Shaky identities: Jew, man, Israeli

Amir Freimann interviews poet Admiel Kosman about identity and relationships with Others of different nationality and gender
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I. IDENTITY: “I don’t have much to say about being Israeli”

Amir: Admiel, who are you? How do you define your identity?

Admiel: This might sound strange to you, but actually, I see the course of my life as one of becoming liberated from definitions of identity. That is, I was born, like all of us, into frameworks which defined for me who I was, into a certain language which created a whole system of identities. In my case, I grew up in a home which was Zionist and religious, with all the burden of the past, of the Holocaust – a whole history that you’re burdened with. And I see the personal line of my life not as a line of strengthening or developing these definitions but that of being liberated from them. So that inasmuch as there is a certain essence in my life, I see it as a relic of the past, which by mistake is still stuck in my programme, and which I try to liberate myself from.

Take for example a concept like ‘man’. I don’t feel like a ‘man’. I have some phallic sides, but women have such sides too. I have instincts just like everybody else, and I don’t have a problem with the definition of the animal side, but when it comes to the definitions which culture puts in us, like Jew, Man, Israeli, I find these things very shaky. I think sometimes about the simple question, what if I had been exchanged by mistake as a baby and had grown up in Scandinavia, what would I have missed from the education that I got and the road I’ve passed? What would I have really wanted to take from all of that, even if I grew up in Scandinavia, for example? What would my soul look for that was vital to my existence, that, even if I were born in Thailand, I would still look for? That’s why my search for the answer to the question of what a Jew is is not connected at all to the ethnic side, or to what I was raised on.

I see the whole world now as one big supermarket of offers, and I try to get to know as many of them as I can and at the same time to be liberated from the programme that ‘Big Brother’ implanted in me. You see, the more places I’ve seen, the more people I’ve met, the more programmes I’ve been exposed to, the more I’ve become free from my own programme. Because then you see more clearly the relativity of who you are. Getting to know the Other, the bridge that you build to the Other – and it doesn’t matter who the Other is – is always in some way also a means to be liberated from the place where you have been before. In meeting with the Other you leave something of your identity behind, on the other side of the bridge. Of course this relates also to the bridge to my own personal past – to Jewish nationality and Israeli identity – therefore the issue is not, as it might seem to be, some kind of a detached cosmopolitan disengagement; rather, it is a dialogue. An attempt to understand, and to create bridges – even to Orthodox Jewish people and Orthodox Jewish communities, and to the national-religious Jewish community.

But from the dialogic point of view that I’m talking about, dialogue with an Orthodox rabbi will not prevent me by any means from being in dialogue with a Muslim on the other side of the barricade, and with the same degree of empathy. So from that point of view, my question is: What would I have taken with me even if I had been on the other side of the bridge? The questions that I’m asking are mostly with regard to Judaism, because in terms of Israeli nationalism, I have to say, I don’t have much left. What remains for me? The falafel? I don’t have many Israeli roots. Nor have I ever had that which most Israeli men have, the institution of camaraderie. I haven’t been a fan of any group; I’ve not been accepted by any framework, not even a literary clique, ever. So actually, I don’t have much to say about being Israeli. But my exploration and my search through the spiritual supermarket shelves did take me back to the world of Judaism. Even after I became familiar with Krishnamurthy, and even after getting to know the meditations, and after I was seriously influenced by the Buddhist path, I go back to Judaism in the intellectual sense. So, even though I can’t say “I’m Jewish”, because it seems to me ridiculous, there are things on the shelves of Judaism that even as a Thai or a Scandinavian I would like very much.

Amir: I find it hard to believe that if you were born in Thailand or Scandinavia you would have been drawn to Judaism to the same degree. You don’t think that there is something inside of you, some kind of Jewish spark, which causes you to connect to Judaism?

Admiel: No, I don’t think so. Not from the point of view of the things I’m talking about. Let’s begin, perhaps, with my understanding of what a Jew is. For me, and I think this idea passes through like a thread from the Bible till [Martin] Buber, including Jesus, to be Jewish is a kind of swimming against the general current, against the desire to be more, to present [the world with] an image, to be in the centre in order to achieve more. The movement is always a swimming against the current in the sense of giving in, of not putting ourselves at the center, of seeing the Other as a Subject. Put more simply, it’s a movement of humility.

