Growing old, he told me, was like traveling in a foreign country. He had written that to his aunt after spending a considerable number of years in China following his retirement. He liked China because it was indeed a foreign country, by which he meant its people had nothing against the Jews, unlike the country where he had grown up and lived for so many years. As had I.
We first met in second year university. Medieval history class. He sat in the first row to the right of the professor, who would turn to him to complete his sentences, which he never failed to do. I was impressed. Still am. He was and is very bright. Frighteningly so, in some respects. Very thorough too. He can track down the details of an historical event with resolute tenacity. Language is not a barrier to him either. He masters four or five of them enough to find what he needs and others have overlooked. When he lays out an argument you know what it is to encounter a mind like a steel trap. Yet he is remarkably gentle. Perhaps because he is dispassionate. Hic rhodus hic salta, with none of the Marxist arrogance.
All this I have only gleaned lately. I lost track of him for fifty-five years. Then I saw his name in a daily briefing I receive on matters relating to Israel and the Jews and contacted him. When I did, he was still in China. From our correspondence I discovered we had wound up in the same place after a half century of following different paths. How strange. It was as though we were like two particles in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox suddenly in touch at opposite ends of the universe. Had we always been so without knowing it?
He knew early on that things were not right in the West. He may have picked that up from his father, who came to Canada from Poland before Hitler got going in Germany. Or from his mother, who was smart enough on her own to know the score in her native country. Both of them were children of the Hebrew Enlightenment, which meant that they embraced modernity full heartedly. Unabashed secularists, they expressed their Jewish attachment by ensuring their two sons would take full advantage of the intellectual horizons opened up by the freedom which shone as a beacon from the French Revolution and swept across Europe with Napoleon’s bayonets, staying and fertilising the continent after the emperor was long gone. Like Herzl, he and his brother had only the simulacrum of a Bar-Mitzvah. Both of them were never called to the Torah, but their coming of age was celebrated nonetheless. A teacher from New York was imported to give them lessons in Yiddish, which his brother mastered sufficiently to give a speech at the party thrown in his honor. He too mastered the language, but was dispensed from having to give a speech. Instead he marked his entry to Jewish adulthood with a trip to New York accompanied by his mother. By that time New York was unabashedly Jewish and the Jews were happily at home with all the other exotic ethnics that made the city pulse with so much difference it could only be embraced and championed, no words required. Eating Chinese food in New York in 1959, he saw, was somehow different from eating Chinese food in Montreal.
As soon as he finished his undergraduate studies he packed up and went to indulge what he had seen nearly a decade earlier. But by then the Enlightenment was under siege at Columbia and elsewhere. SDS, May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard were but the precursors to Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction, Palestinian hijackers. And even they were only explosives. The real work was yet to be done in the decades that followed, as students of mindless Marxism colonized the academy, recruiting professors and students until the reign of terror could get going in the places that count: the Democratic Party, the New York Times, school boards across the country and their counterparts throughout the western world. Eventually he wound up in China, where he was happy, as he wrote me and later told me, to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Unlike the Israelites in Egypt, I thought, but not unlike Joseph, who was happy to leave his native land behind where he had suffered such travails and named his first-born son in honor of God for enabling him to forget them. But as the story unfolds in Genesis, we come to learn that Joseph had not succeeded in burying his memories. The hurts of the past remained and rankled, and so I suspect it was with him in China. For who can excise the past with impunity? But now that he is back in Canada, I can see he misses being in China, misses the friends he made, misses the food, the people, and most of all misses being the foreigner in a foreign country where the stakes were clear. In Canada, he is still a foreigner in his home and native land, for unlike Joseph he returned with the flesh on his bones and his mind intact in his body.
I too was a son of the Enlightenment, as my friend liked to describe himself, but instead of traveling abroad I returned from my studies to Quebec, which was enough of a foreign country for me. There I worked, sought love, and harbored on the side an indulgence for the classics in literature and theatre while playing catch-up with the sixties always a decade behind. By the end of that trajectory, I discovered that everything I had once held dear had been trashed by the people whose community I had sought. Now I was ahead of my times, truly a foreigner in a foreign country, and it brought me neither joy nor solace. When I recently returned to Quebec the sky no longer made my heart leap. But then there is now no place on earth, neither past nor future, which allows me to entertain the illusion that a new twist on the Enlightenment awaits us all.
It is astonishing to see how we, the generation of the sixties, the spoiled generation as my father used to call us, made such a mess of things. For the current embrace of woke culture, the indulgence of derelicts and criminals in the name of reparations for the sins of the past, has led to the elimination of the classics which alone made modernity modern. The horror! The horror! Kurtz said in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But even he could not imagine how the horror would become the future, the social order itself, a juggernaut hell bent on sucking everything into its vortex; modern society, unleashed by freedom and fueled by freedom, become a black hole of virtue as virtuous as a Campbell Soup can. We have become gangsters and we have reared generations of gangsters, who misread modernity and reread it to fit their revision. America was founded in 1619, not 1776; on slavery, not liberty. John Locke, the Puritan Revolution, the Hebraic wellsprings of the Federalist Papers were the flotsam and jetsam of trickster minds putting one more thing over on the victims of history. Now we have come to rip the wool off the eyes of the deluded. But who really is eyeless in Gaza?
