May 13, 2021: Gaza is on fire. Military police and armed citizens descend on Sheik Jarrah while rage and hatred drive lethal destruction in Jerusalem and at least six other Israeli cities. Everywhere the divide between Palestinian and Israeli widens, and into the gap pour streams of despair, anger, hope, condemnation, every possible unmanageable human emotion—the ones that prevent us from seeing the face of “the other” as human. What a time to publish this nuanced portrait of five Israeli Jews forging their intellectual and political selves in the crucible of Judaism’s enduring faith in the Book. Ben Shields researched and wrote his report from January until April, just before the still-unfolding events of this week. His sympathetic curiosity may be in scarce supply now, but that makes it all the more important to publish him. Step back. Stand face-to-face with these people and hope that someday we’ll be capable of doing the same, face-to-face, in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and everywhere in this burning world.
Jews, the people of the Book, lived without a sovereign geographical polity from A.D. 70 until 1948. Following the first-century destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish tradition had to recalibrate without any geographic cultural centre. In the sixth century, Rabbinic Judaism offered a new home based, simply put, in deep reading. Study of the Torah, and even more so the Talmud, formed the centre of Jewish culture, the latter serving as the guide for all Jewish thought, from theology to the simple practices of daily life. For centuries, reading anchored diaspora Judaism. The Book became a homeland. It is one of the most enduring instances of a polity sited in writing and reading since literacy began.
The rise of Zionism in the nineteenth century in response to European anti-Semitism advocated the creation of a Jewish nation-state. The focal point of the movement became the return to the “promised land” of Jewish scripture. William Blake defined religion as deriving forms of worship from poetic tales. It’s not a stretch to say that Hebrew poetry and its literary characters helped form the basis of a political ideology that connects the Jews’ right to self-determination with settlement in a thin strip of land on the west end of a geographical parabola known as the Fertile Crescent.
The Jewish state is host to volatile engagements between conflicting histories, evident in the astonishing plurality of languages for a country of just ten million people and eight thousand square miles: you’ll see signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and Amharic when you get to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, and Yiddish is still widely in use among certain religious communities. These languages are deployed in significant political struggles. Since its founding, discussion of Israel’s character as a polity has been ongoing and unresolved. Who can and cannot be considered Israeli? Who is the state for? Where is its capital, and where are its borders? What parts of this land should bear the name “Palestine?” These are some of the most basic questions Israel must answer if it is to persist and have a future, but its many polities appear permanently unable to settle them. Few places on Earth have as rich and contested a mix of “polities of literature”—on every side, language and literature are the holding place of power.
When I moved to Israel in 2019 to study writing at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, I settled in a largely ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood close to the campus. Sociological research was the furthest thing from my mind when I got there. I joined a student organization that would pay my rent. One of our obligations was to meet once a week for dinner and a discussion led by a young scholar named Uri Eliav. Rent was covered because we agreed to live in a culturally “peripheral” area—peripheral in relation to Israel’s secular left-wing cultural elite, anyway. The major commercial street five minutes from my apartment was not peripheral to the ultra-Orthodox community who used it. To have a non-Jewish American gay man in his mid-twenties—me— as a neighbor was unusual there, but I didn’t think much about it. The rent couldn’t be beat. Plus, the bus ride to nearby Tel Aviv was easy. Between campus life and Tel Aviv’s proximity, weeks passed where I was barely at home.
That ended with the arrival of the coronavirus. Israel’s lockdown restrictions were among the most severe in the world: a daily ten-minute walk outside the house. Like everyone, my ultra-Orthodox neighbours (many of them haredim, or members of the Haredi sects) lost a tremendous amount, especially the ability to attend synagogue, yeshiva, and other community spaces. But they still had one another. I was in a world where I didn’t belong, trying and often failing to work on a novel. It turns out that the craft of fiction thrives on small interactions and asides as much as it does life’s pivotal moments. I saw on my daily ten-minute walks that the robust cultural world of my neighbours was still intact. Groups communed in the street and chatted in the produce sections of the markets. Kids still played with their friends in the park. Though the media enjoyed calling to task ultra-Orthodox communities for not following restrictions, I was simply envious. Few of my peers were accessible now.
Alone in my apartment writing my novel and studying John Milton over Zoom, I began to wonder about the world of reading and writing for the most religious members of Israeli society. Specifically, I wanted to learn how children and adolescents in Israel’s most religious environments used reading and writing as a site of politics, a place where they would gain agency. Through a friend, I met Hanan Ofner, a video artist and poet who grew up in an Orthodox settlement in the West Bank, where his father, Natan, is a highly respected rabbi at a yeshiva. A few weeks after interviewing Hanan, I was surprised to learn that Uri, the leader of my scholarship group, had studied and excelled as a student of Rabbi Natan. Another friend referred me to Sam Bronstein, a writer and student in Bar-Ilan University’s English literature department, whose cerebral palsy and queer identity made for a complicated relationship with their Haredi religious community in Beit Shemesh, Israel. In middle school, Sam had a writing tutor named Esther Schupak, a Haredi scholar who today teaches Shakespeare at Bar-Ilan. Anyone within religious Israeli culture must make serious choices about how they will position themselves in the confluence of competing histories—both within their own traditions and in relation to the secular world. Together, these four individuals offered some provisional answers to my questions.
