The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War

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Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain

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For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.

 

While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.

 

On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism

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Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome

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“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?

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“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]

 

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.

 

Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at http://www.mhric.org/fdr/fdr.html.

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007), http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=654.

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/classicsjournal/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

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Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.

 

So That It Burns

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Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan a feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.

Is A Computerized Brain Far-fetched?

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Here’s my Letter to the Editor which was featured in the New York Times last year.

Kenneth D. Miller’s article (against the longterm efficacy of cryogenic freezing) is a cogent reminder of how little we still understand the nature of consciousness. But his assurance that the ability to upload a human mind is unimaginably beyond the potential of our civilization is misplaced.

The brain is a machine that runs on electricity, and consciousness is an emergent aspect of the workings of its physical parts. There’s no reason to think that a three-pound brain is so uniquely mysterious that it could never be truly comprehended, particularly given the likelihood of exponential growth in computing power in the future.

The first steps may not involve trying to model a working brain on a computer, but trying to integrate computers into working brains while still preserving autonomy, memories and sense perception.

When this is done, our understanding of the electrochemical foundations of consciousness will be transformed, and a great deal may become possible. For now, though, even a small chance of being “awakened” after cryogenic freezing is better than no chance at all.

DAVID VINCENT KIMEL

In Defense of Transhumanism

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My article appeared last year in the Washington Post.

When I first tried to start a club for the study of transhumanism at Yale, I was astounded by the university’s response. The chaplain intervened and vetoed the request. An email to me explained that there were already enough atheist groups on campus, assuming evidently that the words humanist and atheist were synonyms. I found myself awkwardly assuring a series of administrators that transhumanism had nothing to do with transgender students who didn’t believe in God. Broadly speaking, it involves the use of futuristic medical technology to lower the incidence of disease, enhance the capacity of the imagination and prolong the human lifespan. “We’re into things like cyborgs and genetic engineering,” I said.

It seems to me that while transhumanism resembles its progenitors, it is distinct from each of them, and lessons can be drawn from all of them.

First, there is the ugly specter of the eugenics movement, a disaster associated with decades of pseudoscientific research in an embarrassing array of discredited fields. People who see transhumanism as an extension of eugenics may be concerned that future policies could lead to rising inequality, intolerance for difference and the abuse of power.

In the future, with in vitro fertilization available to the rich, embryos will be screened for genetic profiles probabilistically likely to thrive according to various indicators. As we gain increasingly precise knowledge of the human genome and the probabilities of healthfulness associated with different genotypes, it will eventually be possible to select children likely not only to be healthy but also to excel. With popular inaction, this could lead to an unjust scenario in which fitness and intelligence might map onto the socioeconomic level of one’s parents. Legal restrictions on the selection of fetuses on the basis of genetic health, however, would be hugely regressive and counterproductive.

Transhumanists should demand the possibility of such prenatal care for all citizens rather than allowing the free market to restrict it to the few. In the long term, the development of increasingly efficient gene editing technology (both in vitro and, some day, in the womb itself) will likely significantly lower the associated costs. Although the horrors of eugenics should serve as a sobering reminder of the evil that can be perpetrated in the name of progress, they should not stifle discussion in the academy about the responsible implementation of genetic engineering in the future.

The second major source of transhumanist thought is science fiction, a genre that tends to favor dystopian narratives because they can be made so colorful from an artistic perspective. Despite all of the 19th-century novels bemoaning the effects of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect that if we could go back in time, we would still choose to industrialize. But perhaps the shape of the revolution would be different — we would hopefully pay attention to the kinds of things the novelists and poets complained about — for example, we might be less abusive toward the environment and more respectful of the rights of workers from the onset. [Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.

In our future, daily life will be transformed through the increasing automation of labor and the rise in sophistication of artificial intelligence. Life may be less about the 9-to-5 grind and more about education, community and the creation and enjoyment of art. Rather than imagining a future in which humans and machines are at odds — as many thinkers have predicted — transhumanists look forward to the advent of cyborgs, in which computers are incorporated into the brain itself, leading to radically enhanced processing power and the ability to preserve consciousness for lengths of time now deemed inconceivable. The ultimate lesson from transhumanism’s origins in science fiction is perhaps to seek those inventions that would radically enhance lifespans and empower the human imagination to control what it experiences in ways hitherto unimaginable, liberated from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune.

A third source of transhumanist ideas, and the one of greatest interest to me, is the tradition of humanism. When Cicero used the word “humanus” to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings — the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

Today, we often hear that truth is a construct and nothing but a reflection of power. Values are relative. But humanism and the idea of progress stand as rejoinders, and transhumanism falls squarely in line with this tradition. How can we best harness the power of progress? Not by seeking to control and exploit people different from us, a transhumanist might say, but by attempting to alleviate suffering and build bridges between imaginations. A willingness to empower more people than ever before to be born healthy, intelligent and able to devote long and meaningful lives to love, leisure and lifelong education is, to me, transhumanism at its best — an antidote to postmodern malaise.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/05/18/in-defense-of-transhumanism/?utm_term=.e4578111b4d0

On the Inauguration Day of Donald Trump

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The grandeur of his office is a perk
but now the Donald has to get to work.
He’ll require a great deal of endurance
if he hopes to kill our health insurance
and banish same sex couples from our sights
and criminalize reproductive rights
and see to it pollution laws all go
and build a wall to fence off Mexico
and toss every illegal in a cell
and spark a war in central Israel
and put the country’s Muslims on a list
and throw in prison all who would resist.
I will not soon forget this epic date.
So this is what it feels like to be great!
It’s harder to be President than rich
Yet we elected Putin’s rabid bitch.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)

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How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

In the Presence of Strangers: An Unpleasant Surprise (Chapter V)

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“Engaged! Doda Sara, isn’t it exciting?”

It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning, but Miriam had long since lain awake in bed, eager to begin spreading the news about Shlomie Shachar’s proposal to friends and distant relatives alike. At 7:00, she considered it late enough in the day to begin the onslaught. Ariel, Orli, and cousin Tamuz had all been informed. Now it was Sara’s turn to learn the happy tidings.

“No, Sara, you can’t speak with her just now. She’s still asleep. She marched straight into the house last night without saying a word, but I knew by her smile that something was up. Well, when I followed her into the bathroom and told her to spill the beans, she said that Shlomie had proposed! We both started laughing, and after a good, long, chuckle, she asked to go to bed, and said that there were important arrangements to be worked out in the morning. Can you imagine it, Sara? My oldest daughter is marrying the son of Abraham Morgan!”

After a final little delighted yelp for good measure, Miriam composed herself and began to run her fingers through her hair. Weddings were costly affairs, and the Gutmans were not Rothschilds. The Shachars would undoubtedly try to dominate the arrangements, and Nachum and she could hardly be expected to finance their extravagant plans. Of course, it was only fair that Shlomie’s family should bear the brunt of the cost. But if the Gutmans refused to pay for the wedding, they would probably relinquish all say in the subsequent preparations, which seemed equally unjust.

