A Catalogue of Jewish Symbols by Ilan Stavans


I feel a contentment in defeat.

— J.L.B., ‘Deutches Requiem’

Borges was a rara avis. The intelligentsia in Latin America, particularly the Left-leaning one, has never been particularly interested in things Jewish. (It isn’t overtly anti-Semitic either, although since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that intelligentsia has become openly anti-Zionist.) More often than not, Jews and their contribution to Western Civilization, are ignored. Is this silence a form of attack? Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize winner in 1990, never addressed Jewishness in an upfront fashion. Paz covered every single imaginable topic in the humanities in his magisterial oeuvre yet not a single poem of his deals with the Jews in general, let alone those in the Hispanic world. Likewise with Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez. Exceptions to the rule are Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. Fuentes has several novels on the subject: A Change of Skin on the Nazis, The Hydra Head on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Terra Nostra on the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula prior to 1492; and Vargas Llosa authored The Storyteller, about a Jewish anthropologist in Lima who becomes a griot among the Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon. Vargas has also, in his sustained non-fiction career, debated issues such as anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Borges was interested in Jews, not as people overwhelmed with ideological interests, religious fervour and personal passions, but as abstractions. He was attracted to Jews as metaphors. This is not to say he didn’t socialize with them. While in Geneva and Spain during World War I, he befriended a number of Jews of Polish-Jewish origin, among them Maurice Abramowicz (about whom he wrote a poem in 1984) and Simón Jichlinski. They were ‘my two bosom friends,’ Borges wrote in the autobiographical pieces published in The New Yorker. He also became close to Rafael Cansinos-Assens, the latter a Sephardic author responsible for El candelabro de los siete brazos. But what attracted him was the Jew as symbol.
This obsession with Jewish symbolism started with the Zohar, the canonical text in Kabbalah. His knowledge on this area came from secondary sources, such as Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, The Holy Kabbalah by Arthur E. Waite, and Le Kabbale by Henri Sérouya, as well as texts by Adolphe Franck and Knorr von Rosenroth, and the entry on the subject in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Borges liked the concept of Sephirot, the method of Gematria and the idea, expounded by Jewish mystics, that language precedes the creation of the world.
During his trip to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, Borges was asked what he wanted to see. ‘Don’t ask me what I want to see because I am blind,’ he responded. ‘But if you ask me who I want to see I’ll answer, right away, [Gershom] Scholem.’ Shortly after, Borges wrote a poem about the Golem. Herein the first three stanzas in of Alan S. Trueblood’s translation included in Alexander Coleman’s Selected Poems (1999):

If, as the Greek maintains in the Cratylus,
A name is the archetype of a thing,
The rose is in the letters that spell rose
And the Nile entire resounds in its name’s
ring.

So, composed of consonants and vowels,
There must exist one awe-inspiring word
That God inheres in—that, when spoken,
holds
Almightiness in syllables unslurred.

Adam knew it in the Garden, so did the stars.
The rusty work of sin, so the cabbalists say,
Obliterated it completely;
No generation has found it to this day.

Borges places the myth of the Golem in the kabbalistic tradition. He’s interested in the power of the Hebrew language, which, according to legend, was created by God even before the universe came into being. He pays attention to the Saussurian relationship between object and word.
Borges discovered Kabbalah at an early age. In the conversation with Alazraki, which took place at Buenos Aires’ National Library, he suggested his interest was sparked by Dante’s Divine Comedy and by his adolescent readings of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

I found it in Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy which he undertook during the Civil War to avoid thinking about the war he was too preoccupied with. There is a three-page appendix in that translation that Longfellow took from a book — I believe it was Rabbinical Literature — by J.P. Stehelin where there is a discussion of the Hebrew alphabet and of the different meanings and values that the Kabbalists attributed to those letters. And the other reference must have come from the Britannica. As a youngster, I used to come here, to the Library, quite frequently, and since I was very shy and didn’t dare ask the librarian for books, I would take a volume of the Britannica, any volume, from the shelf myself. Since they were readily accessible in the reading room, I did not have the request of any librarian, so I would take a volume and read it. But the old Encyclopaedia Britannica was far superior to the more recent editions. It used to be a reading work, and now it has been turned into a reference book.