My new friend Hanan has a framed black-and-white photo of the Israeli poet Yonah Vollach hanging in his bathroom. She’s unmistakable: prominent cheekbones and long black hair, evocative of Half Breed-era Cher. Hanan and I have read Vollach’s poem “Tuvia” together. My rough translation: “Tuvia/The earth approaches/to see you up close/Tuvia, the earth is a grave/Look upon it with an undertaker’s eyes.” In a cajoling, soothing tone she counts the stars and trembling leaves before the mouth of a grave opens to swallow Tuvia whole, “big, round, full of sand.” Of course, my English rendering misses a lot of the original’s rhythm and wordplay.
Hanan, 30, has been reading Vollach since his youth, and explains the Hebrew when I get stuck. Enamored of Vollach, I envy Hanan’s linguistic kinship with her. On my own, I’m working on translating her first poetry collection, Dvarim, for a seminar at Bar-Ilan University. To the left of her photo sits a portrait of Yair Horawitz, another Israeli poet. “The love of my life,” Hanan says. Horawitz’s work is even less available in English than Vollach’s— it’s the first I’ve ever heard of him. Hanan’s mother, who teaches math and biblical studies to ninth graders, showed him Horawitz’s poetry when he was fourteen.
I have a crush. For dinner Hanan has cooked us vegan pasta with white wine at his apartment in Rehavia, Jerusalem’s chic student district on the west side of town. His voice is deep and his English delightfully accented, rarely relinquishing Hebrew’s guttural tendencies, which English lacks. He smokes grass most of the time we talk and refills the wine liberally. His head is shaved, his wardrobe and accessories androgynous. He’s fond of earrings and nail polish. One time when we met, at my house in the more conservative Old City on Jerusalem’s east side, Hanan wore a skirt with embroidered hemlines, hidden beneath a nondescript coat. When I speak to him in Hebrew, I use the feminine and masculine interchangeably. She attends Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theatre, where he is completing his final semester. Almost all her work is video based. “Maybe I’m a navi,” he says, using the Hebrew word for prophet. “I’m studying video in a theatre school, before the theatre dies.” It’s the peak of one of Israel’s several coronavirus lockdowns, in February, when outdoor activity is restricted and all public spaces are shuttered, which is why Hanan cooks for us at home. He’s comfortable speaking about herself—“one of my hobbies,” she jokes.
Hanan’s hometown is Ma’on, a religious Jewish settlement in the West Bank. She grew up in a family that belongs to a stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism sometimes referred to as haredi leumi, though Jewish religious taxonomy can be challenging, especially in Israel. In the United States, the term “Hassidic” is often used synonymously with ultra-Orthodox; but in Israel it denotes sects that have nothing to do with Hanan’s world. In Hebrew, haredi is the broad term for ultra-Orthodoxy’s enormous spectrum of cultures; it suggests a much more conservative threshold for observance of halakha, Jewish religious law, than other religious groups. Haredi leumi—hardali for short—is a unique stream of Haredi culture because they are supporters of Israel as a Jewish state. Much of the rest of Haredi culture is either overwhelmingly opposed to Zionism or indifferent to it. Haredim typically don’t serve in the Israeli military, a sore point of contention with the rest of Jewish Israeli society for whom military service is mandatory. In contrast, Hardali culture places great importance on military service. Israel’s Independence Day is a holy day in Ma’on, Hanan tells me. The most extreme anti-Zionist Haredim, on the other hand, sometimes march on Independence Day with Arab Israelis and Palestinians, who observe it as a day of tragedy, nakba in Arabic.
Hanan’s father, Natan, is the head rabbi at a prestigious yeshiva in the settlement of Carmel, near to Ma’on: a teacher, like Hanan’s mother, who teaches ninth-graders. “I was weird for them,” Hanan says. “It’s the regular story of gay people. I was the feminine one. And if the teacher said something I didn’t like, I asked a question. If I thought he did something wrong, I said it: ‘You did something wrong.’ Once a year, around Pride, they talked about gays. I asked the teacher, ‘why are you so obsessed about it? This is the same as driving on Shabbat. Last time I was in Tel Aviv, I saw a lot of cars. I didn’t see you or any other rabbi talking with the same passion you talk against gays.’”
“Where were you the happiest in Ma’on?” I ask her.
“Asleep in my bed. I think to feel like an outsider there is even harder. Because everybody is supposed to be the same.”
“How about reading?” I ask. Media consumption was heavily monitored in Hanan’s childhood. Walt Disney tales culminating in a kiss with Prince Charming were banned on the grounds that they are insufficiently tzanua, modest. “The joke in school was that in Ma’on, we are the most dosim,” Hanan said, using the sometimes derogatory Hebrew slang for strict religious people. Children from all the settlements in the area went to school in the town of Susiya, which had the largest local public library. “When I went to take a book, there were books I wasn’t allowed to read but my friends at school could. Snow White—I really wanted to read it.”
“And how did you know which books you couldn’t take?”
“You just knew.”
