Listen: Ha’āzinû – Deuteronomy 32

For the first time in my life, I finally really read Moses’ final oration to the Israelites from Mount Nebo on the border of Israel just before he died and before his people entered the Promised Land. I read it three times. I was so upset! I phoned my daughter in Boston where she teaches rabbinics. She also happens to be a poet. I explained why I thought I was so put off. 

First, there was the context. Facing death, Moses in the previous parashat had just appointed Joshua as his successor and prophesied how God would lead them to victory when they crossed the border; every seven years at Succoth they would have to gather together to relive the experience. Moses also prophesied how, when the Israelites became comfortable, they would slide away from their faith in God, spurn Him and turn to other gods; evils and troubles would befall them. 

Then Moses recited the famous Ha’āzinû poem that constitutes this week’s portion. It makes Dante’s inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy describing his trip through hell, feel like a spa. Beside the Ha’āzinû, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his depiction of the human fall from grace is but a vacation cruise. For both those epic poems are, at their core, poems of nostalgic longing for Eden before the Fall, depictions of the life lost given what life will be like after we die if we do not repent our sins. With all the horrors described, the focus of these poems in contrast to that of Moses is on loss rather than the use of memory to shock and cajole, to disturb and disrupt. Then we are faced once again with a universal flood, but a flood that is the consequence of our own making. 

Ha’āzinû is a scolding screed calling on the Israelites in the midst of their wickedness to remember where they came from, to remember their history and how far they had fallen to the point where they “neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who brought you forth.” (32:8) The point is not, however, to get back to where they had been, to an Arcadia, to the Israelites’ initial love affair with God in the wilderness with its frequent fights and angry separations, but to recall their responsibilities to the future, their duties under the covenant they once made with God. It is a depiction of a wasteland left as the after effects of climate change because we failed to listen, because we failed to heed and sacrificed our children’s futures to satisfy our current material needs. The poem is not an elegy, but a call to action, and all the more horrific for that.

God would then rain misfortune upon them with famine and deadly pestilence, wild beasts to attack them, venomous snakes to creep among them and wars to decimate them. One could anticipate an inversion of the Promised Land of milk and honey. Most of all, their enemies would gloat. Their God had deserted them. God would Himself pronounce that all this was His own vengeance for their betrayal. Their day of disaster would be near. 

However, it is He that deals death and gives life. It is He on Yom Kippur who chooses who will live and who will die. “I will make drunk My arrows with blood.” (32:41) Then God will wipe the earth of those who dared laugh and gloat over the suffering of His people. The waste, the death, the slaughter, the destruction of the earth will make the Great Flood look simply like a catastrophic interruption and not a horrific end. 

I hate horror movies. But there was a second and even more important reason for why I was so upset. The depiction of God turned me off, not this time because he was so wanton in the horrors He delivered upon mankind, but in His characterization.

ד  הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ,  {ס}  כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט:  {ר}  אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל,  {ס}  צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.  {ר} 4 The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He.
ה  שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם:  {ס}  דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל.  {ר} 5 Is corruption His? No; His children’s is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse.

God as the Rock of Ages has always turned me off. For the God I find in the first four books of the Torah is a God who changes, not a fixed being, a God who learns not a God of perfection, a God who is open to argument rather than an impenetrable fixture of the firmament. In this depiction of God as a Rock, humans, with all their failings, are viewed as a blemish, crooked and perverse, not so much because of what they do, but because of who they are. They are human-all-too-human. They are not God or even gods.

There is a third factor that repelled me. It was not just the horror show. It was not just the depiction of God and of humans by contrast. It was the poem itself. I thought it read like a string of clichés. My daughter advised me to read Isaiah again and to read an excellent 1988 essay by Harold Fisch, “Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poets and Interpretation.” It turned out to be a brilliant piece of academic writing on poetry as self-referential.

 At the core, I had failed to see these as the origins of the images echoed in what followed rather than as worn out images that had been repeatedly used as fading echoes of the original. For, as Northrop Frye wrote, poetry is an echo chamber, a process that at its core enables memory to work. Imitation and repetition are its modes and are its communication tools. As Rabbi Jay opined, poetry is not in itself self-explanatory. It can only be grasped in the context of the mode adopted for expression, the anti-pastoral in this case, and the reverberations with and on other poetry.

When Moses calls out, “Give ear” as heaven and earth are witnesses for all time, we in the present hear the echo, but not as a nostalgic call to the past, but as a call to take responsibility for the present and the future. Words are not dispensable and frivolous throwaways, but fraught with the weight of ages. Words bind and command. They are in all seriousness the ultimate deed. They grow like vines and establish networks, and, with wine, they transport us across time so that we can recall the terrible disasters that befell us as a people and the enormity of the utter ruin we now face.

In addition to my repulsion at a horror show, in addition to my dismissal of a version of God that I rejected, in addition to my failure to appreciate the power of these images in the original collective imaginary of the West, my daughter had observed that I had failed to put myself in the place of the author. In addition to Isaiah, read Samuel 15, she advised. Poetry as rebuke is like no other. See Moses as an avatar, she advised, a leader who sums up his life for himself as having lived as an alien among a people hostile to his and God’s message. He is espousing a post-exilic theology, a time when the first temple was seen as an exercise in idolatry for which the people had been punished both by the destruction of that temple and with their being cast into exile.

I read and corrected for the last two failures. But what of the horror? What of the depiction of God as a rock? I reread the poem once again. (My apologies in advance for any misinterpretations of either my daughter or of Fisch.) In the light of my daughter’s remarks – or at least what I took from them – and reading Fisch’s essay, I now understood the following:

א  הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה;  {ס}  וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי.  {ר} 1 Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
ב  יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי,  {ס}  תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי,  {ר}  כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא,  {ס}  וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.  {ר} 2 My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.

Moses calls on all of nature, not just the Israelites gathered before him, to hear his words. As heaven and earth are my witness, like the rain, like the dew, hear the distilled words from my experience. Hear the lessons that I have learned from history. That is Moses’ message. The pastoral references are not cited to recall the beauty and harmony of nature with nostalgic longing, for, as in Genesis, God said, and there was. 

א  בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Or, as I would render it, in the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth, the word precedes the material world. Poetry in this idiom is not a call to return to the beauty and pleasantries of nature, but to remember the importance and priority of the word as poetry, which, in its conciseness and its intensity creates a new imaginary.

  •  No Return, No Refuge. Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.] The basic message of the covenant, as I wrote in last week’s blog on the Torah, is the sin of covering up and the obligation to uncover the cover-up, an act signified by the circumcision of Jewish males.
  • Consider the image of the stone, not as a characterization of God, but as a characterization of God by a people living in a barren place, in the wilderness, in the desert where there are only stunted dead trees and no branches and nor leaves to shade one from the beating sun, a desert of rock and stones with no water on the surface except the dew that falls in the morning. There are no roses and no lilacs. For a people in a rocky desert, God is the Rock of Ages, a solid and fixed reference for a cohort on route to the Promised Land, God is a cloudy mist that leads them or a fiery presence that protects them.
  • The horrors inflicted on the Israelites as a result of their wickedness would be to return them to exile, return them to the desert stones and their burning heat. Return is not a recovery of an Eden, for the Jewish paradise belongs to a future of aspiration rather than a recollection of an idyllic past.
  • Jewish history is not about eternal recurrence, of what goes ‘round must come ‘round, of simple exchanges in the positions of polar opposites with history depicted as a teeter-totter, but a journey which builds on past recollection to move forward. Only by recollecting that past, only by remembering, re-experiencing and re-enacting our history can we move on. The past must remain present if we are truly to move into the future and accept in full our responsibilities to society and to this planet. For our history is not a record of steady progress, nor a seesaw movement, but a record of cataclysmic interruptions and the destruction of the Promised Land that we took so much labour and time, so much sacrifice and suffering, to reach.
  • Moses, whatever his shortcomings, whatever his bitterness and disappointment at not being able to enter the Promised Land, whatever the impact of that experience on his prophecies for the future, he remained never one to engage in nostalgic memory, neither for the court comforts of his Egyptian youth nor the idyllic simplicity and passivity of his young adult life as a shepherd.
  • Poetry itself is timebound rather than timeless. In this context, the words do not transport us into another realm, but back to earth; God is the word that enables His people to survive and thrive as a nation.  

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Spy – Part II: An Evaluation of the Series

After the depiction of the series in Part I, I will now evaluate it in terms of its truth value, its presentation of ethical dilemmas and, because it is Yom Kippur this evening, its theological significance.

As Sasha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen busily constructed his façade as a spy in Syria, the life of Nadia, his wife played by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, very slowly dissolves into suspicion and depression. As Cohen celebrates his epicurean lifestyle, Nadia lives on the equivalent of macaroni and cheese. One is left at the end of the series with the feeling that Nadia suffered even more and more deeply and for a much longer period than Eli Cohen when he was captured in 1965. For “reasons of state,” was the Mossad, and, indirectly, the Israeli government, guiltier for what they did to Nadia even more than the willingness of Cohen’s superiors to expose their agent to ever increasing risks?

And Cohen does what almost all spies do in such circumstances as he becomes more certain of his cover and more confident in his techniques of dissembling. He gets careless. Regularity and repetition are the greatest dangers to a spy. And Cohen fell into a trap of his own and his minders’ making.

Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license?  I already indicated my suspicion that it was the latter. Whether true or not, and it seems unlikely that it was true, the introduction of such a scene seems gratuitous and exploitive of a notorious name.

But there are far more serious questions about the verity of the series. Professor Abu Khalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, treated the series as Zionist propaganda and raised a number of questions. The movie set is clearly not Damascus, but to quibble over this is to complain about any movie or series where it is rare to place it in the real setting. There are, however, more serious questions.

