A review of The Wandering Who, by Gilad Atzmon. Zero Books, Alresford, UK, 2011
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Gary Steven Corseri
Caution! Do not enter this book unless you are prepared for serious self-examination, self-dialogue, and a dialectic with an astute listener, challenger, provocateur and wit. Leave notions, assumptions, biases—positive and negative—at the doors of your perception—which are about to be vigorously cleansed! Be prepared for topic sentences like this: “My grandfather was a charismatic, poetic, veteran Zionist terrorist.”
The author of such disarming prose, the grandson of that “veteran Zionist,” is internationally-acclaimed musician and composer, Gilad Atzmon. Born and raised in Israel– a Sabra—Atzmon, like his peers, “didn’t see the Palestinians” around him. “Supremacy,” he writes, “was brewed into our souls.”
And then a strange thing happened. “On a very late-night jazz programme, I heard Bird (Charlie Parker) with Strings. I was knocked down. The music was more organic, poetic, sentimental and wilder than anything I had ever heard. …” And the most extraordinary thing about Atzmon’s first encounter with the iconic American saxophonist? “I realized that Parker was actually a black man. … In my world, it was only Jews who were associated with anything good. Bird was the beginning of a journey.”
Now in his 50s, with a luminous musical career of his own, Atzmon has published two novels, and numerous essays and articles at websites and periodicals worldwide. The Wandering Who is a collection of 22 essays that serve as a baedeker for those who want to accompany him on his extraordinary “journey” of self-discovery and self-actualization. The book’s sectional titles include, “Identity vs. Identifying”; “Unconsciousness Is the Discourse of the Goyim”; “Historicity & Factuality vs. Fantasy and Phantasm”; and “Connecting the Dots.” Accompany Atzmon and one finds oneself sharpening one’s own tools for self-interrogation and reflection, wandering with him to discover our own elusive “who.”
His broad range of subjects include: identity; history; myths; perceptions and misperceptions; and the way “pre-traumatic stress” has shaped the nation of Israel, and, indeed, shaped much of our world these past 60-odd years. That first encounter with “Bird” opened Atzmon to the world of possibilities beyond Israel’s self-imposed, exclusionary borders: “Through music… I learned to listen. Rather than looking at history or analysing its evolution in material terms, it is listening that stands at the core of deep comprehension. Ethical behaviour comes into play when the eyes are shut and the echoes of conscience can form a tune within one’s soul. To empathise is to accept the primacy of the ear.”
His journey takes him to London in his 20s, where he hones his abilities to “listen” and “empathize” and establishes himself as a jazz musician who has been uniquely influenced by Arab music! And his mind is as agile as his fingering on his sax or clarinet: “In London, in what I often define as my ‘self-imposed exile,’ I grasped that Israel and Zionism were just parts of the wider Jewish problem.” We’re 15 pages into the book and Atzmon is broaching subject matter that could break a career in the U.S. or land him in jail in some parts of Europe! He is acutely aware of the thin ice he’s treading on, but he’s a born investigator and thinker, and he won’t be deterred: “… hardly any commentator is courageous enough to wonder what the word ‘Jew’ stands for. This question… is still taboo within Western discourse.” Our cicerone wants his readers and “listeners” to know that the road ahead will be arduous and even perilous:
“I deal with Jewish Ideology, Jewish identity politics, and the Jewish political discourse. I ask what being a Jew entails. I am searching for the metaphysical, spiritual and socio-political connotations.
He divides “those who call themselves Jews” into three main categories:
1. Those who follow Judaism.
2. Those who regard themselves as human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin.
3. Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits.
Throughout this book, it is the third category that Atzmon considers “problematic,” and which he probes with magnifying glass and scalpel. It is a category that includes Zionists and anti-Zionists, religious and non-religious Jews. He quotes Chaim Weizmann: “There are no English, French, German or American Jews, but only Jews living in England, France, Germany or America.” But, again, what exactly is “Jewish-ness”?
We travel down labyrinths of history, myths, power politics, enfranchisement and disenfranchisement to ferret meanings. Judaism, we find, is an amalgamation of stories, legends, poems composed during “the Babylonian exile”—and a sense of exile and alienation are categorical indicators of “Jewish-ness.” Important clues come in the Bible’s Book of Esther.
(Parenthetically, I’ll note here that during his recent visit to the US, reportedly to discuss what must be done about Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu handed the President of the world’s remaining super-power a copy of the Book of Esther. Whether or not the Prime Minister accompanied the gift with an order to “Read it!”—has not been reported!)
“In the Book of Esther,” Atzmon writes, “the Jews rescue themselves, and even get to mete out revenge.” To wit: Haman, the Persian King’s Prime Minister, “plots to have all the Jews in the Persian empire killed in revenge for a refusal by Esther’s cousin Mordechai to bow to him in respect.” Esther, “a brave and beautiful Jewish queen,” has never revealed her “Jewish” identity to her husband, the King! But, now she warns him of Haman’s murderous plot. The King has Haman– and his 10 sons—innocent bystanders, really–hanged on gallows originally intended for Mordechai and allows the Jews to take up arms and slay their enemies.
“The moral,” writes Atzmon, is clear: “If Jews want to survive, they had better infiltrate the corridors of power.” And this imperative to bond with power is an essential characteristic of “Jewishness”—notable in Esther’s time and in our contemporary world of AIPAC, think-tanks, media mesmerism and “message” control.
If the roots of “Jewishness”—separateness and “exceptionalism,” non-assimilation, exilic indoctrination—are discernible in the old-time religion of the Book of Esther, they ramify into something remarkably different—yet genetically akin—in what Atzmon and others call “the Holocaust religion.” “Jewishness,” he writes, “is the materialisation of fear politics into a pragmatic agenda.” In the modern Holocaust religion, vengeful, omnipotent Yahweh has been replaced by the unchallengeable “truths” of the Holocaust—past suffering cited to justify Israel’s ethnic cleansing and expansionism, its formidable arsenal of nukes and other weapons, its threats and wars of aggression.
“It took me many years,” Atzmon writes, “to understand that the Holocaust, the core belief of the contemporary Jewish faith, was not at all an historical narrative, freely debated by historians, intellectuals and ordinary people. … historical narratives do not need the protection of the law and political lobbies. … The fate of my great-grandmother was not so different from hundreds of thousands of German civilians who died in deliberate, indiscriminate bombing, just because they were Germans. Similarly, the people in Hiroshima, who died just because they were Japanese. Three million Vietnamese died just because they were Vietnamese and 1.3 million Iraqis died because they were Iraqis.”
In many ways, Atzmon’s book is a cri de couer addressed to Jews, specifically, but to humanity, generally, to grow up! To reach beyond tribalism and the politics of fear and vengeance. His style is dialectical, positing thesis and antithesis, arguing with himself and anticipating his readers’ (or opponents’) arguments to arrive at a plausible synthesis.
The book is also a House of Mirrors—distorted and non-so—and Atzmon is our guide as he meditates on the various reflected aspects of himself and others while searching for the true notes and the high notes.
Gary Steven Corseri has taught in public schools and prisons in the U.S., and at US and Japanese universities. His prose and poems have appeared at ActivistPost, TheSmirkingChimp, CommonDreams.org, L.A. (and Hollywood–) Progressive, The New York Times, CounterPunch, The Village Voice, DissidentVoice, and hundreds of other periodicals and websites worldwide. His dramas have been produced on Atlanta-PBS, and he has performed at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. His books include the novels, “A Fine Excess” and “Holy Grail, Holy Grail.” He can be contacted at [email protected].