The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel

Linda Grant
18 September 2006

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage", to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

To read extracts from last year's list, click here.

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Extract from The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel (Virago, 2006)

The shtarker, the mensch and the nebbish

When Ze'ev Rosenstein crashed through the tv screen into the Ruppin Street apartment on the day of the big balagan, I immediately recognised him as the descendant of all the Jewish tough guys who muscled in on our family dining table at home in Liverpool. Not in person, of course: my mother would never have let a gangster into the house, even if he was a bona fide citizen of the world's only Jewish state and in need of a table to put his feet under for Friday night dinner. But they were always around somewhere, leaning over my father's shoulder as he ate, stealing his homburg hats and lacing his conversation with their peppery phrases. 'What kind of racket is this?' my dad asked, as he examined the bill for my school fees.

In 1923, my father, a hungry, skinny nineteen-year-old, had jumped ship from his berth as a merchant seaman on the SS Lacona, whose Ellis Island manifest lists him as 'Jew cook'. He spent the rest of the decade in New York, returning to Liverpool on the eve of the stock market crash, and until he died in 1983 he remained inside his imagination in the world he had had and then lost - that of the American gangsters he had watched eating cheesecake in Lindy's Delicatessen on Broadway, who occasionally patted him on the head and gave him an errand to run.

In the Damon Runyon stories he read and reread (and so did I), Lindy's was thinly disguised as Mindy's, but all the types were identifiable to him: Harry the Horse, Dave the Dude, the Lemon-drop Kid - little-league hoodlums he ran into while driving trucks of illegal beer over the Canadian border into upstate New York during Prohibition. Back home, walking on the shores of the Mersey in the 1930s, wearing a Panama beach suit and a straw hat, his Scouse accent sharpened by an American twang, he spoke of people like Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky and Louis Lepke, the then-rising stars of the Jewish underworld, but it was Arnold Rothstein who, for him, was the embodying myth of American immigration.

The gangster's biography sat in the bookcase next to the twin beds my parents slept in, removed a few spines along, for decency's sake, from the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and my mother's well-thumbed paperback editions of Harold Robbins. Rothstein, gunned down over a gambling debt in 1928, was a sophisticated fusion of brains, chutzpah and brutality, the man on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald would base the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, the crook who was rumoured to have fixed the 1919 World Series. There had been New York Jewish gangsters before Rothstein: Monk Eastman, Kid Twist Zweibach, Big Jack Zelig, Dopey Benny Fein, Little Augie Fein and Kid Dropper, but they were just petty street thugs, immigrant kids trying to earn a bent living among the warring Irish and Italian gangs of old Manhattan.

Rothstein was the first person to see in Prohibition a business opportunity, a means to enormous wealth; he was the Moses of the Jewish gangsters, the progenitor, a rich man's son who showed the young hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style; indeed, the man who the Italian Lucky Luciano would later say taught him how to dress.

My father, the family man, the local businessman, the supporter of the synagogue, the protector of the virgin purity of his two daughters, loved Rothstein because of something that was embedded in the Jewish consciousness in those days, which reached its height in the 1930s when a Jew in Europe would turn on the radio and all he heard was bad news. The urgent need for a superhero, for a Jewish tough guy who could take on the bad men of Nazi Germany, was rooted inside my father and all of his generation who still had a small mental foothold in the inconsequential towns of eastern Europe.

For whatever else you might say about the gangsters, they never forget they were Jews. In 1945, Rueven Dafne, an emissary for the Haganah, met up with Bugsy Siegel in New York and asked him for money and guns. 'You mean to tell me Jews are fighting?' Siegel asked. 'You mean, fighting as in killing?' And hearing that it was true, Siegel replied, 'I'm with you,' and delivered a series of suitcases to Tel Aviv over the next few months filled with $5 and $10 bills amounting to $50,000.

The Soviet writer Isaac Babel summed up my father's feelings about gangsters in his story, 'How it was Done in Odessa', set among the hoodlums of that Black Sea port at the time of the Russian Revolution: 'Tartakovsky has the soul of a murderer, but he is one of us. He originated with us. He is our blood. He is our flesh, as though one momma had borne us.'

