2016-12-07 / Voice at the Shore

Visiting scholar shows community another side of the Israeli psyche

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Dr. Rachel Korazim, Beth Israel’s Gusti Engelberg Visiting Scholar, spent two days last month teaching about Israeli life and literature at Kulanu, Beth Israel and the JCC. Dr. Rachel Korazim, Beth Israel’s Gusti Engelberg Visiting Scholar, spent two days last month teaching about Israeli life and literature at Kulanu, Beth Israel and the JCC. How do Israelis, who live in what many American Jews see as the Promised Land, feel about that promise? How does being born and/or living in a Jewish state affect how Israelis think—about themselves, life in general, Arabs and the Holocaust?

These are some of the questions addressed by Israeli educator

Dr. Rachel Korazim, Beth Israel’s Gusti Engelberg Visiting Scholar, who spent two days last month offering talks on Israeli life and literature to members of Congregation Beth Israel as well as to local Jewish community leaders and the community at large.

Beth Israel’s Rabbi David Weis, who studied with Korazim at the Hartman Institute in Israel, said he brought her to our community to encourage people to think about Israel and Israelis “in a new way using literature.” The poems and stories that Korazim “unpacks” through her teaching effectively make us a fly upon the wall in an Israeli’s living room, privy to thoughts and feelings they are not likely to express to outsiders, he noted. “She uses literature as a window into Israeli society, into the hearts and souls of Israelis,” Weis explained.

Speaking to teenagers at the Kulanu high school of Jewish studies, Korazim posed the question: “How exactly are the people of Israel connected to the land of Israel?” The obvious answer— that they live there—was not what she was after. Rather, she wanted teens to understand how the mythic narrative describing Israelis’ connection to the land contrasted with the more complex reality.

According to that mythic narrative, said Korazim, G-d had promised the land of Israel to the Jews. When the Romans destroyed the Temple and sent the Jews into exile, they suffered greatly, until finally Theodore Herzl led them back to the land that had been barren and waiting for them during their long absence. “So we went back, fell on our knees, kissed the ground and have been in love with it ever since,” said Korazim, offering the happily-ever-after fairy-tale ending to the mythic narrative.

That story, she told the teens, “is not exactly true.” In reality, she said, “The land was not barren; people lived there. We Israelis are not all the time in love with Israel, and it wasn’t always bad when we lived outside of Israel.”

For Sabras who are the children of Diaspora Jews, the contrast between the mythic narrative of the Promised Land and the day-to-day reality of living in Israel is especially acute. While their parents embraced the mythic narrative, much current literature shows that Sabras are struggling to come up with their own narrative. Among the readings that Korazim used to illustrate this was a poem by Israeli Yehuda Amichai from his collection of poems, “Songs of Zion the Beautiful.”

Amichai writes: “Jerusalem is a place where everyone remembers/ he’s forgotten something/ but doesn’t remember what it is. And for the sake of remembering/ I wear my father’s face over mine.”

As Korazim explained it, Amichai is expressing the feelings of a segment of Israelis born in Israel, who live in Israel “but have no recollection of what it’s supposed to mean to them. They see the [Wailing] Wall and don’t know how to feel or what to think.” Amichai needs to “wear” his father’s face in order to appreciate the meaning of what he sees, she explained.

In another session, Korazim talked to rabbis, cantors and other Jewish community leaders about how Israelis and Arabs see each other, using their poetry as a basis for the discussion. “It was really a powerful session,” said Kirk Wisemayer, executive director of the local Jewish Federation. “You felt like you were transported through the poetry.

For Wisemayer, the poetry renewed and deepened his understanding of the humanity of both Arabs and Jews, and how it was affected by their conflict.

“As vigilant as we may have to be from a security perspective, we have to realize that the people on the other side are human beings, not just threats. In this day and age we seem to immediately think the worst of people instead of approaching them with an open heart and an open mind, whether the person is an Arab or a Jew,” he noted. “We have to build a common narrative. That was the message she was trying to convey through the poetry.”

Korazim, a child of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1946 in what was then Palestine. She spent her career working as an educator for Israel’s Jewish Agency, serving as a shaliach in Montreal in the early 1980s and then later in Budapest after the fall of Hungary’s communist regime. After taking mandatory retirement at the age of 62, she created “a new career” for herself teaching about Israel through literature, as a way to talk about “how the Israeli mind works.” 

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