BIRD POLITICS AND JEWISH HISTORY
By: Eliyho Matz
O Soul, come back to watch birds in flight!
Dedicated to the courageous Duchifat* soldiers who paid dearly for their commitment to the ideals of the young Israeli Nation: ideals of democracy, law and freedom. Unfortunately, these ideals are today being eroded and replaced by Biblical laws (right-wing religious fanatic orthodox Jewish laws) that are totally dismantling and destroying the possibility for Israel to become a modern nation. If the Duchifat soldiers only knew what they were fighting for….
And for Hadas….
(In this military unit of courageous Paratroopers, I served as the most unimportant soldier.)
* Hoopoe bird, in Arabic Hud-hud.
Birds are not big time complainers. They keep themselves busy flying and do not usually need bird psychiatrists to help them resolve personal or communal issues of territory or flying zones. The sky and the earth are their sovereign territory. Recently, however, they have acted spontaneously, in unison, to a changed political situation in the Israeli Nation. To explain that decision, we need to trace back a bit, to fly backwards, like only the hummingbird can do.
On July 12, 2011, the acclaimed New York Times published on page A8, bottom left, a news article by Isabel Kershner titled, “Israel Bans Boycott Against the State” in which Kershner described the new Israeli Parliamentary law illegalizing any public boycotting of the Israeli Nation or West Bank settlements, thus making the act of calling for a boycott punishable by a compulsory fine. A few days later, on July 18, 2011, the NYT again touched upon the situation, this time attacking the Israeli boycott law in an editorial dedicated to this issue titled, “Not Befitting a Democracy.” However, with all due respect to this publication, which I personally have been reading consistently over the past 36 years, I believe that the NYT is totally mistaken and unclear. I do not take issue with the fact that the NYT is worried that the law will “…chip away at free speech and political rights,” but rather that even in the title itself of this article the NYT does not recognize, or is not interested in recognizing, that the Israeli Nation, since its inception in 1948, has never written a constitution and therefore cannot be a true democracy; therefore citing this action as “not befitting a democracy” is totally misleading, and does not suit the reporting and analysis qualities of the NYT. Furthermore, the NYT in its reporting often refers to the Israeli Nation as the “Jewish State,” and thus fails to call it by its true name, the Israeli Nation. Ironically, the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also wants the Palestinian people to recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” -- when no one can even figure out how politically to define a Jew. This type of convoluted political thought prevents the Israeli Nation from progressing to become a nation-state of the Israelis, or better, an Israeli Republic with a written constitution, that could serve to modernize its political engagement and its ability to be absorbed into the Middle East.
Birds, which are frequent fliers between Northern Europe and Africa, have throughout time been flying through the Israeli sovereign territory twice a year: in spring they flock to Europe, in autumn to Africa. But they have their sensitivities, too. Apparently they are extremely aware of the nature of people, and thus, because of their sense of justice and humanity, and having followed the widespread news and protest about the Israeli boycott law via their “Bird News Services” (BNS), not controlled by the corrupt Rupert Murdoch, decided quietly, without too much twittering, to form the first “Bird Congress” on the north shore of the Black Sea, where it was decided by the birds’ top democratic leadership, to avoid, if possible, flying over Israel or any other non-democratic country that does not have a democratically written constitution. It seems like a harsh decision to me by the birds considering the long lasting relationship that they have formed with the ancient and modern Israelis, and it is a bit out-of-place with the history of birds and Jews.
The Hebrew Bible quite frequently deals with the interactive relationship between humans and birds. The familiar story of Noah is one of the first to demonstrate this relationship. The domesticated pigeon brings back to the ark an olive leaf, thus symbolizing the end of the flood and the return to normalcy. Then we have a more overlooked Biblical detail that Hebrew Bible researchers and Orthodox Jewish believers probably pay little attention to. It is in the story of Moses: Moses, who is running away from Egypt, perhaps carries out his destiny in marrying Zippora (Shemot 2:21). Although in the Hebrew Bible we do not have as much mythology as is seen in the Greek writings, Moses, as the father and lawgiver of the Hebrews, should have been aware of the connotation of the name “Zippora” -- a bird. He marries Zippora and thus the Jewish mazel (luck) gets its start with wandering, as a matter of fact, quite a bit of it, and forever not just for the forty years in the desert. As Adeline Yen Mah, a prominent American Chinese writer, informs us, “Jia Ji Shui Ji” -- “Marry a Chicken, Follow a Chicken” [Adeline Yen Mah, Falling Leaves (New York: Broadway Books, 1997) p. 157]. The Hebrews, while wandering in the desert, feed upon shlav, or quail, which appear every evening and provide sustenance to the Hebrews while on the move in the desert. Then for a while in the Hebrew Bible we do not hear about birds, when suddenly further on another bird story appears. This time it involves the legendary King Solomon, who, as the Bible tells us in the First Book of Kings (5:13), was wise and “…spoke of beasts and of birds….” Later on, being a wealthy and very virile king (he married 1000 women), he interacted with the legendary Yemenite Queen of Sheba. Our bird, the duchifat, was the go-between for Solomon and Sheba. “According to the legend he [the duchifat, or hoopoe] is said to be the son of Solomon, hence he had a golden crown. So the people in greed for gold used to kill him. One day he referred the matter to his father, so he [Solomon] changed the golden crown into flesh and the persecution then ceased” [Samsar Chand Koul, Birds of Kashmir (p.65)]. Another bird connected to King Solomon was the white-cheeked Bulbul, which the legend says “…are reputed to have given to Solomon the power to differentiate between an artificial and a natural nosegay, and to be ready to offer advice if one has the ear willing to listen” (Koul, p. 13). Paradoxically, in Israeli popular culture the word “Bulbul” has become a derogatory expression for a person who is totally confused. The Hebrew Bible continues to amaze us with stories of birds. Another very interesting one is about the prophet Elijah, who ran away to Mt. Sinai and was fed by ravens. “I saw a small chapel commemorating the spot where the ravens fed Elijah. It is supposedly built over the cave where the prophet hid from Jezebel” [Wendell Phillips, Qataban and Sheba (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), p. 134]. A captivating legend from Chinese history documented by Thanh and Benjamin Cherry in their book Of Pandas and Wandering Geese (London: Minerva Press, 1999; p. 251) tells a story about the building of the Great Wall of China and the loss of many lives, especially of one person whose wife “…lamented his disappearance so vigorously that some ravens showed her where his body was buried; whereupon the wall split apart revealing the bones.”
