What you make of the past you make of the future. My father, who came to America as a boy in 1923, was born in a bucolic Latvian village called Ape, also known as Oppenhof. The members of his family who remained in Ape, including his 81-year-old bubbie, Sarah Gittel, were murdered there by Latvian fascist commandos in 1941. In that same year, my father received his doctorate in Jewish history from Dropsie College in Philadelphia. His field of expertise was the Jews of Christian Spain, a story that ended badly in 1492. Between the Inquisition and the Holocaust, it’s no surprise that I learned from my father an iron law of history in general, and of Jewish history in particular: There’s nothing so terrible it can’t happen.
Late in my father’s life, when I asked him when he first became a Zionist, he told me he was 7. “You sure you weren’t 8?” I teased. “Seven,” he insisted. “It was 1919, the Treaty of Versailles. All around me people were getting a country of their own — the Latvians, the Estonians, the Finns. I wanted one too.” In 1948, he got his wish: a state among the nations. The amazing birth of Israel, out of the ashes of the Shoah, testifies to a second law of history: There’s nothing so wonderful it can’t happen.
These two laws, as banal as a Hallmark card or a fortune cookie, describe the past and hence the future. Most people, I reckon, subscribe to both laws, though they might offer differing definitions of terrible and wonderful. To explore the subject further, let us turn to the Bible.
“Behold, the day of the Lord cometh,” says the prophet Zechariah, in Chapter 14 of his book. “I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished … Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations…
“And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south … And it shall be in that day, that living waters sh all go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be one, and his name one.”
Nice finish! But must it follow apocalyptic climate change, as predicted 2,500 years ago? You never can tell. After all, Zechariah is a real prophet, as opposed to all the false prophets with whom the Bible abounds, as do the pages of history (and the Web). Which raises another question: in the Jewish tradition, is the prophet’s main role to foretell the future, like Tiresias, the blind soothsayer of Greek myth? In the Hebrew Bible, as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his masterly book “The Prophets” (1962), “the prophet’s consciousness . . . is a divine attentiveness to humanity, an involvement in history.”
Zechariah 14 is familiar to many modern Jews because it is the Haftarah chanted on the first day of Sukkot. It is familiar to many more Jews because of Verse 9, that last line quoted above, which comes at the very end of the “Aleinu” prayer. People feel comfy with “Aleinu.” You sing the words and bow down, because that’s what Jews do, because you did it in childhood. On closer inspection, it’s clear that “Aleinu” is a prayer that trumpets Jewish chosenness and superiority. (“For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save,” reads the uncut version.) Recited three times a day, over centuries of exile and persecution, it reminded Jews of their exceptional relationship with the Almighty, a compensation for their downtrodden status. Nowadays, in the larger context of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty and Zechariah’s End of Days scenario, that psychology has new, more troubling resonance.
Listen carefully to Verse 12: “And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.” Now type “Zechariah 14 12 nuclear” into Google and see what you get: About 1.3 million results. Add the word “Iran”: 849,000 results. Now the verse plus “Israel apocalypse second coming”: 217,000 results. Finally, add two more words — John Hagee — and up pop 11,800 results. I’m sure you get my drift.
I single out Pastor Hagee of San Antonio because he is a ubiquitous, conspicuous darling of many American Jews who consider themselves — and him too — to be staunchly pro-Israel. Indeed, he is the founder of Christians United for Israel, self-described on its website as “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States with over 900,000 members.” Hagee’s apocalyptic fantasies — elaborated in such books as “From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun” — do not much bother Jews who badly need a hug in these treacherous times. The trauma of Jewish history plumps the pillows for strange bedfellows. Fearing the worst, anxious Jews risk bringing it on. This irony is known, in the prophetic trade, as self-fulfilling prophecy.
“And it shall come to pass,” continues Zechariah in Verse 16, “that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.” And indeed, in a Sukkot tradition of recent decades, thousands of Christian Zionists flock to Jerusalem and take part in a joyful parade, displaying genuine love for the Jewish state. One year, I stood on the sidelines and watched, as the delegations marched in alphabetical order, from Albania to Zimbabwe, singing Hebrew songs and blowing shofars, handing out candy to Israeli bystanders — some of whom were clearly needy, grateful to collect free sweets. “They love Israel, that’s the main thing,” I overheard one Jewish mother say to another. Yes, but it’s not the only thing.
In 1979, my parents, following long careers as teachers of Hebrew — he at Brooklyn College, she at the East Midwood Jewish Center — realized their longtime dream of aliyah. They loved to stroll around their Jerusalem neighborhood, on streets named for prominent literary figures and intellectuals: Ahad Ha’am and Jabotinsky, Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, Y.H. Brenner and Nahum Sokolow. It was Sokolow who translated “Altneuland,” Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel of 1902, into Hebrew, with the title “Tel-Aviv,” a phrase from the prophet Ezekiel. Shortly thereafter, the world’s first Hebrew city took its name from Herzl’s futuristic book, his vision of a peaceful, liberal democracy. Not an oracular prediction — far from it — but a strong prophetic call to create a just and exemplary society.
At the corner of Brenner and Sokolow there is a small park, and in it a stone with a plaque, inscribed with verses from the Book of Zechariah, Chapter 8: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for the fullness of days. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.”
My mother, nearly 90 now, is still fond of visiting that park and contemplating the inscription on the stone. That simple, humane future, profoundly different from the apocalyptic opera of Chapter 14 — and many scholars, for good reason, believe they had separate authors — represents the triumph of hope over trauma, of normalcy over exceptionalism and of sanity over hysteria. People growing old, watching the children play. Every day, not just at the End of Days.
Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a Fellow of the Engaging Israel Project at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.