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The Moral Lives of Israelis

Reinventing the Dream State

by (author) David Berlin

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2012
Israel, Middle Eastern, Jewish
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2012
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The Moral Lives of Israelis explores the last ten years of life in Israel, a sixty-one-year-old country that has never not been in a state of war. The last words given to David Berlin by his father, a Sabra who had fought for Israel's independence, were not words of love for his son and his grandchildren, but this command: "Look after my little country." These words set off a huge voyage of exploration and remembrance for Berlin.
     The result is a thrilling blend of memoir, reportage and original thinking on the place of Israel in the world. The fundamental question that floats over every page of this passionate book is, with so many missteps and in a region deeply fraught with antagonism, racism and misunderstanding, how can Israel move forward? After many dead ends and twists and turns, it is the nineteenth-century visionary father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who ultimately sparks Berlin's dream for Israel in the twenty-first century--it is Herzl's insistence on a secular and cosmopolitan state that Berlin sees as a way to move beyond.
     David Berlin's brave inquiry brings a startling new perspective to a question that resonates well beyond the borders of Israel.

About the author

Contributor Notes

DAVID BERLIN is an Israeli-born journalist and editor who grew up in Canada but returned for a time to live in Israel. He served his military duty in Ariel Sharon's reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Shaked, and took part in Sharon's Suez campaign. After attending medical school at Tel-Aviv University, he graduated from the University of Chicago's programme on social and political thought, and taught at several universities. His work has appeared in Saturday Night, the Literary Review of Canada, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and Haaretz newspaper, among others. He lives in Toronto. The author lives in Toronto, ON.

Excerpt: The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State (by (author) David Berlin)