From Biblical times to modern times, we do not hear much about birds and Jews, even though Jews continued to wander, ultimately becoming known as the “Wandering Jews.” Aside from the commonly known explanations for their wandering, one should consider the business opportunities Jews have undertaken since time immemorial by traveling, on the Silk Road doing business with the Chinese, or on the high seas to India, and the consequences of such activities. For example, I truly believe that the religious laws defining who is a Jew, by making the mother the sole determinant, and the laws prohibiting Jews from marrying more than one wife developed between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE and in the 10th century, are all related to the business occupation of Jews traveling between East and West, North and South, like birds.
Thus we have moved to modern times. The poet Chaim N. Bialik speaks to an imaginary bird that just arrived at his window from the Land of Zion. The poem, which is the ultimate instrument to explain the Jewish Zionist activities in Palestine to rebuild the nation, is still considered a masterpiece of poetry. Of course the political and social reality has changed, from the early days of the Zionist naiveté, to the modern Israelis’ convoluted political thoughts. The poet Saul Tchernichovsky, who was a contemporary of Bialik, also deals with birds. In his case he introduces a more aggressive bird of prey, the eagle, in his poem “Eagle, eagle over your mountains.” Well, this poem definitely will later usher the Israelis into the modern age when their airplanes will eventually control the skies of the Middle East, thus making Tchernichovsky sort of a poet-prophet. One of the most interesting writers and translators of modern times is Zev Zahbotinsky, who, extremely talented as a translator into Hebrew, takes the poem by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” and transforms it into one of the most celebrated poems in modern Hebrew, so much transformed that he made it more interesting than the original version. The singer Ester Offarim, one of the most unique Israeli voices, has spilled her soul while singing “Mi Itneni Auf Tzipor Kanaf Ketanah” (“Who will give me the power to fly,/A small little winged bird wandering forever”) – boy, has this singer been wandering! The Israeli singer-songwriter Igal Bashan has contributed to the bird image through the lyrics of his song “Yesh Li Tzipor Ketanah Balev” (“I Have a Tiny Bird in My Heart”). Moving from the heart to the head is another Israeli singer and songwriter Matti Kaspi, who contributed, “Yesh Li Tziporrim Barosh” (“I Have Birds in My Head”). We do not yet have any poet or singer who writes about Israeli legs and compares them to birds’ legs to complete our body picture in allegorizing the Wandering Israelis, who travel today as Tarmilaim (backpackers) from Thailand to Argentina.
In the early days of the Israeli Nation, shortages of essential foods were common and rationing was imposed on the Israeli public. One of the products that was rationed was coffee beans. Here is a story about birds first developed by Abram Sorramello, the legendary Jerusalemite (dubbed by journalist and writer Baruch Nadel as “Mr. Tzipporovich”). Sorramello told of a man arriving at the airport coming from abroad carrying a sack of coffee beans. The custom agent asked him what he had in the sack, and the traveler answered “birdfood.” “Birdfood?” questioned the agent, who smelled coffee in the sack. “Well,” answered the fellow, “if the birds want it, they eat it, if not, not!”
Certainly the motif of birds has contributed forcefully to Israeli culture. However, most serious and critical of Israeli culture and politics is Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, although I think that he himself is not really aware of the implications of what he is describing in his poem “Dangerous Country [Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, Translators, Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry 1948-1994 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), p. 393]. To me, this poem represents the ultimate analysis of birds and politics: “Even the migrating birds know it,/They come in spring or in autumn and do not stay,…” So the terrible conclusion: the Israeli land, Zion, is where people and birds come and go. Not so good a reality if Israelis want a future Israeli Nation to exist.