As I have grown older with the fleeting years, I dream dreams of an excited past. Somehow past is always less painful or brutal than the present. And my distant past was indeed a happy one. I had always wanted to be a writer or a diplomat. Words flowed with ease and I had a talent for learning different languages.
I had been admitted for graduate studies at both the University of Nijmegen in Holland and the Universite de Poitiers in France. I opted for the second, preferring French wine to Dutch beer. I was enrolled in the division of comparative literature and was required to submit two original essays on a subject of my choice each week. The writing was not difficult, the subjects varied from personal experiences to anticipated hopes. When final grades were given, I received an 85 out of 100 and that gave me the encouragement to consider a career in journalism.
In the mid 1950s I was living in International House near Columbia University in upper Manhattan. In those years, the Consulate General of Israel was located in a charming brownstone building at 11 East 70th Street. Those were happier days. The Consulate was open to anyone. No security guards.
Israel’s first consul-general was Avraham Harman and he was succeeded by a seasoned diplomat, Esther Herlitz. If she is still alive, she would now be 94 years old. Esther Herlitz was one of the bright stars in the Israeli diplomatic corps and she went from Consul-General in New York to Ambassador to Denmark and a member of the Knesset. She was extremely professional and being a “yekke” by birth, very demanding of perfection.
I applied for a position at the consulate, but was offered only a voluntary post as a filing clerk. However, living at International House had advantages. There were many Arab students, in particular, from Egypt, Jordan and Syria who were attending various universities in New York. Some of them had been refugees from the 1948 war and together we reminisced about their memories of Jaffa, Ramle and Haifa. I was able to write brief notes of my conversations and contacts with them which I shared with friends at the consulate over cups of tea.
The Arab students were very cool, aloof but cordial when we spoke and they showed me their textbooks and explained what they were studying. Most of them were preparing for careers in engineering and in political science. One, a Christian Arab from Damascus, even invited me to visit him at his home there. We laughed when I asked him if it was to be a one-way trip.
A young man in the visa section suggested some questions that might be helpful in my conversations with those students. Once I was invited by them to attend a public lecture given by Charles Malik, the Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations. At the end, there was a brief question-and-answer period. I raised my hand and asked if he thought there might be peace between Lebanon and Israel. He responded calmly but firmly. “When the Zionists return to us what they have stolen from us”.
Working with diplomatic and consular people gave me a taste for what I dreamed could one day be mine…. an appointment somewhere by the Foreign Ministry. It was never to be !
So I made a 180 degree turn and opted for the academic life. It was one of the happiest choices of my life and my first appointment was Lecturer in Hebrew and Biblical Literature. After some years the promotion was to Assistant Professor and I added Jewish and Israeli history to my assigned courses.
During my first two years teaching at the university I was not yet married and I enjoyed socializing with some of my students. Coffee during a morning break or a cold beer after an evening class. That all changed when I married my beloved wife in Tel-Aviv in 1960. She did not think that socializing with students was dignified nor professional and suggested that I remain friendly and caring for all of them but once I left the classroom my responsibility was to return directly home.
And it was a warm and loving home, mainly due to the devoted efforts of my wife who soon became a loving mother to our three children.
In my spare time I would write short stories or poems, at first in pencil, then in ink, then in ball-point and finally on a typewriter. The click-clack of the keyboard comforted me and offered me a hope that I was producing something worthy of publication. It came true in 1967 when my first book, dealing with the history of Hebrew poetry, was published and was sold in local book-shops. It is a feeling of self-satisfaction which is difficult to describe.
Over the years, I have written hundreds of short stories and articles and for three years I wrote a weekly column which was called “As I See It” in a local newspaper. It gave me the freedom to express myself on any number of issues, often political and religious views. As the only Jewish columnist, I used the opportunity to frequently write about Israel… its ancient and its modern history, its government and its too many political parties, its culture and its literature, and most important to me, Israel’s contribution to the civilization of mankind.
Readers would write letters to the editor commenting on something I had written. Most of the time the comments were fair and favorable. After one lengthy article about Pope Pius XII and his silence on the persecution and extermination of Europe’s Jews, the editor was flooded with mail from Catholic readers criticizing me for defaming the late Pope. After two editions of the newspaper were filled with negative letters, I wrote an article recommending that readers should buy a copy or borrow one from a library of the German author and play-writer Rolf Hochhuth’s sizzling condemnation of the Pope in his brilliant 1963 work, “Der Stellvertrater” (“The Deputy”).
The Los Angeles Times wrote of it: “The Deputy” has stirred up more controversy and caused greater repercussions than any other post-war work. Its treatment of Pius XII and the Church during the Nazi persecution of the Jews has been the object of impassioned praise and violent denunciation. It is a powerful, shocking book… No one who reads this profound work will fail to be stirred by it.”
The following week, an Italian reader wrote a letter to the editor: “Hochhuth is probably a Jew”.
In a brief reply to the reader I informed him that the author was a member of the German Protestant Church. In the following edition the same reader wrote “See, I told you. He is just anti-Catholic”.
I gave up. It’s hard to convince some of the people of some of the truth some of the times.
The renowned British author and play-writer, Sir Tom Stoppard, was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia to two very non-observant Jewish parents.. His father was a doctor in one of the Bata shoe factories. At the outbreak of the war, the owner of the world-famed Bata Shoe Company saved Stoppard’s parents by transferring the father to a Bata factory in India. A few years later he died and some years later, his mother re-married to a British non-Jewish army major who adopted Tom and gave him his family name, Stoppard.
The family returned to England after the war. Tom left school at the age of seventeen and refused to continue studies at a university. He took a job as a writer for a newspaper and almost immediately became a success. He went from newspaper writing to writing books, novels and plays, all of which have been in great demand.
In one small message of inspiration to writers and to would-be writers, Stoppard wrote:
Your stories are like no other.
Your hopes, losses, triumphs
You can only write about what bites you.
So I continue to dream my dreams. Not as a diplomat. No longer as an academician. But as one who has not mastered the use of a damnable computer, yet nevertheless continues to write.