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Leon's Latest Newsletter

Newsletter 224: Israel's Hebrew Culture


The announcement of a Hebrew Language conference, to be sponsored by our prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, in the beautiful town of Rishon Lezion’s cultural center was definitely more interesting than the news, which belabors us incessantly, every day of the elections to take place in March, where some people think Bibi will be ousted from power.

There’s expectation in the air that he’ll topple from his pedestal; everybody’s saying “look it’s shaking”.

It’s not that people take delight in seeing mighty men fall from power, but there’s a strong sensitivity to injustice and people here want to see wrongdoers, especially among our leaders, get their just deserts.

So far Netanyahu has shown himself to be an upright leader. So I doubt that he’ll fall.

The list of leaders, however, who have raised the ire of the nation is long. Some of these leaders were only suspected of wrongdoing, yet they were shunned and toppled from grandeur by the nation.

One of these was Ariel Sharon; I remember how disgusted people were with him, when he was defense minister, because they suspected that he was partly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon in 1982. The massacre was actually carried out by the Christian Phalangists.

It was so bad that people turned their backs on me when they saw me carrying his book “Champion”, which I was reading at the time. He had become a pariah.

Yet in 2001 he was swept into power by the biggest majority ever attained in Israeli elections.

I think he managed this, firstly, because he had managed to convince the people that he had turned over a new leaf, but the nation really saw in him a great leader, even of the caliber of ben Gurion.

I agree that he was a great leader because men would follow him through thick and thin, but I don’t think that he was a wise, sensible and practical man, which is the kind of leader we need.

Many people were very happy that our previous Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert was forced to resign because of suspicions of taking bribes, and I think that it’s right of course that he should be punished, but I’m not rejoicing because the tragedy is that he really is a wise and practical man and his criminal inclination has deprived us of a person who could have been a great Prime Minister.

Rishon Lezion is one of the first Jewish pioneering towns established in modern times in Israel. Two other towns, Rosh Pina and Zichron Yaakov, both established in 1886 contend for first place.

The Jewish pioneers, who settled here in the 19th century, were very proud of these early towns. They dreamt of a time when plays in Hebrew would be performed in cultural centers like the one in Rishon Lezion. They dreamt of new poetry, prose and music, all in Hebrew, developing here.

They dreamt of intellectual and cultured Jews forming the majority of the population.

Their dream was of a nation of culture and morality. This dream is expressed by Ahad Ha-am, the founder of cultural Zionism.

“a political ideal which does not rest on the national culture is apt to seduce us from our loyalty to spiritual greatness, and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion, thus breaking the thread that unites us with the past, and undermining our historical basis.”*

He envisioned “a Jewish State, not merely a state of Jews.”*

Ahad Ha-am warns that not all Jews would immigrate to Israel but all Jews would be enriched by the Jewish culture which would develop there and spread from Israel throughout the diaspora, reviving the spirit of the Jewish People.

I think the Prime Minister chose Rishon Lezion for this conference to show that the dream had become a reality. Hebrew revived in the town of the reborn nation.

Seeing the Israeli flags at the entrance to the cultural center and blue and white banners fluttering in Jabotinsky Street in welcome of the Prime Minister’s arrival to officially open the conference, people could think that he deserves the credit for this great achievement. Well, I think he deserves a very small part of the credit but not as much as he would like us to thinks he does.

I attended the conference’s first panel discussion, which was about Eliezer be Yehudah’s famous role in the revival of the Hebrew Language.

The first speaker, Prof Rachel Elior, one of my favorites, a brilliant speaker, showed, very lucidly, by reading excerpts of pre-ben-Yehudah literature in Hebrew that Hebrew didn’t need ben-Yehudah to revive it; there were many authors, who produced great Hebrew literature long before him. Two of the most prominent of all the examples she gave are Shmuel Agnon and Haim Nahman Bialik.

Dr. Nathan Efrati, the leader of the panel, pointed out that while Prof Elior might be right and perhaps ben-Yehuda’s role in the revival of Hebrew as the national language is somewhat exaggerated, that “the nation needed heroes” and ben-Yehudah became one of the nation’s heroes. The myth of ben-Yehudah is greater than the reality and will not be brought down.

I hadn’t planned to stay for the next event on the program but I wanted to make the best use I could of the effort I had expended in getting here and that I would have to make to get home. 2hrs, 4 busses and a mini-rail. So I stayed for an event entitled “to dwell in the word”.

The title is taken from a poem by Lea Goldberg. The host was a pretty lady, Prof Kitzea Alon. She was the least professor-like person I could imagine; she sat prettily, as if in a carefully thought our scene; her lips were red, her dress black, black sheath like gloves covered half her arms and half her hand, leaving her delicate shoulder and finger tips bare.

She sat exactly in the scene as words sit, placed with exactitude in a sentence. She was exactly in the middle of a setee, in front of red roses, which were in a vase exactly in the middle of the glass topped coffee table, exactly in the middle of the stage. The only colors permitted were white, red and black. I suppose we were meant to think that we were sitting in the sitting room of her house.

She hosted in the literal sense of the word, several wonderful performers, whose poems, prose and songs aroused yearning for the land we had left to come to Israel. They were singing about Morocco, but to me they might as well have been singing about my town, Krugersdorp, which I had left behind to come to a new life and a new nation in Israel.

The theme was a question: How do we preserve the identity of the culture we had left in the face of the reborn Jewish culture, into which we are being drawn at an ever increasing pace, and what will the new Israeli culture consist of?

Her first guest, who returned each time one of the other guests had finished performing, was a singer, Haim Uliel, who played the guitar and sang songs of longing in Morrocan, fado-like for the land of his birth and for his mother.

Obviously we weren’t as melodious in S.Africa as he was in Morrocco but the feelings he sang about were the same. His relationship to his mother was the same as mine, excepting he longed for Morrocan food and I longed for Boerewors. He sang in Morrocan, if I could sing I would sing in Afrikaans.

The feeling of disappointment in Israel, expressed in some of the poems read by Sami Bardugo and Erez Biton, was shocking and saddened me. I can’t relate to that feeling because I never idealized Israel the way Jews from eastern countries did. My family had come from Lithuania but didn’t long for the beauties of that country the way Morrocan Jews long for the charming life they lead in Morrocco.

We had a more realistic attitude towards the difficulties that we would face here. I was always taught that life in Israel would be difficult. I was never taught that it would be a paradise.

South Africa is a beautiful country but it was spoilt by the harsh life that some people lived there. So in spite of everything I don’t long for the beauties of S.Africa. They are like a beautiful picture, made detestable by blood splattered all over it.

Wishing you a great no newsday

Yours truly

Leon Gork

* Ahad Ha'am, The Jewish State and Jewish Problem, trans. from the Hebrew by Leon Simon c 1912, Jewish Publication Society of America, Essential Texts of Zionism. This can be found on

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