  • Eli Cohen never befriended Amin Al-Hafez and could not have done so since he served as a military attaché in Buenos Aries after Cohen left Argentina; however, the historical records indicate that Al-Hafez was banished to Argentina in September of 1961 when Eli Cohen was in that country – he moved to Damascus in February of 1962; is the published historical record incorrect?
  • In Syria, Al-Hafez was only the Interior Minister when Eli Cohen was there; in fact. Al-Hafez became President of Syria on 27 July of 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February of 1966.
  • There is no evidence that Al-Hafez met Eli Cohen – but there is in Cohen’s reports to Mossad and in the treatment meted out to other Syrians whom Cohen met; there is every reason for Al-Hafez to deny he never met Cohen.
  • The same could be said of Abdul-Karim (Ma’azi) Zaher al-Din (Nassim Si Ahmed), a senior military officer. Khalil claimed that there is no evidence to show that he knew Eli Cohen – except the Mossad files. Al-Din had every reason to deny he knew Eli Cohen; on the other hand, critics admit Cohen befriended his nephew, Ma’dhi Zaher Al-Din, a junior officer, so that it is very likely that the nephew introduced Cohen to his uncle.
  • As one critic of Khalil wrote, “all the actions of the Syrian government around his unveiling and execution point to a deeply emotional and personal reaction from a leadership who were angry, deeply humiliated, hurt and seeking retribution.”
  • Al-Hafez’s wife was a conservative from Aleppo and it is beyond credulity that she would have reached over and grabbed Cohen by the genitals; whether she in fact did or did not, it is a gratuitous scene irrelevant to the spy story and one suspects is a bow to sensationalism and depreciates the seriousness of Eli Cohen’s mission. I cannot recall if either book made such a claim.
  • Critics can claim that it is laughable that Eli Cohen would have been escorted to the front lines of the Golan Heights while admitting that he did indeed visit the Al-Himmah area in the southern part of the Golan Heights; the evidence is pretty incontrovertible that Cohen used that visit both to report on what he saw and to use it as an entry to offering the gift of the Eucalyptus trees, to which many soldiers fighting in the Golan could attest and which the critics do not deny were there; the overwhelming evidence seems to confirm that Cohen visited a sufficient piece of the Golan to understand the fortifications and then make them very visible to the Israelis through the gift of the trees to provide shade for the Syrian soldiers, There are also the photographs of the fortifications
  • The change of plans and personnel for the Golan following the 1966 coup did not mean the fortifications were changed nor the trees
  • The critics do not deny that the plan to divert the Jordan River water was sabotaged or that the Syrian efforts to build a nuclear reactor were destroyed.
  • The Druze counter-espionage chief, Ahmad Suwaydani, may indeed not have been in Buenos Aries when Cohen was there; but this bit of poetic license was used to introduce the character early on and show how determined and resolute he was in uprooting spies; it detracts not one whit from the core narrative and compliments him for his acuity.

In sum, the general truth of the narrative and the interpretation of Eli Cohen’s role as presented in the series is generally true, though the director in the notes made clear that the episodes were based on the Eli Cohen narrative and were not an attempt to precisely represent the story. However, there are some minor incongruities on the Israeli side. Why, as Eli Cohen’s daughter complained, did the series claim that Nadia was a maid? Her daughter insisted she never was, but I cannot remember where the description took place.

What about how the Israeli characters are presented and the ethical tensions of the interpretation? A very acute one is that of Emmerich as Cohen’s handler, Dan. He is presented as both determined and smart, wary and worrisome, especially in light of a previous agent of his who was caught. He is also presented as a compassionate man sincerely concerned about the effects of Cohen’s long absences on his wife Nadia. His inner conflicts about keeping Cohen in the field, taking even more risks to gather further information and his desire to please Nadia and cut short Cohen’s exposure are both understandable and ring true. But, in the end, interests of state win out over the personal concerns. However, I found it questionable why Mossad would insist on contacts at the same time daily when Cohen could have been given a code that dictated changes in times.

The other person truly torn apart in the series is Eli Cohen himself. His role as a spy required him to suppress his deeper self, his love for his wife and family versus his passionate desire to serve the state. But he did tire. Before he went off to his final mission, he asked to come in from the cold. The effort to repress his love and his life had taken a great a toll and he appeared to be on the edge of losing it. Did he become careless? Was that why he was caught? The drama of the suffering of Nadia and of Eli Cohen as well as his handler are at the heart of the dramatic tension in the series. Conflicts over ethics, social and political priorities drive the drama. Other conflicts, such as the one between his Mizrachi versus Ashkenazi identity, are introduced but then dropped.

There is one even deeper tension that needs literally to be uncovered, though I am pretty sure it was not a conscious goal of Gideon Raff, the director. This evening, we begin Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, yom (יוֹם) means ‘day’; kippur (כִּפּוּר) (or kaphar) comes from a root verb that means ‘to atone’. Hence, Yom Kippur is usually expressed in English as the “Day of Atonement.” That is because kippur or kaphur means both to cover and to uncover, to repress and to purge, to make a reconciliation and to cover with pitch. The same word seems to have two very opposite meanings.

In the Yom Kippur service, we insist, on the one hand, that we are righteous and have not sinned and that we are arrogant, obstinate and have sinned. It is the same contradiction. For in our self-righteousness, we claim purity, but in our heart of hearts, we know that this self-righteous insistence is but a cover up of our sins. Further, the biggest sin of all is the cover-up itself. As one rabbi put it, “We pretend to be someone blameless. But we are not the person we pretend to be.” Further, we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked that we cover up the fact that we are not perfect, that we have sinned.

Rabbi Splanski, citing Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, pointed out in Torah study, that there is the all important aval (in English, “but”) that occurs only twice in the Torah.

In Genesis 17:19 –

יט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן, וְקָרָאתָ אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִצְחָק; וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם, לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו. 19 And God said: ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.

Aval means “in truth.” And the meaning can best be grasped by the context. For preceding God’s promise that Sarah will bear a child in her old age, are six verses on the covenant and its primary sign, circumcision of the male infant.

ט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, וְאַתָּה אֶת-בְּרִיתִי תִשְׁמֹר–אַתָּה וְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ, לְדֹרֹתָם. 9 And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations.
י  זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, אַחֲרֶיךָ:  הִמּוֹל לָכֶם, כָּל-זָכָר. 10 This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.
יא  וּנְמַלְתֶּם, אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם; וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם. 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you.
יב  וּבֶן-שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים, יִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל-זָכָר–לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם:  יְלִיד בָּיִת–וּמִקְנַת-כֶּסֶף מִכֹּל בֶּן-נֵכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזַּרְעֲךָ הוּא. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.
יג  הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל יְלִיד בֵּיתְךָ, וּמִקְנַת כַּסְפֶּךָ; וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, לִבְרִית עוֹלָם. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
יד  וְעָרֵל זָכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמּוֹל אֶת-בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ:  אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, הֵפַר.  {ס} 14 And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.’ {S}

When a male Jewish child is circumcised at eight days old, the foreskin of the penis that covers up the glans is removed. Not only does the circumcision inflict on the flesh a painful lesson that even a father who loves you as a child more than even his own life, can inflict pain. If such a father can do that, so can anyone. Therefore, we must be wary. We must not let down our guard. On the other, the circumcision is about totally revealing one’s core passions. Circumcision is an unveiling, is a statement that one will always remain open in spite of the harm inflicted on oneself, that you will always retain the consciousness that you must uncover the fact that your worst sin is to cover up your sins. 

Genesis 41:21 –


כא  וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.
21 And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.’

We must come face-to-face with our guilt, with our past sins, but most of all with our refusal to admit we are sinners and our insistence on presenting a false face to the world. That is precisely why spy stories are so interesting. Because they are inherently cover-ups, wearing disguises and pretending to be who we are not, but for the sake of revealing more important truths and, in the process, coming to terms with our own fallibility as the very task we undertake is to project infallibility.

The Spy does it all. In the end it is a theological exercise exploring the relationship of cover-ups to the effort to do anything to uncover secrets. Thus, it is sad that those who accuse the series of being untruthful and Zionist propaganda continue to engage in a cover-up of what took place instead of seriously probing and questioning the presentation.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Spy – Part I: A Review of the Series

People who serve in signals intelligence are often called spies. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan. They were undercover agents using their eyes and ears to bring back impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side. James Bond, in contrast is less of a secret agent type of spy, but more a fearless character of adventure with little to do with secrecy or mystery, and much more to do with a mixture of daring and charm, though his direct enemies are characterized by their disloyalty and treachery. But the spies who really interest me and I find most fascinating are those, like Smiley in a John Le Carré novel, who are poseurs and serve undercover in foreign countries over a period of time. They are traitors in the countries in which they work and loyalists to another regime.

If we are paranoid, we are always surrounded by informers planted from abroad or corrupted from within. But even if we are not, we are well versed that there may be spies on our native soil. The fact that we do not know whether they are there or not is part of the mystery. And they are a danger. Recall Guy Fawkes Day commemorating 5 November 1605 when a cabal of Catholic Englishmen plotted to blow up Parliament.

Novelists and playwrights are intrigued by spies because they are poseurs within a form of literature that is, after all, make-believe, fiction posing as reality. Like spies in reality, these writers are fascinated by covert behavior as well as undercover observation because these traits go to the heart of what they do. And in both realms, risk-taking and suspense are key to the stories, both for the teller of tales and the agents in them. Writers and spies must of necessity be devious.

