Saturday, March 22, 2008

He's Worried

Flying away from Israel for a few months—book tour this spring, then the usual summer in New Hampshire—I found myself at wheels-up doing what I have been doing instinctively for years, putting in my earbuds, and playing Mati Caspi. Distance from Israel, like distance from a friend, prompts an immediate feeling of loss. What you love sticks fast, what drives you to despair suddenly feels manageable, or at least merely human.

And what I love, not without a certain apprehension, is Israel’s popular Hebrew culture: skeptical, free, hybrid, smart. When people say “Jewish state” I think immediately about Caspi, or (and here I am betraying squareness, I know) the poetry of Leah Goldberg, or the drama at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater. The Salieri character in Amadeus had a musical knowledge that was just enough to fully appreciate how far he was from musical genius. My command of Hebrew culture is something like that, good enough to know how little I contribute to it, yet also enough to feel the great privilege of living to see it.

This is how it was meant to be. Ahad Haam, early Zionism’s preeminent voice, hoped for a place in which modern Jews—modern individuals all—could develop religious, literary, musical, entrepreneurial, etc., ideas in Hebrew; a place where Jews could compete with the confidence of nationals in a kind of cultural Olympics, taking what was fine about other cultures, while giving back to other countries what was worth keeping from classical Jewish life. He did not know the half of it.

Caspi's light rock would never have occurred to him. Neither would it have seemed possible that, one day, the achievement of Hebrew culture would be taken so much for granted that people who called themselves Zionist—of all people, Orthodox rabbis, and American Jewish bigshots—would want the Jewish state to mirror the theocratic townships he had so willfully escaped. But then, Caspi himself grasps the danger and turns it into his art. The flame of Hebrew enlightenment seems more extinguishable, and precious, from 20,000 feet. 

SO FLYING TO America I have Caspi in my ears—that haunting song, "A Place for Worry," with lyrics by Yonatan Gefen, which I have taken as the epigraph of The Hebrew Republic. The translation below is mine. But take a couple of minutes and listen to it here.

At the fringe of the sky, at the edge of the desert,
There’s a faraway place, full of wildflowers.

A small place—forlorn and deranged—

A small place for worry.

All-that-will-be is spoken of,
And all-that-has-happened is thought,

God sits there and observes, guarding all He has created.

“You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden—
You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden!”

And he's worried, awfully worried.