Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shores Are Sometimes Longings

In response to a previous blog entry, Shmuel, wrote:

... I would add to the interesting idea you raise, that perhaps longing for something is more conducive to creativity than actually having it. This ties in with a recent post by Philip Weiss, entitled "have you stopped dreaming of a Jewish state in Palestine?" But maybe it's not just Palestine. Maybe Judaism has stopped dreaming altogether.
Yes perhaps. But with longing also comes pain. Sometimes that pain is a creative engine, sometimes a depressant - often an unbearable one. And sometimes it is both.

In any case I am struck by a thread of disappointment and longing that runs throughout Zionist history (maybe through all of Jewish history) - or at least through the parts of Zionism that I find admirable - despite all the mistakes and blindness.

I bring four examples. They differ in time as well as in outlook: are they longing for what was; for what might have been; or for a dream that never was?

First we have Arik Einstein singing Yachol Lihiyot Shezeh Nigmar? - Could It Be That Its All Over? , from 1973.

Yachol LiHiyot Shezeh Nigmar (audio)

Yachol LiHiyot Shezeh Nigmar (video)

אומרים שהיה פה שמח לפני שנולדתי

והכל היה פשוט נפלא עד שהגעתי

שומר עברי על סוס לבן בלילה שחור

על שפת הכנרת טרומפלדור היה גיבור

תל-אביב הקטנה, חולות אדומים, ביאליק אחד

שני עצי שקמים, אנשים יפים מלאים חלומות

אנו באנו ארצה לבנות ולהבנות

כי לנו, לנו ארץ זאת

כאן איפה שאתה רואה את הדשא

היו פעם רק יתושים וביצות

אמרו שפעם היה כאן חלום נהדר

אבל כשבאתי לראות לא מצאתי שום דבר

יכול להיות, שזה נגמר

יכול להיות, שזה נגמר

אומרים שהיה פה שמח לפני שנולדתי

והכל היה פשוט נפלא עד שהגעתי

פלמ"ח, פינג'ן, קפה שחור וכוכבים

אנגלים, מחתרת וילקוט הכזבים

שפם ובלורית, כפיה על צוואר, ירון זהבי

אלתרמן, תמר, בחורות יפות, מכנסיים קצרים

כי לנו לנו ארץ זאת.

כאן איפה שאתה רואה את הדשא

היו פעם רק יתושים וביצות

אמרו שפעם היה כאן חלום נהדר

אבל כשבאתי לראות לא מצאתי שום דבר

יכול להיות, שזה נגמר

יכול להיות, שזה נגמר

They say it was happy here before I was born;
And everything was simply wonderful until I arrived:
"Hebrew Guard" on white horse in darkest night;
On the shores of the Kinneret,
Trumpeldor - a hero;

Little Tel-Aviv,
Red sands,
One Bialik,
Two sycamores,
Beautiful people
Full of dreams.

We came to the Land
To build and to be built,
Because for us, for us, for us, is this land.

Here where you see the grass,
There was once only swamps and bugs.

They say that once there was a beautiful dream here,
But when I came to look, I couldn't find a thing.

Could it be that it's all over?
Could it be that it's finished?

They say it was happy here before I was born;
And everything was simply wonderful until I arrived:
Commandos, campfire, black coffee and stars,
English, the Underground and a smuggling pack,
Walrus mustache, kafiyah on shoulders, Yaron Zahavi,
Alterman, Tamar, beautiful girls and short pants,

Because for us, for us, for us, is this land.

Here where you see the grass,
There was once only swamps and bugs.

They say that once there was a beautiful dream here,
But when I came to look, I couldn't find a thing.

Could it be that it's all over?
Could it be that it's finished?

I heard that song for the first time about two month after I made aliya in January 1974. I identified with it almost immediately. But it took about 15 years for its full impact to sink in, and for me to "reach conclusions", as the Israelis like to say.

* * *

The second example is from Amos Oz's memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness", telling of the lives of his parents and their friends and relations in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s in Palestine / Israel. These people moved to "The Land" as ardent Zionists, in the 1930s or earlier, and lived through the "heroic" pre-state period, and finally through the realization of their dream, the establishment of a Jewish State. Three years after that glorious event, Oz's mother commits suicide. The book (maybe all Oz's work) is, in large part, an attempt to understand that act.

