"When you read an ancient text, it actually talks to you."
Location: Bus 480 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv
The encounter: I sat next to Alumah in the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. She talked to me all the way, for more than an hour. In the end she apologized for being unable to come up with succinct answers. “Everything is always so complicated,” she explained, “When you try to simplify, you lose all the nuance, and your words become meaningless.” I had to shorten her words a bit for this write-up. I hope I didn’t lose too much nuance!
What are you doing here right now?
I’m on my way home to spend the Sabbath with my parents in Hadera.
What is your occupation?
I’m writing a doctoral thesis on Jewish medicine in the Middle Ages. I'm a student at Bar Ilan University, but for my current research I’m reading texts in the National Library in Jerusalem.
My undergraduate degree was in archeology of the first-temple period. Initially, I had considered doing my graduate degree in archeology, but I discovered I like texts much more than objects. When you read an ancient text, it actually talks to you: you sit for a year with a text and you conduct a dialogue with the writer. You try to understand what he wanted to express. It’s not a dead object. It lives and breathes. It represents a real person with thought and opinions who was influenced by his surroundings and who wanted to transmit a certain worldview.
I’m reading texts by Assaf the Physician, a Jewish doctor who apparently lived in 8th or 9th century in the land of Israel. It’s fascinating to learn about medieval medicine. We don’t often think about it, but a big part of our experience is how we interpret the working of our own body: knowing the function of our body parts, what I need to do and eat to keep my body healthy, the significance of the beating of my heart... Medieval people, who had a very different interpretation of human physiology, had a completely different experience of the world.
My dream is to go to Cambridge and read the ancient Jewish documents that are being held in the Cambridge library. Eventually, I would love to return to Israel with a doctorate from Cambridge and find a position in academia here.
Where is your family from?
My father is Yemenite, but he grew up very Ashkenazi [European Jewish]. His parents came to Israel before the establishment of the State, in 1940, before the big immigration from Yemen. They came on their own, as a young couple. They settled in Haifa, where there was no Yemenite community, and they integrated into the Ashkenazi community. My father eventually became a hazzan [prayer leader] in the classical Ashkenazi tradition! He ended up working in the Jewish community in Copenhagen, which is where he met my mother. My mom’s family had been in Denmark for several generations, but they may have come from Spain many generations ago. My mom looks the least Danish you can imagine: she has dark eyes and dark hair.
I was born in Denmark, but when I was nine, we moved to Australia for my father’s work. After that, we moved to South Africa, and eventually we returned to Israel.
How do you describe your religious or national identity?
There are some terms that can be applied to me: Religious Nationalist, Religious Zionist... But I question those terms now because I don’t want to be associated with values I don’t endorse. If Naftali Bennett [of The Jewish Home party] represents Religious Zionist society, then I don’t want to be part of it. I grew up with the values that he claims to stand for – the religious nationalism of Rabbi Kook and the love for the land of Israel – but Bennett's election slogan scares me: “We must stop apologizing!” That’sdangerous! When you stop apologizing, you silence your conscience!
But I do observe the mitzvoth, and I believe in God, and, for me, the people, the land, and the religion are connected. As a Jew, wherever I am in the world, my focus will always be the Land of Israel. That’s the essence of my identity. But I no longer want to define myself as a Religious Zionist because that doesn’t fit me. On the other hand, I don’t like to say that I’m not part of a community because the whole concept of individualism – of claiming to stand alone, of not being part of anything – that doesn’t speak to me either. I think there are many others like me. We just haven’t come up with a name for ourselves yet.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land?
That’s a very complicated question! There’s an economical future, a political future, a religious future... and it’s all very complex! Lately, because I’ve been learning new things, I feel I’m at a stage of inquiry and can’t really commit to absolute opinions.
Until this year, I wasn’t interested in politics. For the last elections, I read up in the two days before the elections, made my choice, and didn’t think about it any more. I didn’t like dealing with politics; it gave me a bad feeling.
Now I realize that understanding politics is a learning process, like any other. Politics become much more interesting when you really try to understand things objectively, and not just try to confirm your ideological views.
A few months ago I met a journalist who writes about Arab affairs. Because of him, I began reading about the Middle East and decided to start learning Arabic. I understood for the first time that we are part of the Middles East and can’t ignore the reality around us. We can’t just stay on our little island here. We must look outside and take an interest in our surroundings. How is it that most of us don’t know Arabic? It’s ridiculous! And what we do learn about the Arab world is almost always negative! I now regret I didn't learn Arabic when I was younger. I went to a religious school and they chose not to teach us Arabic.
But I still don’t know how I see the future. I can imagine several scenarios: Let’s say that a left-wing government comes into power. They divide the land and let the Palestinians establish a state... Or a right-wing government comes into power and dismantles the Palestinian authority and takes control of the all the land and takes in the Palestinians as Israeli citizens.... I’m not sure of the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario, so I find it difficult to decide how to vote. Sometimes, a person can have views that sound reasonable, but eventually end up hurting many people.
If there needs to be a Palestinian State, to establish it now may be dangerous because it’s not done with empathy and goodwill. On the other hand, not to do it, means we’re continuing in a worsening state of animosity.
Only recently, I started to discover the various political movements in Israel. I think there is some truth in all of them. I just need to discover what it is. I like Maimonides’s maxim: “Accept the truth from whichever source it comes,” which, by the way, is an idea that Maimonides took from an Arab philosopher.