Mis-direction, make-believe, masks and mapping, both of the geography of our environment and of our internal souls, all are at the core of any spy story and almost all fiction. The poseur spy must appear to be what he is not while the fictional author must make appearances and descriptions tangible, textured and real.

Among poseur spies, many are seedy and marginal characters with a black cloud of self-betrayal hanging over their heads. Though these types intrigue me, I have much more interest in spies like Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in King Henry VIII’s court and Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy working in the highest places in Damascus, Syria. They are brilliant and accomplished men who reach the highest offices in the land in which they play the role of a traitor for one side and a hero for the other. They know where their deepest loyalties lie and are not generally permeated with self-doubt. They are dissemblers par excellence and, as such, take the very methods of the spy realm to an altogether higher level by combining charm and guile, hidden feelings and glib language. They are flatterers who, in their sycophancy, hide their contempt, and, though rare because of the skill and serendipity required, nevertheless, infrequently but much-too-often, reach the highest offices in the land.  

Canada has its own history of notorious spies. Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk working in the Soviet Union’s embassy who defected to Canada was easily the most famous and most notorious. Currently, Cameron Otis, the high-ranking RCMP officer whose apartment was raided to reveal dozens of computers and encryption methods in the plethora of PCs found in his Byward Market condo in Ottawa, recently made his initial court appearance.

Eli Cohen was one of the best and most famous spies in history; he is the subject of a current entrancing Netflix bio-pic series released a month ago, The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and Ali G fame. In Who Is America? Sacha Baron Cohen posed as an Israeli interviewer who tricked gullible Americans into saying the most outlandish things. Borat, of course, was also a poseur in order to trick the unsuspecting into embarrassing situations and responses. Since I never watched Borat or Ali G, I did not have to discard comic expectations when watching Sacha play Eli.

If you are looking for spine-tingling suspense in a spy drama, there are only rare moments in this series. The story itself and Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance are what intrigue the viewer even if one is fully familiar with the narrative details. Sacha Baron Cohen builds on his previous straight role in Les Misérables. This is neither an adventure tale nor a deep bore into what made Eli Cohen so successful. As presented, the achievement appears to be a combination of Syrian ineptitude, Eli Cohen’s skills as a poseur, which Sacha Baron Cohen portrays with absolute conviction, as do in their roles, Noah Emmerich as Dan Peleg, Eli’s supporter but conflicted Mossad handler, his colleague, Maya (Yael Eitan) and Shlomo “Moni” Moshonov as the determined Mossad chief, Jacob Shimoni. Critics of Israel are bound to be outraged at both the exaltation of the hero and the negative depiction of Arabs. For this bio-pic is really focused on the expertise and determination of this Israeli hero and his Mossad handlers, but even more about how they wrestle with internal ethical tensions.

The occupants of high office in Damascus focused especially on Colonel Amin Al-Hafez (or Hafiz, Waleed Zuaiter), whom we first meet in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but subsequently as a general and member of the Ba’ath Party who became President of Syria on 27 July 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February 1966. The Syrians were indeed embarrassed and absolutely enraged much more than the Americans tricked by Sacha Baron Cohen in a comic role. For Sacha Baron Cohen, in a dramatic role as Eli Cohen operating under the fake identity of Kamel Amin Thaabeth Tabat or Thabet or Thabeth (Arabic: كامل أمين ثابت‎), was presented as totally pulling the wool over the eyes of the Syrians until he was caught.  The sense of betrayal of the Syrian leadership is palpable. But smothering even that feeling is Al-Hafez’s sense of being so profoundly duped.

Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, played a critical role in the 1963 coup that brought the Ba’athists into power. He would displace the blame onto the president who succeeded Al-Hafez for the Syrian losses in the Six Day War, turn the tables and overthrow Nureddin al-Atassi in 1970 who had led the 1966 coup. Ruthlessness seems to beat embarrassment almost every time. I am mindful of that even though I strongly support the impeachment of Donald Trump. However, he plays no significant role in this series.

There are several other Arabs of note, first and foremost the intense and menacing Syrian Intelligence Colonel Ahmed Su’edani (Alexander Siddig) who disliked and distrusted Cohen and eventually caught him red-handed transmitting information to Israel. In contrast, the Syrian businessman, Sheikh Aheikh Majid al-Ard (Uri Gavriel), befriends Eli Cohen and even eventually facilitates an engagement with his daughter. Evidently, Cohen met the sheikh on a boat from Genoa to Beirut in 1962. The most colourful Arab character is perhaps Ma’azi Zaher al-Din played by Nassim Si Ahmed as the half-wild Algerian-Mexican lieutenant who paves the way for Eli Cohen’s entry into the Arab ex-pat community in Argentina.

Borat was a comic figure. Eli Cohen, however, was anything but, even though he too wore a bushy moustache. For Borat deliberately and humorously spoke in a tortured English accent while Cohen in reality spoke fluent Arabic even though the series is overwhelmingly in English. Cohen is brilliant as a tall, handsome and supposedly very rich Arab import/export businessman using Damascus as his base and both charm and money, dark glasses and expensive suits to seduce the upper echelon of rulers in Syria who attended his lavish parties. The picture below, if it can be transmitted, shows how handsome the real Eli Cohen was and how closely Sacha Baron Cohen took on his appearance in the series.

To get to peace, countries very often use two-track diplomacy, that is, secret channels for dialogue, usually using academics or other non-government officials to conduct negotiations for which a regime can at any time deny any responsibility. In the conduct of war, they use spies, undercover agents who are the critical complement to their military prowess. And none have been more critical to Israel – at least, as far as we can tell – than Eli Cohen, known best for his audacious arrangement to plant Eucalyptus trees along the edge of the Golan Heights ostensibly to shade the soldiers manning the “pill boxes” along the rim of the Golan Heights which allowed the artillery of Israel to destroy that three rows of  the “Maginot Line” with deadly accuracy in the opening of the Six Day War.

In the movie flashback from the final hanging, there are references to Eli Cohen at first as a very disgruntled former Mossad spy in Egypt in Operation Goshen that smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel in the early fifties, possibly a player in The Lavon Affair and its botched attempt to bomb Egyptian facilities that was to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, and his flight to Israel himself in December 1956. Once there he became a depressed signals clerk in the Mossad. His opening current position is that of a resentful clerk in an insurance office after having twice been rejected as a Mossad agent.

The series follows a double-track format, one track in Israel where Mossad finally recruits Eli Cohen to be their “spy in Damascus” and, also, afterwards, to nurse and hold the hand of Eli Cohen’s long-suffering wife, Nadia, played brilliantly and totally convincingly by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem. They were married in 1959 just before he was recruited, trained and then established his Syrian identity as an ex-pat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires in 1961. Between February 1962 and 1965, he rose in a world of flash and corruption, wealth and dissolute behaviour, in a Las Vegas version of Damascus filmed in colour, while in the depressing black and white parallel track, Nadia’s life seems to disintegrate into loneliness and, surprisingly, apparent penury in Bat Yam. Was the latter accurate? If so, it is perhaps much more embarrassing to Israel than the high-risk exposure into which they placed Eli Cohen for reasons of state.

There is another question about the verity of the series. Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, the fabulously wealthy Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license? The fact that I ask the question is, in itself, a minor criticism of the series. For success of a spy film about reality depends on the movie communicating masking and lying in the most honest way possible.

The latter is a major theme in the video series as well as the account, Our Man in Damascus: The thrilling, shocking, true story of Israel’s most daring spy by Eli Ben-Hanan which ends with Cohen being caught, tortured, tried and hung in the Damascus’ Martyrs (Marjeh) Square on 18 May 1965 before a derisory mob shouting the equivalent of ‘Down with Israel’ after a visitation by the elderly Chief Rabbi of Syria, Nissim Andabo. This is where the series begins with Cohen’s body left to dangle for six hours. However, the series more closely followed the French version of the tale as told by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu d’Israel in the nondescript titled The Spy Who Came from Israel.

The film series depicts Cohen’s recruitment in 1959, training, positioning himself in Buenos Aires as a Syrian businessman who longs to return to his native country (which he does in 1962), the route used to infiltrate the power elite in Syria. According to the series, rivalling his greatest exploit, the intelligence he supplied on the military fortifications on the Golan Heights, was the information he gathered on Syria’s plans to divert the Jordan and starve Israel of water and Syria’s efforts to build a nuclear reactor. Those plans were sabotaged by Israel.

However, I do not recall the Ben-Hanan book being about Nadia, but it is a long time since I read it and I must have given my copy away for it is no longer on my bookshelves – or, at least, I could not find it. But this is a core trope of the series – the disintegration of Nadia’s life into loneliness and the sole responsibility for two young children (I believe there were three) in contrast to the high life Cohen was living as a multi-millionaire in Damascus. In the series, Cohen is depicted as almost puritanical in resisting the enticements of a corrupt Lothario, but somewhere I believe I read that Cohen had a long series of mistresses. In the series, he is too much in love with his wife and family and only gets involved with the daughter of a very wealthy Syrian businessman as part of his cover and only under orders of his Mossad minder.

To be continued – Part II An Evaluation

With the help of Alex Zisman

Facing Death: Parashat Vayilech – Deuteronomy 31:1-30

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is facing his own demise. He will not succeed in his life’s dream, leading the Israelites back to the land they left four centuries earlier. That will be left for Joshua to accomplish. How did Moses deal with such a disappointment? What does the way he faced death say about his character?

I assume Moses was sixty when he was about to die. I know that is not what the text states. Genesis 6:3 reads: “The Lord said, ‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed to him be one hundred and twenty years.’” Moses, when he addressed the Israelites prior to his death, said to the gathered multitude, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:2) When he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, the text reads (Deuteronomy 34:7), “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.”

