Freitag, 21. August 2020

Limited Nature?

"In a recent interview, by way of explaining his sense of alienness in the Israeli society he had entered as a thirteen-year-old refugee (“And it was demanded of me to be the new Jew. Why should I be a new Jew? I love the old Jews, you know”), the late Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld described a short story he wrote early in his career: 

 It’s about two characters, Max and Bertha. Max is somewhere around 27, Bertha is maybe 12, 13. He picked her up, somewhere during the war, and brought her to Israel. A retarded child. But he cannot leave her. She’s retarded, but she has something magic in her blood. She is sitting, kneeling on the street. And he’s always leaving her. Giving her food and some money and leaving her, and hoping not to find her. But always he comes back, and she’s still sitting in the same place. I brought this story to a newspaper, it was a very short story. And the editor said, what are you trying here, why Bertha? We came to Israel to forget Bertha. You are taking a retarded girl as the hero of the story? What are you going to learn from such a story? How will this story help us build a new nation of new people? . . . Why are you are bringing these retarded, limited figures into our life?1 

Bertha is a remnant of the old country, her “limited” nature a symbol of the deficient, defective nature of the Jews of eastern Europe. As Appelfeld’s editor says so cogently—and cuttingly—the goal of the Zionists who came to the Land of Israel was to forget who they had been before, their alter ego: the crippled, pitiful Jews of the diaspora. And yet, as Appelfeld’s story shows, Max could neither leave Bertha behind in Europe nor forget about her once in Israel. Out of pathos and compassion, presumably, but also because of the “magic in her blood.”

Stepchildren of the Shtetl, The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939