Therefore, when we speak about dialogue, this movement always points to the problem of the Ego. Because it’s impossible to create a dialogue if I come with my Ego, since then there’s no listening or anything. What I mean is that turning to the Other by listening, in a way that leaves him space, is always connected with quieting down our loudness, our puffed-up-ness, our desire to turn the Other into an object. But that goes against the familiar human current of the mind, and most people will not understand this even if you explain it and give them examples. Most people in the world, and I talk especially of those who live within religious frameworks, don’t even perceive this option. And for me, this is the only place where I see a break in matter, some kind of crack in materialism, a beginning of faith, a touching of the spiritual. That is, this is the great miracle, the miracle of the soul. As for other options, after trying them, I don’t buy them. Including what the New Age offers, which is usually the Experience. For me, that’s simply another trick, another eye-rolling of the eyes of the Ego, which always sends us back to busying ourselves with ourselves.

Without honest work on responsibility and humility, I don’t see any way of getting out of the circle of materialism, even when the experiences you talk about are peak experiences – for me this is again being busy with yourself and staying blind to the spiritual. The spiritual, for me, is simply in that swimming against the current, the current of the self-centered Ego who is blind to the Other. This option that I’m talking about, which is “against the current”, can be understood only by someone who has experienced, at least for once, breaking through matter, which is love. Not romantic love, not even the love for your child. There are no examples of this in the material world. In the material world there is only a shutting-in, within matter, only each individual shut up within himself or herself. A breakthrough can be caused by trauma, or by an experience or a revelation in which you see the Other for a minute as he really is, in which you feel enormous empathy towards the Other. And this breakthrough is not connected to culture or intellect. It can happen to a simple woman who works perhaps as a seamstress, but for a moment she sees the Other. For a moment she experiences someone else. It can be her child, or the seamstress next to her. You can see it, for example, in the little stories that Victor Frankel tells in his book about the Holocaust, for instance, when someone was able to give his last slice of bread to another person whom he saw suffering.

Amir: Is it possible that many people have such experiences, and that if we create cultural and psychological structures to support them and perceive them as formative experiences, they might turn into a basis for human relationships?

Admiel: You’re suggesting here an option which I very much understand, but I don’t know if it’s right or not. I have no idea what degree of seriousness or inner truth these people go through in such experiences. When you talk about spiritual questions, you can talk about yourself, [but] you can’t even talk about the woman who lives with you or about your child. There’s something in human beings which is mysterious and hidden. You can guess sometimes, but it’s only a guess in fog. The Subject can always surprise you. Even my own Subject surprises me! So speaking about the experience of the Subject is very complicated, and when it comes to the masses, how can I possibly know what happens in the inner world of people, how much they would want to experience another experience?

How can we know, for example, how much guilt men who take advantage of their women in any possible way feel? I can’t know. Therefore, from my point of view, this is not at all a matter of support, since first of all you need to change people from the very foundations, and I don’t believe you can change anybody. Neither do I think it right to try to change other human beings. I don’t believe in tikkun olam (repairing the world) at all in that sense. I think the only thing we can change is ourselves, and even that with great difficulty. In the smallest things, such as how I treat my child, how much anger I have with my wife, how much Ego I put into my conversation with people, how much listening I do, and especially if I’m sincere, honest, without manipulations with others. This is the only thing that we’re given, with limited guarantee, in our own capability of repair. But to repair others, or the world? I really don’t know if it’s right.

Amir: And how would you say we’re supposed to repair ourselves?

Admiel: Rabbi Ashlag formulated this, and even though it’s quite banal, I like to use it. Rabbi Ashlag says, “What did Man come to the world for, according to the Kabbalah? We came to the world as taking creatures” – which I call focused on ourselves, egocentric – “and we came here to do this long journey so that we leave here as giving creatures”. That is, the whole world is like one big experimental transformer, and if a person really enters this journey, if he sees the Others more and more in an empathetic way, if he lives and experiences them, he can turn his life more and more into a life of giving to the Other. There’s a big secret here, which is connected, in my opinion, to the true understanding of what creativity is – what a creative life is. I believe – and we can’t go into it in depth here – that only a giving person is a creative person. And that is the deep secret of the image of God. Just like God creates, Man too creates, makes, lives an original life, not a ‘second-hand’ life. In a way – and I can’t go into it too deeply now – it is quite close to Nietzsche’s Superman. That is why my approach is this: you’re making money? Make money, but with the hands open to the whole world. The same thing with sex and food. The joy of life is here at the centre, the joy of life that comes from our ability to give. Think about it: in Judaism, already in the 1st century BCE, our sages constituted the ketubah (marriage contract), according to which each husband is obligated to satisfy his wife sexually, regardless of the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply”, just so she can have the joy of sex, as a religious obligation. This says to the man: know that there is a Subject here, and moreover, know that it is your job to love her as a Subject. The tendency in Judaism is to make people aware that they live in a world of Subjects, and that only there can they meet God.