* * *

Ze'ev Rosenstein appeared on tv as a stocky, blockish, thicknecked figure with a bristly head, a schnitzel-and-chips kind of man, despite his million-and-a-half-dollar home in Hod HaSharon, a dormitory town near Tel Aviv. He was fifty and had grown up on the mean streets of Jaffa, where two families, Jewish and Arab mob bosses, had demonstrated that peace and coexistence were achievable by an equitable and just settlement, dividing between themselves the Tel Aviv drug trade.*

Mobsters like Rosenstein had been present in Palestine as far back as the 1930s, when eastern Europe emptied out its twilight population of gunmen and con artists. In 1972, Meyer Lansky, escaping the FBI at home, fled to Israel, seeking his right to become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return, and was turned down by the prime minister herself, Golda Meir, the first Jew ever refused Aliyah. 'No gangsters in Israel,' she said. But the gangsters were there already.

Long before organised crime, the Jews had had their shtarkers: hard men, thugs. Back in the shtetls of eastern Europe, the villages and small towns where Jews lived a Yiddish life with all its economic and social aspects - its butcher, baker, rabbi, innkeeper, matchmaker, dressmaker, dairyman, miller, marriageable daughters, Talmudic scholars, revolutionaries hunched over tracts imported from Moscow and St Petersburg, Messianic Hassidim, small-time conmen and wealthy merchants - it was possible for everyone to exist within certain well-defined categories.

At the pinnacle of society was the mensch, a man, a human being in the fullest sense of what God had intended by the term, living a moral life based on hard work, charity and family values. To be a mensch was to be admired and respected, not merely for one's wealth or achievements (and a mensch always made sure his family was properly provided for), but for the essential decency and dignity of your being. A mensch always tried to do the right thing, to live his life humanely.

Various minor categories lay below: the schlemiel, the awkward individual who was always dropping his bowl of soup, and the schlimazel, the unfortunate on whom the soup got dropped.

There was an intellectual class, the luftmensch, who lived on air: he who starved his body to feed his mind, wandering from place to place in search of a crumb that would sustain his study.

And teeming those shtetl streets were the nebbishes, the early nerds: awkward and klutzy with their hands, neurotic, hypochondriacal, life's worriers for whom the Jewish telegram joke could have been invented - Start worrying. Details to follow.

Famous examples of the mensch exist in literature and film. Primo Levi was a mensch, the survivor whose great literary powers allowed him to explore the inner world of death camps, to interrogate their terrible moral meanings. Woody Allen is a nebbish, the harmless, puny, witty Jew who fights back armed with nothing more than chutzpah. Though before Levi became a mensch, he was a nebbish.

On the outskirts of the shtetl, along the rutted muddy road that led out of town to the dangerous lands, another type was lurking, about whom no one ever said much. Every so often a kid was born with a build like an ox; too stupid to advance in school or make much of himself in business, he would be posted like a hulking, animated scarecrow outside the village.

The shtarker, the Jewish thug, was there to scare off your enemies. He was not someone you boasted about, but nonetheless it was possible to have a sneaking admiration for a Jew who could see off the marauding Cossacks with his fists instead of weasely appeals to their better nature or those scheming attempts to out-manoeuvre them, which became the subject of so many Jewish jokes.

Ze'ev Rosenstein was a shtarker, as were all his enemies, the rival gangs that tried to whack him. The prime minister of Israel was also a shtarker, a thug in a military uniform who baffled the liberal West which wanted to think well of the Jews, those incubators of world culture who had produced Primo Levi, Spinoza, Kafka, Mahler, Proust, Joseph Roth - nebbishes, all.

The Israelis liked Ariel Sharon in the same way and for exactly the same reasons that my father had liked Arnold Rothstein, and why Israelis were secretly excited by Ze'ev Rosenstein.

Sharon attracted shame and admiration. His obesity, his shady past, his bullying, his indifference to murder, his corruption, his lobbishe sons, the rumours about his marriages, everything about him made you cringe when you saw him on tv, particularly on the BBC. The Jews wanted a shayner Yid, a beautiful Jew, like Yitzhak Rabin, to be their representative, but they kept on winding up with these loud-mouthed former terrorists and war criminals. I was always being asked, plaintively, why the Jews chose brutes to represent them. Surely the Knesset had more to offer than this, such as the modestly spoken former mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, who had so disastrously lost to Sharon when he ran for office for the second time. But Mitzna was a yekke, a German Jew, a type of whom it was said in Palestine in the 1930s that instead of a heart they had a clock. They were above all the Yiddish categories because they were not Yiddim - Jews, but not Jew-ish. Respected, usually on the extreme left, but rarely loved, they were intellectuals who could win the Nobel Prize for this or that, but in their company you couldn't sit around with your feet up on the coffee table, telling jokes, waving your arms around and talking with your mouth full.

