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.