Accompanying the launch of Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.”
Almog Behar’s essay, published below, was translated by Daniel Barnett.
There are many languages that lie silent within me.
Of all the diasporic languages that were spoken in my home—Iraqi Arabic, German (both the Berlin and Saxony versions), and Danish—I was not permitted to inherit any, with the exception of just a few greeting and curse words. Likewise, the various accents in Hebrew that could be heard in the homes of my grandparents and my various aunts and uncles were forbidden to pass my lips. In the new Israel, my parents decided that I would grow up with Hebrew as my only mother tongue, though they also encouraged me to take up English.
And I never really gave this any thought in early childhood. Even when I momentarily raised the idea of learning one of those foreign languages that filled my home, it was Danish that was suggested, which was the language of my family’s shortest diaspora—between 1939, when my grandparents left Germany, and 1949, when thy moved to Israel. Apparently, Danish was seen as more palatable than German or Arabic, two languages which, despite the historical distance between them, were presented to my ears in tandem, in all places outside of my home, as the twin tongues of our eternal enemies, dripping with irrational Jew-hatred.
But the possibility of learning Danish was never a real option, and neither my father nor my grandparents tried to teach it to me. There was nothing more natural than to discard whatever came from there, from the old diaspora, in line with the binding Zionist ethos. And when, in seventh grade, the class was split into Arabic and French studies, I entered the Arabic track without consciously connecting it to the Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic that I had heard my grandparents speak to my mother. And after two years of study, I set it aside anyway.
There was one other language in there, less charged with the loves and hates of the present. This language, Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, was barely present in my home at all, because only one person, my grandfather, Yitzhak Behar, my father’s father, knew how to speak it. For years he held it hidden within him. And I knew little about it until his death, and didn’t hear enough of it.
In my first year as a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I was required to study a foreign language in addition to Hebrew and English, and I wavered between Spanish and Arabic. This time, I remembered that they both had family connections for me, and I chose Spanish, largely due to straightforward student laziness. Spanish meant taking two lessons a week, whereas Arabic meant three. And slowly, my grandfather tried to speak with me a little of his Ladino, but I would stand there helpless, lost in two languages that were new to my ears and my lips, struggling to answer.
At the same time, I was happy that my grandfather suddenly saw me as a new partner to his old language, which had so few speakers, and together we would search the dictionaries for precious lost words for different kinds of vegetables. On his bookshelves, I found a book in Ladino, Legendas (“legends”), which contained stories collected by Matilda Cohen-Serrano. I asked him for this book about a year before his death, hoping that one day we would sit and read through it together, and I would learn the language from it. We never did. The book remains orphaned on my own bookshelves.
Death always comes too soon, unexpectedly. And then you understand that all the questions you put off asking someone when they are alive, you will never be able to ask them when they are dead. On my journey from the university in Jerusalem to the cemetery in Kfar Saba, I was filled with the worry that most of what had disappeared would never be rediscovered. I remembered the words of Scheherazade, that wisest of storytellers, who explains—without offering any comfort—that regret always comes when it no longer has any use; and there, she adds, begins the work of the storyteller.
I very much regretted those days and months in which, instead of sitting beside my grandfather, who was my last grandparent, in his room that became too quiet and too lonely, and hearing his many stories (stories he suggested that I collect into a book when I was just 15), I spent most of my time at the Hebrew University, hurrying pointlessly from one lecture hall to another.
His death was a very long and frightening moment in my life. In my mind’s eye, I saw his body lying there in the middle of the night on the bathroom floor, growing cold, waiting for someone to come in and discover that he had died. I wondered which language his final thought had been in, perhaps the thought of his very death: Ladino, German, Danish, Hebrew, or maybe even English, which he learned at a later age and in which he would read thick novels that he would swap with his second wife, Esther, and sometimes also with me?
And one terrible image entered my thoughts and wouldn’t leave. I imagined that an entire culture, spanning countless generations, had shriveled and shrunk so that it remained only in the mind of a single descendant. And this last son of the destroyed dynasty of Ladino culture was, so I feared, my grandfather. And now, I whispered to myself, I had missed my chance; I hadn’t listened to him during his life, and he would not talk to me now that he was dead. And the entire culture had died along with him, and its language too.
My grandfather, Yitzhak Behar, was born in a Ladino community in the heart of Berlin, a community that had been uprooted from its natural home. After 400 years in which his forefathers and foremothers had lived in Istanbul, with a strong memory of their forced uprooting from Spain, came a new uprooting to Berlin, which was relatively one of choice, but which brought his family into contact with the tragic fate of the Jewish people in the 20th century, and with the transformation of Europe into the largest Jewish cemetery in history. And his ancestors could not have guessed the onset of this enormous tragedy when they moved from Istanbul at the beginning of the century.
