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Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER — the famed Yiddish writer who in 1935 moved from Warsaw to New York and in 1978 received the Nobel Prize for Literature as an American-Jewish author — made his first trip to Israel in the fall of 1955, arriving just after Yom Kippur and leaving about two months later. His relationship to Israel was complicated to say the least. He had been born into a strictly religious family of rabbis and rebetzins in Poland, for whom the land of Israel was the holiest of religious symbols. But he also lived a secular life in 1920s Warsaw, witnessing Zionism overtake Jewish Enlightenment and Bundism as a viable 20th-century political force. In more personal terms, Israel was also the place to which his son, Israel Zamir, had been brought by his mother, Runya Pontsch, in 1938, growing up in part on Kibbutz Beit Alpha and later fighting in the War of Independence. Yet Singer had always avoided every kind of -ism — from Zionism to communism — and so his perspective on the young state of Israel was largely free of the ideology and dogmatism that was prevalent during the country’s early days.

During his trip, Singer published several articles per week in the Yiddish daily Forverts, recording his visit. While these articles sometimes read like touristic travelogues, they reflect Singer’s complex relation to the land of Israel, as both an idea and a place. Israel had been in Singer’s consciousness since his youngest days as a boy growing up in religious surroundings, and it made its way into his work, including some of his earliest fiction, which was published in Hebrew. When he was still living in Warsaw, Singer wrote a novella titled The Way Back (1928) about a young man full of the Zionist dream who travels to the Land of Israel and returns five years later after suffering hunger, malaria, and poverty. In 1948, just a week before the state of Israel was declared, he ended The Family Moskat with several characters leaving Warsaw and moving to pursue the Zionist dream. In 1955, just weeks before his trip, he published an episode of In My Father’s Court (1956) titled “To the Land of Israel,” about a local tinsmith who moves his family to the Holy Land, then returns disappointed to Warsaw, but then, despite everything, goes back. In his memoirs, Singer writes that he considered moving to British Mandate Palestine in the mid-1920s, and in The Certificate (1967), he fictionalizes this in a tale that ends with the protagonist instead going back to his shtetl. As late as 1938, in a letter to Runya sent from New York, he was still fantasizing about the idea: “My plan is this: as soon as I have least resources, and I hope they come together quickly, I will travel to Palestine.” But by mid-1939, these dreams seem to pass into a different view on reality: “For me, in the meantime, getting a visa to Palestine is impossible.” For Singer, it seems, Israel remained, in both the symbolic and literal sense, the road not taken.

And yet, in late 1955, Singer made his first trip to Israel, accompanied by his wife Alma, on a ship called Artsa traveling from Marseille via Naples to the port of Haifa — not as a religious child or an idealistic young man but as a middle-aged Yiddish writer who was beginning to make his name on the American literary landscape. And his journalistic assignment was to capture the trip in short articles that would give Yiddish readers across the United States a sense of what the young state of Israel was like. His son, Zamir, was in New York working as a Shomer Ha’Tsair representative, and both letters and memoirs suggest there was no question of his meeting Runya. Singer was left to his own devices — traveling throughout Israel with Alma, but writing about it as if he were there all by himself.

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Singer’s peculiar perspective — with such complex personal history behind it, and such pragmatic goals before it — gives his writing from Israel its unique tone. It is always concerned with the big picture yet remains focused on the small picture. This is evident from the first moments of his trip, even while he was still on the ship. “I think about Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the sacrifices he made to set his eyes on the Holy Land,” he writes while the ship sails from France to Italy. “I think about the first pioneers, the first builders of the New Yishuv […] How is it that there’s no trace of any of this on this ship? Are Jews no longer devoted with heart and soul to the idea of the Land of Israel?” Singer is looking for proof of the spiritual greatness that the Land of Israel represents, and he wants to see it in the people on board with him — but he soon comes to understand that Israel is not a place of imagination, it’s a place that actually exists. “No, things are not all that bad,” he writes. “The fire is there, but is hidden […] The Land of Israel has become a reality, part of everyday life.”

He begins a keen description of reality still on board the ship. Observing the younger passengers, he describes a now familiar picture: “The young men and women who sit under my window on folding lounge chairs have possibly fought in the war against the Arabs. Tomorrow they may be sent to Gaza or another strategically significant location. But at the moment they want what any other modern young people want: to have a good time.” He identifies, before even arriving on shore, the constant negotiation in Israeli society between war and freedom.