Borges’ first piece on the Kabbalah,‘Una vindicación de la cabala’ (‘A defense of the Kabbalah’). was published in Discusión (1932). His style at the time was still unformed:

Neither the first time it has been attempted, nor the last time it will fail, this defense is distinguished by two facts. One is my almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language; the other, my desire to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it. These procedures, as is well known, include the vertical reading of sacred texts, the reading referred to as boustophedon (one line from left to right, the following line from right to left), the methodical substitution of certain letters of the alphabet for others, the sum of the numerical value of the letters, etc. To ridicule such operations is simple; I prefer to attempt to understand them.

Borges talks about the Kabbalah itself indirectly. His mission was to discuss the divine nature of the Holy Scriptures, he wasn’t interested in religion but in the fact that ‘the Spirit’ created the universe. His interest was in literature:

Let us imagine now this astral intelligence, dedicated to manifesting itself not in dynasties or annihilations or birds, but in written words. Let us also imagine, according to the pre-Augustinian theory of verbal inspiration, that God dictates, word by word, what he proposes to say. This premise (which was the one postulated by the Kabbalists) turns the Scriptures into an absolute text, where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero. The conception alone of such a document is a greater wonder than those recorded in its pages. A book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of revelations lying in wait, of superimpositions of light… How could one not only study it but do so to absurdity, to numerical excess, as did the Kabbalah?

Throughout his life, Borges used a number of kabbalistic motifs, sometimes overtly, others in a tangential, even subliminal fashion. ‘The Circular Ruins,’ for instance, might be read as a tribute to the myth of the Golem. In the story a magician who has never had a child decides to create his own son. Night after night he shapes his successor, until the creation acquires its own life. Then there is ‘The Aleph’, arguably Borges’ most emblematic — and famous — tale. The leitmotif behind it isn’t the Zohar but the Divine Comedy. The protagonist, Borges himself, is in love with a deceased female named Beatriz. He has a rivalry with another writer, Dante Argentino Daneri, who is awarded a prize Borges believes he himself deserves. Daneri invites Borges to visit a basement in his Buenos Aires house where a magical object, ‘The Aleph,’ is found. The descent allows the narrator to sense a journey before him.

Borges was interested in Jews, not as people overwhelmed with ideological interests, religious fervour and personal passions, but as abstractions.

Another story where the Hebrew alphabet serves as a map is ‘Death and the Compass’ first published in the magazine Sur in 1942 and later gathered in Artifices (1944). It became part of Ficciones (also 1944). In his forward to Artifices, translated by Andrew Hurley, Borges writes:

Two of [the stories], perhaps, merit some comment: ‘Death and the Compass’ and ‘Funes, His Memory’. The second is a long metaphor for insomnia. The first, in spite of the Germanic or Scandinavian names in it, takes place in a Buenos Aires of dreams: the twisting rue de Toulon is the Paseo de Julio; Triste-le-Roy is the hotel where Herbert Ashe received, yet probably did not read, the eleventh volume of an imaginary encyclopaedia. After this fiction was written, I thought it might be worthwhile to expand the time and space the story covers: the revenge might be bequeathed to others, the periods of time might be calculated in years, perhaps in centuries; the first letter of the Name might be uttered in Iceland, the second in Mexico, the third in Hindustan. Is there any need for me to say that there are saints among the Hassidim, and that the sacrifice of four lives in order to obtain the four letters that the Name demands is a fantasy dictated by the shape of my story?

The story ‘Death and the Compass’, inspired by Spinoza, takes place in a European city much like Amsterdam and can be seen as a tacit tribute to one of its illustrious citizens, Baruch Spinoza. After all, this is a detective story with a geometrical plan. The detective is Erik Lönnrot and his nemesis is Red Scharlach. Lönnrot is invited to test his intelligence by solving a series of four murders, each committed within symmetrical coordinates of time and space (December 3rd, January 3rd, February 3rd, etc., in the northern part of the city, the western part, etc.). The victims are all Jews, at times Hassidim — one of them has an octavo volume about the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tov. Lönnrot gets information from a journalist of the Yiddische Zeitung about the Tetragramaton, the four-lettered divine name: YHVH. After each murder, a sign appears: ‘a letter of the Name has been written.’
Red Scharlach, also known as Scharlach the Dandy, was a criminal who ‘had sworn upon his honour to kill Lönnrot, but Lönnrot never allowed himself to be intimidated. He thought of himself as a reasoning machine, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, even something of the gambler.’ Eventually Lönnrot realises a fourth murder is to take place in a precise time and place: March 3rd, at the abandoned Villa Triste-le-Roy. He suspects that Red Scharlach might be the last victim but then dismisses the idea. When he arrives, he sees Scharlach. Lönnrot asks: ‘Scharlach — you are looking for the secret name?’ Hurley’s translation:

