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It’s the words that bind: Upon accepting the Rohr Prize

A deep connection to Israel can be formed only by an intimacy with the real life of the real people of this surprising country

The following is adapted from a speech delivered upon accepting the Sami Rohr Prize for Non-Fiction for the book The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.

I have three little kids, so much of my life happens in playgrounds. Not long ago I was in one in Nahariya, which is an ordinary town on the Mediterranean coast up north. It’s where my parents live. My kids were on the slides, and nearby a little girl was playing with her father, who was wearing baggy black pants, a moustache and white skullcap. That meant they had come in from one of the Druze Arab villages in western Galilee. There were a few other kids who were speaking Russian with their parents. There was a horde that had come over from an immigrant absorption center next to the playground – these kids were freshly arrived from Ethiopia, and they were dressed in donated clothes and spoke Amharic. And there were a few other families in the park speaking Hebrew – these people looked to be one or two generations removed from the Jewish quarters of north Africa. The playground is surrounded by apartment blocks home to people who work in the local meat packing plant, in the blade factory, as taxi drivers and shop owners.

I have spent my adult life reporting on this country, and much of that involves navigating around clichés. Settlers, soldiers, Holocaust survivors. The Six-Day War, Bibi Netanyahu, peace yes, peace no. In the playground you have a lot of time to think as you stare into space and listen to the creaking of the swings and wait for time to pass, and I found myself thinking – where does this playground fit in? Where do I put the Druze kid and the Ethiopian kids and the Russians and my kids in this working-class town with no history to speak of and no ideology beyond the maintenance of normal life? In other words, when all I have at my descriptive disposal is cliché, what do I do with the actual country of Israel?

This country is at the center of the Jewish world. The pipeline connecting this community with the other half of the Jewish world, the one in north America, is the crucial Jewish relationship of our times. It seems that once this relationship was simpler. The two communities were tied together by their shared experience of the great and awful events of the 20th century. And Israel was, or was at least thought to be, a simpler place. Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, the shofar blowing at the Western Wall. It was an easier place to love from afar.

Today’s Israel is entirely different. And yet so much of the writing of Israel’s history seems still to be going over the same ground – 1948 again. Yom Kippur again. Sometime in the 1980s, it seems, Israel ceased to be a real country and instead became an issue. If the two communities are to understand one another, and they must, we need to move on. We need to look at the country now and find the right words to describe it, because a genuine connection to Israel can’t be based on political opinions or platitudes or nostalgia for a country that no longer exists, if it ever did.

A deep connection can be formed only by an intimacy with the real life of the real people of different faiths living in this country where the miraculous renaissance of the Jews plays out in strange and surprising ways every day. The heartbeat of this place is not accessible through its politics. It can be reached only through the lives of its people, through an ordinary day at the playground, through overlooked stories like that of a manuscript in a museum basement.

The story of that manuscript introduced me to a few of the more remarkable people I’ve had the chance to meet. If you’ve read the book, for example, you might remember a sleuth who has been investigating the fate of the codex for years, who knows more about it than anyone else alive, and who can describe Aleppo in detail even though he has never been there. And you will certainly remember a retired spy named Rafi Sutton of Aleppo, who fled to Israel in a leaky boat in 1949, rose through the ranks of military intelligence, and recovered the Temple Scroll of Qumran during the Six-Day War. Rafi’s character would be utterly unrealistic if it weren’t entirely factual.

These are the important stories, the kind that don’t fit into the bad clichés, or the good clichés. They are stories that won’t tell themselves. These are the stories I look for. The Sami Rohr Prize reflects an understanding on the part of the Rohr family, George, Evelyn, Lillian, their spouses and children, and on the part of the Jewish Book Council, that the writing of these stories, of our story, is one of the crucial Jewish missions of our time – and of any time. The prize, named for a lover of books and a mentor of young people, is meant to enable us to do that well, to reassure a few lucky young writers that what they are writing is important and that someone is reading, and to give us a crucial push to keep going. The results of this intervention are only beginning to be felt in the world of Jewish letters and the effects will broaden and deepen in the years and decades to come. I am deeply touched and honored to have joined the impressive group of people who have had their lives and careers altered by this prize.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the teenage Sami Rohr was smuggled across the border between France and Switzerland on a flatbed truck concealed under stacks of newspapers. Thus protected by pages of text, he made it to safety. Much later, in Bogota, when earthquakes caused long cracks in the walls of the family home, he maintained the walls by bolting bookshelves to them. When things in our world have seemed about to fall apart, books would hold them together.

The manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex was written to provide the precise reading of the singular book that was the strongest bond holding Jews together in a world where they live apart. Every letter, every vowel was written with the utmost care by two scholars 1,100 years ago. Writing about the codex taught me something those scholars knew, and that I think Sami Rohr knew – that the secret of our survival was never a king or an army. It was always words, and it still is.

About the Author
Matti Friedman, a former reporter for The Times of Israel, is the recipient of the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Non-Fiction for his book, The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.