On the ship, he also identifies cultural tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular:

There’s a tiny shul here with a holy ark and a few prayer books lying around. But the only people praying there are Sephardic Jews who are traveling in third class or in the dormitories […] It will soon be Yom Kippur, but the ship’s “Chaplain” […] told me there are only three Ashkenazim who want to pray in a quorum.

Singer becomes attached to this group of Sephardi Jews from Tunisia, following them with his eyes and ears:

On Friday evening I wanted to attend prayers. It was still daytime. I went into the little shul and there I saw a kiddush cup with a little wine left inside, and a few pieces of challah laying nearby. It seemed that they had already brought in the Sabbath. The Tunisian Jews have to eat at 6 o’clock and need to pray first.

Later, he goes again, and sees a man praying in a way that moves him. “There, in that little shul, I first came upon the spirituality for which I searched. There, among those Jews, it felt like shivat tsion — the Return to Zion.” He later watches the young Tunisian Jewish women with their head coverings down on the lower deck.

I look for the commonalities between me and them. It seems to me that they, too, look at me to see what connects us. From the standpoint of our bodies, we are built as differently as two people can be […] But as far as one may be from the other, the roots are the same […] There, in Tunisia, they looked Jewish, and for this they were persecuted.

What binds Jews from different corners of the world together, it seems, is their separate but shared experience of difference, even in their native countries.

Singer reports that the mood changes in Naples, where several hundred more passengers board the ship. Now there’s also singing and yelling — the fire he was looking for. But during this part of the trip he also meets a German-Jewish couple who complain bitterly about their life in the Yishuv.

The husband said that letting the Oriental Jews in without any selection, without any inspection, had completely thrown off the moral balance of the country […] The wife went even further than the husband. She said that, no matter how much she wished, she could not stand the company of Polish and Russian Jews. She was accustomed to European (German) culture […] she could not stand the Eastern European Jews.

Singer pushes back against her snobbery. “‘You know,’ I asked her, ‘that your so-called European culture slaughtered 6 million Jews?’” And she responds: “I know everything. But…”

Before he even sets foot in Israel, Singer identifies some of the social difficulties that its citizens face. “It’s hard, very hard, to bring together and bind together a people who are as far from each other as east from west […] Holding the Modern Jew together means holding together powers that can at each moment come apart. Herein lies the problem of the Yishuv.” This observation is less a criticism than a diagnosis. No matter how much binds Jews in Israel — the roots we all share — we have to, at the same time, navigate our differences. In this, Singer acknowledges one of the greatest challenges of a Jewish state.

What seems to really strike Singer when he finally arrives in Israel is the reality that, while built on modern organizational foundations established since the mid-19th century, the country appears as if it had been constructed out of nothing. His access to this reality is, funnily enough, street signs:

Israel is a new country, there’s a mixed population, for the most part newcomers, and they need information at every step. Signs in Hebrew — and often also in English — show you everything you need to know. […] The signs don’t just offer information, they’re also full of associations. . . Every street is named for someone who played a role in Jewish history or culture. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Gvirol, J. L. Gordon, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Bialik, Pinsker, Herzl, Frishman, Zeitlin are all part of this place’s geography. Words from the Pentateuch, from the Mishnah, from the commentaries, from the Gemara, from the Zohar, from books of the Jewish Enlightenment – are used for all kinds of commercial, industrial, and political slogans.

What Singer seems to like about this is that it makes even less sympathetic Jews have to face their connection to Jewish history and culture. “The German Jew who lives here might be, in his heart, a bit of a snob […] but his address is: Sholem Aleichem Street. And he must — ten times or a hundred times a day — repeat this very same name.” In these signs, Singer sees something that goes much deeper into the reality and paradox of Jewish identity: its apparent inescapability.

Singer quickly connects these prosaic thoughts with the very core of Jewish faith: “As it once did at Mount Sinai, Jewish culture — in the best sense of the word — has brought itself down upon the Jews of Israel and called to them: you must take me on, you can no longer ignore me, you can no longer hide me along with yourself.” In Israel, spirit and religion are not ephemeral feelings; they are viscerally present.

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On his way from the port in Haifa to Tel Aviv, Singer stops at a Ma’abara, or transit camp, set up to house hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants and refugees, mainly recent arrivals from Arabic-speaking countries across North Africa and the Middle East. “It’s true that the little houses are far from comfortable,” he writes.