You just knew. The phrase was an unwelcome reminder of my own censorious Catholic upbringing, which rather than imparting an intellectual tradition to critically engage with, handed me a long list of “No”s. Sensing common ground, I ask, “Would you call your education anti-intellectual?” Hanan inhales a long drag from his joint and shakes his head. “Totally the opposite,” he says, laughing. “Once,” he recalls, “at Shabbat dinner when I was nine or ten and my father’s students were with us, I said, ‘okay, postmodernism, for god’s sake, what is it?’ I remember their faces, all of them: Fuck you. And then my father calmly explained, starting from Plato and Aristotle, empiricism, Hegel and Kant, and on to the end. I read this shit when I was ten.”
“Rabbi Natan hated cheap things. Cheap music, cheap behaviour, he didn’t like large crowds. He was very aristocratic.” Uri is telling me about his teacher, Hanan’s father. Today Uri, 31, is an MA candidate in philosophy at Tel Aviv University. His research concerns Hegel’s dialectics of exposing concepts embedded in reality and their ramifications on the nature of consciousness. He plans to pursue a doctorate and become a lecturer. He usually wears light blue denim jeans, black boots, and a red tee-shirt. The day we meet it’s chilly in Jerusalem, so he also wears a long black coat and scarf.
Uri is of Persian-Italian descent on both sides. He grew up in Givat Shmuel, an upper middle class city in central Israel. “In Givat Shmuel, they want certain behaviour. Enjoy basketball, dress nice.” Uri grew up Zionist Orthodox, or dati leumi, Israel’s other major religious culture besides Haredi. Italian television was always in the background of his parents’ home, yet he tells me of their contempt for Italy. “It wasn’t really a home for them. They see the Italians as batlanim—a bunch of slackers with their siestas. Hypocrites, anti-Semites. Catholicism is very frightening for my mother.”
At age seven, Uri found his passion in Heraclitus: you cannot step into the same river twice. “I felt it was the most true thing I ever heard. Right there I fell in love—this is how I want to spontaneously experience the world.” But he had little inkling of how to nurture that passion. He spent the last two years of high school enrolled at an external school with optional attendance. By the time he was eighteen, adrift and uninspired, someone suggested that he attend the yeshiva in Carmel, where Rabbi Natan taught, and he half-heartedly enrolled.
He didn’t wear a kippah, and had a less religious attitude than the other students, who were a blend of dati leumi, hardali, and haredi. But Rabbi Natan gave Uri space. Only once he asked that if he didn’t intend to keep Shabbat rules he do it discreetly, so not to bother students who did. The non-judgmental gesture wasn’t lost on Uri. Still, it was a few weeks before he engaged in much studying. “I came to the yeshiva broken.”
Everything changed during the weekly Tanakh lesson. It was around eleven p.m. Uri sat in the very back of the beit midrash. The topic concerned the Book of Deuteronomy, Dvarim. Rabbi Natan delivered a lecture on the allegorical relationship between man’s inner life and the structure of the ancient nation of Israel. “He spoke about the king, priest, prophets, how the different parts of the psyche should likewise act together. The king symbolizes strength of will, the judges the pure intellect… and the prophets are the creative imaginative. It was a religious experience for me, not just intellectual.” Uri, always alienated by the non-cerebral world, now had a vision of how inner and outer life commingled.
Rabbi Natan became a father figure. He was also learned in non-Jewish philosophy and lent Uri books by Hume, Kant, and many others. They discovered a shared passion for classical music. Natan played violin, Uri the piano. “Rabbi Natan had some critique about piano,” Uri says. “That it’s not as expressive as violin. He used to say that the violin was the perfect expression; that the instrument and the player become one.” To illustrate the violin’s supremacy, he showed Uri clips of violinists like Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh. Uri had a more analytical understanding of music, favouring the technical study of harmony and composition. Uri preferred Bach, Rabbi Natan went for Mendelssohn and Dvorak. The Rabbi’s hands-off attitude about Uri’s private religious life was reflected in his approach as an educator. “Complete intellectual freedom. This is his method. He wasn’t bothered by anything. He had lots of patience to listen to stories of a nineteen-, twenty-year old boy. I have to say I am grateful. I needed someone to listen.”
A few weeks after the Deuteronomy lecture, Uri stayed up until dawn in the yeshiva library climbing ladders and inspecting as many books as possible. “Now, many were inaccurate or disappointing,” he says with a confidence bred by years of study since. “But then I found my book.” Avraham Yitzhaq Kook, often referred to simply as HaRav Kook, was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Profoundly influenced by Hegelian philosophy, his work had obvious appeal for Uri. He believed in the progressive nature of history and wrote deeply on the sometimes conflicting but productive relationship between tradition and creativity. He stressed the danger of the Zionist project collapsing into parochialism.
HaRav Kook’s Orot HaKodesh, “The Lights of the Holy,” set the rest of Uri’s studies in motion. “I thought, oh my god, this is the philosophy of God. It’s not just reinterpreting some verses of the Bible. He deals with the connection between God and the world, good and evil, the meaning of love, the kodesh.” Though some would forbid a first year student from studying it, Rabbi Natan didn’t stand in the way.
