|While reading Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, which
is journalist Yossi Klein Halevi's wildly evocative spiritual-political autobiography,
I couldn't help thinking about myself. Klein writes about a Jewish world of which
I knew next to nothing. It's a place that I imagined was totally alien. And with
which, in the late 60's, I once had a nasty run-in. That was the time I helped bodyguard
an office of Black Panther defending Jewish lawyers who, because of their anti-racist
efforts, received a bomb threat from the JDL.
Klein's is a violent right-wing world as different from my life as kosher is from tref. I am an original surrealistic Yippie founder, Panther ally, Viet Cong symp, so how come Klein's old Kahanist "fascist" gang began reminding me a little, of Jerry and Abbie?
How did Klein and I, both rebellious blond Jews from Brooklyn wind up on different sides of so many crucial issues and yet live out a parallel life style with similar crazy contours?
The difference between the Yossi Kahanist and Stew Yippie lies in how we interpreted the holocaust. For Klein the holocaust and its meaning came from the horses mouth. His father survived the holocaust by running away from his Transylvanian town and hiding in a four feet deep, six feet long and eight feet wide hole with two other men for the length of the war. At night they went foraging for food and water. Every other Jew in town was rounded up and murdered. His father survived by rebelling against powerlessness.
For Yossi's father the holocaust was the culmination of Jewish and Gentile history. The Gentiles hated the Jews and persecuted them. The Jews accepted the persecution and let the goyim get away with it. The holocaust was the logical extension of two thousand years of sado- masochistic history. The the elder Klein didn't know who made him angriest the anti-Semites or the passive Jews, represented both by the home town Satmar Hasids who told Transylvanian Jews to stay put and not anticipate the Messiah by escaping to Zionist Palestine and by the assimilated wealthy Jews of America who Yossi's father believed folded their hands across their hardened-hearts and did nothing while their despised European brethren went up in smoke.
My American born lower-middle class parents on the other-hand said next to nothing about genocide. But here and there I did pick up frightening fragments of disaster. My Minsk born grandmother would on occasion sit me down on her Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn porch and tell me about the bad goyim.
"They would murder every Jew if they could get away with it. They have hearts of stone," she would tell the eager eight year old sitting next to her and then pick up her magnifying glass and go back to reading the Jewish Morning Journal.
My grandmother's home town Minsk was a Nazi killing field and eventually, sometime before I had my Bar Mitzvah, I was shown photos of many relatives who "were asleep" because of Hitler. But for me, unlike Klein, the holocaust was never imminent. It was something that happened in old Europe revealing incredible human bestiality. It was a moral problem, a warning about the immense cruelties of which humans were capable. But we were living in America and even my grandmother allowed that FDR "had a Jewish heart."
In 1948 the State of Israel was proclaimed, and my family acted as if having "our country" again somehow balanced the cosmic books between Jewish life and mass destruction.
Yossi Klein grew up a decade after me and in a much more Jewish-friendly America. As a kid I was actually beaten up by Irish punks on my way to the Young Israel of Bedford Bay Talmud Torah. I bought a set of barbells with my Bar Mitzvah money and soon evened the score. By the time of Yossi's childhood Gentiles were either losing interest in Jews all together or finding them exotic, fascinating and desirable. Hardly a period that suggests genocide is on the horizon.
And yet Klein, along with his friends, many of whom were also children of survivors, and the editors of the Jewish Weekly newspaper, among them Rabbi Meir Kahane, truly believed that the goyim were on the brink of committing even more unspeakable crimes against the Jews "and that we can't count on anybody but ourselves."
How could Yossi so misread the signs? He did it by being an admirable and dutiful son. His father taught him that all the nations would always be against the Jews. There could be individual righteous Gentiles, a Hungarian peasant helped save the lives of the three Jews in the Transylvanian hole by bringing them food.
He risked his life to protect Jewish strangers. But the peasant was the exception who proved Klein's rule. As individuals, Gentiles might be ok but when they gathered in groups, pogroms were their natural instinct. Improvement was impossible, a Jew could only trust a Jew, and given past weakness even that was questionable. For Yossi Klein to think otherwise would have meant betraying his father and the martyred six million.
For me, the '60's was a marvelous opportunity to rebel against my parents and their stultifying and deadly way of routinized middle-class Jewish life. In the search for meaning, I became a radical revolutionary, associating with Panthers and Weathermen, smoking dope, dropping acid, taking target practice, freaking out the establishment and dodging the FBI. I was even suspected of being involved in a few bombings.
Yossi sought to honor his father by taking up arms against the impending holocaust and the elder Klein did in part (how jealous this makes me) support his son's rebellion. The father might have been shocked at the dope smoking and rock n' roll that shaped Yossi's new life style. And so am I. Who would have thought these orthodox Jews were, like my gang, getting high on acid and the Grateful Dead.
The big difference between Klein and myself was in the choice of comrades and enemies. I picked Blacks, Cubans and Vietnamese as friends and American imperialism as my implacable foe. Holocaust was still on my agenda but I saw it happening to other people. Military genocide in Vietnam was a prelude to Black holocaust in the United States.
Fighting against an immanent Jewish holocaust, Klein took on the whole Gentile world but especially the Soviet government and the liberal Jewish establishment. For friends he discovered a fascinating and mixed-bag assortment of marginal characters including the terrorists of the Jewish Defense League and their erratic crazed guru Meher Kahane. Yossi Klein dug Dylan and the Dead and at times even considered himself a "Yippie." The JDLers, while free and easy with their racist folk wisdom, occasionally thought of themselves as "doing for Jews what the Panthers do for Blacks," and being the "Jewish SDS."
The title of right-wing Weatherman probably rings truest. Like the Weathermen, the Kahanists felt surrounded by overwhelming evil. The Weathermen used terror on behalf of the third world and the JDL did its bombing for the liberation of Soviet Jewry and the protection of Israel. Both groups lived isolated secretive lives filled with danger, paranoia, moral idealism, dark humor, media fame, warm comradeship, feelings of dread and power, and an appealing sense of great adventure. Say what you will about extremism, it was a lot more tasty than a kosher pizza joint in Boro Park Brooklyn.
Somewhere in time, perhaps after the death of his father, when he was able to fall in love with a Gentile whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, Yossi Klein realized that American Jews weren't facing ovens, that Israel was a strong nation that could afford to negotiate from power with its enemies, and that the greatest problems confronting Jews were mostly those they shared with the rest of humanity.
If Klein came to think that Kahane had gone off his racist rocker, I realized that the once brave and brilliant Huey Newton had sacrificed his sanity to booze and cocaine addiction. Then again the Vietnamese revolution was tangled up in bureaucracy and my long term pal Jerry Rubin was engaged in the lucrative business of "networking." Ah Yossi, the times they were a changing.
Today Klein, like me and so many Tikkun readers is interested in the hippy hasidism of Jewish Renewal. He no longer makes a religion or a God out of the Holocaust and revenge. At last his God is the hidden one of infinite possibility and transcendence. He lives in Israel and feels vaguely guilty about the excesses of occupation. If Yossi's post-60's has been about discovering "humanity," my morning after, has led me back into overt Jewishness and a greater sense of particularity.
Like Klein once did, I clip (or download) articles about the slightest offense to Jews and work with a mix of Jews and Gentiles on monitoring the new Nazis and Christian Crusaders.
It seems, a bit, like we have changed places. Maybe the truth is, that its not only hard to be a Jew, its awfully complicated.
This review originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Tikkun.