is a Jew, anyway, and do his first loyalties lie with Israel?
Do all Jews share the same view of themselves and of the larger world? The anti-Semites, of course, see us as a monolithic group, and so do some Jews. But I think they are wrong—a judgment buttressed during my first visit to Israel some 40 years ago.
One evening I was sitting with an officer of the Israeli army on the patio of Kibbutz Maagan Michael outside Tel Aviv, beneath the glorious Mediterranean sky. We were talking about the inevitable subject of Jews and history. He is an in-law of mine—a man whose love for music, literature and philosophy run deep. But even here, in this country whose capital, Jerusalem, wears a God-created shroud, he betrayed little awe for the universe, sparkling around us.
He is an Israeli pioneer—a breed with little taste for mysticism. Yet he felt himself to be the son of a maelstrom created some millennia ago out of the older East and the emerging West. As far as he was concerned, any Jew who—like me—continued living in the diaspora has not yet discovered himself.
This officer was attracted to the almost Marxist interpretation that Jews were the force behind the capitalism that emerged from feudalism—that it was they who created its finances, that it was their inventions and their knowledge of commerce that overthrew the old system. But as soon as they did these things with any degree of success, their accomplishments were taken from the Jews. They were dispossessed and killed by the Gentiles. How can a Jew ultimately believe he has any home other than Israel?
The Mediterranean was silent save for the rumble of its ocean energy. The thick blackness of the sky was mute, its stars twinkling some secret of their own. What were they saying? All over the Holy Land, Israelis repeat this theme.
One old woman who came here from the Russian pogroms of 1905 could not discuss the moral claims of the Arabs—which many Israelis realize are as considerable as their own—without adding, “We have no place else to go. History has taught us no one wants us.” It’s that simple to her, and when she tells you her life story, you know that—for her—that is the truth.
Sylvia was a young woman who once lived in Brooklyn, but became an Israeli. She told me it wasn’t until her parents died that she really glimpsed herself as a link of Jewish history. As she said this, Sylvia pointed to a timid youngster making his way up Tel Aviv’s famed Dizengoff. Looking for lamb burgers in pita, he stopped to ask directions, his manner so mild and unobtrusive that one got the feeling he was apologizing for being alive. He was a true ghetto Jew—miserable and anguished. Sylvia said he certainly was not an Israeli. “Where else but here,” she asked, “can you get verbally assaulted on the street at the slightest pretext? But at least you won’t be called a dirty Jew. What other people boasts that?” Then: “A chosen people?”—and she laughs somewhat bitterly.
Later in the evening, Sylvia and I were walking through the streets of old Jaffa, the ancient place Tel Aviv was built next to. Nearby appeared a hopped-up Pontiac convertible with garish white upholstery—it would have been at home in front of any drive-in in Pomona. A military car drove up alongside it. A lean, muscular Israeli leaned out of the Pontiac, calling to an attractive woman walking down the street. She ignored him.
The youth called again. Now he got out of his car and walked over to convince her to join him. Success. They strolled to his convertible, and she plunked down beside him. That was when the Pontiac and the military vehicle began a drag race.
Neither Sylvia nor I said anything—we just watched. Finally I volunteered that Israel had not turned out to be the kind country a gentle visionary like the great Bal Shem would have wanted, and that was not good. “If Jews aren’t going to be the gentle and wise people of mankind,” I asked, “what’s the point? Our greatest contributions have been in art and science.” Sylvia laughed at my quaint notion of Jewishness. “No, we’re a pushy, aggressive, obnoxious people. Maybe that’s been the cause of anti-Semitism.” She looked at me intently. “And you’re one of us, whether you like it or not.”
I am Jewish and proud of it. Yet, just what does being Jewish mean? I sat one afternoon in a sidewalk cafe on the Dizengoff, where most of the Israeli film industry goes. A woman named Rochelle, seated with me, pointed out something in the distance. “The land is much like California, with everything from mountains to deserts,” she said. “In addition, every kind of human being is almost immediately available to the film industry.” Rochelle indicated a fellow walking down the street. “That Jew,” she said, “could play an American Indian. And that one over there—the blond, blue-eyed fellow—he could play a Nordic. That Ethiopian Jew is a black. Someday the film industry will be really big in a place like this where wages are so low and people work such long hours.”
In Jerusalem, I had watched a black, caped figure moving among the headstones in the area of the Mount of Olives. The sun was unbearably hot. The caped figure in his Hassidic uniform—the uniform of my own ancestors—was looking for a particular headstone. He found it and stopped. The man didn’t even glance up the hill where a party of rich tourists, mostly Americans, had been accosted by sickly, scar-faced Arab urchins who tried to sell them smudged postcards and shouted hateful epithets when they declined. All the while the Hassid was in reverie with his dead ancestors. It was only a few miles from there to the Wailing Wall—the western wall of the temple which the Arabs, when they had controlled the area, wouldn’t let the Jews enter. In 1967 the Jews took control of that area, and the Arabs—in their temple pointing toward Mecca—began looking terribly angry.
So as I sat there on the patio of Kibbutz Maagan Michael, I considered carefully what the Israeli officer was saying. He said he thought me too assimilated. The trouble, in his view, was that Jews in America and England had not yet been victims of genocide. “Look at history,” he said. “I am not saying it will happen again. But if there had been an Israel in the thirties, a third of our parents would not have perished under Hitler. My own parents—they would have been alive.” I looked at him, not quite knowing what to say.