When I was eighteen my idol was Morrissey, whose lyrics I Googled line by line to unearth every possible reference. The process led me to an ancient, HTML-designed site that catalogued every film, book, song, or individual referenced in Morrissey’s lyrics for The Smiths. This site gifted me a cultural education no university could ever equal. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to Uri’s discovery of Orot HaKodesh.
Another lecture landed almost as heavily as the Deuteronomy talk. “Rabbi Natan used the word ‘bourgeois’ to mean a complete state of alienation, just eating and drinking, doesn’t give a shit.” Even now, Uri sounds energized. “He said, ‘their flesh is smug.’ They were our real enemy. I was right all along, I felt. They finally had a name, these people.”
Initially, Uri’s parents were not in favour of his yeshiva studies. “They didn’t like any yeshiva,” Uri clarifies. They pressured him to study engineering or accounting. Rabbi Natan drove two hours from Carmel to Givat Shmuel to explain the urgency of Uri continuing his religious studies, and they were convinced. The yeshiva became the home Givat Shmuel never was for Uri. “The people there were good and kind,” he says in a rare, endearing moment of simplicity of speech. But Natan demanded a deeper spiritual commitment than simply the outward expressions of Jewish law. In his new student, he found someone up to the challenge.
I wait for Sam near the library at Bar-Ilan. I don’t know what they look like except for their WhatsApp photo, but I know they’re a writer and have some sort of Haredi past. Bar-Ilan University, where I am also studying, was founded in the fifties as an orthodox institution. It diversified through the years and today includes the full spectrum of religious and secular Jews, as well as large numbers of Arab and international students. Though its religious bedrock is far from hidden (Jewish students still must take Jewish Studies to graduate), Bar-Ilan is now by and large a secular school.
I sit on a bench scrolling on my phone, and when I look up someone waves: Sam. My spot behind a small garden isn’t wide enough for their wheelchair, so I move to a closer bench. Sam shrugs their shoulders. “Yet one more place Bar-Ilan has decided to make inaccessible.” Sam, 25, is active in the Chabad Jewish community and has a relationship with the campus rabbi, but cannot even enter Bar-Ilan’s synagogue due to the stairs. They are working on a BA in English literature.
“My parents are racist and right wing,” they say resignedly when I ask about their upbringing. “My mother has bipolar disorder, is not medicated. She claims that the doctor was incorrect and that she’s fine. My dad has an anger issue that has gotten worst since Corona, so that’s been a party.” They tell me this as if describing their shoe size, not an ounce of self-pity. “My brother is religious now because it’s easier for him. He doesn’t want to step out of bounds. When I got my first tattoo he said, ‘what’ll our parents say? That’s just going to rock the boat.’ And I said, who the fuck cares? They rock the boat on their own, they’re dysfunctional idiots.”
Like Uri and Hanan, Sam didn’t relate to their childhood, to put it mildly. Uri and Hanan achieved the life they wanted by entering realms foreign to their origins; neither is fully at ease revisiting their roots in conversation. Sam, on the other hand, obviously welcomes the opportunity to use their polemical talents. “There wasn’t a whole lot of logical parenting,” they say bluntly. We keep our masks on for the interview, but nothing Sam says is ever unclear to me.
Sam was born with spastic cerebral palsy and grew up in Palo Alto, California. Their parents met at Stanford, where their mother studied nursing and their father got a PhD in computer science. At the time Sam was born, the family was modern orthodox and often associated with the nearby Chabad community, though they were not formal members. There was kosher food in the house, and their mother kept close track of what books they read (no Harry Potter); but they were far from ultra-Orthodox. Sam loved the Chabad community in Palo Alto. “Everyone there had a different background. Russian, Israeli, everybody. No one walked in and looked at everyone else and compared. So much of it in Chabad is not trying to find all the differences. The rabbi saw me as a person.”
Things changed suddenly when Sam was eleven. An uncle on their father’s side passed away and was buried in Israel. Sam’s father went for the funeral, while the family remained home. Upon his return, he announced that they would all be relocating to Israel in eight weeks. He’d purchased a house in Ramat Beit Shemesh during his short visit.
“He got it under the assumption the dollar was high and that he had enough money in the bank to keep two houses. That wasn’t the case. There was no discussion. So that was a shitload of trauma. My father said, ‘I’m only moving twice. Once to Israel, once to my grave.’” So, on their father’s whim, the family settled in Israel. It wasn’t just their address that changed. Sam’s parents were told that the Israeli Chabad community was pariah. They couldn’t continue associating with it, they decided, so instead they abruptly assimilated to the Haredi culture around them in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
It was a very different sort of religious world than Rabbi Natan’s. Now not only Harry Potter was banned—all non-Jewish books were a no-go in the house. In Palo Alto, Sam and their siblings remember hitting the maximum number of check-outs possible at the public library; now the options narrowed to Jewish books with religious storylines. “It actually made me want to write more because the books were such garbage,” they tell me. “Either someone has cancer or one of the children stops being religious and the younger sister says, oh, how will I get married? And if there’s a disabled character, they’re off in the corner.”
