Bulletin from History
The other day, I spoke by telephone to my Israeli first cousin. In her young days, she worked for a British military unit stationed in the region under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. That is, she worked for British officers by day, but at night smuggled arms clandestinely to underground fighters who, after statehood, would meld into the Israel Defense Force. When she came to study in America, my cousin was the first Sabra (native-born Israeli) I’d ever met. I was a child then, but I loved her on sight.
Now my cousin brought me some news. It concerned our common grandfather, whose pen name was Rav Tsair (the Young Rabbi). In my childhood, he was Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He’s the reason I don’t join the sophisticated people when they boast that they don’t view God as “an old man with a white beard.” If God really looked like my grandfather, I wouldn’t have the slightest objection.
At any rate, the news concerned a book about our family recently published by members of its Israeli branch. It seems that some time prior to World War II, a generous donation had been offered to an official who was in the position to implement the donor’s stipulated condition: that Rav Tsair be offered the Professorship and Chair of the Department of Talmud and Jewish Jurisprudence at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It would have been a position of substantial influence within what would be Israel’s major university.
What happened next was that the official accepted the donation but ignored the condition on which it was given! My grandfather was so infuriated and frustrated by this unforeseen outcome that, although Israel — Biblical and modern — would remain central to his life and thought, he would make, in 1938, only one further visit to the future state.
Had the stipulation been honored, my mother would not have gone to America — where she never intended a long stay — to visit her parents in New York. So she would not have met my father, then a young seminarian, who was to write in his journal on the same day they were introduced, “I have met the woman I am going to marry.”
Had the appointment gone through, it’s conceivable that Rav Tsair could have influenced the direction of Israel’s intellectual elite. He was extremely cultivated and intelligent as well as courageous — he had walked through bullets to stop a pogrom — but unencumbered by certain academic delusions. Thus he did not share the views of those beautiful souls who relied on “the international community” to safeguard Jewish survival. Unlike some of the eminent Jewish contemporaries with whom he corresponded, he did not see Jews in the diaspora playing the role of “a light unto the nations.” He had a pretty good idea what “the nations” thought of Jews. The Holocaust deeply grieved but did not astonish him.
Had the offer gone through as stipulated, it’s likely that my mother would have married in Israel. I would not have been born, with the genetic makeup and tides of influence that flowed into me. Good for Israel, perhaps. Not so good for me — if we can speak of “me” at all.
At this “what if” edge of the waters of existence, the mind stops.