Both my grandfathers’ parents, Leah and Eliyahu, were born in Istanbul at the end of the 19th century, and moved to Germany for economic reasons. A great fire had damaged the Galata neighborhood on the west of the Bosporus, where the family carpet repair store was located; furthermore, Turkey had begun conscripting Jews into the military, and so the extended family left and re-founded the store in the heart of Europe. Leah and Eliyahu were married in Germany. The Sephardic Jewish community of pre-war Berlin was an island within an island within an island. In my grandfather’s home they spoke Ladino, and his grandmother knew no other language; at his school, which was a “general” school, studies were in German, and my grandfather was one of the only Jews in his class; and he also attended the Jewish school along with children from the Berlin Jewish community, which was mainly Ashkenazi.
Before the Nazis rose to power, my grandfather joined HeHalutz, a Zionist youth movement, where I believe he began to learn modern Hebrew and agriculture, and where he also met my grandmother, who came from a family that had been embedded in Jewish and non-Jewish society in northern Germany for many generations. Her name was Analisa Jurdan, and she was always called Liselle. In 1939, many of the members of HeHalutz in Germany relocated to Denmark, my grandmother among them. My grandfather, who was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp on Kristallnacht, was released at the end of 1939 as part of an agreement between the Danish government and Germany, and also left for Denmark.
At this time, he was 22 years old, and he would never see most of his family again, as they were murdered in the Holocaust. He never got to bury his parents or his brothers and sisters, or to sit shiva for them. In fact, the entire community of my father’s childhood was wiped out, and he never returned to it; nor did he return to any other Ladino community. Of his entire childhood, his family, his parents’ home, all he was left with was his mother tongue, Ladino, and there were very few people with whom he could speak it over the years: his second wife, Esther; the father of his oldest son’s wife; and an identically-named cousin who remained in Berlin after the war, and with whom he became close after his second wife died, and with whom he would talk in the old tongue by telephone every week.
Having fled to Denmark, my grandfather and grandmother found a new language and a new community, and the love it demonstrated to its new guests during those dark times made it loveable in turn. They wed in Denmark, and had two children there, the first during the war and the second, my father, after it. In 1949, after years of war, and fleeing, and parting, and returning, came another emigration, this time willingly, one which was also the fulfillment of a dream—the move to the new state of Israel, with its mixture of languages, and with its difficult Hebrew and its square letters.
My grandfather, Yitzhak Behar, came to Israel at the age of 32, and lived most of his life there, until his death at 85. He lived in Israel for more years than all my other grandparents, and I think that he was the most successful of all of them in the task of integrating into the country. Perhaps because he came from a world that had been destroyed, he was quick to adopt this harsh land as his own, and was not overly affected by the alienation from the present that usually accompanies yearning for the past. As the descendant of a family with a long history of wandering, his own sojourns, and those of his offspring, were more a continuation of the past than a break with it: his forefathers were born in Bajar in Spain; his parents in Istanbul; he was born in Berlin; his son—my father—in Copenhagen; and I, like many of his grandchildren, was born in Tel Aviv.
My grandfather experienced the breakup of his community as a child, and he had no community that would fall apart when he moved to Israel; and perhaps because he was born into an uprooted culture, he always knew how to juggle the language of his parents with the language of wherever he was living. In his earliest days in Israel, as a Sephardi Jew born in Germany with a family name that had been “Ashkenazified” at the beginning of the 20th century, he knew how to present himself as a yekke (a German Jew). And once he found his feet in Israel, and even more so as he grew older and his longings for the world of his childhood grew stronger, he identified more as a Sephardi. But most of the time he was a member-of-no-community, the only real Zionist in my family, who took it upon himself as a proud Ben-Gurionite to be a farmer, and was optimistic for his own future and for that of his descendants in the new Israel.
More than anyone else I ever knew, my grandfather witnessed the suffering that the universe has to offer, especially during the Holocaust, when Denmark was occupied and he was taken to the camps, and after, when he found out that most of his family had been killed. And yet, more than anyone else I ever knew, he symbolized for me the faith in humanity and in goodness. Over the years, as I grew up and got to know him better, I felt that he was the person most full of life in the entire world, filled to the brim with a love of life and his own life force. Perhaps it was because he had seen hell on earth that he ceased yearning for heaven in another place, and instead the very existence of life in the world seemed to him a miracle and a source of joy.