Both of Sam’s parents stopped working after the move, living off of an inheritance from Sam’s maternal grandmother. “Everyone’s always like, how the hell do you guys live? Out of our means and illogically. That’s the situation.” Sam was sent to Beis Yaakov, a dramatically more conservative school than the Chabad school in Palo Alto. For Sam, nothing about the new religious culture resonated. When a teacher spotted them reading from a Chabad prayer book it was confiscated. Worse, their body was suddenly an issue. “When I walk into my parents’ synagogue, everyone turns to stare. I was using a walker, crutches, or a chair, automatically different and an outcast. I felt it as soon as I walked in the synagogue.”
Their parents began to dress themselves and their children in ultra-orthodox garb. When Sam resisted, their parents suggested a meaningful relationship with god was impossible while wearing pants. A neighbour once called the house to complain about clothes he saw Sam wearing on the train. At age eleven, Sam recalls rocks being thrown at them in an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood for wearing pants underneath their skirt on the way to physical therapy.
“My father has a very hard time acknowledging that I’m disabled. In ninth grade he took me to this rabbi in Jerusalem who made me drink off this plate of an ancient rabbi. Literally. He said, ‘if you keep shabbat longer, god will keep you walking.’ Their father still keeps Shabbat longer.
When they turned thirteen, Sam finally got the help they wanted: a writing tutor, Dr. Esther Schupak.
I meet Dr. Esther Schupak in her office at Bar-Ilan. Dr. Schupak and her family are Haredi. She wears a wig, customary for married women in many ultra-Orthodox communities. She is American by birth, the mother of five children, and her husband learns Torah and Talmud full-time time in a yeshiva. The family resides in the city of Ramat Beit Shemesh, in a Haredi-majority area. Schupak’s husband was born in Lithuania, and the two of them prefer English when they’re alone, but their children’s primary language is Hebrew. The father has taught them some of his own native Russian, and their oldest child studies with a rabbi—entirely in Yiddish.
Because they are taught in English, Dr. Schupak’s classes reflect Bar-Ilan’s diversity as much as any on campus. Arab students often comprise the majority. She teaches, among other things, the compulsory undergraduate Shakespeare course at Bar-Ilan for English majors. Pedagogy and ultra-Orthodox issues are some of Schupak’s primary scholarly interests, but one thing makes her sometimes reluctant to write about them: ad hominem attacks during the peer review process. “Reviewers, who clearly for whatever reason dislike ultra-Orthodox culture, have been very challenging to deal with. The reaction I got from more than one reviewer was, ‘you are ultra-Orthodox, you cannot be a Feminist.’”
Schupak is fluent in that other language of power, theory. She knows her Judith Butler. Concerning in-class performances of Caesar, she writes of “the power of drag to invite subversion.” She knows what performativity means from doing it on a constant basis. In another essay, she details the figure-eights she must pull off to “change footing,” borrowing a term from Erving Goffman. “Answering ‘how are you?’ I have to first think of where I am, with whom I am speaking, and only then to articulate an appropriate response, in the appropriate language and dialect: Hebrew, English, or the ultra-orthodox dialect versions of these languages.” Ultra-Orthodox Hebrew and English use Yiddish structures and phrasings routinely, and failure to do so is a social faux-pas. To use Yiddish in non-ultra-Orthodox settings makes no sense, and the person you’re talking to likely won’t even understand. Schupak, at different points in her career has conducted courses in both English and Hebrew, in both religious and secular settings. She admits that, by the end of a work day, even inconsequential interactions can feel like a chore.
Her trademark pedagogical method involves a loosely structured letter-writing practice amongst students. Students take turns writing letters to the class about the assigned readings. Schupak uses this technique to account for the well-known, but seldom addressed, limitations of the classic discussion format. Those limitations—time constraints, competition, self-consciousness—become even more fraught when there is a plurality of non-native English speakers in a classroom. The privacy—and the subsequent disclosures—of letter writing significantly expand the possibilities of class participation.
Most students react with a written critical summary, but she permits creative responses such as poetry and fiction. One of her former students was a rapper and performed his “letters” on numerous occasions. The letter writing technique, while always conducted in English, addresses the differing polities of literature that invariably convene in Israeli universities. In an essay, “Listening Rhetoric in a Diverse Classroom,” Schupak describes how, within their letters, pupils have taught the rest of the class poetry and literature translated from Arabic, Polish, Russian, and other traditions, which automatically facilitates multicultural discourse. One of her students from a small Arab village wrote a letter about Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The student couldn’t believe that no one in a community did anything about a deteriorating elderly woman. In a rhetoric course a Chinese student (Bar-Ilan has a growing exchange program with China) wrote in a letter that she was floored by American politicians’ often brazen speaking style and spontaneity, since it is so given to error and embarrassment. The student taught the rest of class about the highly scripted nature of politics in China—an organic opportunity for comparative rhetorical analysis.
Schupak’s mother and grandmother survived the Holocaust in Romania. At least once a week, she has a nightmare about Nazis coming in and “just sweeping everything away.” The dream occurs under different circumstances: sometimes the Baltimore house she grew up in; her house in Israel; the mall. In every dream, Schupak and her family try and fail to find a place to hide. “That’s the one theme that always ran through my grandmother’s accounts, and even my mother remembers this: they had to find places to hide. Even when I’m awake, I’ll look at my apartment and think, that would be a good place to hide if they come to get me.”