My parents called me Zafrir, which in Hebrew means zephyr, a cool morning breeze like the one that blew me into Assuta Hospital on May 14, 1951. The morning I was born, that gentle current of air soon broke into the flattening, scorching wind that the Arabs call hamsin and Israelis call sharav; even the insulated walls of Israel’s first private hospital could not hold back the disabling sirocco that attacked Tel Aviv from the south. “I sweated you out,” my bittersweet mother never failed to remind me. “My own father was swept out of the hospital on the waves of his own perspiration. And your father? Well, he was called up to the reserves. I stuck with you,” she said. “But your name? That was your father’s doing. He loved the name as he loved the boy who first carried it, Zafrir Carmelli, who was your father’s sunnier side. The two of them grew up together on the farm and then Zafrir was killed on the Castel, an old crusaders’ fortress on the road to Jerusalem. The Arabs took it over from the British and a sniper’s bullet went through his head. That was your father’s blackest day and the pall hung about him until you were born. You brought him back to life.
But there is more to my name than the blood of a beautiful boy. Roll it on your tongue, breathe in its vowels, and let the rhythm of its consonants work itself out and you will hear the entire history and greatest hopes of the Sabra generation, Israelis whose lives straddled the desert of the colonial powers and the creation of the State of Israel, which gained its independence three years to the day before I was born.
Zafrir is a dawn wind that carries hope for the day that will follow. To allow one’s hair to blow in it is to imagine that the restless heat that will soon be kicking at the door does not matter; what matters is only the crisp and silky touch of the early light; what matters is only the here and the now. It was Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet, who taught the Sabras (or New Jews) how to put the old language to new uses. To him, Zafrir was not only a breeze, but one of those esoteric Kabbalistic spirits—a goblin, a sprite, a gnome. The morning wind, or ruakh tsafririm, was Bialik’s April, which sprang lilacs from the dead earth. It was not cruel but mischievous; it was not a harbinger of false hope but a reminder that there is more to heaven and earth than either the old rabbi or the realist could dream.
Zafrir is a Sabra imprimatur, a signature of their times. It bears no resemblance to Motl or Tevye or Rayzel, names of the shtetl. When you say it out loud, it challenges you to be who you are, not as all men must be, but like Atzmon and Zohar and Noga and Miron, to become a foundation—to be the rock of the first generation born to freedom. The two r’s are throaty and uvular, as in the Arabic letter ghain, which is where the Sabras got the phonemes they used to create Dugri, the blunt, staccato patois they carved from the ancient Hebrew. To many Sabras, the opportunity to pay homage to the Arab, and to the Bedouin in particular, was almost an obsession. For them, the image of the nomad, clad in a kaffiyeh and wrapped in the enigmatic desert shroud, brought to mind the aboriginal, the preternatural, the Ur source for which these native sons and daughters yearned. Which is one of the reasons why my maternal grandfather, Yunkl, hated my name.
He was a shtetl bourgeois, a merchant who refused to buy into the religion mostly because he believed that all convictions came at a price and he preferred to pay for nothing. But then again, it was he who footed the bill for the private hospital where I was born. And it was he who doled out the keymoney for the apartment on Shlomo HaMelech Street to which my mother and legions of my parents’ nearest and dearest soon accompanied the newborn, and where they immediately set him to one side while they drank and sang and exchanged chizbatim (tall stories). “My father wants to call him David,” my mother said to my father when he arrived from the base late in the day. “Asik, can we do that for the old coot? It’ll just be a middle name—nobody will know, we’ll never use it. Maybe it won’t even appear in his documents.” My father, whose name was Asher but who went by Asik, shrugged.
“It’s for a good cause,” my mother said without much conviction.
“What cause is that?Asik asked.
Shlom bayit—order in our household,” my mother replied. Asik shrugged and it came to pass that I was called Zafrir David after Yunkl’s favorite dead brother, Doovidl.
What neither my father nor my mother had factored into their decision was just how bound to the actual physical reality of Israel were all the meanings of the name they had chosen for me. What they never imagined was how living away from Israel would loosen the bond, carry off a consonant here and a vowel there, and that before long there would be not a trace of Zafrir, but only David, at which point Yunkl, the old Jew from Poland, would declare a mighty victory.
One Monday morning, in the fall of 1953, my parents, Asher and Rachel Berlin, left Israel for Canada, where they pitched their tent for the better part of half a century. Why did they do that? Why did they leave their dream state and for what? The question is compelling when one recalls that both Rahela and Asik had given all they had—their best time and their best friends—so that Israel could rise and go forward. Why leave, and why so soon? Why abandon the family they loved and hated, the hevre (friends) they adored, the cafés that ran them a tab? How could my mother, who wandered by the shore and stared out at the sea when she was sad, who was an ocean child and who loved the Mediterranean, leave it behind? How could my father leave the farm whose scents were his life, betray it all, and for what?
Neither of my parents spoke a word of English when they arrived in Canada. They hated the cold and it took my father more than twenty years to learn how to make a buck. Nor was Canada in the early 1950s particularly Jew-friendly. In the immediate post-war period, Charles Blair, an official in Prime Minister MacKenzie King’s government, compared Jewish survivors seeking asylum to hogs at feeding time. When he was asked how many of these hogs Canada was prepared to accept, he offered an unabashed “none is too many.” Governor General Vincent Massey agreed.
Many Canadians, English and French, rallied behind these leaders. At the time, there were strict quotas and restrictions on Jewish students. Those who applied to the University of Toronto needed to score higher than others. The level of Jewish admissions to McGill was capped at 20 percent. In the early 1950s, a dozen men’s clubs were restricted and Canadian hospitals were loath to accept Jewish doctors. Nor was immigration to Canada made any easier for the kind of Jews my parents were. These young Israelis did not think of themselves as Jews at all, maybe even as “un-Jews”: brash, full of chutzpah, post-Jewish Jews who were not the least interested in Diaspora Jewish culture. Nor were they ready to adopt the parochial values of the secular Jewish community in Canada. In fact, the Jewish establishment in Toronto, where my parents and I ended up, was far more conservative than others in Canada and tended to think of the Sabras as Philistines whose noisy spirit needed to be broken and tamed to fit the assimilated British posture.