Further, even the New Testament, in Acts 7:23, says that Moses was forty when he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard. That would mean that he spent forty years as a shepherd hosted by his Midianite father-in-law and then at eighty responded to the summons to return to Egypt and rescue the Israelite slaves from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. So how can I argue with the text which seems to assign forty years to each of the periods of Moses’ life, his upbringing and sojourn in Egypt, his family life among the Midianites and his confrontations with the Pharaoh followed by his leadership of the Israelites for four decades through the wilderness?

Of course, my suppositions are far from definitive, to say the least, but they help me make sense of the text. I am sure that the rabbis over the ages have debated this possibility since it is hard to find any interpretation that they did not consider. My arguments for this claim are as follows: the actions of Moses killing the Egyptian guard are consistent with the behaviour of a young man of twenty rather than a mature individual of forty. The murder, even if in defense of a victim of an assault, is both rash and excessive. Second, it was also imprudent since there were witnesses. Finally, he fled the scene of the crime. None of this is congruent with the behaviour of a forty-year-old. By then a male generally has become emotionally mature. The behaviour is definitely not that of a man at forty who is expected to transfer education and wisdom to his own children when he himself is generally free of the treacherous passions that afflict a teenage male and one in his early twenties.  (See The Works of Philo Judaeus: Volume II:VII)

Surely the text would include an account of what happened to Moses between the ages of twenty and forty. In addition, it is one thing to live under the guardianship of your in-laws for twenty years; it is quite another, and somewhat unimaginable, to envision that situation for forty years. Finally, can one imagine a male of eighty taking up the task of confronting the Pharaoh? At the age of forty, as difficult as it may be, it is at least within the realm of the possible.

But there is other evidence. Vayigdal (וַיִּגְדְּל) means, “when he was big,” that is, when he was grown up. That is the term used to refer to Moses when he went to Goshen, saw his kinsmen being overworked and killed the Egyptian guard. (See Genesis 25:27; Judges 13:24; Kings 4:18) It is not a term you would use to describe a forty-year-old. One final argument. There are at least two Jewish new years. Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) means the “head [of] the year,” Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), the “day of shouting or blasting.” It is the first day of Tishrei and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im). Ordinarily, this is the day referred to as the New Year, but, in fact, it is only the religious New Year.

There is also the first of Nisan. Exodus 12: 1 & 2 reads:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:
ב  הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה. 2 ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.

This is repeated in Deuteronomy Chapter 16.

א  שָׁמוֹר, אֶת-חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, הוֹצִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם–לָיְלָה. 1 Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the month of Aviv the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.

I suggest that there are (at least) two Jewish new years, one in the spring, the secular new year for planting and renewal, and the first of Tishrei in the autumn that initiates the religious new year and the Days of Awe. Thus, each of our calendar years is two years for the Israelites. By contemporary means of counting, that would mean that Moses died at the age of sixty, spent almost all of his first twenty years in the Egyptian court, the next 20 years as a guest of his father-in-law Jethro and the final twenty years (not forty) leading the Israelites through the desert.

I have one final, very subjective, argument for suggesting that Moses died at the age of sixty in terms of our calculations. I can identify with that. The Israelite 60 is our contemporary 80 in terms of health and longevity. When Moses at the age of 60 reached the borders of Israel, he was facing his own death.

How did he face that death? Did he think of his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron who preceded him? Was he haunted by the ghosts of the past? No. He focused on the future – first the future of his successor, Joshua, as a conqueror under the guidance of God. Moses asked the Israelites to be “strong and resolute,” to march forward with courage rather than fear (31:6) and promised that God will be with them and will not forsake them. He echoed the same message to Joshua (31:7-8). And then he instructed the Levite priests to hold future holy days to commemorate this great event.

Then there was a switch in tone – chapters 14-23 – which the Plaut text claims is an interpolation. It is a prophecy. The Israelites will go astray and God will hide from them in response to their breaking the covenant with Him.  Evil and troubles will fall upon them. Then in chapter 24, another shift, ritual instructions to the Levite priests and a characterization of the Israelites, not so much as straying from the path of righteousness so much as continuing their pattern of defiance that will be all the stronger now that Moses will have passed away. Then the two depictions are joined. “For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil.” (31:29) And, finally, he wrote a poem that I plan to discuss next week.

Can you imagine that? Moses is on his death bed. In spite of all his qualities of true grit, of determination to get a job done, he cannot. His legacy he bequeathed on the Israelites with mixed hope and despair. And he said absolutely nothing about any afterlife. I do not know the source of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald writing that, “In parashat Vayilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.”


For the life of me, I do not get it. From reading the text, I have no sense of Moses comforting the people who might be distressed at the loss of their leader. Moses did not bless the people. I have no sense that he empathized in any way with their emotional state. In fact, I see no clue in the text that tells us how they were feeling at his imminent demise. Rashi, at least, recognized that Moses was at his wits end, unable to complete his life’s mission. His virtue of wise guidance had left him so than he became schizophrenic, promising military success at one moment and moral failure on the next. Moses “went,” vayilech, “to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.” The great leader was deeply humbled when facing death.

It is said that during the Days of Awe, Jews in their worship, experience death and a rebirth. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny our body any satisfaction of its appetites. It is a kind of stand-in for death. Even the best of us cannot conquer death. Nor the necessary despair that goes with it. But also hope. If you are a great leader, the most tremendous gift you can bequeath to your people after you die is hope and a sense of purpose.

I watched the excellent documentary, “In Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” What comes across is not just the brilliance of his brain, but the quality of persistence, the quality of insisting that the job get done and be completed even if it is not finished in your lifetime. His work on toilets and sanitation treatment for the third world, on safe nuclear plants and on eliminating polio have all met setbacks, but Bill Gates persists. So did Moses. Determination and dedication to completion and a commitment to leaving the world in a better place than how you found it, this was Moses’ greatest quality and one he passed on – “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.” Each of us must strive for greater heights and not despair at setbacks.

Moses’ ultimate goal was unfilled by him. But he had left his people in a position to complete his work. During his lifetime he had offered a number of innovations and made critical contributions to civilization. He was a social and political inventor. Most of all, he left hope and expectations while warning that there would be setbacks and despair.

In sum, he was a prophet for his time and for all time.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is facing his own demise. He will not succeed in his life’s dream, leading the Israelites back to the land they left four centuries earlier. That will be left for Joshua to accomplish. How did Moses deal with such a disappointment? What does the way he faced death say about his character?

I assume Moses was sixty when he was about to die. I know that is not what the text states. Genesis 6:3 reads: “The Lord said, ‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed to him be one hundred and twenty years.’” Moses, when he addressed the Israelites prior to his death, said to the gathered multitude, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:2) When he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, the text reads (Deuteronomy 34:7), “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.”

Further, even the New Testament, in Acts 7:23, says that Moses was forty when he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard. That would mean that he spent forty years as a shepherd hosted by his Midianite father-in-law and then at eighty responded to the summons to return to Egypt and rescue the Israelite slaves from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. So how can I argue with the text which seems to assign forty years to each of the periods of Moses’ life, his upbringing and sojourn in Egypt, his family life among the Midianites and his confrontations with the Pharaoh followed by his leadership of the Israelites for four decades through the wilderness?

Of course, my suppositions are far from definitive, to say the least, but they help me make sense of the text. I am sure that the rabbis over the ages have debated this possibility since it is hard to find any interpretation that they did not consider. My arguments for this claim are as follows: the actions of Moses killing the Egyptian guard are consistent with the behaviour of a young man of twenty rather than a mature individual of forty. The murder, even if in defense of a victim of an assault, is both rash and excessive. Second, it was also imprudent since there were witnesses. Finally, he fled the scene of the crime. None of this is congruent with the behaviour of a forty-year-old. By then a male generally has become emotionally mature. The behaviour is definitely not that of a man at forty who is expected to transfer education and wisdom to his own children when he himself is generally free of the treacherous passions that afflict a teenage male and one in his early twenties.  (See The Works of Philo Judaeus: Volume II:VII)

Surely the text would include an account of what happened to Moses between the ages of twenty and forty. In addition, it is one thing to live under the guardianship of your in-laws for twenty years; it is quite another, and somewhat unimaginable, to envision that situation for forty years. Finally, can one imagine a male of eighty taking up the task of confronting the Pharaoh? At the age of forty, as difficult as it may be, it is at least within the realm of the possible.

But there is other evidence. Vayigdal (וַיִּגְדְּל) means, “when he was big,” that is, when he was grown up. That is the term used to refer to Moses when he went to Goshen, saw his kinsmen being overworked and killed the Egyptian guard. (See Genesis 25:27; Judges 13:24; Kings 4:18) It is not a term you would use to describe a forty-year-old. One final argument. There are at least two Jewish new years. Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) means the “head [of] the year,” Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), the “day of shouting or blasting.” It is the first day of Tishrei and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im). Ordinarily, this is the day referred to as the New Year, but, in fact, it is only the religious New Year.

There is also the first of Nisan. Exodus 12: 1 & 2 reads:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:
ב  הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה. 2 ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.

This is repeated in Deuteronomy Chapter 16.

א  שָׁמוֹר, אֶת-חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, הוֹצִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם–לָיְלָה. 1 Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the month of Aviv the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.

I suggest that there are (at least) two Jewish new years, one in the spring, the secular new year for planting and renewal, and the first of Tishrei in the autumn that initiates the religious new year and the Days of Awe. Thus, each of our calendar years is two years for the Israelites. By contemporary means of counting, that would mean that Moses died at the age of sixty, spent almost all of his first twenty years in the Egyptian court, the next 20 years as a guest of his father-in-law Jethro and the final twenty years (not forty) leading the Israelites through the desert.

