The Paradox at the Heart of Hebrew Literature’s Most Famous Rejection of the Diaspora

Ruth R. Wisse
June 7 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Published in the annus horribilis of 1942, Haim Hazaz’s short story “The Sermon” is one of the seminal works of Zionist literature, even if it is little-read today. Its title refers to a fictional speech before a Haganah committee given by the normally taciturn Yudka, in which he denounces Jewish history as such. In Hillel Halkin’s translation its climactic passage reads:

Jewish history is simply boring. . . . It has no adventures, no conquering heroes, no great rulers or potentates. All it has is a mob of beaten, groaning, weeping, begging Jews. And you’ll agree with me that there’s nothing interesting about that . . .  nothing! If it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow our children to be taught Jewish history at all. Why on earth should we teach them about the shameful life led by their ancestors? I would simply say to them: “Look, boys and girls, we don’t have any history. We haven’t had one since the day we were driven into exile. Class dismissed. You can go outside now and play . . .  ”

Yet, as Ruth R. Wisse explains in her weekly podcast, The Stories Jews Tell, there is much more to Hazaz’s work than this summation of what was, at the time, a popular strain of Zionist thought. She writes:

At the mention of Jewish culture, the kibbutzniks [who make up his audience] break the tension to poke fun at the German-Jewish professors they (and author Haim Hazaz) disdained—members of Brit Shalom such as Ernst Simon and Martin Buber, who were dedicated to the cause of Arab-Jewish reconciliation and promoted a binational rather than a national state. The contempt of these practical kibbutz and Haganah members for the European intelligentsia was another kind of protest against the unwelcome carryover from the Diaspora. While Yudka denounces the messianism of the ultra-Orthodox, the kibbutzniks mock the political messianism of those who think they can have a country without fighting for it.

But because Hazaz has not given us a Churchillian orator or a sermonic pronouncement, the story can hold together what is in danger of being torn apart. Yudka is indeed the “new Jew” of the Yishuv, the builder-defender of the old-new Land of Israel, yet he is still enough of the Diaspora “Yid-ke” [in Yiddish, “little Jew”], to worry about rejecting the Judaism that brought them there. The actuality belies the theoretical dichotomy, and the altered names and pronunciation do not change the fact that they are all functioning in the language of the Bible.

Yudka embodies the age-old Jewish civilization that part of him wants to reject. Hazaz exposes the paradox.

Read more at Stories Jews Tell

More about: Haganah, Hayim Hazaz, Hebrew literature, Jewish history, Kibbutz movement, Zionism

In the Aftermath of a Deadly Attack, President Sisi Should Visit Israel

On June 3, an Egyptian policeman crossed the border into Israel and killed three soldiers. Jonathan Schanzer and Natalie Ecanow urge President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond by visiting the Jewish state as a show of goodwill:

Such a dramatic gesture is not without precedent: in 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the “Isle of Peace,” a parcel of farmland previously under Israeli jurisdiction that Jordan leased back to Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. In a remarkable display of humanity, King Hussein of Jordan, who had only three years earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel, traveled to the Jewish state to mourn with the families of the seven girls who died in the massacre.

That massacre unfolded as a diplomatic cold front descended on Jerusalem and Amman. . . . Yet a week later, Hussein flipped the script. “I feel as if I have lost a child of my own,” Hussein lamented. He told the parents of one of the victims that the tragedy “affects us all as members of one family.”

While security cooperation [between Cairo and Jerusalem] remains strong, the bilateral relationship is still rather frosty outside the military domain. True normalization between the two nations is elusive. A survey in 2021 found that only 8 percent of Egyptians support “business or sports contacts” with Israel. With a visit to Israel, Sisi can move beyond the cold pragmatism that largely defines Egyptian-Israeli relations and recast himself as a world figure ready to embrace his diplomatic partners as human beings. At a personal level, the Egyptian leader can win international acclaim for such a move rather than criticism for his country’s poor human-rights record.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: General Sisi, Israeli Security, Jordan