By this time, Miriam was no longer listening to the chipper banter of Doda Sara. There were more important things on her mind. She wouldn’t allow her daughter’s wedding plans to be commandeered by strangers. She wished that they had the money to pay for everything themselves, with no thought to the meddling of Abraham and Tziporah. But it was not to be. The Gutmans were shamefully middle class. She looked regretfully in the direction of the master bedroom. Her husband was asleep. Even behind closed doors, she could hear his snoring. She felt a dull pain in her stomach, and wondered what disease this might have been a symptom of.

As she made her way to the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Yonatan shuffled sleepily into the living room. He curled himself up into a little ball in front of the television. Nightmares had interrupted what little sleep he finally had, and he’d spent the final part of the night in Raz’s room, where his older brother always let him stay. There was little space for him in the bed, though, so he hadn’t gotten much rest.

When she saw Yonatan, Miriam excused herself from the telephone and handed him a slice of Nutella covered bread. She’d been expecting an unhappy welcome from him that morning and hoped that this special breakfast would placate him. Unfortunately, her attempt at reconciliation was rewarded by an ungrateful groan.

“Just eat your breakfast and be quiet,” said Miriam, returning to the kitchen. “It’s good for you. It’s made from real hazel nuts.”

“I don’t want it,” said Yonatan, searching for the Children’s Channel on television.

“What do you mean you don’t want it? It’s delicious.”

“Then why don’t you eat it?”

“Eat that pita bread, Yonatan.”

“No. Nutella covered pita bread is for babies. I hate it. It makes me want to puke.”

“You never complained about it before.”

“That just shows you never listen to me. I’ve been your son for nine years, and you still don’t know my tastes?”

Miriam flapped her lips. Her sons were impossible to manage. Thank God for Yael. Her obedience was a reminder that she continued to possess at least some modicum of authority in the house, however slight. Then, suddenly, it dawned on her that her daughter would leave Kefar Sava once she was married and then she would be left alone, condemned to serve a pack of thankless males forever with no reprieve in sight. Overwhelmed by this unhappy revelation, she complained loudly and suddenly of arthritic pains over the telephone, thoroughly startling Doda Sara.

Yonatan threw down his breakfast plate.

“Why couldn’t I have gone to Yael’s party, Ima? It isn’t fair! And why couldn’t I have had a piece of-”

“Eat your breakfast and shut the hell up!”

He trudged back into the living room without another word. His mother resumed her telephone conversation and he found a cartoon on television. The noise of gossip and anthropomorphic robots soon inundated the house and the battle was momentarily forgotten.

Awakened by these early morning screams, Nachum now entered the living room.

“Nachum, your son is out of control, and I don’t have the patience for his games today. Explain to him that it wasn’t easy for me to make him breakfast. I was awake all last night with the most horrible pains in my stomach.”

Ima has a disease called indigestion,” said Nachum from the couch.

Ima has a disease called everything,” said Yonatan.

Miriam swore under her breath and turned away from them. Nachum took the opportunity to wink at his son and seize the bread, gobbling it down before his wife could notice what he’d done. He cringed at the taste and pretended to retch. Yonatan pounced on his father’s back. Nachum cried out disapprovingly, but the sincerity of his smile was at odds with his pleas for mercy. Despite a fair amount of panting, the two seemed to be enjoying themselves until Miriam hung up the telephone and said,

“Two peas in a pod! And after you hurt your back so badly last month too. Get out of here, Yonatan. Go play in your room.”

Yonatan released himself from his father’s grasp and scurried away, sticking out his tongue as he left.

“I don’t know why you let him climb all over you, Nachum. You know what Doctor Shatz told you about lifting heavy things.”

“The boy has had a hard month, Miriam.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. But he has to get over it. It’s all very sad, but it’s not like a blood relative died. And anyway, a tragedy is no excuse for him to act like an ungrateful brat all the time. The psychiatrist agrees with me.”

Nachum said something unintelligible and returned to the couch, reaching for the newspaper. Miriam returned to the kitchen.

“Your coffee won’t be all that appetizing this morning because there was nothing but dirty old grinds of Nescafe left in the cupboard. You should have bought a new can when you went to the store yesterday. I can’t be expected to do everything around this house by myself, you know.”

Nachum nodded half-heartedly.

“I hope you’re not expecting an elaborate breakfast,” she said, preparing his scrambled eggs. “I have more important work to do this morning.”

“Oh.”

“I have seven more people to call about Yael’s engagement! Can you believe that our daughter is engaged?”

“No.”

“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic.”

“I’m not the one getting married.”

“Well, I’m just in shock. I thought that she would never stop breast feeding, and now she’s… engaged! It’s one of the biggest steps in life. Birth, marriage-”

“And death. Two down, and one to go.”

Miriam presented him with his breakfast tray.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just be happy for Yael. She’s marrying a Morgan.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean that we have to dine with them every week.”

“Why are you being so cynical about all of this, Nachum?”

For a moment, he said nothing. Then, deciding on the effort of explication against his better judgment, he folded the newspaper and said,

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for a girl to marry her first boyfriend. And I don’t think that Yael’s old enough to know what she wants. She’s only twenty-one.”

Miriam could barely hear him from the kitchen.

“Whatever she wants, the Shachars will have to pay for it! We certainly can’t afford the kind of ceremony that they probably have in mind.”

“I said that she’s too young to get married!” he yelled over the sound of running water.

“Actually, she’s exactly the age we were when we got married!”

Nachum wrinkled his brow and resumed his morning reading.

“Can you believe that Shas is in the news again, Miriam? It’s just disgusting. Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Middle Ages.”

“I’m worried about the menu for the wedding. I wonder what kinds of delicacies the Shachars are expecting us to feed their rich friends.”

“Never mind the Shachars. The wedding will be paid for… Do you think that Israel has always been like this?”

Miriam reentered the living room, drying her hands on her sleeves.

“What do you mean?”

“Was this damned country always so… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on the word.”

“Leave politics to the politicians. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change.”

“We didn’t think so when we were younger.”

“No, I guess we didn’t.”

“I thought that I would take this country by storm— be a great musician whose opinion mattered…”

“Oh, please!”

“Don’t laugh at me! I was so ambitious back then, so opinionated. I had confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind.”

“Back then?”

“I meant it more back then, before I realized that no one was very interested in what I had to say… you know, I probably couldn’t find my old guitar in the attic even if I tried.”

“Never mind all that. Are you ready for work?”

Nachum smiled bitterly at Miriam’s response. With a wife, three children, a steady job in a factory, and a house in the suburbs, sometimes his only comforts in life were little confirmations of his jadedness. He spoke only to be contradicted, and by and by, even the novelty of shocking his audience was blunted by their unwillingness to hear him out. Caught up in such thoughts, he paid little attention to the activity of his right elbow, and inadvertently spilled his drink over the coffee table.