And yet my parents stayed in Toronto, where they suffered the cold, the cold shoulders and their poverty—though that abated once my father figured things out. They shovelled snow while their old friends in Israel dug graves for those killed in battles. They did not participate in the joys and in the woes and they were not in Israel to bury their own parents. Except for an interval between 1970 and 1975, when my parents separated and my mother ran off to Israel to be with her mother, they never got the experience of living in the dream state to which their entire youth and much of their adult life was devoted—until the fall of 2000 when they returned home to Israel to die.
To write of the unhappy family circumstances that caused my parents to leave Israel is to write very close to the ground. From this level the pettiest annoyances and the largest tectonic movements often seem of the same order of magnitude. A mother’s stubborn insistence on cooking with artificial flavouring can be as compelling a reason to leave a country as a profound moral disagreement about whether a war should be waged or not.
The characters in this particular drama, my family, are not different from the characters who play the lead in other families’ dramas. My mother’s father, Yunkl, was like any other self-centered, authoritarian patriarch. What made him interesting was not the unique shape of his spleen, but that his spleen had the same quality as the spleens of the small-minded, conservative element that made up one part of the Mayflower generation, that wave of immigrants who arrived in Palestine from Eastern Europe dreaming of their own country. Asher Ginzberg, the father of cultural Zionism, feared this kind of pioneer would overwhelm the Labor Zionist movement and he argued that immigration to Palestine should be reserved for only the best and the brightest.
When my mother said, and she said this more times than I care to remember, “Had we not had you, we would never have left the country,” I thought she was guilt-tripping me, which she undoubtedly was. But then again, before I was born, the two sets of in-laws, my mother’s parents, Yunkl (Yaacov) and Yudit Mass, and my father’s parents, Gershon and Pessiah Berlin, had no reason to be in the same room together. I was of course too young to appreciate the cosmic posturing, the comedy, tragedy and human misery that mostly my paternal grandmother Pessiah and my maternal grandfather Yunkl heaped one upon another. Maybe I should be grateful for having been given a ringside seat, and thank my parents for entertaining me with the theatre that their parents played out upon each other and upon their children.
But whether I should feel grateful or not, I was in the audience for many of these off-Broadway spectacles. I am quite sure I saw and heard almost all there was to see and hear, even living thousands of miles away in Canada. Not one day went by when my parents did not re-enact the old matches, vividly and with such attention to detail, including the smell of armpits and the most obscene gestures, that everything else about my childhood is a blur.
Apparently, Pessiah threatened never to see her new grandson (me) should her son’s wife give birth in that “bourgeois pigsty called Assuta Hospital,” which Yunkl had paid for. “He can stuff all his gold bullion right up his capitalist arse,” she declared. Then there is my mother screaming at my father, “How come you didn’t come to my rescue? You knew I couldn’t even think about having Safi in that filthy hospital your mother recommended. You knew how terrified of the dirt I was. And you knew that I wanted my mother by my side. I mean, I was nineteen, for Christ’s sake. I didn’t even want to have a baby.”
Gershon, my father’s father, thought his wife might have a point and tried to persuade his son and new daughter-in-law to check into the publicly funded hospital. Remember, even your more-gracious-than-Grace-itself father took sides against me,my mother yelled. “That’s true,” my father said. “But your father is an egocentric son of a bitch, the incarnation of vanity, and my father is not. And don’t forget, Gershon did tell Pessiah she was being a fart.”
Pessiah finally did get off her high horse. But then at the maternity ward she evidently quoted Gogol or Turgenev to Yunkl— something about not blaming the mirror for your face. Ready to smack her, Yunkl realized she was far too short. “If I gave you my head,he said to Pessiah, “it would not fit on your shoulders and I would then remain as headless as you were born.”
“Class warfare” is how my father summed it up. Pouring another stiff drink, he said, “Your mother, Yudit, is hardly a tallit shekula tehelot (lily white). Every time we handed her the baby, she made a face like he smells of shit. Her Polish nose picked up the scent, which undoubtedly lingered from her man.”
When I thought back upon all the Sturm and Drang which was my upbringing, it often struck me that the real family tensions were not between Yunkl and Pessiah, who were the ones who noisily contended, but between the two grandfathers and the two grandmothers. Yunkl was the diametric opposite of Gershon. Yunkl was a living version of Ayn Rand’s philosophy; in his every aspect he demonstrated nothing more or less than the virtues of selfishness. Gershon demonstrated the opposite, the selfishness of the virtuous man.
Yunkl was a khupper—a grabber. He took, he did not wait to be offered. He was the first at the food on the serving platter and when it came to women, he took them when and how he wanted them. He lived as if with an unquenchable thirst. In place of conversation, Yunkl had sayings. He was a walking book of proverbs, which is to say that he was never at a loss when it came to finding the same words he’d found the day before. The proverbs protected him. They were his shell and his bubble. Except for the day my mother came home with my father for the first time— that day, Yunkl was actually speechless. “Your father walked in with his hair all greased up and with a pistol tucked into his belt and my father stood there, immobilized,” my mother told me. Asher, whom Yunkl viewed as some cowboy from the country, was not what he had in mind for his oldest daughter.
According to my father, Yunkl did finally come up with some line about a Jewish sheygitzeh whore who fell in love with a Cossack and broke her father’s heart, but my mother has no recollection of it. “I wanted to whack him,” my father said. “Maybe you should have,” my mother replied. “That would have saved us both the trouble of getting married.”

Editorial Reviews

"David Berlin weaves together the personal, intergenerational, cultural, religious and political strands of a complicated story of passion and hope.... He invites us to take another look at worn-out solutions to this seemingly intractable conflict. It is a wonderful addition to the canon of writings on the Middle East." The Rev. Dr. Bill Phipps, moderator, United Church of Canada, 1997-2000
"Berlin's family history makes for the perfect example to illustrate the larger tale.... A beautifully written, truly heart-wrenching book." The Winnipeg Review