Becoming a grandfather too, I guess, relieved him of a thick cloak of silence and awkwardness that he had wrapped around himself over the years as a defense against the evils of the universe. Thus, his own joy of life returned to him, his love of beauty, of nature, and of people; his enjoyment of humor and of books; his strong desire to tell the stories that he had kept locked up for years, the stories in which were hidden his childhood, his adolescence, and their end in the Holocaust. And the closer he got to his own death, the more he mourned and cried for his parents and his early bereavement.
When my grandfather passed away, I was at the beginning of my second year at the Hebrew University. In a sociology seminar on communal memory, I was all set to begin a research paper, together with a partner, on the ways in which the Ethiopian-Israeli community remembers the deaths of its members on the trek through Sudan in the 1980s, on the long and difficult journey to Israel. When I came back to Jerusalem from the shiva, I sat in class and tried to jot down the outline of this joint paper, but everything became jumbled up in my mind: my own private grief, the class discussion that used concepts of (collective as opposed to personal) memory in such a removed and theoretical way; and the possibilities we had for examining modes of grief and remembrance in the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
Suddenly I understood: with all the strong desire I had to learn about things that were different from me, far away, at that moment in my life there was only one thing that was hugely important and urgent, and which I felt I had to examine and get to know. Perhaps I was reminded of what I understood a short time after my grandfather passed, that I was a person who loses and forgets and who would continue to lose and forget, and who was trying with all his might not to forget someone he had lost. Trying, perhaps, not to let his memory disappear, so that I could continue to keep him alive in me, and perhaps even pass him on to others. I decided to take on a project that I could dedicate to my grandfather’s memory, and that would touch on something in his memory.
Of course, I could have chosen to commemorate him not via academic research, which usually involves a certain emotional detachment, and a separation between personal and scientific knowledge. I could have arranged old photos into an album and visited all the restaurants he loved; I could have learned the names of flowers, and tried to construct the beautiful flower arrangements that he would fashion; I could have painted with many colors, as he would do in his final years; I could have listened to Italian operas, as he loved to do; I could have learned German and traveled to Berlin, the city of his childhood, where his cousin Yitzhak Behar still lived (though he himself had ruled that we shouldn’t travel there). But I chose to get close to him via Ladino, among other reasons because I was in the middle of my Spanish studies, and in any case, I felt a certain closeness to his language. And also, after he died, I understood how little I knew about the community of his childhood, and about Ladino culture, and so I wanted to know more.
And thus began a year of chasing down Ladino culture: Yael, my research partner, and I attended lots of musical performances, visited synagogues during the selichot period ahead of the High Holy Days, participated in activities organized by the National Authority for the Preservation of Ladino Heritage, and attended a memorial day for Holocaust victims held by the Association of Greek Jews. In these places, we found interviewees for our research. And this study, which had its roots in grief for the death of a single person, stretched into long months of wandering all over Israel, among Ladino speakers, their children, and their grandchildren. For a year, we gathered and collated interviews with different people, and wove scattered and distant stories into a single tapestry. These interviews revealed the ways in which our respondents understood their identities, and the place of Sephardic culture and of Ladino within it. People presented very different opinions, and their life stories were highly varied, but it was also possible to find in them threads of similarity as well as circles of difference. As we put it all together in our study, we strove to preserve both the similarities and the differences between them.
During the process of preparing the paper, I was torn between a desire to bring in my grandfather as one of these witnesses to the life story of the Ladino language and culture, and an attempt to learn from the various stories we encountered about my grandfather’s life and culture, things that I had never heard from him. I found no one among the interviewees who resembled my grandfather in terms of his life story—born in Germany to parents from Turkey, a refugee in Denmark, a farmer and gardener who lived in Israel, at various places, in Moledet, Sarafand, Netanya, Tel Aviv, and Kfar Saba. I found no one who resembled my grandfather in looks, no one with the same name, no one with the same likes or the same errors. I didn’t find the person with whom I could sit and learn the language of my grandfather’s mother as he would have taught it to me. Such a thing was impossible, and even if I had found such a person, I would have been bitterly disappointed, for I knew in my heart that my grandfather was the only one of his kind in the world.
In the postscript to the study, we described our work as an attempt to restore memory—which had been silenced, distanced, marginalized for decades—to its owners. We understood that our study was modest in its scope, and insignificant on a social scale, but we felt that it acted on a personal level for the interviewees as a cycle of restoration that was diametrically opposed to the cycles of repression and suffocation that had come before. If in the past, memory was repressed firstly by society, and then by biological descendants, and finally by those who actually held the memory, who were persuaded to belittle its importance and even to be ashamed of it; then now, we first of all approached these “memory bearers,” and offered them a listening ear, encouraging them to tell their stories and keep alive their memory and pass it on. Only after this did we turn to the families, often to discover that in the interval since we had interviewed their parents or grandparents, they had themselves investigated this memory in different ways. And finally, we presented our work to society as a whole (in a very limited fashion, of course, within an academic circle with little real influence).
