Letter to a Friend in Israel

I sent a chapter of my next book, The Jewish Body, to a very close friend in Israel. She and her husband were featured in the chapter, which was about the renewal of physical and military courage and heroism in Israel after their long dormancy in exile. They didn’t get the point of the chapter, which they found simplistic and stereotyped. They said, “the change of attitude toward the body has also other elements such as sports and fitness, and extreme physical adventures, and awareness of preventive health care, and ballet, drama and martial arts, and fashion and hedonistic/leisure activities, which were not part of my grandparents’ life.” Some of those things are discussed in other chapters of my book. But I answered this way:

Thank you my dear friend,

I had no problem with your negative reaction to my chapter. Let me try to explain. But I am confident that my explanation will not change your opinion. And it shouldn’t. Here is why.

You are Israeli. You have made huge sacrifices to secure the future of your country and, indirectly, the future of the Jewish people. You have a right and an obligation to go beyond, far beyond, the Zionist verities and myths. You stand as a gifted and wise person who has lived a long life in a unique society and culture, and you (and M. too) have learned things and paid prices for that knowledge that I cannot even imagine.

My book is not for you. I don’t expect it to sell a single copy in Israel.

My book is not even for Jewish Americans. My book is for anyone in America who is willing to open their mind to a small people with a big story. It is for people who know nothing about Israel and the Jews and frankly don’t care all that much.

Unfortunately, that includes the majority of Jewish Americans. And by the way, when I say “Jewish Americans” I don’t mean “American Jews.” Like most Jews in America who have a certain dual identity, I am not an American Jew. I am a Jewish American. Jewish is an adjective for me, not a noun at the core of my identity.

I suspect that you and M. are in a way similar, although your noun is probably not “Jew” or “Israeli” but “Human.”

When I was the age that my children are now–twenty-somethings–I was ready to take that step. I was not Jewish, and I was not even American, as much as I was human.

In a way, I still feel it. But in the thirty or forty years since I was their age, I have seen that the world is not like that. I know that the future requires people who only identify as human. But I have seen many people say that this is what they were doing, and most of them were lying.

So I have decided to live more in the world as it is, and less in the world as I wish it would be.

But I don’t speak for you of course, only for myself. What I have to say is that I wrote a book that covers the whole sweep of Jewish history, with a focus on the body and ideas about the body. I wish that in 250 pages about 3000 years I could have found space to talk about the Jerusalem Ballet and Batsheva Dance Company. Probably I should have. Did you know that on my first trip to Israel in 1985 I successfully pressured the tour (all academics who had never been to Israel) to make a special side trip to the Jerusalem Ballet? I am a huge fan of serious dance and it was beautiful.

Probably you don’t know that I have connections to two young Americans, both good friends of my stepdaughter Logan, who are in the main Batsheva company. I’ve seen them dance on numerous occasions, and I hear news of them all the time. So I don’t miss the point about how Israeli attitudes toward the body are more complex than I revealed in that chapter.

I should have found a way to work this complexity in, but it may be too late. In any case, my book is for people who know little or nothing about Israel and Jews. It is for Americans who are mildly anti-Semitic, and who think Jews are cowards. It is for the vast majority of Jewish Americans (80 percent, to be exact), who have never been to Israel. Most of them will probably never go.

I guess I felt it was my role to tell them the main story as I see it, necessarily omitting some of the complexities. You have a different role, and you have earned it. My role was to give a sweeping anthropological view of Jewish history, for the benefit of people who see the Jews as sniveling, craven, money-grubbing cowards who avoid a fight at all costs and who will never stand up for themselves but only sneak around behind decent people and take what they have by subterfuge.

I also was asked by my editor to make my book more personal. Perhaps that is why you didn’t get the point of the chapter. It is deeply personal. It is about the impact on me of having had two uncles who fought in World War I, the impact of being named after my mother’s favorite cousin, who was killed as the copilot of a B-25 bomber. It’s about being a Jewish American who is unreasonably proud of Israel.

I am not surrounded as you are by people who made the same sacrifices and took the same risks you and your children did and who take all that for granted. So I tried to explain it all to them. I should have made room for the ballet.

When I succeeded in diverting my academic tour to the Jerusalem Ballet back in ‘85, an old lady sitting behind me before the overture swept her hand around the hall and said, “Alle Yidn! Mir zind hier alle Yidn!” You fought and sacrificed for the Jerusalem Ballet, and for its performance in front of a hall full of Jews who did not have to live in fear. That is why you and M. are heroes to me.

So I tried to write about that.

I did the best I could, and I know it isn’t good enough. By the way, as I watched the young dancers in the Jerusalem Ballet, I loved their art and skill, but I couldn’t help thinking: Most of them too have been soldiers.

I love and admire you all and I am very glad that you call me your friend.

That’s how it looks from this side of the ocean, on the 45th anniversary of the day when, just a few days shy of age 17, I defied my parents to go to Washington in the middle of the night and stand on the mall and listen to the greatest leader of that era talk about his dream.

Love, Mel