“Oh, Nachum… Never mind, don’t touch it! Look what you did to my mother’s table. Your head is in the clouds this morning.”

Nachum looked at her closely as she began to clean the mess. She was hunched over the table and wildly scrubbing it, crouched on all fours and heaving back and forth. He thought to himself that she looked less like a woman than some ungainly beast of burden.

Yael now entered into the living room dressed in a cotton pink bathrobe. Accustomed to being ignored, she walked to the kitchen table with a look of imperial contempt on her face, but was surprised by the unexpected image of her mother rushing forward to welcome her.

Boker tov, Yael!” said Miriam, putting away her coffee-soaked towel and presenting her daughter with a bowl of Turkish salad.

Boker tov yourself,” she answered, affecting nonchalance but taken off-guard.

“You’re up early today. I was hoping that you would be. I made you your favorite breakfast. Eat it quickly! There’s a lot to do today.”

“Is there?”

“From now on nothing will be the same. You won’t have a minute to yourself anymore. We have to start thinking about the arrangements. You said so yourself last night!”

Yael looked at her mother warily.

“I always thought that you were against my leaving home.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Yael. I’m thrilled for you.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Of course not! This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Now tell me, are you planning on doing anything special with Shlomie today?”

“Why? Has he called here already?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” laughed Yael between bites of her salad, “He’ll call soon enough. He can’t go a day without talking to me.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited for you, Yael!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ima?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re talking so strangely. You really don’t mind my leaving home?”

“Darling, you can’t stay home forever. Oh, I admit that I was a little bit sad about it this morning, but everything will turn out for the best. Your father and I are so proud of you. Aren’t we, Nachum?”

“Err,” he replied.

“Really, Ima?”

“Yes, really, Yael.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so supportive!”

“We are, honey. We are.”

“And you’ll be willing to help me pay for it?”

“Well,” said Miriam, her voice somewhat less enthusiastic, “your father and I will be happy to help in part, but I think it’s only right that the Shachars fit most of the bill. They’re much better off than we are, you know, and these sorts of things are expensive.”

Yael rose from the table.

“I knew that you were being facetious with me. Well, I don’t care what you say, Ima. I’m twenty-one years old now and can do whatever I want. It’s my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you don’t want to pay for my nursing school, I’ll find another way to enroll without your help. I’ll use what’s left of the money that Safta set aside for me.”

“Nursing school?”

“I’ll start training at Tel Ha Shomer whether you like it or not!”

“What are you talking about? There are more important things to think about right now than nursing school.”

“Like what, I wonder?”

“Like what? Like Shlomie Shachar’s proposal! Could you believe it when he asked you to marry him?”

“No.”

“It was a real birthday surprise, then.”

“I told him again and again that I didn’t want to marry him, but he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There’s persistence for you!”

“More like idiot stubbornness.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like nothing gets through that thick head of his.”

“That’s no way to speak about your future husband, Yael. Trust me, wait until after you’re married to insult him.”

Yael shuddered.

Ima, did you think that I accepted Shlomie’s proposal?”

“Of course.”

“But I didn’t!”

“Very funny.”

“I’m not joking. I told him hundreds of times that I didn’t even want to consider getting married before I became a professional nurse, but he refused to listen to me. And it was such an awful proposal too. He did nothing but insult me after I said no to him.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Yael?”

“Oh Ima!”

For a moment, Miriam stood absolutely silent and motionless. That soon changed.

“This is terrible! I called everybody in the family to say you that were engaged!”

“Well, who told you to do that?”

“How could you be so stupid?”

“Stupid?”

“The Shachars are so rich!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you? Money is the single most important thing on Earth!”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Ima. How profound.”

“Never mind about being profound. What are we, philosophers? Be real Yael. Do you know what it would have been like to live without worrying about bills and debts and… oh Yael, you’re an idiot!”

Ima!”

“Never, never, never, will have another chance like this! Never! How could you reject Abraham Morgan’s son? Who do you think you are? Oh, it feels like the world is ending.”

“Stop being ridiculous and overdramatic. I want to go to nursing school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I wouldn’t have gone if I’d married him. I want to make my own way in the world without being dependent on a man. The marriage would have always felt unequal, and like I was secretly in his debt. And besides, I’m not in love with Shlomie.”

“What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? You can learn to love somebody if you live with him for long enough!”

“I want to live alone.”

“But you have all of your life to live alone! Now is the time to get married!”

“I don’t want to get married!”

“Do you want to die an old maid like your aunt Marianna? Is that it?”

“Come on, Ima!”

“Can I be blunt with you?”

“Go ahead.”

“You aren’t particularly pretty or particularly smart or particularly interesting as a human being, and that boy was about the only thing that you had going for you. His infatuation was like a blessing. You’ve just ruined your best chance at happiness in life. And after I called everyone to tell them that you were engaged…”

Yael closed her eyes, brought her hands to her temples, and howled.

“Be quiet! You’ll wake up your brothers.”

“Enough is enough, Ima! I don’t want to hear another word from you! I’m going to nursing school now! Not in September, but now. I’ll take summer courses at Ramat Aviv and live at Safta’s until then. I swear to God that I’ll never spend another night in this house of hell ever again.”

Yael raised her plate of salad and, after a moment of hesitation, dashed it to the floor. Then she ran out of the kitchen.

“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her,” said Nachum.

“I was telling her the truth.”

“No, Miriam. Not that way. Not like that. Poor girl.”

Awakened by the noise, Raz and Yonatan rushed out of their bedrooms and found their mother standing in a puddle of broken glass and vegetables. She began to quietly clear away the mess. Nachum shook his head and rose from the couch. He knocked on Yael’s door, but she wouldn’t answer. After a while, he gave up. He collected his car keys and drove to the factory.

In the Presence of Strangers: Party Embers (Chapter IV)

sagging_balloons.jpg

It was eleven-thirty in Kefar Sava. Although not yet midnight, the town’s energies were depleted, and the place seemed little better than a maze of abandoned parks and alleyways. The portly blue and white balloons floating over the gate of 10 Anna Frank Street had begun to sag. But the party progressing inside wasn’t over just yet.

Much to his chagrin, Yonatan had been packed off to bed. He was busily eavesdropping with his ear to the door by the time that Miriam finished serving her guests Bavarian cream birthday cake. Tziporah, Abraham and Shlomie Shachar had all arrived fashionably late, considerably delaying the evening’s festivities. But by that hour, gifts had been unwrapped, dinners eaten, and tongues loosened by the sweetness of supermarket wine.

Tziporah held her breath for a moment in a show of refined indignation. She was relating a grievous story about how El Al had seated her apart from her husband on their recent trip to Thailand. What did she care if the plane was overbooked and they’d only arrived one hour before the flight instead of the customary three? Their tickets were for business class seats!