I have one final, very subjective, argument for suggesting that Moses died at the age of sixty in terms of our calculations. I can identify with that. The Israelite 60 is our contemporary 80 in terms of health and longevity. When Moses at the age of 60 reached the borders of Israel, he was facing his own death.

How did he face that death? Did he think of his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron who preceded him? Was he haunted by the ghosts of the past? No. He focused on the future – first the future of his successor, Joshua, as a conqueror under the guidance of God. Moses asked the Israelites to be “strong and resolute,” to march forward with courage rather than fear (31:6) and promised that God will be with them and will not forsake them. He echoed the same message to Joshua (31:7-8). And then he instructed the Levite priests to hold future holy days to commemorate this great event.

Then there was a switch in tone – chapters 14-23 – which the Plaut text claims is an interpolation. It is a prophecy. The Israelites will go astray and God will hide from them in response to their breaking the covenant with Him.  Evil and troubles will fall upon them. Then in chapter 24, another shift, ritual instructions to the Levite priests and a characterization of the Israelites, not so much as straying from the path of righteousness so much as continuing their pattern of defiance that will be all the stronger now that Moses will have passed away. Then the two depictions are joined. “For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil.” (31:29) And, finally, he wrote a poem that I plan to discuss next week.

Can you imagine that? Moses is on his death bed. In spite of all his qualities of true grit, of determination to get a job done, he cannot. His legacy he bequeathed on the Israelites with mixed hope and despair. And he said absolutely nothing about any afterlife. I do not know the source of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald writing that, “In parashat Vayilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.”


For the life of me, I do not get it. From reading the text, I have no sense of Moses comforting the people who might be distressed at the loss of their leader. Moses did not bless the people. I have no sense that he empathized in any way with their emotional state. In fact, I see no clue in the text that tells us how they were feeling at his imminent demise. Rashi, at least, recognized that Moses was at his wits end, unable to complete his life’s mission. His virtue of wise guidance had left him so than he became schizophrenic, promising military success at one moment and moral failure on the next. Moses “went,” vayilech, “to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.” The great leader was deeply humbled when facing death.

It is said that during the Days of Awe, Jews in their worship, experience death and a rebirth. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny our body any satisfaction of its appetites. It is a kind of stand-in for death. Even the best of us cannot conquer death. Nor the necessary despair that goes with it. But also hope. If you are a great leader, the most tremendous gift you can bequeath to your people after you die is hope and a sense of purpose.

I watched the excellent documentary, “In Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” What comes across is not just the brilliance of his brain, but the quality of persistence, the quality of insisting that the job get done and be completed even if it is not finished in your lifetime. His work on toilets and sanitation treatment for the third world, on safe nuclear plants and on eliminating polio have all met setbacks, but Bill Gates persists. So did Moses. Determination and dedication to completion and a commitment to leaving the world in a better place than how you found it, this was Moses’ greatest quality and one he passed on – “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.” Each of us must strive for greater heights and not despair at setbacks.

Moses’ ultimate goal was unfilled by him. But he had left his people in a position to complete his work. During his lifetime he had offered a number of innovations and made critical contributions to civilization. He was a social and political inventor. Most of all, he left hope and expectations while warning that there would be setbacks and despair.

In sum, he was a prophet for his time and for all time.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Nathan the Wise: The Director’s Misconception – Part II

As I suggested in Part I, Duarte misconceived the play. Duarte interprets tolerance as an ability to empathize with the other. In her play notes, significantly entitled, “Engaging with the ‘Other’: Nathan the Wise in the Twenty-First Century,” she asks, “why is it still so hard to talk uninhibitedly about our own personal faith, or lack thereof?” But Nathan spends very little time discussing his Jewish faith, Danny Ghantous has virtually no lines in which Saladin, discusses the core of his Islamic faith. And certainly, on the Christian side, there are a plethora of Christian “false” faiths, most notably in the role of the dogmatic, intolerant and bloodthirsty Athanasios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the friar Bonafides. Daya, for Lessing, a true Christian who works for Nathan and helps raise his “daughter,” Rachel, gives witness to her faith, but does not analyze it and only tangentially defends it. The one who wrestles with and exposes the fallacies of his faith is the Knight Templar.

Nathan the Wise is not only about tolerance (and appreciation?) of differences, but about the stupidity and intolerance of the dogmatism of faith, most especially and specifically, of Christians. Further, there is a difference between live and let live and respecting differences, and between respecting differences versus an in-depth understanding of the other. The latter may be a value of the twenty-first century. It was not a value even for Lessing in the eighteenth century. It was enough then to appeal to a common universalism, a value echoing in its own way the belief in universal reason of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian philosophers of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century as Jewish pogroms raged throughout Christendom and Muslims and Christians slaughtered one another’s warriors.

In rarefied circles, such as in the encounters between Maimonides and Averrroes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and intellectually with St. Thomas Aquinas who followed, all heirs in their own way of the eleventh century Avicenna (Abn Ali Al Hosain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina) and, via him, Aristotle, the loftiest virtue was not empathizing with the other and his point of view, but about the universality of reason. These philosophers all adhered to Avicenna’s principle of intellectus in formis agit universalitatem, that is the universality of ideas resulting from the use of reason. Lessing upheld that Enlightenment idea, as did his close friend Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Nathan, but not re-enactment in one’s mind of the very different thoughts and feelings of another.  

But cannot plays be adapted and reinterpreted for the present? Certainly, but not if you do not comprehend the original intent. For otherwise the words of the actors contradict the theme you want to impose. And the dramatic scenes, like the chess game, and Saladin’s loss to his sister, have no meaning except to dramatize Saladin’s anger when he was renowned for being a “cool customer.” Whether this venerable liberal belief in going beyond respect for differences to understanding and appreciating those differences is valid, it is a fallacy when imposed on the play. When you turn a drama into a preachy play about modern liberal ideology, you miss the whole dramatic core. For the play is not even primarily about the universality of reason.

Take some sample scenes. The play opens with Daya, the housekeeper and caregiver for Nathan’s daughter Rachel, welcoming David home from a business trip to Babylon and thanking the Almighty for his return. Nathan responds by teasing Daya about saying “at last” he had returned. “I could not have come back any quicker,” quips Nathan. Then the big news. His mansion had burned to the ground while he was away. But Nathan with his excellent sources already knew of this calamity. “Houses can be rebuilt.” Nathan, though a merchant, was not a possessive individualist. Further, he was a religious Jew and what mattered was the House of the Lord which continued through time and was not even reliant on the continued material existence of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Then the mood shifts dramatically to one of panic. For Nathan had not heard that his daughter had almost died in the flames.  “On the point of perishing!” Did she? Don’t torment me. [My paraphrase.] Daya replies that if Rachel had died, she would not have stayed to tell him. If she lives, why scare the shit out of me? Nathan replies. “Rachel, oh my Rachel!” “Your Rachel? Yours?” And we learn at the very beginning of the play that Rachel is not his daughter. Is she their daughter? Did Nathan have a secret affair with Daya that resulted in Rachel and Nathan hiring Daya as his housekeeper to raise Rachel? We do not know. But there is a plot puzzle set up at the very beginning. Rachel is both Nathan’s daughter and not his daughter.

These exchanges are quick. One page of dialogue is loaded. When the dialogue is crowded out with unnecessary stage activity, members of the audience are distracted and it becomes hard to grasp the subtleties of the language used and the quick shifts in mood. Besides, a scene takes three times as long as it should. The accumulation of time, and failure to entrap the audience while one can in the subtleties of what is taking place, results in a very long and very boring play in spite of many reviewers lauding the production for its scintillating excitement. My friend who also saw the play emailed me that she had fallen asleep and blamed herself for being tired.

What follows is a fundamental quibble between Daya and her “conscience” before God and Nathan with his behaviour, specifically, his honour and generosity. And then the introduction of the Knight Templar who saved Rachel’s life from the fire and who now occupies Rachel’s heart and mind. But a Templar in Jerusalem! Nathan would have thought that the Sultan had killed them all. But Daya hints that by a miracle, he alone was saved by Saladin. We hear this hint, but Nathan obviously does not, caught up as he must be in Daya’s recounting of the dramatic rescue and his own concern with giving the brave fellow an enormous reward. But the knight disdains Daya’s repeated entreaties to him that he must visit Rachel.

Nathan then conceptualizes what Rachel is feeling and why when,

“Disdained by one whom she must feel compelled

To venerate and to esteem so highly.”

Nathan’s deep compassion emerges as he imagines her torn between her heart, which is drawn to her rescuer, and her head regretting and resenting him for remaining aloof and remote. We in the audience, or as readers, will soon learn that this is not the case. But in this production, we never get a chance to do even that. For the shuffling, the jerkiness of the hand mannerisms, the smile that is almost a leer and generally inappropriate to the words, all a caricature of a shtetl Jew – which Mendelssohn was certainly not – distract one for the plain meaning of those words.

Daya is drawn towards the romance of it all. Nathan is dismayed by his daughter’s “dazzled spirit” and its wild enthusiasms wherein her passion is garbed in the cloth of reason that insists that Rachel only wants to thank her saviour. For Lessing, this is Nathan’s wisdom, the ability to distinguish between reason used as a romantic cover that constructs the other as a “guardian angel” and reason used to analyze the source of that cover. Nathan conspires to bring the Templar close, not to bond with his daughter as the action seems to imply, but to better destroy the illusion by bringing it close at hand, another point clearly and unequivocally intended by the words of the drama but the meaning missed by the mannerisms of the production.

