The first Jew I was consciously associated with was educationist-cum-journalist Betty Caplan who, in constant search for exile, as in the mystique of her people, relocated to a new abode after being denied a new work permit to continue as a high school teacher in Kenya.
It was a mild expulsion, different from the one we were asked to memorise in Sunday school, far removed from the travails of Shakespeare's Shylock, and remotely resembling the third Aliya , the wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine in early 1920s when the Soviet Union declared an ideological war against Zionism and the Hebrew language.
Out of that trekking band of pioneer Zionists was the father of Moshe Dor, the great modernist Israeli poet and essayist born in Tel Aviv. Moshe (Moses), like his biblical namesake, had a "speech impediment," which doctors say is either caused by a physical malformation or psychological stress. Among the Jews though, there is a fable to explain Moses' stammering: young Moses is offered gold by the Pharaoh as a final test of whether he should be killed or spared. The boy stretches his hand toward the earthly thing, but the angel of God slaps his hand and causes Moses to take up coals, proving by that gesture that he is stupid and not to be feared. Moses filled his mouth with burning coals and maimed himself for life, becoming a stutterer. Faced with this predicament, the Israeli poet missed the rumbling bubble of youth, and instead sought for solace, the company of earlier Hebrew or Yiddish writers.
One needs to read Khamsin: Memoirs and Poetry by a Native Israeli , and he shall be washed of any prejudices he might hold against the disabled. Khamsin , a hot desert wind originating from the Sahara, so intense, as to alter perceptions of colour and light, is a treasure trove of essays and poems. The first part, embedded in prose, with the subtitle, This Parched Land, has some of the most magnificently written essays which every writer who wants to arrive must read. Moshe is profound and easily unforgettable: "In my Tel Aviv childhood, there were many painful days. I don't wish to pretty them up out with rueful nostalgia," for "whomever fate has cursed with a difficult personality, must expect to suffer." The story of a Jew is tempered with the burden of exile, dislocation, longing, anguish and triumph. A Jew is borne to vigilance, "like the fish of the sea whose eyes are always open."
Israel did not exist until 1948. Before, Jews lived in what was Palestinian British Mandate. Following the upsurge of anti-Semitism and the expulsion of Jews from Europe, Jews moved to Palestine where they met with hostile Palestinian Arabs who were concerned with their surging population. There were frequent skirmishes between Arabs and Jews, and riots against the British. Britain handed the problem to United Nations. On November 29, 1947, UN General Assembly voted to establish two separate states in Palestine; one for Jews and one for Arabs. The Jews celebrated. The Arabs cried. Violence erupted.
On May 15, 1948, Jews proclaimed independence for the state of Israel. The armies of neighbouring Arab states attacked Israel in aid of Palestinian Arabs, leading to what historians call Israel's war of independence: "The War of Liberation was on. Burning with shame because I was too young, I tried in desperation to hoodwink the enlistment officer." The second part, More Distant than Lunacy, than Love , is a lodestone of poetry. A glimmer parched on a mountain and the howling sea, commingle. Light flints! Ah, and you wander and wonder with Moshe, for the boy is not the one leading the caravan traversing the brambles:
"The maple reddened overnight,
And in the misty dawn, primeval fathers
Pleaded with us in the voice of migratory birds
To hurry, leave for southern towns."
Even when the Jew has been forced to relocate under the rattle of machine guns, the thud of bombs, or the spate of anti-Semitism, his faith does not waver:
"Even those who desert, if Hebrew was their
First cry of life, carry in the secret of their inner flesh
A little Yarkon, two or three Jerusalem stones or
A hoeful of heavy, crumbling clods of Emek earth"
Indeed, the Maranos who were a Jewish inhabitant of Moorish Spain converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages, but secretly continued to observe Judaism.
Next week we hear the response of a Palestinian poet in the last of our essay-trilogy.