This is a camp of poor people, those who have not yet integrated into the Yishuv. But the place is ruled by a spirit of freedom and Jewish hopefulness. Sephardic Jews with long sidelocks walk around in turbans, linen robes, sandals, ritual fringes. There’s a little market where they sell tomatoes, pomegranates, grapes, bread, buns, cheese […] It’s true that there are no baths here or other such comforts. But the writer of these lines and our readers were also not all raised in houses with baths.

The poverty in these camps does not alienate someone like Singer, who himself grew up in poverty.

Singer recognizes both the desperation and the potential in these refugee camps:

The Jews here look both hopeful and angry. They have plenty of complaints for the leaders of Israel. But they’re busy with their own lives. Someone is thinking about them in the Jewish ministries. Their children study in Jewish schools. They are already part of the people. They will themselves soon sit in offices, speak in the Knesset.

It is as if Singer could see the long and difficult road ahead of someone like Yossi Yona — the academic scholar and Labor Party politician who was born in the Ma’abara of Kiryat Ata and now sits in the Knesset.

At every step, Singer reflects on his relationship to the reality of being in the modern Jewish state: “Moses, our great teacher, did not merit coming here. Herzl did not have the luck to see his dream realized. But I, who laid not a single finger toward building this state, walk around like I own the place.” His focus, at this early point of the trip, is mainly on the unbelievability of Jewish sovereignty. The question of its sustainability — the role of Palestinian Arabs within this project and the constant threat of war — is still to come. In the meantime, Singer basks in what he sees as the Jewishness around him: the history and culture with which he grew up, persecuted for hundreds of years in Eastern Europe, had finally risen and come to reign over an entire land and people. This unimaginable reality leads him to focus not on Israel’s relations with other people or states — its Arab population, the Palestinian refugees, the enemy nations across its borders — but rather on Israel’s national relationship to itself.

“There cannot be a Kibbutz Galuyot — an ingathering of the exiles — without the highest tolerance,” he warns.

Everyone in this place has to be accepted: the most orthodox Jews and the greatest apostates; the blonde and the dark-haired, the ingenue and the pioneeress, the Russian baryshnya, the American miss, and the French mademoiselle, the rabbinical Jewish daughters, and the wives that wear wigs with silk bands, and even the German Jewish fraulein who complains that Jews stink and that she misses the mortal danger of German culture.

This sentence is perhaps difficult to swallow today, and yet the divisions in Israeli society have only grown since Singer wrote this over 60 years ago. He could not have known the place that the Ultra-Orthodox would occupy in today’s Israel, or the great split in public opinion that would develop over territories occupied in the Six-Day War, or the strong shift to the right that the Israeli population has exhibited since the late 1970s. What he saw before him were Jews from different backgrounds, in different attire, with different beliefs and convictions, all living together in a single country. He immediately realized that, without tolerance for one another, the project would be doomed from the beginning.

It is worth scrutinizing this thought. Israeli society must deal fairly with others, but Israelis must also find a way of dealing fairly with each other. Respect for the unfamiliar begins with respect for the familiar — with the ability to see oneself in other people, and others in oneself. Where anger, destruction, and violence rule, they do so both inwardly and outwardly. If Jews cannot be good to Jews, this seems to suggest, how could they ever be good to anyone else?

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In his writing on Israel, Singer also constantly contemplates religious history and personal experience. In this spirit, he writes: “Ahavat Israel, loving fellow Jews […] has a mystical significance.” Singer cannot avoid associating the place with his own religious education as a child — being a Jew in Israel also means, for him, being constantly in touch with the myriad of Jewish texts he has internalized.

Standing at the foot of Mount Gilboa, he writes:

This was where Saul fell, this was where the last act of a divine drama was played out. Not far from here the Witch of Endor, the spiritist of the past, bewitched Samuel the Prophet. I look at this very same rocky hump which was seen by the first Jewish king, who had made the first big Jewish mistake: underestimating the powers and evil of Amalek.

