Like Sparta bore fighters, my cult of yesteryear raised me to be a rabbi. I am a lab-rat bred in a airtight, kosher-certified vat of religious radicalism.
I can fondly recall, from the furthest part in the basements in my brain, crawling beneath the chairs in shul as my dad prayed above me, his all black gown and white shawl hanging down to his ankles. When I finally made it to school, I would scuttle daily to extra-curricular Torah classes before and after school, during break, on holidays and weekends. By twelve, my mind wandered what was going on outside this vat – how can God and evil exist together? What’s it like to talk to a goy? Is this bubble all there is?
With every slamming door snapping my head backwards expecting the nuclear boom of the end of days, and every driver leaning on his horn alarming my ears to the messiah with a ram’s horn on his lips blowing the tune of salvation – every day became a mark of the absence of messiah.
“Take this dollar note from The Rebbe, it will bring blessings and wealth and help you find the answers you are looking for,” a local Rabbi told me as he handed over the plain and priceless antique. The Rebbe was the Chabad movement’s leader. Well, not really – his ‘spirit transcended the world’ in 1994 but we still gathered together in dark rooms to watch videos of him praying, and hung his portraits over our dining room tables and waited his return to Eretz Israel in a chariot of fire.
I scrunched the dollar in my pocket, anxious that the portrait wasn’t watching over my shoulder, ran home, locked myself in the bathroom, struck a match and watched the note burn. And it did burn – and I did not.
When I ‘came out’ to friends that I was a heretic and an apostate, I was also telling them that I was an arrogant kid full of chutzpah who thought I knew better than my friends, parents, teachers, rabbis, and the Rebbe. Rumours spread that this was a scream for attention, or to spite a god that I knew existed, or because I defied God by engaging in a liturgy of sins that they said included drug dealing and sodomy. It couldn’t possibly be, they thought, because I couldn’t make sense of a broken system.
In leaving behind the zealotry of my boyhood, I had forced upon myself an early Bar Mitzvah. I remember lying awake through countless nights, waiting for God “[who] is filled with wrath” (Nahum 1:2), cautious that he might strike the moment my eyes shut for a final time. I didn’t believe in a God, but I had doubts. It scared me that a “jealous and avenging God” (Ibid) might punish me for being wrong with any combination of death, hell or an exorcism.
As I matured, I found a pride in having broken away from Hasidism, even enduring an embarrassing and angst-filled New Atheist phase. I joined Betar, a secular Zionist youth group which yearned for the days they were trained as a terrorist group by Benito Mussolini and Menachem Begin. In the modern diaspora, it had changed its focus to Hasbara: the virtue of ‘explaining’ (literal translation, Hebrew origin) a positive view of Israel to the outside world. I could now satisfy my redefined Jewish identity by taking to the streets the prepared slogans and posters in search of an argument. To my surprise, I was instead thrown into the mix of children’s camps, made a counsellor and tasked with teaching rather than learning. The lessons were easy to master, and empowering in their reassurance. A single chant the kids sung to me captured everything this was about:
“Two, four, six, eight; Israel is a Jewish state!
Three, five, seven, nine; no such thing as Palestine!”
Despite our polarizing views on the war, I still try to keep these friendships alive and when we hang out, I try to talk about everything but politics. Eventually, however, word travels to their ears: not only am I visiting the Western Wall, but also the other side of the Wall of the Occupation. They then turn to one of three scripts:
- “Are you crazy?”
- “Stay safe, Yaakov, I don’t want you to die!”
- A joke-bargain – spoken through condescending stares – of cheap life insurance and gold-plated coffins for my return.
In the minds of these friends, Palestinians are an irredeemable people proud of their only export: Anti-Semitic terrorism. In their eyes, they tell me, I am marching blindly into a studio where a dozen masked Islamists are already sharpening their scimitars.
I haven’t had the courage to confess to many of them that their words still keep me up at night. I understand them. I’m with them in their opinions. Part of me believes, against all that seems to be sensible, that I will die on this trip. From my first hours in Yeshiva, the ideal of an invisible and ruthless enemy opposite me has been drilled into who I am. When my friends remind me of the old slogans, I hear the echoes of decades of indoctrination. I draw connections between millennia of Rabbinical spook, as it is written in the Passover service:
“For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”
I cannot unthink the ‘Myth of the Recurring Hitler’. Its shadow engulfs my intuition. It doesn’t matter that, at 3:32am, I suffer a lapse of consciousness and awake Googling for ‘political kidnappings of tourists in Palestine.’ It doesn’t matter that I cannot recall a kidnapped Jew since Gilad Shalit in 2006, who was prone to the risks of war as a soldier. It doesn’t matter that I will be touring Gaza with other ‘non-Jewish Jews’ who have been there before and have returned to reassure me with full limbs and fresh perspectives.
The worse half of my psyche drags my attention towards the daily prophecies of an apocalypse; that the War on Terror means an epochal clash of civilizations, that Iran is developing a bomb, that Saddam had the bomb, that ISIS has launched Gazans into a death-frenzy, that the Arab World will not stop until Jews are wiped from the map.
Nevertheless, I have placed an all-in bet that it is safe. The stakes are that my head stays on my shoulders and off pikes. I have put my trust in the humanity of Israel’s enemies; it is not in their nature to kill and I will not be killed.
I’m sure that I’ll return alive – but I’m not really sure. My boyhood anxieties of a Recurring Hitler can only be undone through daring to overcome them.