Amir: You’re saying that Judaism aspires to make people aware and alert to the Other, and perceive themselves as part of a world of equal Subjects. Where does the myth of “the chosen people” stand in that regard?

Admiel: From my point of view, the state of the Jewish people has been a sick state for many years, and our focus on “the chosen people” has been one of the main causes for the disease. And the cure, in my humble opinion, is in a theological about-face. A turn-around which would be full of love for the Other, especially for the non-Jew. A turn-around of a deep connection to the image of the human wherever he/she is, and of opening the door to all, especially to the convert and the stranger. You know, that is how Buber saw the state of Israel, and his idea was to do everything together with the Arabs. Imagine having built Israel from the beginning with the Arabs’ acceptance! Imagine if the hospitals and schools were for both peoples, and that the Arabs felt that the Jews who arrive here cared about them, and that this nation built systems of education, health and economy for them too, and together with them. Imagine if we didn’t do anything by force, and we didn’t do anything that the Arabs did not agree with, even if, as result, the numbers would have been smaller. Think of the state of Judaism and the Jews if we really gave such example. I’m sure that people in Israel would have been much happier.

Amir: Do you think this is a relevant vision for the state of Israel even in the situation we’re in today?

Admiel: Yes. And I don’t know if there’s another choice, either. Of course the wounds have become deeper, and it seems as though it would be very hard to turn the wheel back, but this is not necessarily so. Often, when two people come to blows and there’s hatred in their eyes, it seems like the end of the world, but after a day or two they might calm down. That’s why I think, even today, we should help the Arabs to develop, and to take care of their well-being, their health and their education.

Amir: Do you see the relationship of the Jews and Palestinians as the key to the future of Israel?

Admiel: No, not at all. I think it’s the other way around; the key is the religious question. The minute the religious question gets solved, the political question with the Palestinians will be solved too.

Amir: What does “the religious question will be solved” mean?

Admiel: I think that the minute people start living a life of dialogue, a dialogue with the Arabs will come out of it. The image of man would be much more general, because what’s the difference if you do kindness to a man named Moishe or a man named Ahmed? At the end of the da,y you are doing kindness to human creatures that God has created. So from this insight, there’ll also be a joy of giving, and a true peace.

Amir: You’re describing here a very deep change, and considering what you had said earlier, I want to ask you again: can such a change take place on a collective level?

Admiel: Yes, but that’s a question not only regarding the Jewish people but regarding the whole world. It’s a question about the state of human development. And here we come back to the dimension of faith. I think that when someone lives a life of true giving it has a cosmic effect. I think that the old Chinese man of the legends, who lives in his village and just draws water from the well, but looks at all people with kindly eyes, is actually one of the Lamed Vavnicks (36 pious people, in Jewish mythology), who make the world go round. The world does not exist because of hollow figures like Alexander the Great or Napoleon, who stand at the centre of the debates and commotion, so that everyone wants to know about Alexander’s sexual preferences or how many lovers Napoleon had. The historians will write whole books about them, while the people that no one knows about are the ones who carry the world on their backs.

At the end of the day, that old Chinese man whom nobody knows about is more important than everyone else. I’m reminded of an astounding sentence written in the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who had a spiritual revelation in which he was able to enter the world above and then came back to the world below. When his disciples asked him what he had seen, he said one sentence: “I saw an upside-down world”. Everything is upside down. What is important here is not important there, and what’s important there is not important here. Everything is upside down, because you don’t see a true modesty and humility, and because no one will write about a certain seamstress who has an unusual giving ability, even though in actuality, the whole world depends on her. So I don’t get too overwhelmed by the difficulty of changing the world, because what seems important and critical is not necessarily important and critical, and vice versa. That’s also why I don’t think we need to try to change the world; I only think we need to live in the right way and do good.

Amir: You don’t have the desire to change the world?

