Then for the first time met their eyes, swift-linked
In one strange, silent, piteous gaze, and dim
With bitter tears of agonized despair.
Israel Zangwill (1864- 1926), born in London of a poor Russian family, was a child of two worlds. Embracing both the broadness of secularism and the depth of Judaism, he became the product, although not the synthesis, of two irreconcilable dualities. This unresolved tension is the essence of Zangwill’s work from whence comes his art of unblemished twofold description void of preconceived ideas.
This poem, taken from Dreamers of the Ghetto1—a series of sketches of Diaspora characters torn between their heritage and acquired notions of modernism— is imbued with dualities, some antagonistic, some parallel, some interwoven, though never united and never resolved.
The Old Man and the Boy
The meeting is by chance, it was not to be, it is not to be; the eyes do not meet, weighed down by some mysterious burden. They seem related only in essence— in the aura of goodness they emanate, and in their common Jewish origin—though not in expression. One well-encrusted in earthly concerns, bearing the weight of ages, features carved by the fingers of suffering, his eyes reflecting a concern with Justice. The other, of an almost otherworldly aura, the idealism of a youth still unmarred, bearing the fragile flower of Hope; everything in him respires Grace.
The Carnival of Death
Surrounding the two men is a bizarre round, simultaneously mocking and desperate, a premonition of our epoch’s cynicism as opposed to nineteenth-century utopianism. Where dancing and music are commonly associated with a celebration of life, we witness here a haunting procession of halloweenish overtones. Dancing to forget, a-piping to mock, to scoff, even in the face of Death. Even the old greeting of life Shalom Aleichem, “Peace on you,” is said mournfully. A macabre setting of interplay between life and death, in which the two men seem strangely out of place.
The Church and the Synagogue
Where is then their place? Which is their abode, the Church, the Synagogue? But wait! Are these not also, shockingly, entering this chorus of voices, the organ a-piping, the chanted songs a-swaying? The incoming tide is, however, much stronger and holds mores vitality. In contrast to the primitive aspect of the first scene, we have here the pompous and self-assured belches of the organ. And the breathless tunes of the pipes are smothered by the “loudly chanted” songs, and in their midst, two men, of muted solitude, all the more accentuated by the surrounding cacophony.
The Voices of Silence
For the first time, the two men see each other. Their glance is strange as each mirrors the other, realizing that their despair is mutual. Alone and silent, they had carried their shame as they wandered through the voices of the city, through the voices from behind the edifices of the church and the synagogue, oblivious to each other and to the world. Where confusion remained on the sonorous level, an encounter occurred in the silence of two glances sharing the same profound sadness.
The golden thread of this poem is clearly the muted encounter between the persons of Moses and Jesus. A bizarre encounter indeed: It occurs by chance, is overcast with shame, and takes place through the medium of silence.
The chance element should come as no surprise to any lucid observer of Judeo-Christian relations of the last 2000 years. Indeed, has not everything been done to keep the ways apart? Have they not been avoiding each other? As one looks back on the history of hatred where words crusaded against words, and not just words, from the Inquisition to the pogroms, culminating in the gray shadow of the Holocaust, it is no wonder that in the case of an encounter, shame is the first emotion to surface.
But there is yet a deeper shame, the one carved out in the walls of silence erected by the Church and the Synagogue, in their ongoing effort to cloister themselves from the “sinful world” or from the “impure goyim.” Too often the curtains have been drawn, the impudent light from outside tolerated only through stained-glass windows. While the world rages, the Church and the Synagogue cheer with a vitality hardly apropos.
Where words either dissimulate or destroy, silence only does not scorch the ear. In this case it is the silence of despair, of nihilism, where nothing more can be said. Maybe also a silence of piercing lucidity, where one suddenly grasps the other’s essence, where one pushes beyond the words, the labels, the myths to the true encounter, to the true Tiqqun.2
1 Israel Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto (New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1898).
2 The old Jewish hope of “repairing” the broken world.