“I’m telling you, Miriam,” she said decisively, “that we will never, never fly El Al again. Their stewardesses are so unhelpful. I don’t know where they find them these days. They used to be so gracious and polite, but interacting with them now is like torture.”

“Where did they end up seating you?”

“Next to some Russians who got an upgrade. The whole plane was full of them. And the cow sitting next to me refused to switch seats with Abraham.”

“How do you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Russian?” asked Shlomie excitedly.

“I don’t know, how?” said Yael after an uncomfortable pause, preemptively rolling her eyes.

“One has yellow skin, and the other has yellow teeth! Get it?”

Everyone forced themselves to laugh.

“In my day,” chimed Gisela from her seat beside the television, “when a Jew came to Israel he was an Israeli, and that was that. But times have changed. I think that the Russians are ruining this country.”

“Oh Ima, enough!”

“I mean what I say, Nachum. They aren’t conforming to the culture here. In fact, they’re actively changing it for the worse. Drunk driving, prostitution, the mafia… Did you know that I found a burglar in my apartment last month?”

“No!”

“It’s true, Tziporah. I found him in the kitchen when I came home from the theater. He darted straight out the door when I screamed for help. The rat stole every bit of jewelry in the house. He even took my wedding ring. Damned Cossack.”

“Russians have been in Israel since the foundation of the country, Safta,” said Yael.

“Yes, my dear. But they were a totally different breed of Russians,” said Tziporah.

“Trust me, most of these newcomers aren’t even Jewish,” said Gisela, “Leftists have ruined this country, letting the Goy invade us. My stomach turns every time I walk through Tel Aviv these days.”

“Please, Ima! You don’t know how hateful and close-minded you sound. It makes me sick.”

“Insult me all you want, but Israel is meant to be the homeland of the Jews, and not the unemployment office of East Asia and the Balkans. We don’t need diversity here. Leave that to America, where everyone is a mongrel.”

“Well, I’m sure that El Al’s rudeness just ruined your flight,” said Miriam. “Personally, I haven’t been overseas myself in years.”

“If you don’t count Tel Aviv,” interjected Shlomie. “Get it? Tel Aviv has so many Russians in it these days, it seems like a foreign country!”

“To be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed traveling very much,” continued Miriam after a courteous nod. “I have a pretty sensitive stomach, and I’m claustrophobic too. A crowded airplane cabin is hardly my ideal place to take a seat.”

“Why don’t you take motion-sickness pills?” said Tziporah. “You shouldn’t trap yourself in this house. You’ll regret it when you’re older. Right, Abraham?”

“Yes.”

Abraham Shachar spoke little and only with great difficulty. Any spark of liveliness or humor that he once possessed vanished long ago when he lost his entire family in the Second World War. Thanks to the shadow that Terezin cast upon his existence, he enjoyed nothing better than being left alone, and dreaded nothing more than polite conversation.

“I could never swallow pills,” protested Miriam, stroking her own head. “I was just telling my doctor the other day that the only way I can take medicine is in liquid form. If I took motion sickness pills, I would have to break up the tablets and mix them with water, and I’m sure that the taste would make me sick to my stomach.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tziporah. “Motion sickness pills would not nauseate you! There are so many wonderful places to visit. Eastern Europe is all the rage these days. In fact, we’ll be visiting Prague this February. You should join us.”

“Well isn’t that a kind offer. Isn’t that a generous offer, Nachum?”

“Are they offering to pay for us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Well, it’s a nice thought, Tziporah, but we will have to pass. I couldn’t stand the flight. I get so nervous in large crowds and closed spaces that I just want to crawl out of my skin. It horrifies me to give up control over my life to a captain I’ve never even met. I mean, how do I know that he’s not drunk or asleep at the wheel? Man wasn’t designed by evolution to be hurled through the sky in metal boxes. Granted, Nachum and I almost took a flight to Eilat a couple of years ago for a wedding, but we had to back out at the last minute. My doctor, Dr. Shatz… Dr. Shatz is a very sympathetic man, you know… he actually recommended that I take Valium to calm myself down. But I explained to him that just the idea of gagging on pills makes me-”

“Are you enjoying your birthday party, Yael?” asked Tziporah.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I see that my son didn’t bring you a present.”

“That will come later,” said Shlomie, slapping her back.

“You know, Yael,” said Tziporah, “the time has really come for you to visit our summer house in the Galilee by the Mount of Beatitudes. I can’t believe that you’ve been dating Shlomie for two years now and have never made the trip. We have a movie theater and a bowling alley and two swimming pools there and…well, everything that you could possibly dream of in a house! I personally prefer our comfortable little apartment in Savyon, but it’s nice to have a retreat from the real world once in a while. When Abraham retires I’m sure that we’ll be spending more time up north.”

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” said Abraham.

“Oh no, not yet of course,” said Tziporah. “But the time will come when Shlomie will inherit the family business and the older generation will have to step aside.”

“So we’re the older generation now, are we?” laughed Nachum. He had found it expedient to ignore the bulk of the evening’s conversation, but couldn’t resist commenting on this latest revelation.

“Watch what you say,” said Gisela with mock indignation. “If you’re, old, then what am I? A fossil?”

Everyone smiled.

“You know, the younger generation of Israel faces new challenges every day,” began Yael hopefully. She had seen a special segment of the evening news focusing on the challenges of Israeli youth and was eager to repeat its observations as her own. But before she could continue, Abraham said,

“The younger generation of Israel doesn’t even know what challenges are,” and the room fell into an awkward silence again.

“Well, that was certainly true a year or two ago,” said Tziporah at last, “but this country isn’t such a naïve place anymore. I’m afraid that this next generation of Israelis has some very hard lessons to learn.”

“They should be grateful for those lessons,” said Gisela. “My generation didn’t create the Jewish state by surrendering to our enemies at every turn whenever they attacked us without provocation. Maybe an awakening to our neighbor’s hatred of us is exactly what this complacent generation needs. We Jews have nothing to preserve us but each other.”

“And American money,” added Nachum under his breath.

“Don’t even mention America to me,” said Gisela. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere. Everyone seems to be against us these days, though I don’t understand why. Does the world expect us to sit back and let the Palestinians massacre us? These suicide bombings are like a nightmare. How is it anyone’s business what we do to defend ourselves?”

“It’s terrible to hear you carry on that way,” said Nachum. “We were close to peace once, but the idiots in our government botched it up for everyone. And now we all talk as if-”

“It wasn’t the idiots in our government who botched it up,” said Shlomie. “It was that damned Arafat. It’s all his fault. He refused to make peace.”

“But what difference does it make whose fault it was? You don’t think that most of the Arabs want it to end as much as we do?”

“No,” said Abraham suddenly and with great conviction. “Most of them detest us with a kind of intensity that you’ll never understand. And there are fanatics among them who would kill every one of us without a thought. We must fight to survive. And so we will.”