Admiel: No. My Ego would have liked, probably, to do many things, but I feel it is not realistic. It’s only a swelling of the Ego. What can we change in the other Subject? A psychological development is such a deep, complex and complicated thing. I know how it is for me, talking so nicely here, when I’m offended by something. How the poison of jealousy or humiliation causes in me a total paralysis, and what inner work I have to do in order to cleanse myself from that poison, what the Chasidim called ‘Equanimity’, cleansing. So what can I expect from other Subjects? How will they resist that?

In short, what you are talking about seems to me completely out of the question. My conception is very simple. First, I always say, refrain from evil. Be sensitive to people and don’t be bad to them in the simplest and most innocent sense, as every child understands what not being bad entails. And then, as much as possible, do good. Try to do good, and to pay attention, and listen, and help. Beyond that, I don’t see anything in my life, nothing. And since I’ve arrived at these simple understandings, I can tell you that I’ve been blessed, in the Kabbalistic sense of the word ‘blessing’. Without sophistication, without ideologies, without theories. When you’re in that one-on-one mode with the world, something seems to open up. You feel as if you’re being led. You even feel protected, I would say. You feel as if there’s a guiding hand which leads you to the right place and makes sure you don’t go to the wrong place. So you don’t need to worry. You need only to intend to be good.

II. RELATIONSHIPS:“You are here in order to arrange the tablecloth exactly the way she likes it.”

Amir: I’m getting married in two weeks; I entered this relationship with the clear decision that I wanted to create a stable, permanent one, and that’s what happened. I believe that it happened not because I found the one and only partner and a great romantic love, but on the contrary – because I did not look for it. Clearly, there should be sexual attraction and some personal chemistry between the two partners, but I don’t believe in the romantic fantasy of “finding the one and only”. In my experience, when friendship, warmth and intimacy are built on the basis of choice rather than romanticism, they have a much stronger base.

Admiel: I think that the romantic fantasy, the mythical scenario of the young man sitting at the bar, and a young woman coming in, then Cupid shooting the arrow and the lights going up as they fall in love with each other – that is one big invention, and a big mistake of the West.

Amir: You’re saying “the West”, but we have inherited this myth from the ancient world, haven’t we? We received the stories about heroes falling in love, then going to war in order to win their beloveds, or returning to them after many years of wandering, from the Greeks, haven’t we?

Admiel: I’m not sure. I think that in the ancient world, in the Bible, for example, the use of the Hebrew root alef-hay-vav (of the word love) refers very often to strong sexual desire, and I think that in the Greek world it had the same meaning. They didn’t have that emotional light-headedness or that fog around falling in love – in the ancient world falling in love was actually a very direct, physical, sexual attraction. In my opinion, that myth was invented by the secular world as a kind of alternative for the match-making arrangement of the religious-traditional world. In fact, it turned into a kind of new religious belief, which makes each one of us men think that somewhere in the world there is a woman destined to be his – his other half, and all he needs to do is search well, and then, at the right moment, Cupid will shoot arrows at him. Actually, it’s a very strange religious belief in a world that has tossed away the other beliefs and has kept only this one. The strangest thing is – you can see that it does not work. Many movies deal with the bursting of this bubble, and every couple can tell you that after half a year to a year the falling-in-love-effect disappears. And yet, this myth persists, as if no one understands that there’s a basic mistake here.

Amir: I agree with you completely. It’s really an astounding fact, that even after people have experienced tens of different relationships . . .

Admiel: They still wait for this fantasy. It’s really astounding.

Amir: The subject of sex and relationships is far from simple, because it includes our biology, primal instincts, all kinds of emotions, beliefs, cultural conditioning, values, and so forth, and they all pull us in a thousand and one different directions. Where do you begin?

Admiel: I begin with the fact that relationships take place on several levels, and it’s important to distinguish between them. I would start the discussion here with three levels, like three floors in a building: the first level is the physical, sexual level, the level of the primary, animal attraction. This is the underground floor – you could call it the basement. We have to go down to this basement, even to its darkest places, in order to see where the primeval animal in us is. It’s very important, for, as Freud taught us, much energy, perhaps all of our energy, comes from here. This energy can be elevated and sublimated, and it can serve us later on the spiritual level, but the engine is here, in the basement. The thing is, the more you get to know yourself and the world around you, the more you realise that actually this basement is completely crazy. You need to accept that it’s completely crazy and not be ashamed of it. Most people are not prepared to know what goes on in there, whether those are homosexual feelings, sadistic ones, necrophilia, or paedophilia . . . But this basement is full of such creepy crawlies, and these are the things we find hardest to deal with. Most of us are afraid to go down to the basement and see our dreams and fantasies, but I think it’s very important to face all that, for only in that way can we start doing the work. The next floor is that of the psychological level. When we talk about the relationship of a couple, there has to be some suitability, some kind of ‘click’ between the two, which would give them the feeling that they have an understanding on the most basic psychological level.