Scharlach stood there, impassive. He had not participated in the brief struggle, and now moved only to put out his hand for Lönnrot’s revolver. But then he spoke, and Lönnrot heard in his voice a tired triumphance, a hatred as large as the universe, a sadness no smaller than that hatred.
‘No’, he said. ‘I am looking for something more fleeting and more perishable than that — I am looking for Erik Lönnrot’.

Scharlach explains how he carefully executed each of his crimes so far. Lönnrot realises he’s about to die and considers the three symmetrical crimes:

‘There are three lines too many in your labyrinth,’ he said at last. ‘I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me dawn in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy.’
‘The next time I kill you,’ Scharlach replied, ‘I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless.’
He stepped back a few steps. Then, very carefully, he fired.

Borges was the first, and for a while the only, supporter of Kafka in the Hispanic world. In his essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors,’ published in 1951 and included in Other Inquisitions (1952), Borges writes in Eliot Weinberger’s rendition:

At one time I considered writing a study of Kafka’s precursors. I had thought, at first, that he was unique as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after spending a little time with him, I felt I could recognise his voice, or his habits, in the texts of various literatures and various ages. I will note a few of them here, in chronological order.

Rather than offer a hermeneutic interpretation of Kafka, the essay then concentrates on a catalogue of echoes: Zeno’s paradox against motion, a fable by the ninth-century Chinese author Han Yu, Kierkegaard, the anti-Semite Léon Bloy, and Lord Dunsany. Borges concludes:

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have listed resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This last fact is what is most significant. Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of those writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Robert Browning anticipates the work of Kafka, but our reading of Kafka noticeably refines and diverts our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we read it now. The word precursor is indispensable to the vocabulary of criticism, but one must try to purify it from any connotation of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as well as it will modify the future. In this correlation, the identity or plurality of men doesn’t matter. The first Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of the gloomy myths and terrifying institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

The conclusion serves as confirmation of Borges’ need to see literature globally. He refuses to approach Kafka in the context of Jewish literature exclusively. He doesn’t even mention his Czech origins and his German-language style. What matters to him are the reverberations of Kafka’s motifs. Borges is interested in the Kafka of the Hassidic parables, not in the novelist of  ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Castle’.
Still, in 1943, he introduced, for Editorial Losada in Buenos Aires, Kafka’s La metamorfosis. A few years earlier he talked about him in El Hogar (1938). Borges also included material by Kafka in his Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1940), as well as in his compendium Libro del cielo y el infierno (1960), Libro de los seres imaginarios (1967), and Libro de los sueños (1976). The third and fourth pieces by Borges on Kafka were in the form of introductions. The third in A Personal Library, Borges’ last editorial project, published between 1985 and 1986. His selection included ‘Amerika’ and some short stories. The fourth piece is a prologue he wrote toward the end of his life, as part of a project called The Library of Babel. The volumes were designed to be short. They were fantastic tales selected by Borges. From Kafka he chose ‘The Vulture’. The book appeared in 1979. The prologue offers fresh views on Borges’ opinion not only on the author but also on Jews:

Everyone knows that Kafka always felt mysteriously guilty toward his father, in the manner of Israel with its God; his Judaism, which separated him from the rest of mankind, affected him in a complex way. The consciousness of approaching death and the feverish exaltation of tuberculosis must have sharpened those faculties…
Two ideas — or more exactly, two obsessions — rule Kafka’s work: subordination and the infinite. In almost all his fictions there are hierarchies, and those hierarchies are infinite…
The most unquestionable virtue of Kafka is the invention of intolerable situations. A few lines are enough to demonstrate: ‘the animal seizes the whip from the hands of its master and beats him in order to become the master and doesn’t realise that this is nothing but an illusion produced by a new knot in the whip.’ Or: ‘Leopards invade the temples and drink wine from the chalices; this happens suddenly; in the end it was foreseen that this would happen and it is incorporated into the liturgy’. The elaboration, in Kafka, is less admirable than the invocation.

