Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's in a fifty Shekel Note?

Today I took money out of the ATM and received the new fifty shekel note. It looks like this.

The figure on the note is Shaul Tchernikovsky (1875-1943), one of Israel's most lauded of the "1st generation" Zionist poets. There is barely a city in Israel that doesn't have a street named after him; he is truly one of the greats. I took a look at the verse printed on the note and it reads:

כי עוד אאמין באדם,
גם ברוחו, רוח עז.
For I shall believe in mankind
In its spirit great and bold

Now, this phrase comes from Tchernikovsky's poem אני מאמין (see English and Hebrew) popularly know as שחקי שחקי due to the opening words. It was written in 1892 when he was just 17 years of age, in Odessa. Let us recall that this is before Herzlian Zionism, before the Zionist congresses. As such, his words express an almost prophetic confidence in Mankind, and in the revival and future statehood of the Jewish people:
אאמינה גם בעתיד,
אף אם ירחק זה היום,
אך בוא יבוא - ישאו שלום,
אז וברכה לאום מלאום.

ישוב יפרח אז גם עמי,
ובארץ יקום דור,
ברזל- כבליו יוסר מנו,
עין-בעין יראה אור.

I believe in the future,
Even if that day is far off
But it will come, when nations
All live in blessed peace.

Then my people too will flourish
And a strong generation shall arise
In the land, shake off its chains
And see light in every eye.
From this perspective, Tchernikovsky certainly should find his place on the Israeli banknote as one of the inspired visionaries and precursors of the modern Jewish state. So, why am I feeling ambivalent about this new banknote? Well, I LOVED the "old" 50 NIS.

It had Agnon on it with his huge black kippa. But what I really loved was a lengthy quotation (in tiny print) which is one of the most inspiring and beautiful Zionist-Jewish statements I have ever read! It is Agnon's speech upon receiving his Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. It reads:

As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.
The Jewish heritage of this man oozes out of this speech, just as his literature is imbued with so much Talmudic and midrashic inspiration, so much imagery of the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe, and of Jewish texts (along with a hefty dose of cynicism and irony!)

Back to Tchernikovsky. His poem is in many ways a repudiation of religion. It is called "Ani Maamin - I believe" as a play on the traditional 13 principles of faith that proclaim belief in God, Torah and the waiting for the Messiah. Tchernikovsky grew up in a religious home. He knew his religion. Tchernikovsky's "Ani Maamin" rejects religion and replaces God with Mankind:
כי באדם אאמין .... כי גם ברעות אאמין ... אאמינה גם בעתיד,
I believe in Mankind
... I believe in friendship
... I believe in the future

The poem includes many linguistic interplays with pesukim in Tanakh, but secularizing and inverting its intent (examples include לאום מלאום\ עין בעין יראה אור \ שיר חדש ישיר המשורר ליופי ...).

So, when i see the paean: "Rejoice, for I’ll have faith in mankind, For in mankind I believe," I feel ambivalent. I know that Tchernikhovsky was an inspiration to the revival of our national home, and yet, my soul misses Agnon's religious temperament.

Here is the classic version of ""sachki":

And here the Avishai Cohen jazz instrumental version:

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