The shtarker does not bring you yiches, that sense of pride and honour that is bestowed on the family and indeed the whole community when, say, a Jew or an Israeli wins the Nobel. The shtarker is a necessary fact of this terrible life. We have one in the Bible.

Unlike the prophets, Samson doesn't get a book of his own. He puts in his first appearance in Judges chapter 13, during the period when the Jews are under occupation by the Philistines. Samson is the product of divine infertility treatment. His father, Menorah, and wife (unnamed) do a deal with God, who promises a son to deliver the Jews from colonialism as long as Samson never cuts his hair. Samson's progress through the verses is a list of murder and massacre, revenge and counter-revenge. For relaxation he sleeps with shiksa prostitutes in Gaza. Every time Samson brandishes his ass's jawbone and murders a few more Philistines, God couldn't be more delighted. Samson, like the Golem (the medieval Prague progenitor of Frankenstein's monster, built by a rabbi to fight anti-Semitism), has been specifically created to be the defender of the Jews. After Delilah, in the pay of the Philistines, persuades him to reveal the secret of his strength, and cuts his hair while he is sleeping, his eyes are put out and the enemies of the Jews 'offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god . . . for they say, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us.'

But the cretinous Philistines don't realise that while Samson languishes in prison his hair is growing. They take him out for a bit of sport and tie him to the pillars of the building. Samson prays to God to grant him the strength to deliver a final crushing revenge. Straining his muscles, he brings down the prison on top of him, with three thousand people gathered on the roof, 'so the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life'. The first suicide bomber!

When Philip Roth interviewed Primo Levi in 1986, he criticised If Not Now, When? (Levi's novel about Jewish partisans during the war), which he described as 'more narrowly tendentious . . . than the impulse that generates the autobiographical works'. Levi replied, a little defensively: 'I wished to assault a commonplace still prevailing in Italy: a Jew is a mild person, a scholar (religious or profane), unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back. It seemed to me a duty to pay homage to those Jews who, in desperate conditions, found the courage and skill to resist.'

Even Levi fancied himself as something of a shtarker. Indeed, his capture by the Germans was due to an ill-fated flirtation with the partisan life.

Thus the mensch, the nebbish and the shtarker are the three figures which form the true trinity of Jewish culture, and they come together in the stories of Isaac Babel - of the Jewish gangsters of Odessa and of a Jew incongruously serving in a Cossack regiment during the civil war. Babel based his stories on his own self, a child of stunted growth growing up to be a writer, 'with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart'. His father's escape fantasy for Isaac, the son born in Odessa in 1894 during the period of state-sponsored pogroms against the Jews, was that he might become an infant prodigy on the violin, performing before the crowned heads of Europe. Like the immigrant Jews of New York, Babel was drawn, instead, to the Jewish gangsters of his city. As a young intellectual during the Revolution, he took the advice of Maxim Gorky and went 'among the people'.

When the American critic Lionel Trilling wrote an introduction to the (incomplete) 1955 Penguin edition of the stories, he saw as the principal joke of the 'Red Cavalry' stories the anomaly of having, as their main character, a Jew who is a member of a Cossack regiment, traditionally the persecutors of the Jews. The Cossack, he wrote, 'stood in total antithesis to the principle of the Jew's existence. The Jew conceived his own ideal character to consist in his being intellectual, pacific, humane. The Cossack was physical, violent, without mind or manners . . . the enemy not only of the Jew . . . but the enemy also of all men who thought of liberty; he was the natural and appropriate instrument of ruthless oppression.'

But to nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals, including Tolstoy, Trilling points out, the Cossack was rather an appealing figure: 'He was the man as yet untrammelled by civilisation, direct, immediate, fierce. He was the man of enviable simplicity, the man of the body - and of the horse, the man who moved with speed and grace . . . For [Tolstoy] the Cossack was indeed the noble savage, all too savage, not often noble, yet having in his savagery some quality that might raise strange questions in a Jewish mind.'

Thus Trilling saw in the figure of the Cossack a yearning in Babel to throw off his own liberal, intellectual instincts, an itch in him to become part of a people of the body rather than a people of the head. He points to the story which exposes the psychic divisions within Babel's mind during this period. In 'After the Battle', the narrator is discovered to have gone into battle with no ammunition in his gun; he is accused of being a member of the Molokan Sect - a pacifist and God-worshipper. But this is not it at all. Trudging through the rain, the narrator pleads for a favour, 'imploring fate to grant me the simplest of proficiencies - the ability to kill my fellow-man'. This sentiment in Babel's mouth is, Trilling says, only partly ironic.

