Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (La-Ga'at Ba-Mayim, La-Ga'at Ba-Ruah)

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TOUCH THE WATER, TOUCH THE WIND (La-ga'at ba-mayim, la-ga'at ba-ruah)

Novel by Amos Oz, 1973

Written in a style that quivers between lyrical surrealism and magical realism, on the one hand, and a casual, even offhanded, journalistic matter-of-factness, on the other, Amos Oz's Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1974; La-ga'at bamayim, la-ga'at ba-ruah, 1973) like much Holocaust fiction written by non-European nonparticipants, skirts the actual horrors of the camps and ghettos. Instead, it writes on the periphery of the catastrophe and invokes other more contemporary agendas. Like Oz's other, non-Holocaust, fiction, Touch the Water is an unflinching and a pained confrontation with the reality of modern-day Israel caught in the Jews' age-old cross fire of group survival and personal fulfillment, now waged as a national rather than a religious struggle.

The protagonist, Elisha Pomeranz, is a Jewish-Polish watch-maker and theoretical mathematician who also takes the alias Dziobak Przywolski, a woodcutter and magician who survives in the woods during the onslaught itself and who is also known as Mieczyslaw, King of New Poland. He skillfully and cleverly makes his way in the company of other survivors through Greece to Palestine. His multiple talents and shifting identities dramatically figure the protean quality of Jewish survival itself, a survival predicated on just this ability of the Jews to absorb, assimilate, and enter into the various landscapes they inhabit. His wife, Stefa (alias Comrade Fedoseyev), who, as a high ranking member of the Communist Party, traces a different trajectory of pre-and post-Holocaust European Jewish history, exemplifies the adaptability of the Jew. But pursued by Nazism on the one hand and communism on the other, even these time-honored Jewish tricks of survival do not prove potent enough to save the Jews. Neither, however, does refuge in the promised land of Israel. This, more than the Holocaust and all of its horrors, is the true locus of torment in Oz's novel.

Not simply orphaned of a past by the Holocaust (two of the younger characters' names are derived from the Hebrew yatom, meaning "orphan") but also actively orphaning itself further through its hostility to the past, the Jewish people stand poised in 1967 on the brink of annihilation once more. Against the background of the Holocaust, the threat to Israel's existence is hardly to be dismissed simply as a flaw within the Jewish personality. Nonetheless, given Elisha's and Stefa's extraordinary powers of survival, the rigidity of the kibbutz and its unwillingness to incorporate diasporic Jewish consciousness represent a problem. Thus, we are told, "Ernst, the Secretary of the Kibbutz, thought to himself: It may be that we have a real mathematical genius living with us here. But in fact he is not living among us. He takes no part in the general assemblies, he contributes nothing to the committees, he takes no interest in the great questions like the reform of society or the future of the Movement and the State …" Indeed, for Ernst, Elisha is the "culprit" who seduces his own son Yotam from the ideals of the kibbutz.

Yet it is the "shiftless, withdrawn," and shortsighted Yotam who sets off at the end of the book with his female American counterpart, Audrey, in pursuit of a peace informed less by his father's didactic, pragmatic Zionism than by his spiritual father Elisha's less rooted-at-homeness in the world. Indeed, on his deathbed Ernst himself comes to recognize the role of what he calls "mathemusic," the intangible, ungraspable order of the universe. Denouncing all of the idealisms the book has set up, from the Enlightenment through communism to Israeli collectivism, the high priest of the kibbutz movement testifies, "I, Ernst Cohen, being of sound mind, hereby acknowledge … that everything is a delusion which exists for a time only because the whole world … is in desperate need of salvation." And yet simultaneously Cohen also becomes a believer: "I, Ernst Cohen, at this moment, tonight … hereby testify: here and now, with my very ears, I can hear the stars singing. There is no possible answer to the question, Is this in itself a sufficient proof that the stars are singing. I may add that if I tried to grasp the melody, to repeat it, to reproduce it,—there is no doubt that I should sing it out of tune." Human society, Oz knows, is at best an imperfect replica of a heavenly vision, as Ernst's shortsighted son already seems to know.

In the end the European immigrant Jews Elisha and Stefa Pomeranz are swallowed up to become a part of the earth of Eretz Yisrael, while the new generation of Yotam and Audrey become the new wandering Jews, "roam[ing] from town to town and from land to land, testing the power of words." The old Jew of the Diaspora has sunk down roots in the soil to become a part of its potentially redemptive power, while the new Hebrews, children of the land of Israel, now wander in search of a redemption that only words, the imperfect music of the stars, can bring about.

—Emily Budick