That thing that we have in common. On Parashat Masei
In memory of prof. Marino Berengo z’’l (8 Nov 1928–3 Aug 2000)
The name of Professor Marino Berengo is probably unknown to many outside the field of Early Modern Italian history. But for Italian history scholars of my generation, it was a name to be mentioned with reverence and awe. Marino Berengo was an academic of Jewish origin. Learned and very influential, one of those professors who could make or destroy a career just by writing a review. The number of his pupils who reached tenure is just impressive.
Like many academics of his generation, Berengo was a Marxist. To him personally, Judaism had never been of great importance. He wrote fundamental studies on the history of Lucca in 500, Venice in 700 and Milan in the post-Napoleonic era. And at the end of his career, he authored the most important volume ever written on Early Modern European cities. (Exciting stuff, I see people falling asleep already).
Director of the most important series of studies on the history of Italy, Berengo reluctantly found himself in the 90s having to edit a volume on the History of Jews in Italy. In the previous decades, there had been a flood of publications, and local history studies, like “History of the Jews of [name of an Italian city]”. Jews have been in Italy since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that is two thousand years of continuous presence. So there are plenty of things to research. As per the academic custom, it was time to take stock through a volume with a nationwide focus: the kind of work that will be mentioned in the footnotes for, say, the next half-century.
The first editor of the volume, the one who attached his name to it— “Storia d’Italia. Annali. Ebrei in Italia” — was another Jewish scholar: Corrado Vivanti. Berengo and Vivanti had many things in common: being Jewish and having Marxist problems with religion, Zionism, Israel, and with the concept of the Jewish people.
Of course, the two scholars exchange letters. It seems prehistoric, but it was only the 90s, before email. Remember? There was a time when we did not use email…. These two scholars exchanged typed letters with the concluding greetings and signatures.
I must tell you; reading these letters can be a moving experience. Because in such correspondence, you see how they would like to talk about something personal (grandma’s recipes, perhaps). But they try hard to keep the conversation on a scientific level: they are Marxists, after all! Yet, the history they are talking about is not the booksellers of Milan in the post-Napoleonic era or of the Protestants of Lucca in the 16th Century, topics on which, incidentally, they are the highest world authorities. No, these two historians are talking about their own culture, their own people, their own history.
Of the two, Berengo was the more assimilated. Vivanti had been part of a socialist kibbutz until the Six Day War). Paradoxically Berengo was the first to mention Judaism. In a letter, he wrote “that faith that unites us” and then deleted the word faith and replaced it with the word culture, which he deleted again to write “that thing”.
Judaism was “that thing that unites us”.
Martino Berengo authored very important studies. Drop his name during a conversation with any scholar of Early Modern History, wherever in the world, and you’ll see respect and admiration. But to me, that written and rewritten sentence, and the final version “that thing that united us” is his most important contribution. For my spiritual growth, I mean. But not only: for all of us, for all Jews
In fact, what is Judaism? A faith that is not only a faith. It is a culture, Its language is called leshon ha Kodesh, the sacred language, but in Israel, it is a common language with which to order a coffee in a cafe in Tel Aviv or to jolt down the grocery list (more commonly, type it into some app on the smartphone, that then orders it).
Like it or not, religion is part of the package of “that thing” called Judaism. Judaism is not just a culture like English, French or Italian; these are kinds of literature that do not necessarily speak of God. Instead. Hebrew literature says of God; its greatest masterpiece is the Bible! And even in the most secular moments of Jewish culture, there is always something religious.
I find it very poetic. Not even highly educated Jewish academics have managed to find the proper words to define what Judaism is, That Judaism has been described by them as “something”. Note: something that unites. Because this is Judaism. Something that we can never accurately describe. Something that holds together. Something that unites the Jews, that is: us.
Something that founds a community. One cannot be a Jew outside of a Jewish community. A Jew always needs other Jews. To have the minyan, to create a market for kosher products and to spend together the evening of Shabbats or an evening of Chanukah. Can you imagine lighting the Chanukah candles by yourself? Of course not; there must be some another Jew!
In the contemporary world, the need for community, authentic community, and real people in flesh and blood, is very counter-cultural. We live in an increasingly atomised world. We create temporary, virtual communities of equally atomised individuals. We interact through the smartphone’s screen, and when we are bored, we disconnect with the simple move of a finger. These are temporary interactions, made only of exchanges of words. We do not live together events, such as a Shabbat, a holiday or a simcha.
One can spend the days on Twitter or Facebook, but it will never be like sharing the same space in a synagogue on a Saturday morning; that “something that unites us” is not fully there.
Our religion is based on community. The contact with Jewish communities gives us a sense of holiness. How else can you explain that feeling when we “discover” another Jewish family, or an entire community, in unexpected places? Some years ago, we at BHRS “discovered” the Jewish community in Taiwan, and if you remember, we spent that strange Shabbat together (via Zoom). There are Jews in Taiwan. That’s fantastic. That’s magic.
But you don’t need to go to remote places like Taiwan. Equally thrilling is the feeling we get when we discover we are not the only Jews in the neighbourhood or in the village. That there is another Jewish family or Jewish individual down the block, Our first impulse — which we don’t always follow up is to make contact, to create a connection, to invite, say, for a Shabbat dinner. To experience together “that thing that unites us.”
I have often wondered what is it, that “thing” that unites atheist Jews and religious Jews and Jews of all shades in between. Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s parashah; in this week’s Torah portion, the part we have read. [Deut 33:1–49] When you read it, it seems to just a list of names of Biblical places. In their journey from Egypt to the Promised land, the Israelites have been here, then moved up there; then they have been there etc. Very little is said about what happened in these places. It is a rather dry list, and one wonders the point of including it in a Holy Book in the Torah.
And I think the answer is this. God — or whoever you fancy thinking is the author of the Bible — wanted us, Jews, to internalise that we are people on a journey. That we travel through places, That we do not settle.
Now, there is one curious thing about being on a journey. When you find yourself travelling with someone, you bond with those on your same journey. So perhaps the “thing that unites us” is this bond between people on a journey. The journey of our families. Many of us are children, grandchildren or descendants of immigrants. As a community of immigrants of people who never properly belong (or never completely want to belong), we have that sixth sense, that bell that rings when things go wrong when we spot intolerance and antisemitism. Think of that as having a sense of ambushes and potential dangers while you are indeed on a journey in uncharted territory.
It is only an example. You don’t have to be negative. That thing that keeps us together is also the Jewish calendar, with all its opportunities for holidays and community celebrations. Holidays that are community-based but also have different spiritual meanings, which every individual Jew lives in his/her own way.
We Jews are a community on a journey. A journey, if not through spaces, like our ancestors or our parents and grandparents, is certainly a journey through time. This perhaps answers questions like that from that old professor of mine: the thing that holds us Jews together is that feeling of being on a journey. Like every feeling, words never properly describe it. Even learned academics find the proper words,
But we know there is because we feel it.