“You can leave that to me!” interjected Shlomie happily. “As long as we have a strong army, Israel will be just fine.”

“But the Palestinians aren’t necessarily all against us,” said Yael. “It’s only the extremists who are causing all the trouble.”

“That’s not true,” said Gisela. “They are all against us. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians, but the Arabs who live in Israel too.”

“That kind of attitude is ridiculous, Ima, and will only alienate the Israeli Arabs.”

“It’s gotten so late!” said Miriam above the cacophony. “More coffee, anybody? I can’t touch it after seven o’clock myself, or I’ll lie tossing in bed until the sun comes up. And when I’ve gone without sleep, my head-”

“You are absolutely wrong, Nachum,” said Gisela. “And frankly, I’m ashamed of your unpatriotic attitude. Jerusalem belongs to us, us. It’s in the Bible, for God’s sake. The city isn’t even mentioned in the Koran! All this trouble began when Sharon visited the Temple Mount and the Arabs started blowing themselves up over it— and even after we offered them practically every speck of land that they demanded at Camp David, I might add. Men like you and that fool Barak tried to give them peace. Well, they showed us exactly what they thought about that alternative when they began to riot in the streets and contrive the murder of innocent civilians. And while our men were scrambling to defend the country, the Israeli Arabs proved their loyalty by protesting against us and giving the terrorists secret aid. They at least have national solidarity, and would destroy us with it.”

“Well, that may be going a bit too far,” said Tziporah, turning to her husband. “The rotten apples ruin it for all of them, but the Palestinians aren’t all bad. In fact, we once had a house maid from Qalqilya who was a very charming girl. Do you remember her, Abraham? She was so intelligent. Too young to be a maid!”

“You don’t still keep her, do you?” asked Gisela.

“Of course not. We let her go before Sharon was even elected. But she had a hard life. Her mother was dead and her father wanted her to marry her own cousin. At least, I think that’s how the story went. Anyway, the girl refused, so he slammed a door on her arm and broke it as punishment for disobeying him. She had no one in the world to help her, poor thing. God only knows what happened to her after we fired her. We gave her a lifetime’s worth of free coupons to eat at our restaurants the last time we saw her.”

“How generous,” muttered Nachum.

“At any rate,” continued Tziporah, “There’s no use complaining. You can’t help your birth. But we Jews are lucky enough to have good blood and should stick together in dangerous times.”

“How true that is,” said Gisela, eyeing her son accusingly. “But I tell you, until we build a wall separating us from the Arabs, and the Arabs from each other, these murders will never end and there will be no final solution to the troubles of this country.”

“The movement to build one is gaining steam,” said Tziporah.

“The sooner the better. Nothing else will put a stop to these suicide bombings, unless we do something like start executing the families of the terrorists. That’d fix the problem quickly enough.”

“That is a shameful thought, Gisela,” said Miriam. “But really, I don’t like to dwell on politics. Let’s talk about something else.”

“When I think about all of those children blown up earlier this month in cold blood at the Dolphinarium, it makes me want to cry.”

“Let’s not discuss it, Ima,” said Nachum. “It’s a very painful subject in this house.”

Everyone was silent.

“Well Abraham,” said Tziporah, “Yala! It’s getting late. It’s time to go home. You have work tomorrow.”

Ima, wait!” cried Shlomie, rising suddenly from the couch. “Don’t leave just yet. I wanted to talk to Yael outside for a minute, if I could. I won’t be very long. I’ll follow you home in the jeep.”

Miriam and Tziporah shared a knowing glance.

“Well,” said Tziporah, “I guess one more cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt. But hurry up, you two. It’s getting late. Your father is getting tired.”

“I won’t take too long!” said Shlomie, seizing Yael’s hand and practically dragging her onto the porch.

In the meanwhile, Raz was just returning from Netanya. His journey back to Kefar Sava had not been an easy one. He’d been forced to hitchhike with two different drivers and trek three kilometers before returning home. Nevertheless, although his T-shirt was damp and his feet were blistered, the night had turned out unexpectedly well. Yasmine had agreed to go with him on a date to Tel Aviv, and he could hardly wait. He promised himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistake with her as he had with Ilana. His plan was to discover and harp subconsciously on Yasmine’s imperfections before he was tied down to her. Then he would sleep with her and move on to another girl, and then to another one after that. He was determined to teach himself that women were expendable, and that it was possible to date casually without getting imprisoned in a relationship. The thought of it thrilled him. But his smile soon withered at the sight of Shlomie and his sister standing on the front porch. There was no way to avoid meeting them.

“Raz, habibi, how’s it going?” called Shlomie. “You missed your sister’s birthday party!” He slapped Raz’s back with such playful violence that he nearly pushed him over.

“Hello Shlomie,” said Raz quietly. “Still in the army?”

“Same old, same old. Where’d you go, to the beach?”

“Yes. To one of your father’s restaurants, actually.”

“Great. The girls down there have great taste in clothes, don’t they?”

“It’s hard to tell in the middle of the night, but I guess so.”

“There are two things that I look for in a woman and they’re easy to find at the beach. Know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“Her tits! Get it?”

“Very funny,” snapped Yael.

“I could have come with you in my jeep,” Shlomie continued enthusiastically. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, if you know what I mean.”

Raz chuckled very awkwardly and then turned to his sister.

“Did you have a nice party?”

“You look like you swam here from Netanya.”

“It’s just sweat. I had some bad luck getting home. Nothing serious. Well, OK! Have a good night!”

He escaped.

Yael was sorry to see him go. She didn’t particularly enjoy her brother’s company, but preferred it to being left alone with Shlomie that night. Considering her sense of dread, she might have insisted that they return indoors. But it was a beautiful night, and the breeze was pregnant with the scent of honeysuckle. Not to be outdone by nature, Shlomie lit a cigarette and supplied the air with the perfume of tar. He snorted contentedly as he placed his right hand on Yael’s shoulder, nearly elbowing her nose every time he crossed her face to take a new puff.

“Well, Yael, happy birthday. Another year’s gone by! And by the way, in case you were wondering, I really didn’t forget about your present.”

“Really, Shlomie?”

“When should we tell your parents about the wedding?”

“Whose wedding?”

“Ours! Happy birthday!”

Yael looked to the ground.

“Just keep in mind that once our mothers know about this, we won’t hear the end of it until we set a date. Personally, I wouldn’t care if we said to hell with it and sailed off to Cyprus, but you know how old fashioned our parents can be.”

He laughed nervously. Yael lifted his arm from her shoulder.

“That’s very sweet of you, Shlomie, but you know that I can’t accept this proposal.”

The color drained from his face.

“I’m doing this all wrong. I’m sorry. Are you angry that I don’t have a ring? I figured it would be better for you to help me pick one out instead of buying one that you didn’t really want.”

“What possessed you to propose to me?”

“I… I figured that it was time to take the plunge. There’s only so long that you can wait to do this sort of thing, and besides, you’ve earned it.”

