Friday, 25 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu: Into the Light
Here and Now

Medieval Norwich

Why should we be interested in a group of poems written in the thirteenth century by a man of whom hardly anything is known, who was not necessarily one of the great poets of the age (that is as far as we can tell) and whose expulsion from his home was hardly unique in the history of the world?

It may depend on who we are. If the reader is Jewish the poem, as translated, is of deep intrinsic interest: it is a voice out of a distant yet familial past, witnessing to a history that has a worrying tendency to recycle itself.  Look, the reader might exclaim. We did not know this voice existed: it is now alive and speaking to us, as if in our present,  as members of a tribe, a family even. The reader recognizes quotations, references, tropes, the very quality of voice as it addresses the deity and the universe. The losses, furies, anxieties and ecstasies strike an echo, something at the very deepest levels of identity. Those anxieties have never faded, they are always there beneath the skin, and here is the very cause of them, a moment among other such historical moments, the most recent of which is still vivid in the experience of last generation.  The fierceness and argumentation are aspects of the anxiety. There is both fierceness and argumentation in the book. On the other hand there is not only the ecstasy, but the warmth and tenderness of those images of dress and wine, in the terms of endearment reserved for the God that is the source of light.

At the first launch by invitation of Into the Light the audience was swollen by many writers attending the Worlds Literature Festival. They came, as the name of the conference suggests, from all parts of the world and filled Dragon Hall, listening intently, deeply appreciative of the occasion, in many cases moved. To those among them who were Jewish it was, as they told me, a moment of great significance: it was the first such voice they had heard in this country, the first time that the expulsion of the Jews had become an occasion. It was a kind of statement, like the unlocking of a door.

Norwich is such a civilised city. It is a UNESCO City of Literature, one of the very few such in the world. Norwich is pretty, beautiful even. It has no great slums. Its medieval street plan - one that Meir might still recognise in places - offers stability if not quite permanence. It is not the kind of city where people are massacred and from which people are expelled without a penny. It is indeed an official City of Refuge. We are good people. We are nice people. We are a more-or-less comfortable people. We don't massacre or expel. We are not racist. We are certainly not anti-Semitic. We are a reconciled community.

But all cities are like that before they turn. And who knows what brings on the turn? I have seen people at wrestling matches in Norwich, their faces transformed by manic energy, the sort of energy we all possess, myself included. These turns at the ringside are partly theatre and self-aware to some degree,  but not entirely. The spectacle would be nothing if it drew on nothing within us.

But what does Into the Light mean for the non-Jewish reader. It is, in some ways, simply a group of poems, that is to say a piece of literature that may be read (as I have read it) in terms of style and voice, located in the area where all literature is located, at that radioactive distance where we need not touch to be irradiated. That is how art acts on us. It is at an intellectual elsewhere that is, at the same time, a psychological within.

But it is also a human document that tells us what happened and how people responded to events, particularly a people with a specific history and cultural identity, and how one figure among them gave form to this response at both a social or liturgical, and a personal or lyric level. To the outsider it is just another human story to which he or she will find analogies: Gypsies, Armenians, the Tutsi, the African, the Native American. These histories might not be quite so cyclic but they are certainly tragic and devastating. General human sympathy goes out to them. The general reader - that is one who gets so far as to read this book - will respond with the pity, anger and tenderness of which our culture is still capable. It also challenges our sense of justice. Why do societies act unjustly? Why do societies pick on people? What urge in us requires scape-goats and sacrifices?

It may be that, in one respect, the general reader feels a certain ambiguity. That ambiguity will be centred on Israel, the country that, since 1948, has been the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, and which may therefore be regarded, at least potentially, as a crucible of whatever is perceived to be the Jewish 'character'. Here the tables are reversed and it is the Palestinians who are regarded as 'the Jews'. This perception will be presented with absolute symmetry, to the extent that Israel is Nazi Germany, or, at the very least, apartheid South Africa.

Under these circumstances it is hard to make what many declare to be a hard and fast distinction between betwen Israel and Jews elsewhere. It seems clear to me from the discourses available that the language and terminology applied to Israel is exactly the same as was applied to the Jews in that cyclical past. Now and then the terminology leaks, as one may find in articles and cartoons in the press. The old stereotypes occur with ever greater blatancy.

The members of the Norwich Jewish community who came to the public launch  ten days ago will be aware of that. They probably won't speak of it because it's hard. They may or may not approve the actions of any particular Israeli government. They may support or reject this or that policy.  Whatever they do think it is unlikely that Israel can be cut from them with a knife, like a pound of flesh, or that they can be completely cut out of Israel. That is not the way the world has ever worked. It is certainly not the way Jewish history has worked.

They might have lived in Norwich for as long as Meir did, their families even longer. For them the publishing of Into the Light gives them a light to gather around. Thank you to Keiron Pim for initiating and taking the project through.

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