I told Rich Cohen the other night that his latest book, “Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History,” should be a must-read for a young generation of American Jews, many of whom, unfortunately, have little interest in learning about the history of Israel.
Cohen and I took part in a conversation on his book and its message at an evening sponsored by Access, a program aimed at young Jewish adults, under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. It made for a lively discussion, with plenty of thoughtful questions and comments from the well-informed group.
Cohen and I had met for the first time an hour before the program, over coffee, and hit it off, perhaps surprisingly, because we are quite different in terms of Israeli politics (he acknowledges being deeply swayed by his large Israeli family on the far left), generational outlook (he’s 41, I used to be), attitudes toward religion (he paints most of the religious figures in his book as kooks), and writing style (see below).
But we shared a love of family, Jews and writing — of trying to tell a story with the heart as well as the pen — and that was what mattered most.
Cohen knows how to tell a story. The author of “Tough Jews,” a fond tribute to low-level Jewish gangsters, and, most recently, “Sweet And Low,” the story of his family’s association with and disinheritance from the artificial sweetener fortune, he starts this ambitious narrative with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. and takes us through Ariel Sharon’s tenure as prime minister.
The writing is robust and compelling, and Cohen, a contributor to Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, is a master of drama and flair, replete with riffs using current cultural references (Superman, Darth Vader, etc.) to describe ancient figures, and free-association descriptions like this one of Menachem Begin as “the dark, slumpy, Yiddish-inflected Jew, not the new Jew, but the old Jew, backed by a modern army. He looked like my grandma Esther’s second husband, Izzy Greenspun, of Skokie, Illinois, who stuttered and repeated and got flustered and died while wiping a dish — ‘I thought Izzy had dropped the dish,’ said Esther, but it turns out what Izzy had dropped was dead.”
For my taste some of that writing is over the top, but Cohen’s book is not necessarily for me or my contemporaries; it’s for a generation too young to remember the charisma and fortitude of a Begin or Ben-Gurion but who might be drawn to a lively, if less than definitive, portrait of Jewish and Israeli history filled with energy, passion and compassion.
Among the more memorable figures who come to life in the telling are Shabtai Tzvi, the 17th-century figure who was the most popular of the false messiahs; Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who first tried to save the Jews by having them convert to Catholicism; Samuel “Sam the Banana Man” Zemurray, a Russian immigrant I’d never heard of who may well have helped sway the UN partition vote in 1947; and Ariel Sharon, portrayed as a metaphor for modern-day Israel.
Cohen admits that he is obsessed with Sharon, who he describes as “the fat old kosher butcher, with blood on his apron and a sly grin on his face,” a heroic general and power-driven leader who, in his old age as a pragmatic statesman, seeks to reverse his youthful excesses and preserve Israel’s future.
Personally, I’ve got some problems with the book, from several glaring errors (the 1973 War broke out on “the first day of Yom Kippur,” for example), to the notion that since 1967, Israelis have become fanatics (resulting in the creation of the Jewish settlements, which Cohen opposes), to the premise that the reality of modern Israel is not only a triumph but a portent for disaster.
He writes at the outset that after the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism and the Jewish people were able to survive by reinventing themselves, transforming Jerusalem from a city into a dream, replacing animal sacrifices with prayer, and turning “the Temple into a book.
“Which is why Judaism survived,” Cohen writes. “You can burn a city, but you cannot sack an idea, or kill a book. But in our own time, Zionists have turned the book back into a temple. (Modern Israel is the Third Temple.)”
By re-establishing a Jewish state in its ancient homeland, “Zionists have made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been since the fall of the Second Temple,” Cohen asserts.
Calling himself “a catastrophist,” he worries that modern Israel may not survive, that it is a target for Jew-haters and faces existential threats, primarily from Iran.
I worry, too, of course, but feel a lot more secure having a sovereign state of Israel, with a democracy and powerful army, especially looking back at how Jews were treated by the nations of the world over the last two millennia, scattered throughout the diaspora, helpless and powerless.
In the end, Cohen and I have our differences, but this is the kind of book that can engage younger Jews curious about their heritage, force them to think about the remarkable saga of Jewish survival, and it welcomes the reader to debate and counter the author’s theories. The way I see it, if you can draw largely disinterested younger Jews into the discussion, you’re already ahead of the game.
Just after I wrote this, I got an e-mail from Cohen, which reads in part: “We don’t agree on every little thing, but I know we can be good friends.”
Maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to say.