A less overt, yet equally significant, tribute to Kafka appears in the story ‘The Secret Miracle’ which is barely six pages in length. Like ‘Deutches Requiem,’ it has a single, unifying argument: the last hours of a prisoner about to be executed by the Nazis. Both stories focus on self-redemption from different perspectives. The former has a Jew as its protagonist, but it is narrated in the omniscient third-person; the latter, instead, has a Nazi as its main character, and it is he who delivers the tale.
‘The Secret Miracle,’ written during World War II and is collected in Ficciones, in a triptych with Borges’ other Jewish tales: ‘Emma Zunz’ and ‘Death and the Compass.’ It is more than a subliminal tribute to Kafka, already dead by then for a couple of decades.
The story opens with an epigraph from the Qur’an, 2:261: ‘And God caused him to die for an hundred years, and then raised him to life. And God said, “How long hast thou waited?’”He said, “I have waited a day or part of a day.”’Borges sets the plot in Prague in 1943. In the first scene Jaromir Hladik, a translator and playwright arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish, is taken to prison. The first scene is emblematic: it describes a dream Hladik has of a chess game so long that the opponents have forgotten not only what the prize but also the rules of the game.
From his cell, Hladik communicates with God. We find out Hladik is the author an unfinished drama called The Enemies and he knows that if his life is to have any meaning, it is because of his authorship of this drama. So he requests that God grant him a miracle — a secret miracle, since only he and he alone will know about it. In the final scene, as Hladik faces a German firing squad, the universe comes to a stop:

The guns converged on Hladik, but the men who were to kill him stood motionless. The sergeant’s arm eternized an unfinished gesture. On a paving stone of the courtyard a bee cast an unchanging shadow. The wind had ceased, as in a picture… He had asked God for a whole year to finish his work; His omnipotence had granted it. God had worked a secret miracle for him; German lead would kill him at the set hour, but in his mind a year would go by between the order and its execution.

In the very last line, Borges has Hladik shot to death. Even though no evidence of a finished manuscript of The Enemies can be found, the prisoner dies satisfied: his life has been justified. Borges’ statement is clear: a writer’s raison d’être is to leave behind the greater part of his talent. It seems clear that in the face of tyranny and death, Borges understood what Jews in Europe were about: faith, endurance, and posterity.