“Excuse me? What a moron you are, Shlomie.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?” He began to pant and lick his lips uncontrollably, as always when he felt threatened.

“What do you mean I’ve earned it?”

“Well, you’ve stuck by me for two years. That shows commitment. You can’t say that this surprised you. Don’t you want to marry me?”

“No, I don’t want to marry you. You know that I don’t want to marry anybody. We’ve talked about this before.”

“What are you, then? A lesbian?”

“For God’s sake, I’m only twenty-one years old! I told you that I want to go to nursing school. Marriage is the last thing that I need holding me back right now. I don’t want to be a sellout and a hypocrite like my friend Avital, who gave up on all her aspirations to become the slave of some chauvinist asshole. Besides, this isn’t even a proper proposal. Like you said, you don’t even have a ring.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve never seen my house in the Galilee.”

“You mean your parents’ house in the Galilee. If memory serves, you live in a little army bunker.”

“That house will be mine soon enough. We could go there whenever we wanted. And my mother said she’d let us live in their extra apartment in Herzliya once we got married.”

“How romantic. Do you think that she might let us celebrate our honeymoon in the pantry?”

“Look who’s talking. You live with your parents now.”

“That’s only temporary. I’ll be on my own soon enough. Once I go to nursing school-”

“Nobody’s stopping you from going to nursing school! That has nothing to do with anything!”

“Leave me alone. If you only knew how to treat a woman properly-”

“I’ve treated you too well!” snarled Shlomie. “If I decided that I wanted to marry you, I should have left you. You’d have come crawling to me on your knees, begging and pleading for me to take you back again. But maybe I wouldn’t be available anymore.”

“Have you ever known me to be the jealous type? If you want to be with somebody else because I won’t marry you, be my guest.”

“You say those kinds of things now, but I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me, you’re just like any other woman.”

“It looks like you’re the only one who’s begging and pleading tonight, Shlomie. Shalom. I’m going inside.”

Conscious of the fact that he was about to break down in tears, Shlomie heaved his cigarette into the rose bushes and scrambled toward his car. Yael moved to follow him from force of habit, but stopped herself. Soon, except for the snaps of mosquitoes being electrocuted by the neighbor’s insect repeller and the distant chorus of crickets, the night was totally silent. Yael didn’t plan on being so hard on Shlomie, but his obstinacy had left her with little choice. Still, what did it matter what she said to him that night? He would recover from her rejection soon enough and come back to her, but would think twice in the future about proposing to her and taking it for granted that she would accept. She was twenty-one years old and at the prime of her life. She had the right to be selective.

In the Presence of Strangers: First Impressions (Chapter III)

acre-israel.jpg

No film or snapshot can capture the full effect of an Eastern Mediterranean sunset. The sun does not drift so much as plunge into the sea, hurdling like an overripe fruit into the arms of the wilting horizon. Daylight is harsh in the Middle East, and twilight is a voraciously awaited hour when travelers wary of the midday sun flock to the sea in droves and set up camp along the shoreline. Lifeguards bellow out warnings as they desert their posts for the night. Once they leave, little children leap into the waves with their parents looking on from distant seaside cafes, blissfully unaware that a sudden undercurrent might make their little ones a headline in the morning newspaper.

Off the coast of Netanya, there is a long section of the shoreline crowded with an assortment of green umbrellas, plastic seats, and picnic tables. The area belongs to the Good Morgan Restaurant, a popular beachside cafe famous for the quality of its greased falafel balls. On the evening of June 23rd, Raz was sitting at one of its tables rocking his seat back and forth in an effort to discover how far he could push the chair without falling over. He was paying little attention to Ofir Sasover, who was pontificating at the head of the table. Ilana sat next to Raz feigning interest in her friend’s conversation with an admirable number of sympathetic grunts. At the other end of the table, Nathan Sela was hunched over an ashtray with his mouth half open.

“I don’t understand why Gutman insisted on coming to this restaurant,” said Ofir. “The beach is pretty gross these days. And there are too many kids here. Honestly, this place is giving me a headache.”

“It’s all good,” mumbled Nathan before breaking off into peals of laughter.

“You’re right, Ofir,” said Ilana. “The summer is no time to come to the beach. It’s too hectic here this time of year.”

“That’s to say the least of it. This place is so noisy and unhygienic and sandy. Being here is like a punishment.”

“Of course it’s sandy— it’s the beach for God’s sake! I thought that it would be fun to eat here with Ilana. My sister is dating the owner’s son, and he promised that he’d fix the bill for us. I didn’t know that you’d be coming with us. But anyway, it’s a beautiful night and it doesn’t hurt to be outside for a little while, right?”

“I’m not surprised that you disagree with me, Gutman. It seems like you always disagree with everyone about everything. You’re a natural contrarian.”

“What can I say? I can’t help myself. I like being the center of attention. Maybe I have an inferiority complex.”

“You know,” said Ilana, “when you laugh at your own jokes, it probably means that they’re not very funny.”

“Actually, I’m only trying to stay awake, and it isn’t always so easy in this company.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir. I promise, Raz doesn’t mean anything that he says. Not really.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Ofir. “That’s why it’s impossible to get seriously offended by him. I only wish that you would be less touchy, Gutman. There’s a difference between being witty and being insulting.”

Raz opened his mouth to respond, but Ilana lurched forward and whispered into his ear.

“Please don’t embarrass me in front of Ofir tonight. You know how much I hate it when you get into arguments with him. Just let him talk.”

“But he’s done nothing but complain about the restaurant all night!”

“Leave him alone.”

Raz scowled. When he was alone with Ilana, she would at least provide him free rein to voice his opinions without unwelcome interruption. But in the presence of strangers, her silence would become oppressive, and every glance in his direction seemed quietly censorious. Above all things, he hated to be reproached, and even the most trivial criticism would have to come across as slightly qualified praise if it was to have any effect on him beyond inducing anger. Criticism implied condescension, and who was Ilana Fischer to look down on him? As for Ofir, he was so pompous that whenever he talked, Raz harbored a secret urge to heave the nearest available beverage into his face.

“Why don’t you tell us a joke, Raz?” suggested Ilana as Ofir paused speaking to cough into a napkin. “Didn’t you know a funny story about a little old woman who couldn’t cook?”

“Are you talking about your mother?”

“I told you, don’t try to be funny. Now, tell us that joke.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction?”

“You know what I mean. You’re not the best improviser. But you’re better when you’re rehearsed. Well?”

“I don’t remember how it goes.”

She stroked his chin with quasi-maternal affection.

“Don’t be such a grouch. Of course you remember it. One night, an old man was sitting with his wife in the kitchen, when-”

“That’s not right. You’re ruining the punch line. This is how it goes. One night, an old man was lying in bed with his wife. She told him, ‘You never bring me anywhere. Take me someplace that I’ve never been.’ So he said to her-”

“Excuse me,” said Ofir. “I can’t hear a word. My head is pounding. I don’t understand why there are kids in the water so late at night! It’s very annoying, and it’s dangerous too.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana gravely. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“No. It’s not your fault. Their parents are to blame. This water isn’t even fit for swimming. I may not be a marine biologist, but I think that the number of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea has tripled over the past three years.”

