Reading ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ in Tel Aviv

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

Many years ago, over 50 in fact, I read a book which made a huge impression on me in my bedroom on 1 Lourens Street, Somerset West, next door to Eddie Roux Motors.

The curtains in my bedroom, the room I slept in for the first 16 years of my life, were a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry which it took until 2019 for me to get to in Normandy to see the originals — which blew me away. It’s a funny thing travel, you go to Normandy to prepare to take a group to see the battlefields of Utah, Juno, Gold, Sword and Omaha, and you end up looking at the tapestry upon which your childhood dreams were predicated.

I am sure that my curtains had nothing to do with it, but when I read Hendrik van Loon’s Lives, one life totally spoke to me and said this is what you need to do with your life. It was the story of Albert Schweitzer and his work as a doctor doing good in Africa. Coupled with the fact that my father was a doctor in Somerset West and had his surgery adjacent to our home, my future path was clear. I too would one day be Dr Resnick working as my father did for the good of local people.

Fast forward from my bedroom in Somerset West to UCT circa 1975. I am no longer a schoolboy, but rather a young, confused university student. I am not on my way to becoming Albert Schweitzer, and probably not Nabokov either, but I am reading Lolita in my modern novel class taught by the inimitable, brilliant and at times very cruel lecturer Dr John Coetzee. This is John Coetzee pre-Nobel Prize, filled with his awareness of his brilliance, making sure we know that we know close to nothing (which is true), that our understanding of George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy is superficial (again, true) and introducing us, no seducing us, into the erotic reading of Lolita. Don’t misunderstand me, nothing improper happened in our lecture hall, but he managed to convey to us in his brilliant teaching, the essence of Lolita and the feeling of emotional dangers which accompanies the reading (and perhaps more than the reading, that accompanied the writing of Lolita).

What John Coetzee managed to do was to open the door for us so that we could enter that extraordinary space on the edge of literary seduction. That space when it is unclear whether it is the mind, heart or libido responding to the writing on the page. I imagine Nabokov inhabited that space too.

In 2003, some 24 years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi writes — in exile of course — Reading Lolita in Tehran. In 1995, two years before she went into exile, she gathered seven young women together to read and discuss forbidden works of Western Literature. They read and discussed Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Lolita. And, of course, they began to talk of their own lives very quickly. Of dreams, disappointments and of the intersection of the private, personal world and the public world going through extraordinary upheavals around them. Some took off their hijabs while in a private space; revealing at times dazzling, fashionable clothing, at times jeans; while some from the more conservative and traditional homes remained covered. The ability to read whatever their hearts desired led to a feeling of momentary liberation in an extremely limiting public domain, especially for women.

It took me back to those distant days in South Africa where what we read and what we watched at the cinema was proscribed. When we had to guess who was coming to dinner, and we had no idea of the temperature in the heat of the night as we could not watch Sydney Poitier films. When, as an 18-year-old returning from my year in Israel, I, together with my youth movement friends, found numerous ways to smuggle books into South Africa (not porn, but political novels, others did smuggle porn, but I promise we smuggled only books by Karl, Isaac and the others). I developed — along with many other South Africans of my generation — a healthy dislike for being told what we could or could not read, a strongly held conviction ever since those days that nobody, and I mean nobody, would ever tell me what I can or cannot read.

And then along comes Sally Rooney, young and talented. Author of Lonely People which I had not read (I know, I should have read it and not offered the lame next part of this sentence) but had watched it as a series on Netflix and had enjoyed very much. Sally Rooney — Irish, sharp, witty, intellectual, political — writing in a way which challenges not only literary convention and the building of characters, but also manages to write a serious political treatise and an analysis of Western Capitalism, while being entertaining at the same time. The problem, which you are all of course aware of, is that she is a supporter of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions), those who would use the aforementioned tools, B, D, and S, to bring down the State of Israel.

Major problem for me. On the one hand my commitments are clear, to Zionism, Israel, Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Nationalism. I regularly go to bat for Israel. Not necessarily an opener, but not a tail-ender either.

On the other hand, I never want to feel that feeling again that I had in South Africa and that Azar Nafisi had in Tehran. The feeling of not being able to read anything I want to read, irrespective of the mainstream narratives, irrespective of the writer’s attitude to that which I hold dear. I want this to always be my decision, not one forced on me in Tehran or Cape Town. I might decide not to read something because I know what else the writer stands for, but that is exactly what I want, to decide myself.

And Tel Aviv is not Tehran. In many ways it is the polar opposite. Tel Aviv is about freedom. It is one of the most open cities on the planet. Tel Aviv has a Pride Month, not Day, not Week, but Month (June) sponsored by City Hall. It is the go-to place for Israelis (and Palestinians) who want to live in a different way, openly. Percentage-wise more vegans live in Tel Aviv than in any other city in the world (if you ever go on a graffiti tour of Florentin, with me or any other tour guide, look out for the graffiti calling for freeing calves?).

So, I will sit in Café Dizengoff, Xoho, The Little Prince, Castel, NOLA, Zorik, Elkalai and Shapira (I have just given you cafe lovers a list of very different cafes to hang out in, in very different neighbourhoods) and finish reading Beautiful World, Where Are You (I am on page 305 right now), and look over to the next table and hope to see you there, reading my copies, from my bookshelf, of the The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen or perhaps The Promise of Israel by Rabbi Danny Gordis or We Were Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevy or Start Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

I need to mention one last book. I am always aware when I am in Tel Aviv, especially when I am there with visitors to Israel, that this is a city with a unique name. Now those of you who went to Herzlia, King David, Carmel or Theodore Herzl, as opposed to those of us who went to Cape Town High, Paul Roos or Hottentots Holland (my three high schools – a story for another time, why three high schools), probably know that Tel is a hill created by layer upon layer of succeeding civilizations and that Aviv is spring. But, I am not sure just how many of you know that Tel Aviv is the name created as the Hebrew title of Altneuland by Nachum Sokolow, the translator. And this is the last book I want to mention (we’ve come a long way since Hendrik van Loon’s Mankind in the first paragraph). Altneuland was written by Herzl (Theodore or Binyamin Ze’ev) as a utopian novel describing the future Jewish country he was dreaming of. I have a sneaking feeling that in the Jewish State Herzl (Theodore or Binyamin Ze’ev) was dreaming of, there was somebody reading Beautiful World, Where Are You in that Altneuland/Tel Aviv.

להיות עם חופשי בארצנו
To be a Free People in our Land.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora.

• Published in the PDF edition of the February 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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