Another modern Jewish writer attracting Borges’ interest, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm, was Agnon (Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes). In the mid- sixties, Borges delivered a couple of lectures at the Instituto Cultural Argentino-Israelí in Buenos Aires, one on the Book of Job, the other on Spinoza. These lectures were eventually translated into English. A chance comment with Neal Sokol — included in Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations (2004) — in which I state that Borges never read Agnon, prompted a Canadian friend, Carl Rosenberg, editor of Outlook, to send me a third, previously unknown and significantly shorter lecture by Borges, It was delivered in the same institute in 1967, approximately a year after Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with the German poet Nelly Sachs.
In ‘On Sh. Y. Agnon’, which I hereby reconstruct in English, Borges mentions, in passing, Agnon’s edition of the Tales the Ba’al Shem-Tov. He also refers to Days of Awe, which Schocken issued in 1965 with a subtitle more suitable for poetry slams than for libraries ‘being a treasury of traditions, legends and learned commentaries concerning Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days between, culled from three hundred volumes, ancient and new.’ As the non-believer he was — and an even less enthusiast of religious rituals — Borges prefers Contes de Jérusalem (1959), which he read in the French rendition of Rachel and Guy Casaril. The anthology includes nine of Agnon’s tales, among them ‘The Whole Loaf’ and ‘Ido and Enam’.
I begin with some considerations that run the risk of appearing digressive but which should take us to the essential theme: the personality and oeuvre of our great contemporary, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. My ignorance of Hebrew — ignorance which I deplore but which it’s too late to remedy — has forced me to judge him through Days of Awe, about the Jewish liturgical year; and Contes de Jérusalem. I’ll limit myself to the astonishment I’ve experienced in these volumes, the latter especially.
Let me ask a simple yet complex question: what is a nation? My first reaction is to offer a geographical answer but it would be insufficient. Instead, let us envisage a nation as the series of memories stored at the heart of a people. George Bernard Shaw was once asked: How much suffering is humankind able to bear? His answer was that the suffering of a single individual is enough and is also the limit. In other words, the limit might be an abstraction, although the suffering itself is real. And so, if misery is impossible to measure in collective terms, how might one define a nation?
To me there isn’t a clearer example of a nation than Israel. It’s origins link it with those of the whole world, and it reaches us today after much misery and exile. A nation is made of the accumulated memory of successive generations. In itself, memory is often approached in a couple of ways: as a barren collection of dates, names and locations; and as a catalogue of curiosities. But there’s another approach neither endorsed by historians, nor by students of folklore: memory as experience incarnated in people. This, precisely, is what I find in Agnon.
Contes de Jérusalem ought to be read like one reads Dante: as a series of tales, at once tragic and humorous; and as a set of symbols. Agnon enables us to appreciate ancient Jewish tradition through a game of mirrors. In it he also invites us to recognize the role of Hassidism. Unquestionably, the Hassidic tales compiled by Martin Buber and, in his early years, by Agnon too, left an indelible imprint on him. For instance, ‘Ido and Enam,’ filled with mystery, is the bizarre tale of a scholar who, in an act of revelation, sees ninety-nine words of an unknown language. Ninety-nine are also the names of God; the Tetragramaton, which is the hundredth one, is infallible. Indirectly, Agnon recalls in his pages the legend of the Golem, made out of sand by means of words by a Cabalist in Prague’s Jewish quarter.
I shall now refer to ‘The Whole Loaf,’ a story about chance. It reminds me of Kafka, who is part of Jewish memory too. Agnon chronicles the infinite yet minuscule obstacles undergone by its hungry protagonist as he prepares for the Sabbath. Whereas Kafka had no hope, or at least a hope so remote it generates in us a terrible feeling of despair, Agnon is patient: he waits because he’s a believer. Indeed, one of the right decisions the Swedish Academy made recently was not to award its Nobel Prize to a writer of sadness and despair. Instead, it honoured one who, like Bernard Shaw, also a laureate, is sensitive to tragedy but knows that a joyful conclusion to the human quest isn’t altogether beyond us.
Another story in Contes de Jérusalem is about a country that could be any country. This one in particular is punished with a drought marked by an inexorably blue sky. Furthermore, enemies are always on the attack, the earth is barren and rivers are empty. The population is divided into two parties: on one side are the cover-headed, on the other the naked-headed. […] The two parties are ready to destroy each other. Yet there’s a single individual who is beyond any affiliation. He furtively leaves the city, praying for God to send a compassionate storm to stop the destruction. When the others find out, they excommunicate him. His sin: not to have alerted the authorities to his wishes. A decision is then made to have everyone build a huge tent for protection from the storm, which must be large enough to cover the entire country. A commission is established to decide what name to give to the tent. Alternative commissions take the responsibility of studying the etymology and orthography of the chosen name. As the population wastes its energy in trivialities, God allows rain to fall — and the barren land is fertilized, just as modern Israel itself was fertilized. I hear a distant echo in Agnon’s story of the Jewish tradition that says that every generation includes a total of thirty-six just men. By the way, this tradition was studied by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend. Unacquainted with one another, these just men navigate the world and are replaced as soon as they die. Right now their dynasty redeems us.
Israel’s memory is in Agnon — not an erudite but a living memory. He is known through a pseudonym; he didn’t write for his own vanity. Somehow he knew he was the living memory of that admirable people to which, beyond the vicissitudes of blood, we all belong: the people of Israel.