Looking out from the balcony of a hotel in Safed a few days later, likely at Mount Meron, he writes: “This is not a mountain for tourists, or runaway fugitives, but for Kabbalists, who made their accounting with our little world. There, through those mountains, one can cross from this world into the world to come.” He continues:

At this very mountain gazed the holy Ari [Rabbi Isaac Luria], Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Baal-Ha’Kharedim [Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri], and the author of Lekha Dodi [Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz]. Here, in this place, an angel showed itself each night to Rabbi Joseph Karo

About the author

and conducted nightly conversations with him. The greatest redemption-seekers looked out from this place for the Messiah. Here, in a tent or a sukkah, deeply gentle souls dreamed about a world of peace and a humanity with one purpose: to worship God, to become absorbed in the divine spirit, in a spirit of holiness, of beauty. This is where the Ari [Rabbi Isaac Luria] composed his Sabbath poetry, which was full of divine eroticism, and which had a depth with no equal in the poetry of the world.

In visiting Mount Zion, he similarly finds himself transported to a mystical past:

I look into a cave where you can supposedly find King David’s grave. I walk on small stone steps that lead to a room where, according to Christian legend, Jesus ate his last meal. […] This is another sort of antiquity than in other places. The antiquity here smells — it seems to me — of the Temple Mount, of Torah, of scrolls, of prophecy.

And elsewhere: “On this very hill there started a spiritual experiment that continues to this very day. In this place, a people tried to lead a divine life on earth. From here there will one day shine a light to the people of the world and to our own people.” And it seems that his sense of moral choice, raised by the danger of Jordanian soldiers looking down on him from the wall above, also finds expression: “What is today a desert could tomorrow become a town, and what today is a town could tomorrow become a desert. It all depends on our actions, not on bricks, stones, or strategies.” Walking through the Valley of Hinom, the historical site of Gehenna which he finds covered in greenery, he even jokes: “If the real Gehenna looked anything like this, sinning wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.” The images and symbolism of the Bible are truly present at every step.

The land as a whole has a strong effect on Singer, but his trip to Safed, as someone raised on the Kabbalah, made an especially strong impression. “I can say that here, for the first time, I gave myself over to the sense that I was in the Land of Israel.” These are moments when Singer’s sense of criticism, doubt, heresy, intellectuality, and all the other complex impulses that find their way into his fiction, takes second place to a deep sense of piety and faith. This is no less powerful in his work, where his characters achieve it rarely or partially, and, even when they do, with great difficulty.

Singer doesn’t come to this spiritual journal easily either. In Safed, he also encounters the reality of the new state. There he meets a Jew who speaks Galician Yiddish, but who is part of generations of Safed residents. “The Arabs of the past were good to Jews,” Singer quotes the man.

They let the Jewish merchants earn a living. When you bought grapes from them, they would add an extra bunch. Another man said: everything was good until the English came. They incited the Arabs against the Jews. Another man said: Well, may there soon be peace. This is atkhalta d’geula — the beginning of the redemption.

Among the mysticism and magic of the place are politics, colonialism, and history.

Later, in Tel Aviv, Singer visits a courthouse. In the first courtroom, Singer sees “a young man from Iraq who had allegedly falsified his documents in order not to have to go to the army.” In the next courtroom, a Greek Orthodox priest is taking the stand, speaking Arabic, which is being interpreted into Hebrew:

On the bench sit several Arabs […] They are suing to get back their houses, which the state of Israel took over after the Jewish-Arab War […] Jews have taken over their homes. But now the Arabs have decided to sue for their property back. They no longer have any documents, but they are bringing witnesses to testify that the houses that they own belong to them. The old Greek priest is one of these witnesses.

In a third courtroom, Singer observes a Yemenite Jewish thief who is accused of assaulting the police, but who claims the police actually assaulted him. The young thief ends up being acquitted. Ashkenazi Jews are conspicuously absent from this entire visit to the courthouse.

Singer soon observes other forms of suffering and injustice. On the southern side of the city, it is even more evident:

Here in Jaffa you can see that there was a war in this country. Tens and possibly hundreds of houses are shot up, ruined […] The majority of Arabs fled Jaffa, and in the Arab apartments live Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia. They live in single rooms almost without furniture. They cook on portable burners. […] The situation in Israel is generally difficult, but in Jaffa everything is laid bare — all the poverty, all the difficulty.

Singer is, as that passage and most of his writing suggests, almost singularly focused on the new Jewish population of the state. The former Arab tenants of these apartment buildings remain invisible to him.

