Hezy Leskly’s ‘Isaac’ is an elegy for men who die of AIDS, and also an examination of national identity. It evokes not only the Bible story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, but also the long tradition of poems in Hebrew literature that use this imagery.
Many years ago
he died of AIDS
Peter died of AIDS (the dancing boots)
Hans died of AIDS (opera)
Art died of AIDS (art on the back of postcards)
Diogenes died of AIDS (Japan)
Ulysses died of AIDS (a private museum)
was strangled by a taxi-driver, from Surinam
(a telephone cord)
it seems to me, from Surinam, I’m not sure
All of these were real people.
I walked along one of Amsterdam’s canals
with my friend Benny (Bernhard)
(Oh, the admirable canals!)
and I said to him: I have a feeling
that the plane that bombed Hiroshima
passed here and wiped out
the young homosexuals
After a minute a thought hit me
like thunder, yes, like thunder:
The name of that plane or that bomb, I can’t
remember if it was the plane
or the bomb;
the name was:
the Enola Gay.
(Oh, the admirable canals!)
In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by ordering the sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Abraham complies with the preparations, but at the last moment, when Isaac is bound to the wood on the altar, an angel stays Abraham’s hand, and a ram that happens to be stuck in a nearby bush is substituted for the boy.
One conventional Jewish interpretation of the biblical passage voices Abraham’s complaint that God is inconsistent: while God has promised Abraham descendents through Isaac, now he is ordering him to sacrifice his son. This exegesis defends God by placing the blame on Abraham’s faulty comprehension. Abraham has not understand God’s words: “I did not tell you ‘kill him’, but ‘bring him up’ to the mountain. You have brought him up, now take him down again.”
The story is so well known that comedian/filmmaker Woody Allen has used it to make a satirical point: a scholar has noted that in a sketch "Allen has Abraham falling to his knees with the despairing admission to God, ‘See, I never know when you’re kidding.’”
That Isaac is saved from sacrifice in the Bible does not alleviate the tension caused by his father’s willingness to carry it out, and in Hebrew poetry, as Ruth Kartun-Blum has documented, the binding of Isaac is often a metaphor for a sacrifice that is successfully carried to completion; the figure of Isaac has been used as a figure for Jews murdered in pogroms, and even in the Holocaust. More recently it has appeared in Israeli poetry as a way to discuss the difficult relationship between the generations in warstruck modern Israel, of parents seemingly too willing to sacrifice their sons for the state, which has apparently replaced God.
The title of Leskly’s poem ‘Isaac’ situates it in these biblical and poetic/historicizing traditions; the use of a biblical name (further underscored by the poem’s rhetoric of names, by its emphasis on naming victims) creates sympathy for men who die of AIDS, who are in some way innocent Isaacs, or innocent like Japanese victims of the atomic bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima, also alluded to in the poem. In English translation, the biblical allusion, based solely on the name in the title, is weak, where it is obvious in the context of modern Hebrew literature.
The poem begins with a historicizing reference to the recent past that is indeed a bit puzzling. The deaths from AIDS enumerated in the poem cannot have taken place more than ten years before the poem was written, about the time when the AIDS virus was discovered, so how can these deaths be considered as having taken place “[m]any years ago”? Perhaps this distancing is paradoxically meant to underscore the speaker’s connection to the biblical past, as though he too is a biblical character, such a close friend of Isaac that he calls him by a nickname: “Many years ago/ Izzy/ was/ my soul-mate”. It should be noted that the intimate relationship hinted at in the use of the word “soul-mate” combined with the death from AIDS signify the reimagining of Isaac as a Gay man.
The third stanza opens with the speaker’s thoughts about AIDS as taking place more recently, but still in the past, “[y]ears ago.” Many years ago there was (one) Isaac, nearly sacrificed because of his father; now there are many men sacrificed as though in a war, by a disease that seems to target homosexuals the way a bomber plane targets civilians.
The victims represent a group but they maintain their individuality, expressed in their first names, which are placed next to what might be considered stereotypically Gay occupations or interests in parentheses. The emphasis on first names, and on lists of names, recalls biblical rhetoric. The name of a Greek philosopher, Diogenes, and Ulysses, the Latin name for the mythical Greek wanderer Odysseus, and the remaining modern European names – including one which is both European and Israeli, “Benny (Bernhard)”, seem to place the Jewish/ Isaac story in a thoroughly European context. Indeed, one result of locating the Isaac story in Amsterdam is to remove it from the land of Israel, universalizing it, and making it a post-Zionist story.
A woman is also identified with a name – Shulamit – that is, like Isaac, both biblical and common in Israel, and she also dies, a murder victim, perhaps indicating that while AIDS is a problem for men, there is no lack of unjust deaths for women too, and correctly forseeing that women too would be victims of AIDS. The conflation of biblical figures of mythical significance with one’s real-life friends – “All of these were real people” – seems to hint at the attribution of mythical status to ordinary contemporary people and problems; the speaker is rewriting one of the most painful and powerful biblical stories about relationships between men (a father willing to sacrifice his son) now including women and Gay men.
The only unnamed figure in the poem is Shulamit’s murderer, a taxi-driver whose origin is stated tentatively: he may be from Surinam, a former Dutch colony in South America, some of whose population is descended from African slaves. While this act of violence seems to be random, the Dutch history of colonialism, and the problems it passes on from generation to generation, including the dislocation of populations, continue to have a negative effect on modern day Amsterdam, just as the willingness to sacrifice a son in the Bible is repeated in our acceptance of AIDS deaths, or our acceptance of the death of innocent civilians in war.
Leskly compares deaths from AIDS to the deaths from nuclear bombing at Hiroshima, with an admission that this idea is a subjective hunch: the idea of AIDS likened to a weapon of war is said to come to the speaker as a “feeling.” A bolt of thunder, signifying randomness and yet a physical manifestation of directedness at the same time, accompanies the remembrance of a portentous name. There would seem to be uncanny predictive meaning, of the future targeting of Gays with a disease whose effects are like that of a bomb, in the name of the American airplane that dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima – Enola Gay. Yet the speaker’s hesitation (“it seems to me”, “I’m not sure”, “I have a feeling”, “I can’t/ remember”) suggests but seems to reject the idea of the purposeful destruction of Gay men. Deaths of Gay men from AIDS might be instead one of those terrible and meaningless coincidences of life, and not a punishment from the heavens for being Gay. Indeed, contemporary Israeli poetry that uses the Bible to depict the modern world often depicts the dilemma of a search for meaning in a world without God. The enigmatic and suddenly lyrical reference to the canals (“Oh the admirable canals!” – perhaps a reference to anal sex), repeated twice, also serves to distract the reader from the idea of meaning. In any case, purpose would not necessarily lend meaning. The meaning of mass destruction, whether by war or AIDS, the poem suggests, is in personal loss, which takes on enormous dimensions whether it is an entire people’s identification with the biblical near-death of Abraham’s son Isaac, or the real world death of one’s “real” friends. In addition, the use of autobiography – Leskly was Gay, an Israeli who lived in Amsterdam, the child of survivors not of Hiroshima but of the death camps, and died of AIDS a year after he wrote this poem – in conjunction with historical events (or mythical-biblical-historical ones) emphasizes the individual, the one whose name we know, as the one who suffers because of history.