A Box of Postcards
BY ODELIA GLAUSIUSZ
There is a second-hand bookshop on Shatz Street in Jerusalem that houses an eclectic mix of literature. If you make your way down the creaky staircase, you’ll find boxes stuffed with yellowing postcards amongst the towering shelves of books. As you flick through them, you’ll spot Hebrew, German, Russian, French and English, glimpses of the incredible assortment of people that have migrated to Israel over the decades. There is one from TIME magazine, informing Mr. Mati Alon in Jerusalem that while his comments “were circulated among several editors for their information and consideration,” they could not, regrettably, be published. A hastily scribbled postcard from David, with a picture of the Bodleian Library in Oxford on the back, to tell Abraham that he’s off to the States (but Abraham can now write to him at the department of Political Science in Berkeley). A chatty letter from Pearl in Johannesburg, dated 13th October 1964, addressed to “Matilda, Mishael + Fam (+ CATS).” Like a walk through the shuk in Jerusalem, these old postcards open a fascinating window into the rich diversity of Israeli society.
Since making Aliyah, I’ve been struck by the multitudinous, divergent worlds that exist side-by-side in this tiny country. It’s not just a matter of Chareidim and chilonim, Israelis and Arabs, right and left. There’s Chassidish and Yeshivish, Dati Light and Dati Leumi. Ethiopian Jews, Moroccan Jews, French Jews. The idealistic, remote hilltop yishuvim in Yehuda and Shomron and the restaurants, clubs and skyscrapers of Tel Aviv.
There are heart-warming stories of people connecting across the divide. On a recent El Al flight to Israel, I saw a man with a black coat, flying tzitzit and a long gray beard give a warm hug at the end of the flight to the bare-headed man sitting next to him in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. Moments like these make me hopeful. But the recent protests over judicial reforms at times seem almost dystopian. The newspapers were full of photos showing dense crowds of passionate people blocking highways and clamoring with police. “A deeply divided Israel limps toward its 75th birthday under weight of internal rift,” ran a headline from The Times of Israel, shortly before Yom HaAtzmaut.
The interesting thing is that all of the protests – whether for or against the reforms – have been accompanied by a sea of Israeli flags. People are angry, but it’s because they care deeply about the fate of this country. Except all of this care, all of this passion, is driving people apart instead of forging them together.
A 1956 article in The Jerusalem Post reported the news that Miss Israel – a certain Rina Weiss – had come in third in the Miss World Contest. The article ends: “[Miss Israel] said that she was going to spend her prize traveling through England meeting the British as her way of saying “Thank You” for getting her out of a concentration camp during the War (she was rescued from Bergen-Belsen by British troops).”
Oh, the incongruity of it all! A Jewish girl from war-torn Europe, a Holocaust survivor living in Tel Aviv, and a model participating in an international beauty pageant. So many clashing realities in one short, matter-of-fact piece. But the truth is, Rina Weiss’ story is the story of the people of Israel. Everyone Jew in Israel has a narrative that stretches back over the generations to ancestors who arrived in Israel from all corners of the globe – to a young, bright eyed kibbutznik who escaped Russian pogroms, to a Mizrachi Jew armed with his rich traditions, or to a lone Holocaust survivor who landed here with nothing and built his life from scratch. People like Mr. Mati Alon, who still enjoyed reading TIME magazine, Abraham with his academic friend David, and a friendly South African family with pet cats.
Sometimes, as a new immigrant, I feel out of place here. But where we’ve come from is important, for everyone here has come from somewhere else. It is the very thing we all have in common, even with the Israelis who’ve lived here their entire lives.
Here’s another striking article from The Jerusalem Post, entitled ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ this time from 1948:
Mingling with the many complainants that came to the Mahne Yehuda Police Station in Jerusalem late on Friday afternoon was an aged oriental Rabbi in a handsome kaftan. He made straight for the room of the officer in charge.
Challenged by the constable on duty, who suggested that in a police station one doesn’t just walk straight past the sentry, the Rabbi shyly admitted that all he wanted to say was “Shabbat Shalom” to the members of the all Jewish police force. He was invited to sit down and have a cigarette before the Sabbath began.
Imagine the scene. A stately rabbi, dressed in his Shabbat finery, sweeping into the police station. The presumably secular officers, baffled by this man’s assured stride and his obviously foreign appearance. The tension dissipates when they realize that all this man wants to do is say “Shabbat Shalom.” And so they all sit down and have a cigarette, and talk. What did they talk about? Perhaps about where they all came from, marveling that this new country of theirs exists, or perhaps musing about where it will one day go. Maybe they just spoke about the weather. Either way, the ‘aged oriental rabbi’ from this story respected the police force, and they, in turn, respected him. He respected them because he didn’t see a secular police force as an antagonist, but rather as an exciting part of the new Jewish state. He saw that he and the police force had the same goal – they all wanted to maintain the safety and well-being of their new country. And they had all come from somewhere to make that dream a reality.
George Orwell once reflected, “Looking back through my work, it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally” (Why I Write). It was when Orwell fused “political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” that he was able to write books weighted with meaning, books like 1984 or Animal Farm. All of the care, all of the passion that has driven people to protest – it all stems from the same desire, the same sense of political purpose: to build a healthy, thriving Jewish country. If we lose sight of this common goal, then, like Orwell, we’ll be betrayed into “purple passages” and “sentences without meaning.”
Israel is a nation made up of people carrying disparate, unlikely stories. Yet all these stories are united by that one overlapping chapter, the one where we all settled here. If we learn to respect everyone else’s stories, learn to see our own stories reflected within them, then, maybe, we could all begin to write the next chapter together – and write it well.
Odelia Glausiusz recently moved to Jerusalem where she works as a freelance writer and content curator.