As I walked up Broadway towards Times Square in the air of burnt peanuts, flashing lights and proselytizers, I began to reminisce of the unevenly paved alleyways and ancient voices of Jerusalem. I also began to wonder what role this world of mine would play in the new phase of my life next year, in the Land of Israel.
I began to wonder: how could these vastly different “centers of the world” evoke such similar emotions? Places of amalgamation and intensity. I began to think: how different are they really?
In the midst of my New York City Literature course last semester, I began to decipher these two worlds hold more similarities than meets the naked eye. The semester began with an in-depth look at Walt Whitman, said the father of American literature to many scholars, and what began to unravel in my mind were the parallels between Whitman’s prophetic visions of the American dream and the pioneer movement of Diaspora Jewry in the 20th century.
After all, the greatest of Israeli novelists including Shai Agnon and Amos Oz have dedicated their whole careers to the nuances between the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. As Benjamin Harshay stated in his introduction to Agnon’s Only Yesterday : “…Hebrew, Geula, Salvation, is the opposite of Gola, Exile, locked in an interdependent binary opposition.”
There is a stark recognition in both Whitman and Agnon’s works that an unparalleled and seminal moment exists within history in the United States and the Land of Israel, respectively. Whitman poetically empowers the individual to take part in this new chapter in history as Agnon does the same.
In addition, there is a strong sense of many nations converging to take part in this seminal moment. Whitman describes in “Song of Myself” as Americans to be a “Nation of many nations”. Agnon expresses this very same idea as the protagonist Isaac Kumer whose native-tongue is Yiddish in Only Yesterday unsuccessfully converses with Sephardim whose native-tongue is Spanish in the Holy Tongue on board a ship towards the Land of Israel. However, it is mutually understood what each other is communicating when “…they would point to the East and say, the Land of Israel, and kiss their fingertips.”
Walt Whitman, writing in 19th century America, understands and eloquently expresses the almost divine destiny of the United States and its divergence from the age-old empire enterprise of the world. It represents a unique empowerment of mankind, freedom and egalitarianism.
Whitman begins one of his most notable poems, “Song of Myself”, with the line “I celebrate myself.” This bold move on the part of Whitman expresses that the United States offered a clean slate in which common people could establish themselves as whomever and accomplish their deepest dreams in the shadow of an oppressive empire system.
Overall, Whitman idealizes how setting, the United States, enables mankind to accomplish new and great feats.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a prominent figure in Israeli literature and Nobel Prize winner, wrote Only Yesterday, a novel set during the Second Aliyah period which tells a tale of an idealist Galician man, Issac Kumer, who immigrates to Palestine between 1904 and 1914 to work the Land as in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture.
The very first line, as I examined similarly in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, begins with “anu banu artsah livnot u’lihibanot bah” — “We came to the Land to build it and to be rebuilt by it.” Automatically, the very first line establishes a strong sense of collective identity. The very same empowerment which Whitman conveys is very much conveyed throughout Agnon, however, the individual empowerment is largely driven by a collective identity.
Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1966, Agnon famously stated the words which now exist on Israel’s 50 shekel bill:
Because of that historical catastrophe when Titus the Roman Emperor destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land. I was born in one of the cities of Exile. But all the time I imagined myself as having been born in Jerusalem
It is very much evident that embedded in Shai Agnon’s literary approach is Biblical knowledge, and even more so, a strong sense of historical context. Agnon, like Whitman, recognized this movement to return to the Land promised by Gd to the Jewish people in the Bible, as a unique historical opportunity. However, Agnon sees this moment as part of a larger narrative and Whitman sees America as a completely new enterprise.
It is clear that Agnon, like many other Zionist idealists of the time, place an emphasis on the Land itself in a passionate and picturesque fashion. Agnon says in Only Yesterday that although girls swooned over Isaac Kumer in Galicia that “..his passion struck him, his heart carried him to the fields and vineyards of the Land of Israel.”
Overall, Agnon, as a representative of much of the pioneer movement to Israel in the 20th century, idealizes how setting enables the Jewish people to open a new chapter in its long historical narrative and possibly catalyze the ultimate Redemption.
I believe that these fathers of respective literature movements can set the foundations, however, the real applications of these ideologies present new implications. The overly simplistic and ideological nature of these approaches can deceive the complexity of it all. Although I am emigrating from the United States to establish a permanent life in Israel, it is all too easy to say that I am leaving a vile country and running towards a wholesome Land infused with everlasting meaning.
Throughout my reading, the applications of these ideologies can be illustrated in two literary settings. For American literature, Tommy Wilhelm of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, experiences an existential moment in a Times Square subway station indicates a serious need for the individual identity to have some collective aspect. And parallel, for Israeli literature, Isaac Kumer’s epiphany upon arriving in the Land of Israel for the first time after a long sought-after emotional and ideological longing build up or anticipation.
Bellow describes Tommy entering into a dark tunnel in the subway station realizing:
…in the haste, heat, and darkness which disfigure and make freaks and fragments of nose and eyes and teeth, all of a sudden, un sought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhem’s breast…One and all he passionately loved them. They were his brothers and his sisters.
In my mind, there is a clear exasperated basic human need for belonging and knowledge of being part of a larger ideal. Whitman’s glorification of a “teeming of nations” seems to be displaced in this scene and representative of a larger current American reality. The need for a a freedom refuge is no longer in existence and, therefore, necessitates and new collective ideal. That even in the midst of chaos, we sometimes need the affirmation that there is a framework in which we live and others are in the boat with us.
Similarly, Agnon’s protagonist in Only Yesterday appears paralyzed once his long-awaited dream to reach the Land of Israel has been realized. As Isaac’s ship anchors in Jaffa and arrives onto the Land Agnon describes: “Isaac forgot why he was standing here and what was in store for him.”
Just as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik so potently argues in Lonely Man of Faith there is a perpetual dialectic which drives the man of faith. Whether it is the Rav’s dialectic of man’s submissiveness to Gd versus man’s free will, or Agnon’s building of the Land versus the Jewish people’s New identity as a result of the Land, or another tension between individual and collective identities.
In terms of my aliyah in a generation in which the United States a perfectly safe haven in which I could express my identity, I think there is more than a black and white conversation of “Israel is better.” It comes with nuances and dialectic. To me, dialectic doesn’t create confusion or paralysis, but rather enables me to continually reevaluate my thoughts and propel me to be a part of a larger narrative.
Of course, there must be a concrete reason for why I am making this historical decision. I think the Times Square scene as described by Bellow as having a solution in my tradition. I see my individual identity as largely being informed by my collective identity. I see history, very much as Whitman did, as leading up to this very moment in which I breathe. I see recognizing my moment with a historical context and seizing all it has to offers despite all the nuances.
For all those strolls on Broadway offer a new perspective into the fuzziness of my decision, but an all so clear one at the same time.