May 8, 2013
When Zionist Heroes are Replaced by Bloodthirsty Beasts
The following article is a slightly different and longer version of an article that I published in the IHT-NYT two days ago. You can read that version here.
I come from a family of book lovers, yet last Friday, when my wife told us that author Dvora Omer died, my children’s response was a blank face. Dvora who? The name didn’t ring a bell. Omer didn’t write about sorcerers they could speak of, about super heroes they identify with, about action figures of note, castles, magical swords, or bloodthirsty beasts.
She didn’t - yet a whole generation of other readers — my generation — is mourning this children-book author’s passing like it rarely does when adult book authors die. We are mourning the passionate, arguably naïve, Zionism of her books — the Zionism that made us who we are.
She died at 80, after publishing nearly 100 books. She was an Israel Prize laureate, a household name, a bestselling author many times over, the voice of young readers in a younger and much more naïve country of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Some of her books I could never forget. Her heroes - super heroes of sorts – were ingrained in my DNA. She also wrote a few fantasy books, with a touch of science fiction, but she is mainly remembered for bringing to life the era of Zionist founders. Thirty and forty years ago she made young readers discover – as one eulogizer aptly explained - that they are “part of a larger and ancient story, magnificent and dangerous, soaked in blood and love and tears and glory”.
Omer did this by writing about Sarah Aaronsohn, a member of the Nili spy ring — “Sarah, the hero of Nili” — who worked to rid Palestine of Ottoman rule. She did it by writing about the lovers Shmulik and Zohara, members of the Palmach — the elite underground unit that fought to end the British mandate over Palestine — who were killed in action. She did it by dramatizing the real life of Itamar Ben Avi, the first child to use Hebrew as an everyday language. And she did it by creating, at a time when Israel was struggling to absorb immigrants, the fictional Tabul, a boy of Moroccan origin who becomes a fighter in the navy’s commando unit.
She also simplified and glorified the complicated, sometimes ambiguous, stories of Israel’s founding fathers. She portrayed David Ben-Gurion (the country’s first prime minister), Menachem Begin (Ben-Gurion’s main political opponent and later a prime minister) and Yitzhak Rabin (another prime minister) as good-hearted, idealistic and self-sacrificing. Her books have no Jewish villains and generally ignore any Palestinian perspective. She may have cast real, historical figures in her stories, but she was writing Israel’s mythology. And by telling us all these stories she made us – children of the Seventies and Eighties – more appreciative of the price paid by the founders’ generation a bit more than half a century ago. She made them heroes, worthy of admiration and awe. And she made us all want to be a little bit like them, made us envious of the role they played and of the era of glory we missed due to the misfortune of being born just a bit too late.
Members of this generation of young Dvora Omer readers are now in their thirties and forties, and are often cynical about the state in which they live. Looking at Israel’s leadership, our generation rarely identifies true leaders; searching for bigger-than-life heroes it doesn’t always find them, thinking about Zionism it can’t always be convinced of its value. At times, it makes this generation seem bitter, or contemptuous, or unappreciative of the miracle that is modern Israel. Yet when Dvora Omer died late last week, all masks fell off, all cynicism was cast aside as we suddenly realized how vividly we remember her stories, how profoundly we feel about her heroes.
So, if you want to truly understand the up and coming generation of Israeli leaders don’t fall for a façade of detachment, and don’t be fooled by a fake worldly dispassion. If you want to truly understand Israelis of my age group, today’s parents, go read the stories of Sarah and Zohara, of Itamar and Tabul. Because at heart we are all still Dvora Omer readers. At heart, we all still admire those heroes and aspire to be worthy of their sacrifice. Not so, though, for Israel’s Harry-Potter-cum-reality-TV generation. Omer’s naïve stories are still read, children are still exposed to them. But they can't really compete with the super fantasies or with the TV celebrities and pop stars of the day.
Is this worrisome? To some extent it is. Not only because Israeli children today are missing out on some wonderful stories. It worries me because they are also missing out on the foundational tales that undergird a strong collective memory, which a country like ours needs in order to survive.