One of her other favourite courses to teach is Dystopian Literature. In the fall semester of 2019, she taught novels by Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others. With every novel, she and her students related the storylines to historical or current events, such as the genocide of the Uyghurs currently underway in China. “Here’s where being the daughter of a holocaust survivor comes in,” she tells me. For Esther Schupak, dystopian fears are not theoretical.
Like Rabbi Natan with Uri, Dr. Schupak gave Sam a freedom that came as a shock. “She is someone who showed me an authentic version of living her Judaism and having a living-room full of Judaic books, but then having her own office full of the classics and Shakespeare and more. She never told me that my writing was inherently wrong or that my ideas were incorrect. I was being educated and working on what has been the most important thing to me and my self expression: my writing.” Sam was often writing from a dark, jaded place, and Schupak did not interfere.
Books that would be banned in their household were fair game for discussion with Dr. Schupak. “She could have a conversation about magic and witches without it being blasphemous.” There was a sense of confidentiality: Sam wrote fiction that explored their dysfunctional home environment, knowing it wasn’t going to get back to their family. Schupak’s critiques were mostly in the grammar and structure, a way of not only letting Sam write about what they wanted, but also developing their vocabulary and the ability to build a story. “It was definitely my favourite afternoon of the week.” The two also read Shakespeare’s plays. They worked together from Sam’s seventh until twelfth grade, sometimes as often as once a week.
But even with Dr. Schupak’s encouragement and a passion for writing, Sam’s queer identity was still a work in progress. “There was a clear unspoken line, at least to me, to never express or even try to express anything regarding my gender and sexuality.” Sam also spoke about this on a podcast I heard after we met. “I had no idea I was queer,” they said. They told themselves, “We’re just going to sit and learn Hassidism as much as possible with as many people as possible, and everything will work out.” After high school their friends started getting married, a process that felt curiously alien to Sam, though they didn’t have the words yet for why.
The matchmaking or shiduch process is very important in ultra-Orthodox communities. When a person is ready to look for a spouse, family members and trusted friends compile lists of suitable candidates. Dr. Schupak met her husband in Baltimore after her brother, who studied near to him in yeshiva, said he had a feeling he’d found the one. In secular society, anything resembling an “arranged” marriage is immediately judged as backward and constricting, but the way Schupak described it sounded a lot more human than scrolling and swiping on dating apps in isolation. However, this community-based process can be very demeaning for someone with a disability. Once, a shadkan (matchmaker) made it clear that he would only ever connect Sam to men with disabilities. When Sam was nineteen their parents suggested they get engaged to a man in England whom neither they nor Sam had ever met, simply because he had a disability. One of Sam’s rabbis back in the States, a close friend who stayed in touch, intervened and helped put a stop to it.
Sam identifies today as a nonbinary lesbian. They write regularly about their disability, queer identity, and mental health on various blogs, and are at work on a series of autobiographical novels. Their current work is experimental in structure: the protagonist and antagonist are the same person. Their writing style is compact, sparing in punctuation, similar to the style of the American nonbinary poet Eileen Myles. Perusing their poetry blog, I’m most struck by a poem from 2016, “The red rush.” Recounting a past of self-harm, it’s the first I’ve seen Sam express something like nostalgia. “I miss the feeling/miss the rush.” Everything they had to bear, mostly without a word, in their youth is now in their writing, active and alive.
With their mother, they’ve found that the best way to connect is by reading novels together over the phone. “The books are mostly concessions on my part,” Sam says, but they can lead to discussions that regular conversation can’t. Recently they read Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, and the presence of a handicapped character permitted them to speak about disability in a calmer manner.
Sam’s disability, gender, and free thought were ill suited for their family and community. But they also led to the rise of an acerbic, triumphant verbal style, both out loud and on the page. A writer since grade school, Sam today experiences their agency through writing, a realm where they can express and develop queerness, disability, and independent thought, kept safe from their enemies.
At the yeshiva, Uri became more religious and excelled in his studies. Prayer began a bit before seven each morning, but he arose at five-thirty to pray on his own. “It was written somewhere that the ancient Hassidim used to study one hour by themselves in the morning, so I said I have to try it out. And it was amazing. Imagine yourself starting every day with a very intense spiritual experience. My life became very spiritual.” Praying often meant reading. During those solitary morning hours, he finished works by Baal Shem Tov and other Hassidic sages.
In prayer as in study, Rabbi Natan served as a model. On Uri’s first Yom Kippur in the yeshiva, he witnessed Rabbi Natan praying from six in the evening until midnight, then again in the morning from five until ten—all while fasting, of course. Uri observed Rabbi Natan closely; Natan was using seven different sidorim, prayer books, several of them Kabbalistic. “When I saw this, I was completely, completely, completely impressed. Going from one book to another, it seemed like he was orchestrating this great symphony in the heavens with lots of intensity and an open heart.” Uri hoped to become a younger version of his teacher. But inevitably, he revised his outlook.