Raz inhaled and exhaled deeply as Ofir began to make lyrical assertions about the breeding patterns of cnidarians. He hadn’t always been so impatient with Ilana’s friends. But their passive aggressive tactics infuriated him to the point of madness, and Ilana seemed to relish playing the martyr whenever he worked up the energy to confront her about the problem.

“Of course,” continued Ofir obliviously, “jellyfish, children and polluted sea foam are only the least of the Mediterranean’s problems. I could go on and on about the impact of climate change and El Nino.

“As I have no doubt you will,” said Raz. Ilana twisted her face into a grimace, but Raz couldn’t care less. If she insisted on subjecting him to her friends’ company and insulting him in front of them, then he would insist on punishing her for the effort. He began to twiddle his thumbs in an effort to broadcast his boredom. He wanted to go home.

A woman who moved like a dancer presently emerged from the restaurant. She was dressed in faded but tasteful clothing and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag that had seen better days. Although it was dark, her features were clear enough in the moonlight. Her face was charismatic rather than beautiful. Her complexion was very dark. She was obviously Sephardic, Moroccan perhaps, and shorter than she might have been. Her eyes were enormous, round and lively as a newborn’s and crowned with a forest of jet lashes. Raz couldn’t stop himself from staring at her. Unfortunately, when she reached the table, he noticed that the bridge of her nose was a millimeter too wide, and the perfection of his first impression was shattered. Somehow, though, the effect only made him want to study her face more closely.

“You there!” called Ofir. “Hello? We’ve been waiting to order for over fifteen minutes now. Will you get on with it, please? What are you waiting for?”

The girl wrinkled her brow and, after a pause, said in a voice more reminiscent of song than speech,

“I apologize for my gross incompetence.”

Although Ofir had originally hoped to frighten her by threatening not to leave a tip, he decided to put aside his complaints for the moment.

“I’ll have a helping of Turkish salad,” he said, “but hold the onions. I’ll also order your bolognaise, but tell the chef not to use too much meat. And bring me a bottle of Golani, and some pita bread with hummus. Well, that’s all!”

Ofir would have dispatched her to the kitchen then and there had not an angry glance from Raz reminded him that there were others at the table waiting to eat. Once they had all ordered their meals, the girl accurately repeated their requests without even having written them down, then walked back toward the restaurant. She seemed to shoot Raz a wink as she left, or perhaps had gotten sand in her eye.

“What was I just saying before we ordered… I was talking about sea pollution, wasn’t I? But Israel has bigger problems than dirty beaches. And I’m not just talking about the intifada. I may not know much about economics, but I’m sure that I don’t agree with what’s going on now in this country at all. Politicians need to consider Marxism more seriously when they formulate national policy.”

“Check out the patterns on this tablecloth,” said Nathan suddenly. “They’re sort of trippy, aren’t they?”

Ofir nodded his head as if someone had agreed with him and began to speak with even greater conviction than before.

“Yes, crackpots have certainly ruined modern economics. The days of pioneers and kibbutzim are history. There’s no appreciation anymore for the importance of getting rid of private property in the long term. And private property is the source of all evil.”

“Are you sure about that, Ofir? I actually think that private property helps human progress. I mean, the hope of getting rich motivates inventors. I think that Marx-”

“Oh boy, another argument,” said Ofir. “Here we go! Redn is zilber, sfaigen is gold.”[1]

“What does that mean?”

“It’s an example of Jewish wit, and you should take it to heart.”

“Please, please,” whispered Ilana. “Why don’t you listen to Ofir instead of arguing with him? You might learn something. He was at the top of our class, you know. What kind of grades did you make senior year?”

“I don’t mean to argue just for the sake of arguing,” said Raz quietly. “Look, to be honest with you Ilana, maybe I’ve been a little bit unfriendly tonight. I have the maturity to understand that, and I’m sorry. It’s just that this constant criticism is overpowering me. Whenever I express an independent thought, it seems like all of you-”

“I really need an Acamol,” interrupted Ofir. “I mean, my head is killing me. Please don’t talk right now.”

“I’m sorry,” squeaked Ilana. “Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“I don’t think so. When is that waitress going to be back with our food?”

“Excuse me,” snapped Raz. “But I was in the middle of saying something.”

“Relax, habibi,” said Nathan. “You don’t need to shout.”

“Don’t be rude, Raz,” said Ilana, patting his chin.

“But you’re the ones being rude! And stop infantilizing me, for God’s sake! Stop touching my face!”

“You’re making a fool out of yourself, Raz.”

With that, Raz threw down his napkin and prepared to cause a scene. But the sight of tears in Ilana’s eyes induced him to stop himself. He crossed his arms, dripping with angst. Encountering no further opposition, Ofir launched into a speech about why it would be better to replace Arabic language classes with additional classes in biblical studies in all schools. Although he was an atheist, he explained, these kinds of courses would enhance Israeli nationalism. The monologue lasted for ten minutes, and he kept repeating the phrase “ardent nationalist” as a verbal crutch. Raz counted it six times.

They noticed the woman with the beautiful eyes coming toward their table again carrying a tray of food. To Ofir’s dismay, she walked right past him.

“You there, waitress! Excuse me! You forgot our food.”

She brought her hand to her hair without turning her head.

“Excuse me?”

“I said that you forgot our food. We’ve been waiting for over a half hour for it now. And from what I can see on your tray, you’ve gotten our orders all wrong. I didn’t even order falafel! Leave the pita bread here, but take the rest away.”

“Have you really been waiting all this time for your food? No wonder your friend has fallen asleep.”

“That’s right,” said Ofir, glancing at Nathan. “This place might not be the Ritz, but there’s a certain lowest common denominator of professionalism to be expected anywhere. I swear, when I see this sort of incompetence, it almost makes me regret being such an ardent socialist.”

“You’re an ardent socialist, huh?”

“Yes, I’m an ardent socialist,” he answered, still eyeing the food, “Just as much as I’m an ardent nationalist.”

“Then you’re the first Nazi I’ve ever met.”

“Very funny! Just give me my food.”

“But I’m not your waitress. In fact, I’m not a waitress at all. You’re supposed to order at the counter, fool. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that my falafel balls are getting cold. Good night.”

She shook a ringlet of ebony hair from her brow and disappeared into the crowd. Raz roared with laugher.

“What do you think about that? We’ve all been waiting for nothing! All of Ofir’s commands were wasted on a stranger.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana. “That girl was rude to lead us on the way she did about who she was. Raz, would you please stop rocking your chair back and forth like that? You’re like a child.”

By this time, Raz was through festering silently.