The interest in Agnon is part of Borges’ admiration for Israel as a young nation. His relationship with the Jewish state was ambivalent at first and only in later years — when he himself became an institutional luminary — did he soften his approach to it. It isn’t that Borges was critical of Zionism, in fact, judging by his work, he seems to have a limited knowledge of it, but international politics didn’t interest him in the least. He seldom talked about Theodor Herzl, not even about Eliezer ben Yehuda, credited for the modern revival of the Hebrew language.
Borges’s first trip to Israel came at the invitation of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in recognition of his philo-Semitism, and in particular of his positive views on Israel. Borges had been active in the Casa Argentina en Israel-Tierra Santa, a project that sought to build in Jerusalem an Argentine cultural centre. In the autobiographical essay published in The New Yorker, Borges stated:

Early in 1969, invited by the Israeli government, I spent ten very exciting days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I brought home the conviction of having been in the oldest and the youngest of nations, of having come from a very living, vigilant land to a half-asleep nook of the world. Since my Geneva days, I had always been interested in Jewish culture, thinking of it as an integral element of our so-called Western civilization, and during the Israeli-Arab war of a few years back I immediately found myself taking sides. While the outcome was still uncertain, I wrote a poem on the battle. A week later, I wrote another on the victory. Israel was, of course, still an armed camp at the time of my visit. There, along the shores of Galilee, I kept recalling these lines from Shakespeare:

Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet,
Which fourteen hundred years ago, were nail’d
For our advantage, on the bitter cross.

Actually, there are a total of three poems in Borges’ collection In Praise of Darkness (1969). All were later included in his Obras Completas. There’s a strange, triumphant, pompous tone and tune to these poems. They eulogize the Six-Day War figuratively, in abstract, without placing it in context: The oldest of nations/ is also the youngest. Whoever is interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict won’t get an uninterested picture through them. Instead, the reader appreciates a blind fervour. I don’t believe these poems have been translated into English. Herein my versions.

‘To Israel’:

Who shall tell if you, Israel, are to be found
In the lost labyrinth of secular rivers
That is my blood? Who shall locate the places
Where my blood and yours have navigated?
It doesn’t matter. I know you’re in the Sacred
Book that comprehends Time, rescued in
history
By the red Adam, as well as by the memory
And agony of the Crucified One.
You’re in the Book that is the mirror
Of each face approaching it,
As well as God’s face, which, in its complex
And hard crystal, is appreciated in terror.
Long live Israel, who keeps God’s wall
In your passionate battle.

‘Israel’:

A man incarcerated and bewitched,
a man condemned to be the serpent
that keeps the infamous gold,
a man condemned to be Shylock,
a man wandering through the globe,
knowing he had been in Paradise,
an old and blind man who ought to tear down
the temple columns,
a face condemned to be a mask,
a man who in spite of humankind
is Spinoza and the Baal Shem and the
Kabbalists,
a man that is a Book,
a mouth praising heaven’s justice
from the abyss,
an attorney or a dentist
who talked with God in a mountain,
a man condemned to ridicule
and abomination, a Jew,
an ancient man,
burnt and drowned in lethal chambers,
an obstinate man who is immortal
and now has returned to battle,
to the violent light of victory,
beautiful like a lion at noon.

And ‘Israel, 1969:

I feared Israel would be threatened,
with sweet insidious,
by the nostalgia that secular diasporas
accumulated, like sorrowful treasure,
in the cities of the infidel, the juderías,
the twilight of the steppe, the dreams—
the nostalgia of those who, near the waters of
Babylon,
longed for you, Jerusalem.
What else were you, Israel, if not that nostalgia,
the will to safe-keep,
from the inconstant shapes of time,
your old magical book, your liturgy,
your solitude with God?
I was wrong. The oldest of nations
is also the youngest.
You haven’t been tempted by gardens,
otherness and boredom,
but by the rigor of the last frontier.
Israel has announced, without words:
you shall forget who you are—
you shall leave behind your previous self.
You shall forget who you were in those lands
that gave you their afternoons and mornings
and which you shall no longer cherish.
You shall forget your parents’ tongue
and learn the tongue of Paradise.
You shall be an Israeli. You shall be a soldier.
You shall build the homeland with swamps,
you shall erect it in deserts.
You brother shall work with you, he whose
face you haven’t seen before.
Only one thing is promised:
your place in the battlefield.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

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