Amir: When you say ‘psychological’, do you mean the emotional dimension?

Admiel: Not only the emotional one – the cultural and intellectual ones too. That is, there has to be some sort of psychological suitability in order that the two can understand each other and function well together. The cultural background is very important here too, if the couple is to find a common language. I don’t think that any of us here could marry a Bedouin woman from a tribe in Sinai, who has not studied at schools like us, even if we were very attracted to her, and respected and appreciated her, because I don’t think we could bridge the huge gap between the different cultures and lifestyles.

Amir: It seems to me that as people and humanity develop, the subject of sexual identity and cultural conditioning gets weaker. Even today, there’s a lot more flexibility and openness than 50 years ago when it comes to questions of sexual identity and preference; there are more and more couples of the same sex, single-parent families, couples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and so on, and this tendency will only get stronger.

Admiel: Yes, and it enriches our culture and creates in it new dimensions and new possibilities.

Amir: If the first floor is the psychological level, then the upper floor in this building, I guess, is the spiritual level. How do you perceive its expression in the couple’s relationship?

Admiel: The way I see it, the desirable spiritual state is simply when a person truly sees the Other. In order for that to happen, one needs to be humble, one needs to make space within oneself. Making space for the Other within oneself is the whole thing. Only in that state of consciousness does Divinity dwell. The thing is, in a relationship, you can reach this upper floor only by first going through the other floors. A good example is the nigun (Hebrew for tune, melody), which the Chasidim value so highly. You cannot create this wondrous thing called nigun without coming to this world in a body, without taking a material substance, whether it’s a reed or hair from a horse tail, and creating a flute or a violin out of it. A relationship is a sort of a nigun, and our sexuality, our body and our soul are the instruments by means of which we can produce this wondrous tune. Unfortunately, most people get that nigun distorted, and the blame is not with the basement, that is, with our sexuality, but with our egocentricity. The blame is with our treating the Other as an object, not seeing that he or she exists. And this state, in turn, creates feelings of guilt in us, which create, in turn, other problems of blindness to the Other. The minute a person is able to recognise the Other and to see that the tools he or she has received, including their sexuality, are intended to give a gift to the Other – at that moment they begin to create the nigun. This is a completely different kind of sexuality, for it is a sexuality that recognises the Other and the desire of the Other. And if you can imagine a situation in which two people maintain such a dialogue in which each one sees the Other, a unity grows out of it which is very rare in our world. What is characteristic of such unity is not only the absence of criticism of the body of the Other and his or her needs, including the psychological needs, but also the insight, and the position, that you serve the Other. Not God, but the Other.

Amir: And what about the situations in which the best service you can give the Other is criticism?

Admiel: Then the criticism will come out of the actual situation and not out of haughtiness. Like when a father who loves his son gives him advice. That way, it is not perceived as criticism but as a gift. But the hardest thing is to treat myself as someone who’s here in order to serve the small needs of my wife, whose need may be that the tablecloth be arranged this way and not that way, and that the flowers be set here and not there. What! Is this what I’m here for? I have great things to do, I have to run to the synagogue, to organise mass demonstrations, to prepare an important lecture! And that is the great mistake: I came here in order to arrange the tablecloth exactly the way she likes it and to set the flowers exactly as she likes them to be.

Amir: Even if it seems to us completely insane?

Admiel: The thing is, the more we do these small things, and recognise the existence of the Other, the easier these things become for us, till they become even welcome. The concession that seems to the chauvinist man so humiliating, i.e. to make his wife a cup of tea, becomes a joyful thing that we suddenly have energy to do. Suddenly you start seeing that as the only place where God is.

These interviews originally appeared in Hebrew on the Ynet website in the spring of 2010.

© Amir Freimann (Vertaald door Naomi Teplow)  
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