“After two years it started to feel inauthentic. I realized I have some major disagreements with Rabbi Natan. And it became more and more bothering. I kept some distance. And I felt him start to like me less. That was okay with me, because I was angry with him and the ways he was teaching the new students.” Uri began to study more by himself, where he had always been most comfortable.
I press him for details on what precipitated their intellectual break. His answer is a surprise. Uri recalls a tense exchange during a student discussion with the rabbi about the French Revolution. In a yeshiva setting, a discussion of this sort is religious rather political. The Rabbi asked what face of God was revealed during the revolution. “I said of course the French Revolution was a virtuous thing; Rabbi Natan thinks it’s debatable. But no, it isn’t.” Uri narrates the incident as if it just happened, and he grows somewhat agitated. Defending his position, he cites the Baal Ha-Sulam, a Communist rabbi who contended that you understand the meaning of every specific soul only when everything is egalitarian. Equality reveals how people appear before God—in other words, the lost, prelapsarian world. Rabbi Natan presented another viewpoint: that there may be a dangerous vanity in the conceit of reorganizing society. “It was emotional for me. It didn’t last very long but I clearly disagreed with him in front of everybody.”
Uri considers the memory for a moment, and then goes on. “He was more, I would say, postmodern than me. He has a very skeptical approach toward everything. For him, religion was a way to find an anchor outside of reality that doesn’t deal with the chaos, the uncertainty of reality. For him, reality is a very problematic place. For me…I give more credit to the intellect, and to the world and its achievements. I think there’s a lot to learn from a simple life. Rabbi Natan was very suspicious of the simple life.”
Bored of the Rabbi, I ask Uri, “did you know Hanan?”
He did, of course. Hanan was for a time the yeshiva cook. Uri admitted that, though he liked Hanan, he found his permanent state of anger and discontent challenging to be around. Uri quickly summarized an unpleasant argument they had about the philosopher Leibniz. “Leibnitz is optimistic and gives a lot of credit to syllogisms and rational thinking.” The similarity to Uri’s own worldview is clear. “He said something like, ‘Leibniz is stupid.’ I didn’t appreciate it.” One year, on Israel’s Independence Day, Hanan burned the Israeli flag, which struck Uri as horribly vulgar and disrespectful to his father. Both anecdotes, about Leibniz and the flag-burning, deepen my crush, but I don’t tell Uri.
Though their relationship was changing, Rabbi Natan was still by far the most trusted figure in Uri’s life. Natan arranged for him a shiduch with a woman named Orit from Ma’on, when Uri was twenty-two. “After the first date I was completely in love. I didn’t manage to fall asleep. I was in Jerusalem trying to sleep on my friend’s couch and I just sat there. I couldn’t believe how wonderful life could be when you have someone so amazing by your side.” The two became engaged after eight months, but a short time later Orit called the whole thing off and left him. Uri was devastated and asked Rabbi Natan for help getting her back. He was less than willing. “Rabbi Natan said, ‘Uri, if I didn’t know you, I’d say you are a fascist. You have to let go.’ That was the end of the conversation. It was very painful.”
Uri and another student once joined Rabbi Natan for Passover. The meal went into the middle of the night. Like at any good holiday dinner, everyone was exhausted from the food and wine—everyone except Rabbi Natan, who sat on the couch with his son, Hanan’s younger brother, around age ten or eleven at the time. “Rabbi Natan insisted on explaining complicated Kabbalistic things in the middle of the night to his son. You could see that the boy was going crazy. He didn’t understand anything, just wanted to sleep. But Rabbi Natan insisted. His wife was almost passed out. My friend and I were like two cucumbers just sitting there. Like, what the fuck are you doing? This is a holiday. All of a sudden I could understand Hanan better.”
With their increasing disagreements, it became obvious that Uri was going to leave the yeshiva. But once he found himself another girlfriend, Uri called Rabbi Natan again and asked him point blank if he thought he should stick with her. His response left him in disbelief. “Uri,” Rabbi Natan said. “You know, it doesn’t matter, because the way I see it, you’re going to end up in the bourgeoisie. You’re on the king’s road to the life of a bourgeois.”
“It was very low,” Uri says. “Very low.” Uri completed his military service, and finalized his decision to pursue the rest of his studies at Tel Aviv University. Occasionally he ran into Rabbi Natan at weddings and it was embarrassing, they avoided one another. Two years ago, one of Uri’s classmates from the yeshiva, passed away. Everyone gathered in the woods to pay remembrance, and Rabbi Natan said some words in tribute that were particularly moving. “He is such a wise man,” Uri says, remembering the speech, and the look of fondness he wore when speaking of his early days with the Rabbi returns for a moment. At the end of the gathering, Rabbi Natan approached Uri and asked how he was doing. Uri replied that he intended to proceed to his PhD after his masters. “I mentioned the competition in academia, how much of it is luck. And Rabbi Natan said to me, ‘when they meet a real philosopher, the door will open.’ This was a major compliment. He believed in what I’m doing.”
The last time Uri saw Hanan, it was on the streets of Jerusalem. He was wearing very short sparkling pants. “It seemed he was finally a bit relaxed,” Uri says. “I was happy for him. Some peace after all this time.”