Singer is so utterly focused on the creation of the new state and the new Jewish settlers, that even when faced with the Arabic population, he barely acknowledges them. He writes, “In Beer Sheva, more than in other cities, you feel that you’re among Arabs. […] Arabs are not black but also not white. […] What sticks out to the eye most is the great amount of clothing that Arabs wear on the hottest of days. […] Rarely do you see Arab women on the street.” What is striking is the degree to which Singer sees Israel’s Arab population as an impenetrable other. He seeks no interaction with them, no attempt to understand them. He puts it plainly in another text: he just wants them to let Jews live their lives. Later, when he visits Jaffa, he writes: “As long as the Arabs leave well alone, there will be building-fever here like in Tel Aviv and in the rest of the country.” This is a difficult opinion to hear, but it has actually come to bear. Jaffa, more than 60 years later, is now going through a major revolution of gentrifying Jewish construction.

There is no doubt that Singer’s story of Israel is a Jewish story. His writing can deepen our understanding of different kinds of Jewish realities, even if, when it comes to Palestinians, his opinions are thoroughly unexamined and unconsidered. Singer can contribute, however, an interesting perspective on the need for tolerance among different kinds of Jews: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, old world and new. This is especially the case when it comes to modern Jews understanding the mindset of the old world. And it sets out a path for tolerance that can then be extended beyond Israel’s Jewish population.

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“I myself want people to speak to me in Hebrew,” Singer writes in one of his earlier articles.

But as soon as anyone hears that my Hebrew sounds foreign, they start speaking to me in Yiddish, and so the result is that I mostly speak Yiddish. People here speak Yiddish at every step. […] Even Sephardim learn some Yiddish in the army. It’s also in fashion for Hebraists to throw in Yiddish words to be cute.

Over and over, Singer’s wishes and imaginings of this place bump up against the reality. Everyday life — the texture of daily reality — pushes back against the big questions that seem to always be at hand. “A good cup of coffee is rare,” Singer writes. “You can get a good black coffee, but if you like a cup of coffee with cream like in New York, you will mostly be disappointed.” He also points out that “yogurt is very popular, as is a sort of sour cream called lebenya.” And another thing: “You see balconies everywhere. People sit on their balconies, eat on their balconies, entertain guests.” He points out that there are many elegant people on the streets but that well-dressed people are a rare sight. He even spends a paragraph on trisim, the heavy shades that are meant to keep out the Mediterranean sun. No matter the history, there is always real life to negotiate.

A major part of this real life, as Singer points out, is the constant threat of war. “The enemy can attack from all sides: from north, from south, from east,” Singer writes, reflecting on his trip up to Kibbutz Beit Alpha. “But the visitor in Israel is infected with a mysterious bravery that belongs to all Jews in Israel. A kind of courage that’s difficult to explain.” On Tel Aviv, he writes: “The enemy is not far. If you in New York were as close to the enemy as we are here, you’d shiver and shake and try to run away. But in the streets where I find myself there reigns a strange quiet, a serenity having something to do with the physical and spiritual atmosphere.” In Jerusalem, he again has the same thought: “It’s hard to believe that you’re close, extremely close, to the enemy.” And on the way up to Mount Zion, he again points to the mysterious courage: “I’m no hero, but I have no fear. I’d would say that Israel is infected with bravery. In any other country, this kind of walk, next to the very border of the enemy, would arouse fear in me.” Violence is a reality that Israelis face at all times — and there is no doubt that over the decades it has affected and perhaps also infected our society, both how Israelis treat non-Jews and how we treat each other. But the fact remains that, to live here, we all need an inherent kind of bravery, toward outside threats no less than our own neighbors.

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In one of his articles, in which Singer considers all the people he met during his trip, he tells the story of Benjamin Warszawiak, an old friend from Bilgoraj who moved to Israel. Benjamin found life difficult, moved for a time to South America, but eventually came back to live out his life working on a kibbutz. His story is sad, and yet Singer sees a redemptive aspect to this man’s life — that there is nowhere else but the Jewish state for him to live. “You don’t have to necessarily be an extraordinary person to have deep spiritual needs,” he reflects. “Simple people often sacrifice their personal happiness to improve their spiritual atmosphere. Israel is full of such people, and you find them especially in the kibbutzim. I can say that almost all of the kibbutzniks are in their own way idealists.”

Ultimately, Singer suggests, the paradox of Jewish life in Israel lies in the heart of the Jews who continue to make Israel their home. “Faith in this place, like the Sabbath, is somewhat automatic and instinctual too,” he writes. “The mouth denies, but the heart believes. How could people live here otherwise?”

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David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.

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