Oz spends a section of the book interviewing his aged aunt - his mothers younger sister. She recalls how they grew up, somewhat pampered in a well to do family in Poland, and were educated in the liberal secular Zionist school system in their Polish city. They learned Hebrew poetry and literature, Bible, Jewish history, and geography of the Land. They followed every nuance of news from the naissant Jewish yishuv in Palestine. They joined the socialist Zionist youth movement and dreamed of the perfect egalitarian society, women's rights, an end to all oppressions, a freeing the soul and body, of free love. One of their friends even says, "After we have a Jewish State, everything will be different. Even love will be different!" This, while all around them, the world is in turmoil - Bolshevism to the east and Nazism to the west, and rising antisemitism all round. Oz's mother is even sent to study history and philosophy in the Bohemian capital, Prague, before she makes aliya in 1933.

Yet 50 years after coming to Israel, when the aunt is asked why she has never gone back to her home town, even for a visit, says:
Of the whole of Jewish Rovno there is barely a soul left alive - only those who came to the Land while there was time, and a few who fled to America escaped the Bolshevik regime. All the rest were butchered by the Germans, apart from those who where butchered by Stalin. No, I have no desire to go back for a visit: for what? To start longing gain from there for a Land of Israel that no longer exists and may have never existed outside our youthful dreams. Too grieve? If I want to grieve, I don't need to leave Wessely Street: to set foot outside my apartment. I sit here in my armchair look out the window and grieve several hours a day. Not for what was and is no more. Not for Tarlo [a former boyfriend], it was nearly seventy years ago, he wouldn't be alive now anyway: if Stalin hadn't killed him, he be dead from this place, from war or a terrorist bomb, or else from diabetes or cancer. I grieve only for what never was. Only for the pretty pictures we made for ourselves, and now they have all faded.
Whew !

What's most beautiful about her early life, is her (and her comrades) longing for Israel. And what's the most painful about her current life is that those dreams came to not.

But is this is just a product of her old age?

Oz is convinces his mother died, in 1950, at age 37, from an excess of longing. Longing for the life she had dreamed of and never found in the land of her dreams.

* * *

The third example is the famous Israeli song "Kinneret Sheli", based on a poem by the early Israeli poet Rachel Blaustein. It was written in 1923, while Rachel was living a lonely life in a small one room apartment in Tel-Aviv. She was dying of Tuberculous, and the poem recalls her heady youthful days at Kibbutz Degania on shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) from 1909 to 1913.

מֵעוֹלָם לֹא הִשְׁכַּמְתִּי עִם שַׁחַר לַגָּן
לְעָבְדוֹ בְּזֵעַת אַפָּי

מֵעוֹלָם בְּיָמִים אֲרֻכִּים וְיוֹקְדִים
שֶׁל קָצִיר
בִּמְרוֹמֵי עֲגָלָה עֲמוּסַת אֲלֻמוֹת
לֹא נָתַתִי קוֹלִי בְּשִׁיר

מֵעוֹלָם לֹא טָהַרְתִּי בַּתְכֵלֶת שׁוֹקְטָה
שֶׁל כִּנֶרֶת שֶׁלִי...הוֹ כִּנֶרֶת שֶׁלִי
הֶהָיִיתְ אוֹ חָלַמְתִי חֲלוֹם

And perhaps - these things never happened at all
And perhaps - I never rose at dawn to the field
To work her with the sweat of my brow ...

And never - on the long lingering days
of harvest

On the heights of a wagon
Loaded with sheaves
Did I give my voice to song.

Never did I purify myself in your azure waters
And with innocence

Of my Kinneret,
Oh my Kinneret.
Did you exist?
Or did I dream a dream.
I, and thousands of others - maybe even Oz's mother - was brought up on this song. Did we not fully understand the lyric?

Israel / Palestine, the land of broken dreams.

* * *

If there is any hope for Israel and the Jews it is through an attempt to actualize our longings - even if we know that they cannot be fully realized - rather then to drown in nostalgic laments, or worse, to deny that we ever had longings at all.

As Yeats said: "In dreams begins responsibility."

