A week ago, I launched my alternative history, Judenstaat, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, a book that takes place in a Jewish state carved out of German Saxony in 1948. The event was head-spinningly wonderful, with nearly seventy people attending—former students, writer-friends, work-friends, and folks I hadn’t seen in years. My mother sat in front in her wheel-chair, gazing at me. I could have been speaking Esperanto, and she still would have had a terrific time.
I was introduced by Rabbi Linda Holtzman, and then I read a little, and did a kind of slide-show that explained the origin of the title, Judenstaat (as in Herzl’s 1896 manifesto arguing for a Jewish state), the conception of the book, and its composition. Then, as promised, Linda asked me some questions. So did Harold Gorvine, my old high school history teacher to whom the book is dedicated. The questions were excellent, but as I previously noted, my head was spinning, and I didn’t really answer a few of them completely. I’d like to do so now.
1. How is Judenstaat different from Israel?
Linda Holtzman asked this one, which should have been a soft-ball. I dropped it, and I’ll answer it now.
Both countries were created in 1948. Both countries are Jewish states, with non-Jewish minorities. Both countries have an ideological basis (in the case of Israel, Zionism, and in the case of Judenstaat, a belief that Germany/Ashkenaz is the cradle of Jewish life in Europe). Ah…but location, location…
Israel is, of course, also Zion. When Jews pray, we face the east, and the national anthem Hatikva makes that connection clear. I did explain that when Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, he wasn’t set on Zion; in fact, his primary imperative was refuge, not redemption. In spite of what we may think now, Palestine-based Zionism was not really about refuge. In our ancient home, we would become new men and women. As one song put it well, we came to the land to build and be built by it.
My character, Anna Lehmann (my heroine’s college history instructor) is an expert on failed experiments that preceded Judenstaat, particularly the Rothschild colony in Palestine. “Anna Lehmann’s own argument—one that gained currency—was that the messianic element doomed the project from the start. ‘Messianic’ wasn’t even her name it it. It was their own. Palestine Jews believed that in returning to the land mentioned in the scriptures, they would become the agents of their own salvation” (110).
Those claims don’t apply to Judenstaat. In spite of the founders’ hope of a national home for the Jews of Europe, they did not think that this home would make them new men and women. Judenstaat comes with no messianic apparatus. Rather, it comes out of a belief that the the Jews of Europe are German at the root, and they will grow and blossom where they are.
It’s also important to note that, unlike Israel, Judenstaat doesn’t dismiss the Jewishness of Jews who live elsewhere. There is no notion of “Aliyah” or the “Galut.” And yes, of course, there would still be Jews living in Palestine—in Hebron, in Jaffa, in Jerusalem. I can’t know if there would be Arab hostility towards these Jews if there were no substantial Zionist movement. That’s a good question. What do you think?
2. So what makes Judenstaat Jewish?
This one came from Harold Gorvine, quoting Ahad Ha Am, who attended the first Zionist Congress and described himself as “a mourner at a wedding.” Harold looked pretty mournful himself.
This question appears to assume that Israel is inherently Jewish by virtue of its location. Of course, the national language of Hebrew integrates Judaism into culture and politics in complicated, fascinating ways. The national language of Judenstaat is German. For a long time, I debated whether it ought to be Yiddish, as Chabon chose in his own alternative Jewish State in Sitka, Alaska. Ultimately, I decided Yiddish could never be a language of a country with border; it’s all about border-crossing, and therefore, inherently subversive, put probably that’s the subject of another blog post (not to mention a section of my novel called “The Battle of the Languages.”).
Well, here’s something Jewish: facing death and not running, making a home where you are, and creating, as one founder puts it, “a bridge between east and west.” As I constructed my Jewish state, I found myself profoundly drawn to the Bund, a Jewish revolutionary movement committed to Doykeyt, or “here-ness”, envisioning a secular Jewish nationality without a separate country. Jews would stay where they were, and transform their own societies.
What would be Jewish about the transformation that the Bund envisioned? They believed that Jews had separate concerns, and these went beyond a response to Antisemitism. Working class Jews needed separate distinct political and cultural organizations, rooted in our common language and history. We could form alliances with other organizations, yet we must remain distinct. Essentially, the Bund was anti-Zionist, but also anti-assimilationist. Jews would draw on our past, and would play a particular role on the international stage, but we would not disappear, or go to the ends of the earth to Palestine or Uganda. We’d stay right where we are.
In my opinion, nothing is more Jewish than to take the best part of every country we pass through and build a kind of stone-soup culture, mediating, challenging, and synthesizing. Yet, what if that cosmopolitan quality were translated into an actual country with actual borders? Could it be sustained? When Judenstaat is established in territory liberated by the Soviets in 1948, it’s non-aligned. Can that last? You’ll have to read the book.
3. What about spiritual life?
Well, what about it, Harold? (I say now, impatiently). My old instructor and dear friend would be the first to admit that the spiritual life of Jews is not confined, or defined, by a single country. America—not Israel—is where the 20th century Jewish movements like Conservatives, or yet more recently, Reconstructionism and Renewal have flourished.
In Israel– though I don’t want to over-simplify a complicated picture— according to its Chief Rabbinate, what we have are orthodox Jews of various stripes in wigs or snoods, in black fedoras or black wide-brimmed, in low-crowed hats, or black fur hats or enormous knitted kippahs– and then there’s everybody else. In a broad sense, no other form of spirituality is legally recognized by the state. In Judenstaat, it’s the same way. Of course, Judenstaat has no settler movement, and therefore no orthodox contingent gathering on hill-tops aiming guns at Palestinians. That means that there are no knitted kippahs. In Judenstaat, Jews wear a black hat, or they wear no hat at all.
Here is what I didn’t say in response to Harold’s question: this dichotomy has a cost, perhaps the same cost that it has in contemporary Israel. When the black-hats take on the full burden of a country’s spiritual life, they have far too much power. They are the shadow cast by the light of Judenstaat’s Age of Reason. They are the living embodiment of the millions who perished senselessly in the Holocaust. They are the objects—in the case of my heroine—of fascination as much as repulsion.
During a life-crisis, my heroine, Judit Klemmer, can not call out to God. She turns inward, fearing her own vulnerability. In particular, she’s disgusted when she’s approached by Chabad, a group of black-hats who reach out to fellow Jews, and try to draw them into spiritual practice. Her response is irrational (though I’ll admit it’s one I share). When you step into the dark, what will you find there? That question gets answered, but not completely, when you read the book.
Judenstaat is a country I invented, and that I inhabited, in my own virtual way, for several years. That’s what writers do. Frankly, I don’t think it’s the best place to be a Jew. Just now, that would be Philadelphia, where I can write books like Judenstaat, and answer these demanding questions.
Very thoughtful and though-provoking book. Stalin hated the Bund, and had Bund leaders murdered in Soviet captivity during the war. But, he made peace with the Orthodox Church after years of murder and destruction. So, why not… It is strong counter factual history.
Thanks, Bob. One problem some readers have with the book is that it demands some understanding of history, but also the openness to consider counter-history in the context of what might have been possible at the time (if you follow me. I think you do).