Monday, September 1, 2014

On the Day of Atonement

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Yehuda Amichai

On the Day of Atonement in 1967, I put on my dark suit and went to the Old City of Jerusalem. I stood, for some time, before the alcove of an Arab’s shop, not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop of buttons and zippers and spools of thread in all colours, and snaps and buckles. A glorious light and a great many colours, like a Holy Ark with its doors ajar.

I told him in my heart[1] that my father, too, had such a shop of threads and buttons. I explained to him in my heart all about the tens of years and the reasons and the circumstances because of which I am now here and my father’s shop is in ashes there, and he is buried there.

By the time I had finished, it was the hour of “the locking of the gates”.[2] He too pulled down the shutter and locked the gate, and I went home with the worshipers.

[1] The Hebrew is “be-libi” which could be translated “in my heart” or “with my heart”. The difference is enormous, and if I have accepted the version in Barbara Harshav’s officially approved translation, it is only with reluctance. To tell the Arab “in” his heart implies that he never even entered the shop, never physically spoke, but simply thought these guilty thoughts inside himself, and lacked the courage to go further. I cannot believe this. Knowing Amichai's views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and understanding that this poem is an expression of that position, I know in my own heart that Amichai must have gone in, that he did speak, did tell; and that in using the phrase here, he was aware that it echoed a commandment in the Shema, to love the Lord “be-chol levavecha – with all your heart”. With, not in. Surely, surely, he managed to make the meaningful dialogue without which... surely...

[2] In Hebrew "ne'ilah". It is the name of the final prayer service in synagogue on the Day of Atonement, and metaphorically, of course, it represents the end of dialogue.

Neither prose nor poetry, but somewhere aesthetically rather interesting between the two, this piece works for me on several different planes. In memory, I too am transported to the Old City of Jerusalem, not in 1967, but in 1973, when I went there for the first time, in the company of my first serious girlfriend, and likewise entered the shop of an Arab, bright with "home-made" clothing that in truth was probably imported from Bombay or Morocco; after drinking muddy coffee and talking Arab-Israeli politics for an hour, he insisted on dressing us, like Abraham and Sarah for their wedding, in the finest garments from his shop. I still have the photos somewhere; me looking pale as T.E. Lawrence, my girlfriend passable as a Yemenite.

Unlike Amichai's visit, ours was an act of tourism, not penitence, though I can relate easily enough to the guilt that he is describing: the notion, dreadful to any Jew with even the slightest sense of History, that it is we who have become, today, once more, a nation of conquerors, that we who know what it means better than any other nation in human history, we have become the displacers of other people from their homes, the guards of the refugee and the prison camps, the legislators of oppressive laws, the banning and censorious authority of other people's ruined lives: exactly as God told Moses that it would be, when his people came to settle in the Land of Canaan. We have, as D.H. Lawrence put it in "Snake", "something to expiate"; and precisely that is the purpose of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, as Amichai well knew, when he set the overt political statement of this prose-poem in precisely this religious context.

In 1975 I had a differently happy experience in Jerusalem. At the Jaffa Gate a young Hasid was touting for business, and I accepted his invitation to a wedding in the Me'ah She'arim, the "hundred gates" just outside the Old City where the most orthodox Jews reside. My sister had lived there for six weeks just three years earlier, had been repeatedly spat at, insulted, even stoned, for wearing shorts or sleeveless T-shirts, for being seen with boys. Conscious that I was prejudiced against these "bigots", I wanted to find something positive. The wedding was alcohol-free and segregated, men and women on either side of a wall of open trellising through which they could look, but not cross. Only the bride and groom, and only once, could join the party on the other side, to be lifted in the air in their chairs, and cheered, and danced around like Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah. So much joy, so much ardent, fervent intensity of celebration. My hatred of them dissipated, almost, if not quite, to nothing. And in the years that followed, buoyed up by this breaking-through of the intellectual dogmatism,  this opening of the gates through actual dialogue, many Charedi Jews in England, Canada, America would become teaching colleagues, close friends. It can be done.

Like Amichai, I am ambivalent about my religion. I reject its rules and its demand for absolute conformity, yet I follow most of its principles – which are really issues of ethics and morality – I share its ideals, and find myself comfortable in its spiritual outlets, in a way that I do not do in any other creed that I have sampled. On the Day of Atonement in 1983, a day of fasting and solemn prayer for most Jews, some thirty of us from my ultra left wing kibbutz on the Lebanese border travelled in a convoy to the Sea of Galilee, our trucks pulling motor boats, carrying surf boards, disco equipment, crates of "white meat". We set up our party on the shores of Ein Gev, and ate and swam and sailed and snogged the day away. There must have been moments when all of us felt a pang of guilt, that we were betraying or insulting an ancient tradition; but ironically so, on this festival of guilt. But it is primarily a festival of Atonement, which is to say At-One-Ment, and we were indeed at one, at every level of our beings, and in the evening there were cows to milk and chicken eggs to gather in, and of course guard duty to perform along the border of our conquered Canaan.

My thanks once again to Ze'ev for the cartoon, which depicts General Moshe Dayan as Hamlet. Dayan was the general who led Israel to victory in the 1967 Six Day War - "the setback - al-naksa" in the Arabic of the Palestinians. What might very well be the shopkeeper's riposte to Amichai can be read here.

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