I went to see Hanan for a last meeting. His building is just a few doors down from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence which, unlike 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is in the middle of a residential street of affordable flats. I arrived early and took a stroll to kill some time. Inadvertently, I made an ill-chosen turn and found myself heading straight for Netanyahu’s foyer. I turned quickly and tried to sprint away, but it was too late. Eight burly security guards appeared and grilled me about who I am, why I’ve come to Israel, why I know Hebrew, and what was in my bag. Arriving early turned into a half-an-hour late. Finally, one of the guards escorted me to Hanan’s front door and watched me go inside.
Hanan was friendly to the security guard but rolled his eyes as soon as he shut the door. “Must be a slow night.” The area has been host over the past year to regular protests against Netanyahu’s reelection bid. They occur weekly, often more frequently, and security is even tighter than usual as a result. Hanan has participated in the protests. In April’s election, he voted for the Arab Joint List party, though the party has lost a massive percentage of its left wing Jewish support due to its right-wing stance on LGBT and women’s issues.
We resumed our conversation. As a young yeshiva student, Hanan didn’t let up on his trouble-making questions, and at fourteen he was expelled. Fourteen is the end of mandatory schooling in Israel, so he worked a series of odd jobs and travelled around the country while continuing to live at home. At fifteen, his family moved from Ma’on to Carmel to be closer to Rabbi Natan’s yeshiva. Around the same time, Hanan felt he had lost his connection to the Jewish religion altogether. Despite his outsider image, the break wasn’t simple. “I lost something really big in my life,” he said.
Rarely do we lose something big without another emerging to take its place. Hanging out in Jerusalem one Saturday night, Hanan met a group of guys living in a Breslev community. The Breslev sect is known for their emphasis on an ecstatic relationship with God, privileging the emotion over the intellect. They often make pilgrimages to Uman, Ukraine, where they dance in the street to loud music and drive around in cars selling books by their prophet, Rabbi Nachman. Philosophy is a sin in the Breslev worldview; Nachman taught that Maimonides had to repent for writing Guide For the Perplexed, a work of Jewish philosophy revered by most other sects. In short, Hanan had encountered the antithesis of his father’s world, and he liked it.
“What did your family say?”
“’He’s crazy, it’ll pass. He’s just a teenager.’ And they were right.”
But the community was far more radical than the religious world he had fled. Breslev Judaism cautions against dimyon, imagination, as a lure for the ego to swerve away from god. Eve became the first sinner by fantasizing what the forbidden fruit would be like, introducing illusion to God’s perfect creation. After moving to Beit Shemesh, Hanan wrote more and more poetry, but he kept it hidden from his peers. Ironically, the only people he showed it to were his father and mother, and they both responded encouragingly. Usually he texted the poems via SMS. After two years living in the Breslev community, Hanan walked out, returning to his family in Carmel, and enlisted in the military.
“It was a sad few years,” he said. “I’m in a much better place now, baruch hashem, praise god.” Her video work was recently exhibited in Jerusalem’s city centre, and he’s in the process of applying for a Romanian passport, which he hopes to use to settle in Scandinavia after graduation. Later that night she showed me one of her poems, “I Celebrate Jerusalem,” which ends: “I went to sleep and dreamt about the coming year in a city built anew, without a history.”
I asked to watch one of his films and he put on a clip: Hanan and her father attempting a duet, Hanan on piano and Rabbi Natan on the recorder. It was the first time I ever saw Natan, and his face was mostly in the shadows. I didn’t recognize the tune, but the two of them were not hearing each other at all, just a clattering collision as if in separate rooms. I recalled what Uri told me Natan said about the body “becoming one with the violin” and almost started to laugh. But the scene was not funny. Then the clip cut to Hanan onstage somewhere, performing The Smiths’s hit, “There Is a Light and It Never Goes Out.” “Moz!” I exclaimed. Morrissey. I was amazed: as teenagers Hanan and I shared a sacred text. “This was my closet anthem,” he said, and we discussed closets and other Smiths favourites. Somewhere in the auditorium, Rabbi Natan was in the audience. “I never, never want to go home/Because I haven’t got one/Anymore,” Hanan sang. I’d known the words since I was a teenager, but by the time I was walking home the song had taken on whole new associations.
In the powerful competing polities of literature in Israel, these three individuals—Hanan, Uri, Sam—represent three profane citizens who cultivated a way forward out of environments and prescribed identities that did not serve them. The place of the teacher in the polity of literature is enormous, but has its limits. Where one will stand in the junction of histories and polities in Israel or elsewhere, only the individual can choose. The teacher’s role is to keep the various polities of literature alive and inhabitable for any of the exiled who come, in need of belonging.
Nearing my house on the other side of town Morrissey was still on my mind. His referential lyrics had provided me a with a kind of syllabus when I was waiting impatiently for my life to begin. Morrissey: my own Dr. Schupak, my own Rabbi Natan. I knew that once I entered the ancient walls of the Old City, my reception would drop, so I took a seat by the New Gate and put my headphones in, selecting a favourite Moz deep cut from Southpaw Grammar. It begins: “You don’t know a thing about their lives/They live where you wouldn’t dare to drive…”