The period between the 1880s and the start of the First World War offered Jews in eastern Europe three possible means of reinvention: the first was emigration to America, where the Jewish gangsters of Odessa would thrive in the fresh air of American capitalism; the second was Zionism, which was in the process of discarding the neurasthenic shtetl Jew and re-engineering his soul in preparation for the outdoor life of the kibbutz; the third was the Russian Revolution, in which Jews were to play a leading role.

Those who adopted this final option abandoned the mystical baggage of an ancient religion and their predicament as a tiny persecuted minority, protected only by their irksome status as God's chosen people; they abandoned their history for the Marxist notion of History. They signed up for equality, freedom and rights accorded to them by virtue of their class. October 1917 was the defining moment when the mensch and the shtarker were joined together. It was a Jewish dream come true. Only through violence could man liberate himself from oppressive forces, but violence in their hands was not mindless. It served a revolutionary ideology, which would bring justice to suffering mankind.

Of those three choices Jews of the time could make, this turned out to be the very worst. Babel was murdered by firing squad in Moscow's Lubyanka prison in 1940 at the age of fortyfive, on a trumped-up espionage confession after unsuccessfully begging to be allowed to finish his only novel. Of those Russian Jews who emerged blinking into the tail end of the century in 1992 and emigrated to Israel, some were scientists, some were chess grand masters, some were prima ballerinas; others formed the country's new industry of organised crime, drug dealing and prostitution - the shtarker with all the mensch-like elements corroded by seventy-five years of Soviet socialism. According to eyewitness Palestinian accounts of the Israeli incursions into Jenin, many of the soldiers were recent immigrants from Russia who spoke little Hebrew and who looted the homes of civilians. Their hatred of Muslims did not suddenly appear out of nowhere, inculcated by the Israeli state, but was nurtured during the exceptionally brutal wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Ze'ev Rosenstein and Ariel Sharon, each in their way, answered a need in Israeli society that went deeper than politics, occupation, intifada, failed peace agreements or the founding of the state.

In order for an Israeli to write poetry, or make millions on the stock market, or act in a movie and win an Oscar, in order to be ordinarily useful and productive, he required a kind of mental protection, the idea that the shtarker was outside the village with his ass's club. In the 1950s the Jewish gangsters of America began to die out as a force in organised crime; unlike the Italians, they did not found families; they did not send their sons to the streets, they sent them to law school. People felt that now Jews were entering the full life of America, the suburban dream, there was no more need for them to turn to violence, but perhaps the truth was that the Jews no longer needed their shtarkers at home - they had the Israeli army, Jewish soldiers with a gun, the Uzi, actually designed and invented by a Jew.

Rosenstein did nothing for the good of the state, but he and Sharon were from the same mould and impulse. Like Babel's gangsters in pre-Revolutionary Odessa, in particular Benya Krik - with his 'lightning-quick beginning and his terrible end' who 'talks little, but he talks with zest. He talks little, but you want he'll say more' - they were men. The Benya Kriks drove around in loud motor cars and wore raspberry-coloured boots and chocolate jackets, watch straps with diamond bracelets. They did not keep their head down and avoid trouble. A community bound by laws designed to contain and persecute them saw and marvelled at outrageous characters who defied all laws, whether they came from the court system or the United Nations.

The Jewish revolutionaries promised universal equality; the Jewish gangsters, anarchic and individualistic, and the Jewish thug who ran Israel offered something else: 'And he got his way, that Benya Krik, because he was passionate, and passion holds sway over the universe.'

*Organised crime in Israel was set up along ethnic lines. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union specialised in sex slavery and prostitution; the Bedouin clans of the south smuggled women and drugs over the Egyptian border and dealt in stolen cars; Palestinian-Israelis distributed drugs; while the Jewish-Israeli crime families focused on protekzia, loan collection, and gambling. Rosenstein had already faced off the Aslans in the working-class Hatikvah neighbourhood of Tel Aviv in the late 1980s and early 1990s over gambling turf. His wealth grew from operating casinos in eastern Europe; at home a vacuum inside Israel was being filled with illegal gambling dens: seedy establishments advertising themselves as internet cafés or bingo parlours. At the beginning of 2000, Palestinian entrepreneurs in Jericho had built a fabulous new casino to which Israeli gamblers flocked. The West Bank town near the border with Jordan had the potential to become a new Las Vegas until the outbreak of the intifada later that year, which abruptly halted the flow of Israeli suckers across the Green Line.

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