And that is just the opening scene between Daya and Nathan that ends with Daya questioning the marriage of his goodness with his sly cleverness as Nathan sets out to excise his daughter’s romantic attachment. His words to his daughter when she appears are often ironic, but one does not expect to hear, and does not hear, even if the very words suggest it, that subtle and sardonic wit. For the actions are as much at war with the words as Rachel’s passions are at war with her reason, distorting that reason into a rationalization.

It certainly helps to know that Moses Mendelssohn, and thus Nathan, disparaged miracles when he questions characterizing the knight’s actions as such. For true and real wonders occur daily and everywhere. The world itself is a universal miracle. So why would a “thinking man” attach that term to the Templar’s action? Rachel might in a false hunt for novelty. But Nathan is not allowed to complete the thought for Daya upbraids him for using “vain subtleties” on a girl who has so recently been traumatized. This is no time for intellectual excision, she asserts.

However, Nathan does not back off. Was it a miracle that Saladin slaughtered all those others but saved this one and only knight and asked no ransom in return? Then the unknown as yet dramatic irony of Rachel’s response – then he could be no real knight, for Rachel had presumably been taught to dread the actions of these rapacious fellows. Daya re-enters the fray. What’s the matter with illusions? What is wrong with seeing the Templar as a saving angel? For, in the end, the world cannot be comprehended by reason.

I would swear that if you did a survey of the audience who watched the opening dramatic exchanges of Daya, Nathan and Rachel, and if they were otherwise unfamiliar with the play, the different intellectual positions and the subtleties of the exchanges would be lost upon them. They would comment on actors’ artifices rather than the meaning of the words, and the visuals borrowed from blockbuster movies. They might perhaps be entranced but left unenlightened by Lessing’s meaning.

The next scene is a lighthearted romp as Nathan reunites with his dear friend and chess partner, the dervish al-Hafi, and their interchange on beggars, whether rulers or fellows like himself, and lenders, whether skinflints who squeeze the most and give the least or generous money-lenders like Nathan himself. Then a new scene opens up in the dialogue between the friar who is following the knight. The former would solicit the knight to serve as a messenger between him and King Philip to whom he would disclose the weaknesses in the defense of Jerusalem, how warriors of the Lord could capture it and even the strategies of Saladin. The Patriarch aspires to be a spy on behalf of the crusaders as Eli Cohen became on behalf of the Israelis in Damascus, but not to defend their own land, but to make Jerusalem once again a satrap of Christendom. However, the Templar is a warrior of honour and not a spy, let alone messenger for a spy. So be a kidnapper, the friar replies. But Saladin spared him, saved his life because his voice, his manner and his features reminded him of his long dead brother. Why would he, the Templar, a man of honour, betray his saviour?

By now we know that Rachel is not whom she appears to be. Neither is the Templar. Like the two young lovers in Birds of a Kind, will these two also be star-crossed? What is the real character of each? Will the play end as a tragedy or a comedy?

Then Daya confronts and beseeches the Templar to visit Nathan whom she presents as rich and wise and, most of all, good. But the Templar refuses to be rewarded by a reviled Jew for saving a reviled Jewess. “A Jew’s a Jew.” But Daya knows that men (and women) are not always what they seem to be and somehow recognizes that antisemitism is the Templar’s shtick rather than a deeply ingrained feature of his character.

Act II opens in the Sultan’s palace with Saladin and his sister, Sittah, playing chess. The knight as a chess piece in the game becomes a marker for the Templar and a language for discussing the “castling of the king.” It is also a sign that Sittah is the brains behind his throne who often loses to her brother on purpose. And so she takes his queen and checkmates him. But in the Stratford production, Saladin is enraged by his loss and overturns the chessboard, whereas in the script he remarks that he could plead that he was preoccupied but acknowledges her superior dexterity. He is not riled up, but a very gracious loser (and ruler) who can acknowledge superiority even as a woman and, as we will learn, even a Jew. But the Saladin as presented on stage is not a valiant and superior warrior and a man of generous thought, but one presented as almost an adolescent with a petty disposition who, in an act of mercy, saves a Knight Templar, when the text is unequivocal that it is not an act of mercy at all, but compelled because the knight looked so much like his brother. There is no bond, tentative or otherwise, but a deeper bond that puzzles rather than being misunderstood. The reality is in the skin and not even beneath it; the unfolding revelations, not the misbegotten mushiness of Saladin, is the core of the drama.

One cries out and screams at the misdirection. But enough of productions over-concerned with cleaver staging and “original” (mis)interpretations that result in far too long and boring dramatic exchanges distracted by staging, explosions and the artifices of actors. The production is an extended bore, lengthened, I estimate, by at least a half by unnecessary stagecraft and, most of all, misinterpreted so that the intended meaning is lost and the stated interpretation becomes an imposed ideology, betraying at one and the same time Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn and liberal beliefs.

And then to reread Birgit Schreyer Duarte’s words: “Working on this production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise made me look at the make-up of my own identity, along with my beliefs, presumptions, and fears, with greater honesty.” Well you would never guess that from watching the play. The production was indeed disorienting, but not in the way intended.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

In the 2019th season of the Stratford Festival, Nathan the Wise (in the original German, Nathan der Weise) was paired with Birds of a Kind. The latter, as I tried to demonstrate in my review, is focused on identity politics and agents who are not what they seem to be. This is also true of each of the characters in Nathan the Wise. Both plays are also about ethnic, religious and political identity and the conflicts between and among them. There is a dramatic dialectic between the two spheres, identity arising from the struggle to reconcile the different parts of the self engaged in an internal civil war and the external identity markers imposed by one’s family and society. However, in Nathan the Wise, the difficulty is not primarily about knowing your cultural, ethnic and religious identity, but how identities clash and interact with others who carry different social markers. In Lessing, the drama of the play is to be found in the intimate, clever and very funny interactions.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the son of a Christian pastor and himself originally educated and intended to serve as a Christian minister, wrote his final play in 1779 before the French Revolution against royal and Roman Catholic authoritarianism. The play was never staged during his lifetime. Birgit Schreyer Duarte, who directed Nathan the Wise at Stratford, according to her stage notes, evidently believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. In other words, Nathan’s Jewishness is an oversized and ill-fitting cover for the small, and perhaps in reality large, true human beneath. As I will try to show, this is precisely the opposite message of Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s good friend and the acknowledged model for Nathan in the play.

Presumably, that is why Nathan is played by Diane Flacks in an overcoat three sizes too large. That is why he (she) enters the stage with the lighting projecting the character as a black silhouette of an outsized figure. The real Nathan is hidden beneath that coat and the real Nathan will be a larger-than-life shadow figure. To repeat, Duarte believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. As a result, we become isolated, ignorant and walled in. Religion – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are but superficial and weighty overlays to the true spirituality beneath. The wall, very specifically, the Western Wall in Jerusalem that forms the stage backdrop, is the signal and single large negative metaphor on stage of a play that Duarte interprets to be about false divisions among peoples who need to and should respect and appreciate one another for their differences.

“Perhaps it’s an instinctual act of self-preservation: erecting and maintaining walls, be they material or ideological, protects us from the threats of the outside world and helps us define ourselves in contrast to others. Walls give us stability, remind us of who we want to be [and presumably the reason Jews in the play stuff their notes in the crevices between the stones], who we don’t want to be. They are meant to keep our ideas of who we are intact and untainted. Of course, the same impulse is also what threatens to make us isolated, closed off, ignorant of what the world looks like beyond such borders, Ultimately, walls can make us more fearful of the unknown and foreign, rather than less.”

As Robert Frost wrote in “Mending Wall,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Unequivocally, Birgit Schreyer Duarte does not love walls, especially the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for it is a symbol of oppression, of separation, of self-repression.

This, of course, is but a variation, a milder one mind you, of Karl Marx’s claim that religion “is the sign of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” The function of critique was to allow people to overthrow these false covers, to throw off these false chains, to discard illusions and allow humans to move around freely in their own human skins. Then the true spirit beneath this heartless world will emerge. Duarte attempts to use Lessing’s play to unveil the true humanity that lies beneath Nathan’s oversized coat.

When Nathan first appears on stage in the Stratford production, anyone familiar with Nikolay Gogol’s magnificent short story, “The Overcoat,” a biting satire of the banality of bureaucracy, will almost certainly recall that tale now applied to religion rather than state administrative structures. Stratford’s production of Nathan the Wise is an interpretation of Lessing’s play in terms of the banality of institutionalized religion and, perhaps too strong a term for the occasion, its resultant evil. Religious differences are but arbitrary historical artifacts beneath which can be found the true source of the spirit of humankind, not reason but a common humanity.  

The play is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade at the end of the twelfth century. England’s King Henry II, France’s King Phillip II and the Holy Roman Empire’s German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, united to reconquer the Holy Land, oust Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf), the Ayyubid sultan and nephew of General Shirkuh who had served the Syrian ruler, Nur ad-Din Zengi, so well. Saladin had first succeeded his uncle as vizier of Egypt when he died suddenly in 1169. The Muslims emerged victorious to rule Jerusalem in 1187, and once again occupy the Holy City. Christian forces made a beachhead in Jaffa and Acre, but otherwise failed to recapture the city. The failure reputedly killed Pope Urban III who died of shock on hearing the news.

Thus, the play is set at the crosshairs of two centuries of warfare between Christians and Muslims, with the Crusaders in general and the Knights Templar in particular, infamous for their pogroms against Jews to expropriate their wealth, even when very meagre, to benefit their crusades. The Muslims, in contrast, were renowned for their art and architecture, the depth of their learning and their tolerance then towards Jews. However, the historical context is ignored both in the program play notes and in the production.

