I was introduced to Jabotinsky’s writings by Mr Isaac Dumas, who owned a Jewish bookshop in Johannesburg. I was fond of Mr Dumas, a small, sour-looking man with a five o’clock shadow and a smile that looked more like a grimace. My father would double-park outside his shop every Friday afternoon while I raced in to pick up our copy of the South African Jewish Times and I occasionally made a pilgrimage there to choose a birthday present for one of my school friends.
As well as dwelling among his rows of Jewish books and newspapers, Mr Dumas worked as a teacher in the local Cheder which I attended and loathed. However, my behaviour and performance must have pleased him, because I ended up with a prize in the form of Jabotinsky’s early novel, ‘Prelude to Delilah’, which lay unread on my shelves for several decades.
Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, journalist, novelist and politician, was a charismatic Zionist leader who believed that the power of the Jewish people lay in military might. His uncompromising emphasis on militarism as the core ingredient in bringing about the emergent Jewish State came into conflict with the more diplomatic stance of Weizmann and Ben Gurion and this was reflected in the internecine struggle between the Irgun Tzvai Leumi and the more conciliatory Haganah which led to violent disagreement as to how the expiring and exhausted British Mandate should be dealt with.
Jabotinsky died in 1940 at the relatively young age of 59, when his mantle was assumed by Menachem Begin who led the Irgun and went on to found the Herut (Freedom) Party, providing an example of how yesterday’s terrorist becomes today’s statesman.
Jabotinsky’s novel on the life of Samson led to him being commissioned to write the script for Cecil B de Mille’s blockbuster movie, ‘Samson and Delilah’, which help to give the legendary strongman from the Book of Judges his place in the pantheon of superheroes.
The account of a love affair between Samson, whose strength was said to have lain in his long hair, and Delilah, the alluring Philistine beauty who coaxed him into revealing his secret and then betrayed him to her people, leaves many questions unanswered, which Jabotinsky’s narrative tackles more convincingly than the truncated biblical story. His fictional embellishment of the Samson legend is based on an intimate knowledge of the habits and customs of those ancient peoples and this, tempered with his profound understanding of human nature, gives new meaning to the story.
Samson lived in two worlds: that of his tribe, who were descendants of Jacob, and that of the Philistines, amongst whom he lived from time to time. It was as if he had two personalities. When he was with his own people, he was taciturn and reserved, a stern judge of his fellow tribesmen and one who was respected by all who sought his help. He treated the land of the Philistines as his second home, where he transformed himself into a playful reveler, an entertainer, an excellent mimic, a provocative comrade and above all, a lover of Philistine women.
When the time came for him to marry, Samson chose a Philistine bride and brought his entire family with him to the celebrations in the Philistine town of Timnath, where they were graciously received by the Philistine elders. But conflict soon erupted between Samson and the younger Philistine men, resulting in the breakdown of their long-standing friendship.
From this point on we see a deterioration in the relationship between Israelites and Philistines, culminating in open hostility. Samson’s bride is murdered and Samson, after brutally avenging her death, becomes a fugitive.
Enter Delilah at this point, a woman from a distinguished Philistine family, who provides Samson with refuge and offers herself to him. But her illusion of love is destroyed when he tells her that she can never replace the Philistine wife who was his first love. Enraged, she gives him a sleeping potion and shaves off his locks before summoning Philistine soldiers to take him captive. Jabotinsky implies that Samson’s hair possesses no magical properties but that his humiliation at being shorn leaves him bereft of his vitality.
The narrative takes many twists and turns involving escape and recapture, passion, jealousy and murder. At times it reads like a romance, except that Jabotinsky writes unsparingly about the sickening cruelty and savagery of those times. But what particularly engages me are the moral dilemmas woven into the text, as befits an extrapolation from the biblical story. Can one live one’s life in separate compartments and still be true to oneself? Can the world of one’s ‘tribe’ be insulated from the outside world? And the most difficult question of all: can one be happy with a life partner who ‘belongs’ to a different people, with different beliefs and customs?
When the time comes for him to bid farewell to his tribe, Samson, famous as a setter of riddles, leaves the people with three injunctions to ponder. The first is, ‘Get iron’. His message here is clear: the wooden staves and the stones which they hurl from their slings are no match for the iron swords and chariots of the Philistines.
His second message is: ‘Choose a king’. The tribes of Israel were leaderless and in disarray. They were quarreling, stealing from one another and disputing one another’s territory. A strong leader was needed, who could inspire and unite the people against a common enemy. One can hear Jabotinsky’s voice in both these injunctions.
The third message is more cryptic. ‘Learn to laugh’, he says. What does this mean? Is laughter the antidote to despair? Are the Israelites too solemn and judgmental? Is there too little by way of amusement and enjoyment in their lives? Jabotinsky, speaking with the voice of Samson, provides no exegesis. The story of Samson can be read as an entertaining adventure, a romantic tragedy or a parable, or simply as food for thought.