“You’re right, Ilana. That girl was very rude. But do you know what else is rude? Bitching at someone in public all the time. It’s a terrible thing to do. It’s almost as bad as talking on and on without end.”

“I can’t believe how immature you are,” said Ilana. “When are you going to grow up?”

“You can go to hell! God knows you’ve done nothing but critique me since we left Kefar Sava.”

“You’re causing a scene,” she said in a voice that wavered between being pleading and menacing. “Why are you always overreacting to everything?”

The lamp light again reflected tears on her cheeks. Raz did his best to ignore them, but his surge of self-confidence once more gave way to guilt. Arguments were usually secretly a little bit entertaining to him so long as they were going on, but tended to disgust him when they were concluded. After an awkward pause, he decided on one last attempt to heal the table’s wounds.

“Well, everyone seems to be very quiet all of a sudden! If the beach is so terrible, why don’t we all go to Tira instead? I know a nice little restaurant there. What do you say?”

“Under no circumstances,” said Ofir. “You of all people would think of eating in an Arab town these days. Let’s just go back to Kefar Sava. I’m exhausted.”

“What’s wrong, Ofir? Do you have a problem with Arabs?”

“Don’t play games with me. Some things aren’t worth debating about.”

“But the people in Tira are Israeli Arabs.”

“It makes no difference. We’re at war, Raz.”

“I think that I’m going to be sick,” moaned Nathan.

Raz rose from the table, and the others followed him. They reached the minivan. Ofir lurched into the driver’s seat, and Ilana climbed into the seat beside him and opened the back door for Raz and Nathan. It was then that Raz turned his back on the company.

“I’d rather walk home, if you don’t mind!”

“What’s wrong now? Kefar Sava is forty minutes away! Why are you being so unreasonable all the time lately?”

“Never mind, Ilana. Don’t worry about it. Sit next to Ofir and drive home. I have no desire to see any more of you tonight, or ever again in my life, really.”

Ilana began to protest, but suddenly and uncharacteristically stopped herself. She was covered with sand, hungry, and humiliated. Humoring Raz would only encourage him. Maybe leaving him alone at the beach would teach him a lesson for making a fool out of her in front of her friends. Ofir began to drive away, and she didn’t stop him. No one in the car said a word. Eventually, she turned the radio to the most beautiful song that she could find and settled on an American ballad she couldn’t understand, except for a single line about heaven being overrated.

Secretly, though, she was not overly concerned. It was hardly the first time she had fought with Raz, and things always seemed to iron themselves out in a day or two. He was always ready to start an argument, but he never held grudges. Besides, making up with him was her favorite part of their relationship. Comforted by these considerations, she drove back toward Kefar Sava, engrossed in her own thoughts as Ofir offered comforting platitudes and Nathan clutched his stomach.

In the meantime, Raz jogged back to the beach. Although he was furious with Ilana for actually leaving without him and told himself that he would never forgive her, her absence made him euphoric. After some thought, he found himself wandering back into the restaurant and pretending to look for a misplaced credit card until he found the woman with the beautiful eyes sitting alone at a far table. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality, and he was in the mood for an adventure.

“Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in the most suave voice that he could muster up.

She answered without turning her head.

“I don’t smoke. Not cigarettes, anyway.”

“Neither do I.”

“I remember you,” she said very rapidly. “You were the boy who was sitting next to the windbag and the opiate addict. What’s your name?”

“Raz.”

“And mine’s Yasmine. You’re not shy, are you, to come chasing after me with a ridiculous pickup line when I know you’re dating that girl with the whining voice?”

“What makes you think that it was a pickup line?”

“You asked me for a cigarette, but you said you’re not a smoker. It doesn’t take a Shylock to figure out what you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Isn’t that the name of the English detective who smokes a pipe in all the old movies?”

Raz smiled and (having taken another look at the bridge of her nose and decided that its size was an annoyance to be endured) said,

“It’s Sherlock. And he’s not just a movie character. There are books about him too. Shylock is someone totally different. He’s the Jew from The Merchant of Venice.

“Well, I wouldn’t know. To be honest, I’ve never been very interested in books.”

“Really?”

“I have no patience for them, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. I haven’t read a book in years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever honestly read one from cover to cover in my whole life. Well, I take that back. There are two exceptions, both in English. I once read this old children’s book about a rabbit who says goodnight to everything in his bedroom before he falls asleep. I wore it out when I was a kid. I wonder where it is now.”

“I think Goodnight Moon doesn’t exactly count as real literature.”

“Was that the name of the book? Do you know it?”

“Everybody knows it.”

“I never knew the title—the cover was ripped off of my copy. Anyway, I thought that it was brilliant.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“What a snob you are! For your information, I thought that it perfectly captured the feeling of what it’s like to be a little kid trying to fall asleep, staring at everything in the room until consciousness… evaporates.”

“Interesting choice of words there. Very poetic.”

“Thanks! I do my best. Anyway, the book used simple language, but it was unforgettable. And there was something comforting about reading the simple sentence patterns again and again. It was like a lullaby.”

“What was the other book that you read?”

Moby Dick. It was alright too in its own way, I guess. But it was endless.”

“Wow. I was expecting you to say Goldilocks and the Three Bears or something like that.”

“I mean, Moby Dick wasn’t my choice. My father would read me a chapter a night when I was very young. He used it to teach me English. There wasn’t a single interesting female character in it, so it suited his tastes perfectly.”

“I also read long books to learn better English. My grandfather and I read Gone with the Wind together. A chapter a day, whenever I would visit him.”

“I didn’t even realize it was a book. It’s my favorite movie.”

“Mine too!”

“Really?”

“Yes! Leigh and Gable are incredible. But the book is even better.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s a close race. Anyway, your father and my grandfather both sound like patient men. We probably owe them a lot. More than we realize, I bet.”

She laughed bitterly in response to that. Then she said, “Well anyway, like I said, I’m no great reader. I guess that I enjoy happiness and pleasure too much. I might as well watch television or shop in my free time.”

“To tell you the truth, some of the most incredible moments in my life were spent reading books. There’s no better way to escape from the world for a while, or from yourself. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“What about your friends?”

“They’re not really my friends. And anyway, they’re gone now. I’m alone.”

“You can sit here if you want to, but I was really just about to leave.”

She pushed back her chair, but he stopped her gently with his hand and spoke in a voice that he hardly recognized as his own.

“Maybe I can buy you a coffee or something?”

“You’re out of luck, because I don’t drink coffee.”

“And neither do I! God, Yasmine, who would have thought that two strangers would have so much in common?”

There was an awkward silence. Then, spontaneously, they both produced an identical sigh at exactly the same moment. They laughed, and Raz took this as an invitation to join her. Eventually, he would have to find a way back to Kefar Sava, but for the moment, he didn’t want to think about the details. Maybe the evening wouldn’t turn out so badly after all.

[1] Speech is silver, silence is gold.