The play makes much of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backgrounder, but nothing about the historical context in which the play was actually set, presumably between 1187 and 1192 when a peace agreement was forged between Richard I, who succeeded Henry II upon his death in 1189, that permitted Christians to visit the city, but only if they came unarmed. Jews were already, and had been there for centuries, peaceful residents of the city. What are we then to make of the soldiers in what looks like Israeli army uniforms carrying Kalashnikovs lurking menacingly throughout the play?

Nathan the Wise is a play about identity, about mistaken identities, in the strong tradition of dramatic farce, but, unlike those farces, Lessing’s play does indeed have a serious message about respecting diversity, about honestly acknowledging differences, but not necessarily cutting through them. As Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s model for Nathan, wrote: “Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement, where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence. [My italics.] None of us thinks and feels exactly like his fellow man: why do we wish to deceive each other with delusive words?” (from his 1783 volume, Jerusalem) Plurality of truths, not a universal humanity, was his message.

Nathan’s wisdom does not lie, as Duarte claims, “in his capacity to see beyond the façade (and the soldiers’ armour [sic!]), to recognize the religious and cultural identities as constructs under which the personal, the common humanity can be found if put in the effort to do so.” Moses Mendelssohn was an orthodox Jew. So was Nathan. The point of the parable on tolerance (see the next paragraph) is NOT to stress a common humanity, but to recognize and respect differences because no human is in a position to discern the ultimate truth. Nathan is not a man with a finely tuned emotional and intellectual intelligence, but is himself flawed in how he understands Daya, his daughter and the knight. But he does learn, as does Saladin, as does the Knight Templar.

The key to the play is Nathan’s parable of the three rings. A father has three sons each equally accomplished, each equally loving and each equally loved. To whom should he pass the ring as a symbol of his “favourite son” – itself a Jewish theme challenging the primacy of rights of the first born. He promises each son the ring and makes two copies that cannot be recognized as imitations and gives one to each son. The quarrel that emerges is over which son has inherited the authentic original when there is no empirical way to determine the difference. (Incidentally, a scientific fallacy, but take it as poetic license and a reference to the Kantian theme that answers to such questions reside outside the realm of reason.)

The authentic ring will emerge in who is guided by the best conduct, not on the historical origins of the ring. There is no authentic religion – neither Judaism, Christianity or Islam. For Nathan held that our behaviour, not our origins, determined our personalities. And one should not, as the Christian knights did, look down upon Jews engaged in trade and banking. For the Christian nobility in the twelfth century viewed reading and writing as an effeminate activity beneath the worth of courage and valour in battle. Jews were people of the book. Nathan was a merchant, but also a very learned man. The Christians knights were robbers not traders, fighters, not men of learning.

Moses Mendelssohn, the son of an impoverished Torah scribe originally intended for the rabbinate, became one of the most celebrated philosophers of the eighteenth century. Largely self-taught, he mastered Greek, Latin, French and English to be able to read his favourite philosophers in the original (e.g. John Locke’s essay in English on tolerance). In Lessing’s view, nobility belonged to character, not to physiognomy or inheritance. Moses was the epitome. Physically, he was the opposite in appearance to a noble, somewhat hunchbacked with a very far from attractive face, but he carried himself with nobility without the mannerisms and picaresque stereotype of the shtetl Jew. He was, as described by a Christian believer who wanted to convert him as a man of “keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition, frank and open-hearted,” but also thoroughly rabbinic.

Moses expressed that nobility, not only through his elevated thoughts, but through the elegance, beauty and lucidity of his writing and discourse. Lessing and Moses were famous and friendly chess competitors, just as Nathan and the unkempt dervish (and supposedly ecstatic), Al-Hafi, just as Saladin and his sister, Sittah, and Saladin and Nathan in the play are. But you would never know the importance of the metaphor of chess about intellectual competition under universal rules rather than conflicts of power and financial interests by watching the Stratford production of the play. For Lessing, as it was for both Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, universality is in the rules of the game, in reason, in the principles guiding conduct, and not in human nature. Lessing was not a prototype of Jűrgen Habermas who esteemed discourse and empathizing with the other.

Like the three rings, the importance is not to find out whether Christianity, Judaism or Islam is the true religion, but to live a life worthy in the eyes of God. Muslims (Saladin) and Jews (Nathan) can play chess, Muslims and Muslims can play chess. A Dervish can play chess with a Jew. Even the Christian friar can play chess with a Jew, but would he do so as a betrayal of the Patriarch or as simply a convenient mode of spying on Nathan? Christians are conflicted, either disillusioned warriors after confronting the hypocrisies of Christianity, such as the Knight Templar played by Jakob Ehman (Eitan Zimmerman in Birds of a Kind), or men of the cloth which disguised their bloodthirsty propensities hidden beneath their religious garb, the Patriarch of Palestine played by Harry Nelken (Etgar in Birds of a Kind) – “The Jew must burn” – or Bonafides (Ron Kennell), the friar serving as the Patriarch’s messenger and spy on Nathan, or, finally, women, like Daya (Sarah Orenstein who played Norah in Birds of a Kind), a “true” Christian because she honestly serves and respects Nathan while retaining her Christian beliefs.

Duarte did not seem to understand this. Hence her interpretation – or should I write, misinterpretation – of the main character Nathan and the direction she gave to Diane Flacks who performs the role. The choice of using a female to portray Nathan is but part of the misinterpretation of the play to see it as an echo of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, that is, after all, underneath our skin, are we not, male and female, Jew, Christian or Muslim, all humans? The answer, of course, is yes, but that is NOT the point of the play, but rather, that we respect difference, that we respect diversity, that we treasure distinctiveness and dissimilarity. We must applaud heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. And, most of all, we must applaud reason and wisdom from whomever it originates.

One final historical note. Why does Lessing name his main character Nathan? I think the answer is self-evident. In the Old Testament, as Christians call it, Nathan was the wise and diplomatic friend of King David. He served as David’s mentor and conscience. Nathan served as God’s messenger to David, not as David’s plenipotentiary to those he ruled or to other rulers. Most particularly, he articulated Judaism at its core as a religion to be guided into the future by God who made a covenant with His people.

But Nathan in the Bible is best known for his role as David’s superego. As everyone knows, King David, smitten by Bathsheba, arranges for her husband, Uriah, a loyal soldier in David’s army, to be sent to the front where he is killed in battle. This was clearly and unequivocally a sinful act. If Nathan confronted David directly, it might have meant his own execution. Like Nathan in Lessing’s play, the biblical Nathan offers a parable to King David. A very rich man, true to tradition, takes in and is host to a stranger. But he was also a skinflint. So instead of sacrificing the best of his flock, he took the plump and succulent lamb of a poor neighbour, in fact, a lamb who was a family pet, and sacrificed it for the festive meal for the stranger.

King David, outraged at the injustice, opined that the rich man ought to die for his sin. Then Nathan informs David that he is the rich man. He committed adultery and killed an innocent loyal Israelite. Nathan prophesied that the sins of the father will fall on the child and that David would be sinned against as he had sinned against Uriah. Nathan in the Lessing play, as I will try to show in Part II of this review, is the wise diplomat, not with a message about the universal nature of humans, but of the specific responsibilities of a Jew as well as respect for the differential characteristics of various religions.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

Birds of a Kind

The 1965 novel, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński, tries to capture the essence of The Holocaust in terms of a metaphor. A boy, either a Gypsy or a Jew, is wandering around the countryside in Eastern Europe during WWII searching for his family. He is equated with a bird from a flock that has been painted and then released back to fly up and join its fellows. The bird is pecked to death and falls to the earth dead. Exclusive tribal units are intolerant of the appearance of difference.

The human “flock” itself is portrayed as ridden with incest, bestiality, cruelty, rape, senseless violence and intolerance. The boy is both a witness to and victim of the horrors he observes until he, like the Biblical Joseph of the multi-coloured coat, is thrown into a pit. Unlike Joseph, who emerges victorious through his clever wit and articulate insight to rise higher than ever, the boy is rendered mute – until, miraculously, at the end of the novel, he is reunited with his family.

Greeted initially by Elie Wiesel as a novel of “deep sincerity and sensitivity” and taught by myself in a university humanities course, the book turned out to be a fraud. Not only was it not based on Kosiński’s experience during the war, but it was taken without acknowledgement from a Polish folktale with total sections plagiarized from a work by the Polish-Jewish ethnographer, Henryk Biegeleisen. The book is moving. The book is powerful. The book is also a fake. It may even have been ghost written since Kosiński lacked sufficient mastery of English to write the novel.

A writer struggling with his own identity may, however, have been an excellent choice to write on the politics of identity. And the politics of identity is the core of a great deal of fiction, including Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, one of the three plays I saw at Stratford last week which I will write about in a separate blog. 

This blog is about the most powerful of the three productions, Birds of a Kind (Tous des oiseaux) written by the Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s current artistic director. The play is translated from the original French by Linda Gaboriau. Lebanese-born, Paris-raised and Canadian-educated, Mouawad advanced his career in Quebec and is now based in Paris as artistic director of the Théâtre de la Colline. Unlike The Painted Bird, the author openly acknowledged his debt to my colleague, Natalie Zemon Davis (perhaps best known to the wider public for her 1983 social historical volume, The Return of Martin Guerre) and her 2006 book, Tricksters Travels: A Sixteenth Century Muslim between Worlds.

Go see this marvellous play and stupendous production with phenomenal acting, staging and lighting. For as an added bonus you may be enticed into reading Natalie’s study. I thought of including the volume in my course that I gave this past spring on the attitudes to Jews by important scholars in the sixteenth century, and am now very sorry that I did not. My limp excuse was that Leo Africanus, the subject of Natalie Davis’s book, was not well known like the other authors. Further, he was only an ersatz Christian, a forced convert who remained inwardly a Muslim.

