Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'Be Safe, Israel, as You Guard the Wall'

My middle son was curious about his ancestry, which is largely a mystery as it is for many Americans. On my side, in the most general terms, Polish and Irish; on his mother’s, English and French. A typical opaque hodgepodge, until the arrival of inexpensive genetic testing. Michael sent away for a reading of his genetic makeup, and the results were predictable except for one small contribution to his genome: Ashkenazi Jew. He called it a “trace element.” A surprise but not a surprise. My wife and I haven’t been tested but I suspect the soup├žon of Jewish blood is from my side, from my Polish half, though Leopold Bloom may be smiling in the background.

My reaction: that makes sense. Since I was a kid I have ended up with Jewish friends. My ex-wife and oldest son are Jewish. I’ve always loved modern Jewish literature and Yiddish writing in translation (I’m reading Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer.) In junior high school I read Martin Buber and Max I. Dimont’s Jews, God, and History (1962), looked into Spinoza for the first time and rooted for Israel during the Six-Day War. To this day, defending the U.S. and Israel are self-evident necessities. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “To Israel” (trans. Stephen Kessler, The Sonnets, 2010), and contemplated his own possible Jewish ancestry:

“Who’ll tell me whether you are in the lost
labyrinth of secular rivers in
my blood, Israel? Who can tell me where
my blood and your blood have flowed together?
It doesn’t matter. I know you are in a sacred
book that contains time and that rescues
red Adam’s story and the memory
and the agony of the Crucified.
You are in that book, which is the mirror
of every face that looks into its pages,
and of God’s face, who in his intricate
harsh crystal can be terribly divined.
Be safe, Israel, as you guard the wall
Of God in all the passion of your fight.”

Borges also devoted two poems to Spinoza and announced his intention to write a book titled Key to Spinoza. In a 1974 interview he said, “I am preparing a book on Spinoza's philosophy, because I have never understood him. He has always attracted me, less than Berkeley, less than Schopenhauer, but I cannot understand Spinoza.” Even so, when asked in 1979 to name his favorite historical character, Borges answered, “Spinoza, who committed his life to abstract thought.”

[Go here to read “Borges in Jerusalem” and here to read “Borges, the Jew.”]

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

How delightful to see someone (especially when that someone happens to be you) who, like me, has long been intrigued by Spinoza, and who also enjoyed Goldstein's biography. My next foray into Mr. S. is going to be THE SPINOZA PROBLEM, a historical novel by Philip Yolem (who also wrote other novels featuring information about two other philosophers I happen to be drawn to: Schopenhauer (THE SCHOPENHAUER CURE, which I finished reading recently) and Nietzsche (WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT). Yolem is hardly a favorite writer (his dialog is downright off-putting sometimes), but his novels are reliable introductions to the thinking and the moving personal stories of these three heroic thinkers.