Unlike my friend, I attended a Hebrew day school and high school. Jew hatred was something I heard about but did not experience, wrapped in and sheltered by rites and books that led me to believe the wide wide world out there was an adventure asking to be enjoyed. Life was good and people were good and nothing could prevent me from discovering all that was foreign and exotic. Little did I know that in joining the party I was, like Kurtz, heading upstream into the heart of darkness. I had never learned Yiddish. Hebrew was my mother tongue, even if I had only learned it in school. Jews now had Israel and I had Israel and by the time I made it to that country, I longed for the revolution that jumped from the pages of Jean-Paul Sartre and the movies of Jean-Luc Godard and then moved to the country fairs of Woodstock and the offspring Woodstock spawned. Also, unlike my friend, I did not notice at first that this contemporary version of the Aufklärung was not what it seemed. Brecht and Grass and company were no match for Tolstoy and George Eliot, whose Middlemarch I only understood on my third reading, decades after I had first encountered it at university.
Eventually, however, I did learn. After much labor and disappointment, after realizing the price one paid for dragging childhood grievances onto the adult pitch and after finding a sociologist who demanded one do the same when observing society, I came to see that the shibboleths of an extended youth were of little use navigating the shoals of life. The personal was not the political. Make love not war was no prescription for handling dangerous liaisons. Few of my contemporaries paid attention, and so we wound up with ever-rising divorce rates and today a war in Ukraine which seems to be a repeat performance of a second-rate passion play that the adults in the room seem willing to allow to keep running. Russia is invading a country to capture towns where a century ago the very same Russia allowed, if not encouraged, pogroms against Jews to run amok. While Russia does this, China watches to see how far the West will allow murder and mayhem to continue and deduce if it will be okay to invade Taiwan.
My friend and I disagree about what the West should do, and what our country Canada should do. He thinks we should remain out of the war in Ukraine as much as possible and concentrate on building up our defenses. I think we, the West and Canada which is still part of the West, should send all the arms that Ukraine needs and put missiles in Poland and the Baltic States to make it clear that Russia will pay a heavy price if it wants to make good on its threats. China too will get the message. But I am no military expert and do not know if this is immediately feasible. It is clear that while the West has been busy indulging misconceived rot at home, it has not invested in the weapons and technology needed to counter the enemies of freedom who still think a well-ordered society is best run on the lines of empire. The people of Ukraine are paying the price for our dereliction, and no amount of virtue signalling can deny that millions are now homeless in the rawest physical meaning of that word.
Meanwhile, in Israel the Muslims are ratcheting up their murderous attacks on Jews whom they call the Occupation, and in the name of the most undeserving and misnamed call for Israel’s destruction. At the same time the United States Secretary of State goes to the Negev in Israel and calls out Israel for what he labels settler violence and mouths platitudes about a two-state solution which the so-called Palestinians continue to reject in opinion poll after opinion poll. How can a grown man educated in American universities and studying international relations for years be so clued out about the anti-Israel hatred that is spewed out of every mosque west and east of the Jordan? How can he and the government he serves not understand that the only peace that will come to the region will come when Israel is sovereign over both banks of the Jordan and the province of Gaza? How can he fail to hold the Palestinian leadership to account for their turpitude and malevolence that know no bounds? Rhetorical questions all, for the same United States government is bent on accommodating Iran and supplying it with sanctions relief and cash which will go straight into Russian coffers, the very ones that the West are trying to shrink because of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. I look on all this aghast, but with no surprise. I am not even surprised when I see the Israeli government offered no rebuke to the Secretary of State. For the Israeli government also lets the Jew hatred go on unabated. It vows it will hold the Muslims who went on a Jew murdering spree accountable by sending the army into the cities over which the Palestinian Authority presides. But it will not close the Al-Aksa mosque for the indeterminate future, nor warn Israeli and other Muslims that any disturbances will lead to the closure of all mosques in the country. Talk about addressing root causes, which the left always likes to cite to avoid taking the necessary but unpalatable measures to fix a problem and forestall future evil.
My mother used to tell us we had to learn the hard way. I see now that admonition applies not only to people but also to societies. The mess in Ukraine, like the mess in Israel, will go on and on. People will be murdered and made homeless. The media will give us death counts just as they did for Covid, thinking they have done their job, ignorant and ill-intentioned to the bitter end. The Prime Minister of Canada will hem and haw about the moral outrage we feel about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support a nuclear deal with Iran, and send funds to UNRWA so more Muslim children in Gaza can wet dream about destroying Israel and regaining Jerusalem. I doubt the future for Russia and China will be one of triumph. But I also know history moves slowly. Societies evolve slowly. Modernity and the freedom it has brought are still misunderstood by so many, even if its riches and blessings are there for all to see, not least through the eye of the James Webb telescope. My friend and I shall continue to feel homeless, and I shall continue to meditate on what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign land with no direction home. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, wrote the poet. Perhaps when I am dead someone will be kind enough to tap on my grave and tell me I was right.