I found myself the next day in Haifa where I was visiting one of Israeli’s grand old men, living in thoughtful retirement atop Mt. Carmel, right above the beautiful Mediterranean port city. My grandfather Moshe Menuhin was the patriarch of one of music’s most distinguished families, living as a pamphleteer and farmer in Los Gatos, a small town south of San Francisco. Once HaCohen and my grandfather had been comrades, dreamers of a common dream that became the state of Israel. Now there was more than physical distance between them.
I came to HaCohen’s home almost at the summit of the famed mountain as part of my research into the history of the Menuhin family. It is a story which stretches across six centuries and several continents, and my grandfather, Moshe Menuhin, was a crucial link in it. In 1913, Moshe was a member of the first graduating class of the Herlizia Gymnasia. There were 21 members of that first class, all hand-picked by the Zionists as promising leaders of a new nation.
All but Moshe went on to become honored founders of the Jewish state. Instead, he became a follower of Ahad Ha’Am, the Hebrew writer who believed in spiritual Zionism rather than the political brand promulgated by Theodore Herzl.
In 1917 Moshe left Palestine and in the early twenties served as superintendent of San Francisco’s Hebrew schools. But the emergence of his son Yehudi’s talent as a violinist cut short Moshe’s own career. He devoted most of his life to nurturing the talents of his three famous children (Hephzibah and Yaltah were fine pianists).
Now, HaCohen found it hard to be fair to his old schoolmaster. My grandfather’s closest friends in that first class were Moshe Sharett, later Israeli’s prime minister and foreign minister, and Dov Hoss, founder of the Israeli Army. HaCohen himself was a member of Herlizia’s third class, and remembers that Menuhin was a frequent visitor to his home.
He recalls his own part in Israel’s history. “Do you know how important we are? Well, when I was ambassador to Burma, I went to China. I was impressed by what I saw. I was one of the few people who felt it was a mistake not to have good relations with them.
“I told Henry Kissinger that. Henry wasn’t so important then. He was just a professor at Harvard, and he was always trying to get me to come out and spend a weekend at his house. Then he became a big shot. “I guess I can tell you this now. It shouldn’t be classified. He was trying to convince Nixon of the détente with China. So he called me up because he knew I had written some reports. I sent them over to him.” HaCohen also recalled 1948, when he and Sharett went to San Francisco to lobby for creation of the Jewish state. Victory was close for the Zionist cause.
“Everyone was for us by then,” he remembered. “Even those rich Jews like the Lessings and the Rosenwalds and the Guggenheims who had been against us in the twenties. But, after the Holocaust, they began realizing how important it is that Jews have their own homeland. “Suddenly we were very popular and sought-after fellows. We were important men. But then we heard that Moshe Menuhin—Moshe was against us. “Who is Moshe? He is not a rich man. He is merely the father of a famous violinist. He was one of us. Nobody understood. I asked Sharett in San Francisco, ‘So what happened to your old buddy?’ Sharett said he couldn’t understand.
“They were going to give us our own state, and Moshe Menuhin was against us. Sharett sent him a letter, inviting him to come up to San Francisco and talk. He never even acknowledged it. Nobody understood.”
To David HaCohen, sitting in his Mt. Carmel home surrounded by his collection of archeological artifacts, Menuhin’s rejection is still an exercise in self-hate. A flight from the Jewish past.”
But to Moshe, the differences between them were rooted not in the past but in the present. In one of his books he has written: “Advancing, evolving, universal and spiritual Judaism, which was the core of the Judeo-Christian code of ethics, is now becoming the tool, the handmaiden, of ‘Jewish’ nationalism, so that the ethical injunctions Thou shall not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet have been transformed into the unethical, primitive and tribalistic ‘Covenant of the Chosen People’ and ‘Israel First.’”
To HaCohen, it is an incomprehensible position. “Listen,” he told me, “we wouldn’t have held it against him that he forgot us after he left Palestine. We wouldn’t have considered him a traitor for not being with us through those perilous years.
“The rich Jews you can understand—they were hardly Jewish anymore; they were assimilated. But then what happened in Germany made them wake up. But Moshe. He was, after all, of the first graduating class of the Herlizia Gymnasia. De you know what that means in this country?” “Do you have any idea why he turned on you?” I asked. “No. None whatsoever. Moshe Sharett and I discussed it, but we couldn’t figure it. It has to be something mental. Something went wrong with your grandfather. Yehudi sat right there in that chair and I told him that pointblank.” HaCohen looked hard at me. “Do you know how important we are?” I shook my head. HaCohen scrutinized me closely. “Are you a Zionist?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I began to explain. He cut me off. He began to talk about American Jewish intellectuals. He does not understand them. He does not understand why they stay in America instead of coming home.
A few days later I was in London, where I talked with a Russian Orthodox priest. He asked me why Jews don’t become Christians—who better than Jews can understand Christ. I shuddered at his remark, as I did also at the gleaming cross on his robes. I explained that Jews shouldn’t have to stop being Jews to make gentiles happy; the real Jewish God is creativity, I said, and one way this creativity takes form is by making messiahs, not idolizing them. I liked that thought, and still do. The world is lucky to have a culture that creates messiahs for the rest of the world—otherwise there would have been no Jesus, no Freud, no Marx, no Einstein.
So I have come back to the Diaspora. Although I had sensed the pull of that land—that ancient crossroads of civilization—from which some of my distant ancestors had come, I am not ready yet to call it home.
*This is an excerpt from Lionel Rolfe’s “Reflections From Elsewhere,” available on www.boryanabooks.com which somehow seems timely again.