In another, more personal sense, which was the driving force behind this study, this was my attempt to reclaim the memory of my grandfather which had been stolen from me. In the end, this attempt to “bring back to life” a dead memory was, of course, doomed to fail. But in the act of going out into the world, which was an inherent part of this attempt, I discovered something new, something I hadn’t known when we set out: I learned, from meeting with those bearers of memory, that memory never disappears. Even if Ladino had for years been a language that was forbidden to be spoken on the street or at home, and even if school-age children had refused to listen to it or learn it, in the end, we encountered a memory that was still alive and beating, if a little sad. And often, memory finds all kinds of ways of being carried on into the next generation. Even if the language is dying in the present, the memory of it as a vital part of an entire world in the past refuses to die.
As we reached the end of our study, we discovered one more thing, which was no less surprising to us: community. The community I thought had vanished, of which my grandfather was the last offshoot, revealed itself to be much broader, even if it was now crumbling and disintegrating. We looked back with unmasked jealousy, often wishing that we could swap with one of our interviewees our ability to toggle between countless imagined, virtual communities in exchange for a single, real community.
We grew up as individuals.
Yael and I, both native-born Israelis, both spent the majority of our childhood and adolescence in Ra’anana, a place that was open to all sorts of roots: there was elementary school and junior high, where the class was divided up into various sub-groups; there was the youth movement, which I joined for a year; there were various after-school clubs; there was the yekke synagogue where I held my bar mitzvah and which my father attended for the year following his parents’ deaths; there was my high school, which was further away from our home and got me used to traveling by bus; and then came the army.
And in my childhood, I wasn’t bothered by the lack of community. Perhaps I didn’t even know that there were communities in the world, because I grew up without one. Perhaps I thought that that’s the natural way to live. As someone who loved to read and write, I discovered how to be alone at an early age, but I think that we always learned, me and my generation, that we live, and succeed (or fail) as individuals. At a certain stage, from somewhere during high school until a little after the army, I became able to identify “my generation” at big rock concerts. But this generation, in which I learned to feel comfortable, and also to feel a form of belonging to, was very much a virtual community, lacking real, close, day-to-day contact, other than in the crowd at the Arad Festival, at a gig by Kaveret or Ehud Banai, or on the well-worn backpacker trails in India.
Only in hindsight could I connect this understanding, that we grew up without communities, to another understanding that crystalized in me about halfway through my military service: the fact that I, that we, grew up in a cultural vacuum. As descendants of refugees born to refugees, whose parents learned to silence their past, we were expected to be the first generation that would rectify these things, would put to rest the ghosts of the generation of Sinai that lay behind us and become true Israelis, as our parents wanted to be and tried for us to be.
But this newborn Israeliness was a place of erasure and concealment: It sought to make the Orient disappear, or at least to leave it in the realm of folklore, of superstition and cuisine, and instead to point north and west toward Europe, essentially being sucked in under the relentless march of Americanization. It sought to deny the existence of the diasporas from the Jewish past, and so skipped over the bulk of Jewish history, Jewish art and culture, Jewish languages, and kept only the Jewish Bible, along with modern Hebrew (stripped of the subtle layers of the Hebrew that was the language of the Sages of old) and an obsession for archaeology. It sought to distance itself from religion, and thus it also sought to empty the bible of any divine presence, leaving it as just a historical record of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and of its borders, the legal deeds to a landscape of rocks and dust rather than a gateway to a hoard of spiritual and cultural treasures. And we were expected to enter it as individuals, leaving behind the traditions of our fathers’ and mothers’ houses, all of us merely offspring of the New Israeli who was born of the sea (though not the Mediterranean).
And I, like many of my generation, came into the world as a first-generation Israeli, a child to parents who were uprooted from the various lands of their birth as young children, aged four or five, and were replanted in this land during the 1950s, confused as to their roots. My parents, the refugee children of refugee parents, spoke better Hebrew than their parents, and hoped to integrate into the new Israel, which they saw as their country more than any other country. And they almost managed to forget that they were not born in it. And yet they still had that caution common to immigrants in their new land, and maintained a certain distance between home and street, and between themselves and other immigrants, as if it were better that they should have no community, so that they might more easily each be accepted, individually, into the broadest, imagined community, of true Israelis (though no one knows whether any such creatures ever really existed).