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi was born in Granada and, like the Jews, his family was expelled in 1492. They moved to Morocco. He was brilliant, was appointed as a diplomat by the Sultan and was captured by Spanish Christian privateers (corsairs) and presented as a gift to the Pope in Rome. Given the offer of freedom if he became a Christian, he converted and gained access to the Pope’s marvellous library. In 1550, under the name Giovanni Leone, though more widely known as Leo Africanus, he writes a famous book on North Africa and becomes a leading intellectual light in the papal court.

For Natalie, telling one’s story is at the core of history. The story, as in Martin Guerre, can even be a fake one. And the story can be told both in the form of fiction (Amin Maalouf, Leo the African) and as history. Further, the way the story is told can be subject to the vagaries of technology so that Natalie also explored the difference between the original almost one-thousand-page manuscript and the much shorter printed version that was produced on the new printing presses of Venice. Natalie’s book, and the play, Birds of a Kind, inspired by it, is about the very opposite theme than The Painted Bird, about breaking cultural boundaries to forge a new identity rather than simply its rigidity bequeathed to you by your family, your ethnic group and your religion.

In the play, Birds of a Kind, Leo Africanus appears as the subject of the PhD thesis of Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), an American assimilated Arab, also from Morocco. As played by Aladeen Tawfeek, he is also a very physical haunting presence in the play serving as a one-person Greek chorus to comment on the action, the issues at stake and the mindblindness of each of the characters. He is also the trickster, the shape shifting presence of a multitude of identities, sexual as well as ethnic and religious.

The idea is carried through by means of one of the oldest tropes in drama, a false identity bequeathed on a child by his or her family. But it is also a play about the assimilated Arab-American, Wahida, who, in the midst of a Jewish family drama and the war between the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians raging around her, discovers her Arab/Islamic roots as she raises questions about the sixteenth century Leo Africanus, who haunts the play as a ghostly presence and chorus. There is also the mystery. Did al-Hasan al-Wazzan disappear from history by reclaiming his Islamic heritage in Tunisia after hiding for decades in the Pope’s court in the costume of a Christian? Or did he die at the hands of Christian zealots? Or did he retire to the Italian countryside to pass away as a Christian?

Since the Stratford season is almost over, with only a few performances of the play left, I will by and large avoid any warnings about disclosures, appropriate when writing about a play dealing with hidden identities and breaking barriers in those identities. I have a grandson named Eitan. He is an Israeli. The main character in Birds of a Kind is Eitan Zimmerman played by Jakob Ehman. In the play, Eitan is a German Jew only because his father, David (Alon Nashman) at the age of fourteen was skirted away from Israel and off to Germany by his father, Etgar (Harry Nelken) who is Eitan’s grandfather.

The play begins with the craziest pick-up I have ever seen between Eitan and Wahida, the two star-crossed lovers at the centre of the drama, in an almost magical and very unproblematic encounter in the library of New York City University (or is it Columbia University). Eitan is a geneticist, deeply immersed in the science of probabilities. Eitan has been stalking, not Wahida, but a library table waiting to see who has been reading the book that he has seen left on a table over two hundred times. Eitan confronts Wahida with a wild speech on statistics and improbabilities.

Eitan will eventually learn that chromosomes do not carry anything more than one’s genetic identity, and that there may be more powerful carriers of identity than one’s material heritage. On the other hand, it is genetics that produces the greatest reveal of the play. Eitan collects the cutlery left at a seder table to prove that he must not be his father and mother’s son, only to discover, first, that he is, and second, that his supposed grandparents are not. Nor are they his father’ parents.

While that scene is both romantic and comical, the scene in which Eitan plans to introduce Wahida to his parents at a seder table is anything but. At the seder, Eitan’s father, David gets into a raucous argument with his son about the need to uphold Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment, that because of the Holocaust, Jews are commanded to survive as a people. Marriage to a Muslim is out of the question, even though Fackenheim himself married a student deeply involved in the Christian Student Movement. Fackenheim’s obligation was not about who you married, as many have misinterpreted him, but the commitment to raising your children as Jewish and their obligation in turn to raise their kids as Jewish. For Jews have a solemn duty not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory. David took it a step further. He became religiously orthodox and a Jew who hates Arabs only to learn at the end that, at birth, he lacked both identities. The lesson, however, is an intellectual one. The emotional lesson breaks his heart.

David’s wife and Eitan’s mother, Norah (Sarah Orenstein), was raised as a communist in East Germany by parents who suppressed any acknowledgement of their Jewish heritage. Norah has resumed her Jewish identity, but it seems to lack any depth, so it is particularly puzzling when she supports her husband’s refusal to accept the love of their son’s life, Wahida. She argues that she does not want to see the negative effect that her rebellion against her communist past had on her own father now inflicted on her husband.

Etgar attempts to be the peacemaker, but there is a second front in the emotional war, the extreme hostility of David towards his mother, Leah (Deb Filler), whom he felt abandoned him at the age of fourteen. It is not clear what the relationship is between Norah, David’s wife, a German-born psychiatrist raised in East Germany as a communist who only discovered she was Jewish at the age of fourteen.

The following may help is picturing the relationships:

Etgar (Harry Nelken)    –    Leah (Deb Filler)

                                     !

                    David (Alon Nashman)    –    Norah (Sarah Orenstein)

                                                            !

Eitan (Jakob Ehman) – Wahida (Naraka Rahman)

Fourteen, just when teenagers are beginning the race through their teens, seems to be the magic moment of trauma in the play. That is the age when Wahida loses her parents, when David’s parents split over whether they ought to tell their son about his true origins, and the date when Norah learns that she is Jewish. Only Eitan remains as a suspended adolescent. For this age of early adolescence is precisely when children develop perception and insight, but also when they are most naïve and inwardly absorbed. Just when they begin to shift away from their families, adolescents most need them. Just when they want to express their uniqueness as social personae, they also have the deepest need for rootedness. It is a conflictual period of hormonal drives and ethical conflicts, grasping for abstractions and universal guidance and trapped in the very specific particularities of one’s own life.

Eitan, though thoroughly invested in science and the conviction that our identities are strictly chromosomal, travels with Wahida to Israel to see his grandmother, Leah, whom he has never met. Wahida is detained for questioning, thus saving her from injury and possibly death from a terrorist bomb that sends Eitan to the hospital in a coma. His parents and grandfather are recalled to Israel because of his medical state. But it will not be his physical condition that will become the central issue, but his cultural and ethnic identity. At the bedside of Eitan, Leah meets her grandson for the first time, meets Wahida and also meets both her husband and son whom she has not seen for 35 years since they left when Eitan was fourteen just after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila and the profound and deep moral crisis that Israelis went through. Leah learns that the wall she has built around her heart to shut out the military and the familial violence is far more fragile than she thought. It is shattered by the reunion and the family politics.

There is one other character in the play. Hannah Miller plays Eden, an Israeli soldier who befriends Wahida and tries to help her escape the violence of the Jewish Israeli-Palestinian violence. There is a suggestion at one point that the two have had a lesbian affair, but we are left uncertain of whether we heard it correctly since nothing is made of the hint. The reference to DNA at the beginning of the play has some substance. It is the plot device to reveal his father’s “true” identity. It is also at the core of survival when the play ends with a reference to donor transplantation to save four other lives. However, the lesbian suggestion is weird and gratuitous. 

Identity confusion is compounded by language confusion as characters slip back and forth between English and Hebrew and German and even Arabic, Eitan speaks German to his parents and they speak to each other in the same language. David Speaks Hebrew to his father, Etgar, and his mother, Leah, and the parents speak Hebrew to one another. Eitan and Wahida speak to each other in English. (The dialogue is translated on a screen above the action on stage.) This is the opposite of gratuitous for it goes to the heart of the matter whether one’s “native” language is at the core of identity rather than religion per se, ethnicity, gender and least of all citizenship.

This powerful play ends with a loud proclamation about Eitan’s own version of kaddish, but it really is a weak copout and a purchase into the liberal principle that beneath it all, beneath all the cultural accretions, we are one. Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet cannot consummate their love because of tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries ingrained by history.

How does one live true to one’s culture but also to oneself given the real forces of one’s environment? Leo Africanus offered an answer. Adapt. Become a bird that can live under the water. A Muslim as a captive can convert to Christianity, can paint himself to look like those who are his captors, but given the chance, as he was, he could eventually throw off his make-up and resume his cultural identity. A mother tongue more than the genes of a mother seem to be the key to cultural identity.

Birds of a Kind is unlike Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play, Birds. The latter is a comedy; the former is a tragedy. The Israeli-Arab conflict is explosive front and centre in the Stratford production. The Peloponnesian War is a silent backdrop to the Athenian’s play, specifically the misbegotten Sicilian Expedition and, domestically, a real witchhunt and riotous behaviour led by religious dogmatists attacking rationalist philosophers. In Birds, birds of the fields and mountains, of the trees and the seas, of the rivers and marshes, collect to build a city in the sky, Cloudcuckooland, that overwhelms Olympus. The birds become gods supplanting the Greek deities, but it is at the cost of their freedom as they now have to dedicate their lives to the defence of the monstrosity they built.

Birds of a Kind include four types of birds, but each is an archetype of a different kind of human benighted by nature as depicted in the Aristophanes play. There are Birds of Beauty (Wahida), Birds of Chance (Eitan), Birds of Misfortune (David) and Amphibious Birds like Leah and Etzek who provide the direction and underlying thrust of the drama, but become totally confounded by what they set in play. However, all the birds, all four kinds, are entities without wings, insubstantial as dreams, ephemeral things, as Aristophanes writes, “enfeebled and powerless creatures of earth always haunting a world of shadows.”

With the help of Alex Zisman.