* * *

Finally, here is one of my favorite Israeli songs: Chofim "Shores" by Chava Alberstein.

Shores are sometimes longings for a steam.
I once saw a shore
Whose stream had abandoned it
With a broken heart of sand and stone
And man, and man
Can sometimes also end up
Abandoned and without strength, just like a shore.

Also shells,
Just like shores and the wind
Also shells are sometimes longings
For the home we have always loved
As it was, and only the sea
Sings there by itself its songs
Thus, between the shells of man's heart
his youth sings to him.

Give me the strength
to open my heart again
to accept not to run away
not to fear
and never to forget the way
believe, not approximately
and to march on the way again like a king
and always be near to the hope
like wind, walking so confidently
I will not be able to forget or run away
and to go on like everyone

Shores are sometimes...

* * *

Once I had a dream of living the idyllic - and idealistic - life on a kibbutz. The picture at the top of this post is of the house where I lived on Kibbutz Gezer in 1974.


Anonymous Shmuel said...

Thanks for developing this topic. In my original remark, I was referring to longing for a better, even utopian future - a "kingdom of heaven". That is not the same as longing for a lost past. While the former may be frustrating and even lead to despair, it does not engender the type of depression we associate with "what was but can be no more". The examples you give are all of the latter variety, which may spur one to action, but lack the vision and hope of longing for a better future. Israeli and Jewish culture abound in longing for a glorious past, but lack the kind of hopeful constructive vision of traditional messianism and its various secular elaborations - including Zionism.

The three videos you posted affected me in very different ways. Arik Einstein made me smile at his self-deprecating irony and agree with the serious message of his song. "Kineret Sheli" and Esther Ofarim left me cold, as something remote, not a part of my cultural frame of reference. "Hofim" (one of my favourites too) hit me in the gut, not only for its wistful lyrics, but mostly for the way in which such songs have been appropriated - and violated - by a coarse and insensitive Zionist establishment, full of jingoistic clichés and self-satisfaction.

2:45 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Syd: I can't believe this but I too was at Kibbutz Gezer in the summer of 1972. Were you in the hevra along with Neal Kaunfer and Louis Putterman? Or did you come just after them?

Another friend of mine, Heshi Gorewitz also lived at Gezer around the same time as you. Did you know him?

This post is very evocative & important. I like that you've taken a cultural them & worked it into one that makes a political statement as well.

9:11 pm  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...


I agree that what is needed is longing for the better future, and not dwelling on (a supposedly) idylic past.

And certainly that is what Zionism in its early days was mostly about. (Although myths of the past where always mixed up with hopes for the future.) But there also seemed to be - almost from the very beginning - an acceptance of defeat. That the task was too hard, and at the same time that all that was required was good intentions, and then we could at least long for the failed dream. The romanticization of the glory of failed dreams is not unique to Zionism - I recall the Tom Leher lyric from "The Folk Song Army"

- "Remember the war against Franco?

That's the kind where each of us belongs.

Though he may have won all the battles,

We had all the good songs."

It sort of goes along with the "Yorim v'Bochim" mentality. As long as our intentions are good, we can comfort ourselves with that.

So many Israelis wallow in the nostalgia of failed dreams. Maybe its a Jewish trait. But then maybe its better than just pretending that there are no dreams of a better world - which is basic position of the cynical right.

It is very hard to believe that the world sucks, and that it is also possible to improve it. It requires tremendous faith and puts tremendous responsibility on you.

In any case, I am sure I sense a deep melancholy running through parts of Zionism - almost from the start, and it has only gotten worse over time.

I am sure that it is partly that the Judaism (and the Jews) that most of early Zionism was trying to save and build on was mostly destroyed in the Holocaust. Maybe it is that so many of the dreams where fatally flawed by failing to understand or take into consideration the Palestinian Arab population.

I wish I could be more coherent here. I'll have to think more about this, and maybe post something more later

11:00 pm  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...


I arrived on Gezer in 1974 with a new Garin. The kibbutz was empty. There was no-one left from Gezer's previous incarnations. So no I did not meet Louis or Neal.

But I did know Heshi - though I haven't seen him in 30 years or so.

11:11 pm  

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