Milk and Honey
"Jews have two defining tragedies in the 20th century -- the Holocaust, and the state of Israel."
-- Irena Klepfisz
My mother and grandmother were fans of the Broadway theater. They went to both musicals and serious dramas, and followed the reviews. I lean towards thinking they preferred musicals, but that's because you could buy the original cast recordings and play them at home. For the first time I realize my grandmother had no phonograph. I search my memory of her small apartment for it, but no, it's not there. I do know she favored historical novels and Ellery Queen mysteries, but how could I know if she liked musicals more than dramas, just because she took me to them, in the theater and at the movies, until the day when I was in high school that she bought me tickets for Marat/Sade, saying, "I read the papers, and this seemed right up your alley, so I went down to the box office and got you tickets. A good thing too -- the next day, they were sold out for months. No, you don't have to thank your old grandmother. Just enjoy yourself."
When I was little, eight, nine, ten, my grandmother shlepped me to the movies for Guys and Dolls and The King and I. I thought The King and I was silly at the time, since I couldn't identify with either Anna in her voluminous skirts or Yul Brenner's king. Now I dismiss it as racist, sexist, and contrived. Sexist as Guys and Dolls is, I never outgrew it, sometimes identifying with Frank Sinatra, who played a harried shlub, and sometimes with Marlon Brando, the gambler smitten by love despite his cool. My grandmother and I saw it together at least twice, maybe three times. When I was twelve, she and my mother agreed that it was time to introduce me to the finer things, my first musical.
My first Broadway musical! This was going to be better than being Bas Mitzvahed (which I eventually found a way to wriggle out of) -- this was my initiation into the mysteries of theater, and not just theater, but a way of life that was New York. New York was the essence of living in that historical time, the early 1960s, because it was the generative temple of modern thought and art, and the theater was its inner sanctum, the chamber in which children were transformed into women, and women could be moved to tears.
The play they chose for my rite of passage was Milk and Honey, an enthusiastic Zionist musical about making the desert bloom. Israel is a year older than I am, so it would have been about thirteen years into its troubled life. My father fought in the 1949 war that created the Israeli state, and my mother smuggled arms while working as a researcher for Life magazine in New York. When he got home, they made me, and they gave me a name popular then among Israelis, an Israeli name.
My father had been in the air force in WWII and a minor hand injury on the base kept him from being shipped out to the Pacific theater (they called it a staging area, they rehearsed), where most of his squadron got killed. After the war, when no one could claim anymore that they didn't know what had happened to the Jews, his family, which was extensive, gave a lot of money to the Jewish fighters in Palestine. He was young, he was lucky, he was pretty. His passport stamps were from Canada and somewhere in Eastern Europe, his old photo album had shots of ruined graveyards in Belgrade or Prague, and pictures of other handsome men leaning against the body of a bomber, the way their contemporaries were leaning against spiffed up Chevys and Fords back home, self-satisfied with the mechanical augmentations of their strength, their assumption that they were the heroes of the piece.
He was the pilot of the first plane that ever dropped a bomb on Cairo, and my mother kept the pin from that bomb in her purse for several decades. She said that's what it was, at any rate, although now I am dubious. Hand grenades have pins, but bombs? Regular bombs, loaded with explosives, aren't they just ready to go when you open the hatch and say, goodbye lives below? Some of the nuances of war escape me, though I like to think I get the big picture. What was important to my mother was not whether or not bombs have pins, but that my father fought, not simply against the enemy but to make a homeland for Jews. Not simply against, but for something. And that she had fought for it too, and carried with her the proof.
Anyway you can see from this that I came not only from a theater-believing family, but from Zionists. So the appearance of Milk and Honey on Broadway was fortuitous -- what better way to bring me into the sacred rituals of -- I hesitate to use this phrase, although it seems at the moment exactly appropriate -- "The Great White Way"? Certainly the impulse to drama is not specific to white folks, and it could be argued that the Greeks, whose sense of theatrical production Western culture still emulates, were susceptible to influences from Northern Africa. But what Broadway churned out was the product of mostly immigrants, many of them Jews, trying to recast themselves as American patriots and sentimentalists, with the occasional flourish of WASPy gay male sensibilities -- Cole Porter, for instance. You could tap your feet without swaying your hips, you could lament without betraying an old-world religious outlook. You could be clever, modern, entertaining, and still assimilate.
Milk and Honey -- assimilation? At this distance, I can say yes: assimilation into the American belief that a "wilderness," essentially empty with only a handful of native "savages," was brought into nationhood by "destiny" and a righteous work ethic. Milk and Honey was made to play for American Jews and New Yorkers sympathetic to Jews remaking their image from the downtrodden, easily slaughtered, Orthodox scholars and merchants of history into a contemporary people with bright smiles who looked snappy in their uniforms.
As I tell you this story, I have the uneasy, and growing, sensation that I am betraying my mother. Suppose I had a daughter who talked about my lesbian idealism the same way? They managed to convince themselves that they would be transformed into legendary amazons, those girls who turned their backs on every avenue that might have led them to real power. You know what? They thought if they willed it, they'd be able to fly. My mother believes that Jews who criticize Israel in any fundamental way are historically ignorant and self-hating.
"You don't know what we fought for," she would likely say. And perhaps this is correct. They fought for something that does not now exist. A homeland so secure and righteous that Jews all over the world would be safe -- they could always have a place to go if the holocaust happened again, or even smaller pogroms, and they would always be able to defend that place because of their newfound military competence. This country would embody the principles of socialist democracy, a culture where honest labor was valued and every citizen had an equal voice, an equal chance, a country that flew the joyful flag of justice and peace.
Of course they also fought because of the newsreels, the documentation of concentration camps that played in the movie theaters the summers of 1946 and 47. If your parents, your grandparents, had not left, these heaped skeletons would be your bones. What are you going to do about it, now that you know, now that you really know? They were eager to answer that call.
Everyone knows that owning land is power. "We the People" originally meant we who own property. Having a territory -- boys all over this city kill each other to defend their turf, their place in the world. Lesbians breathe a sigh of relief when they sign their mortgage papers -- no landlord can evict us now. After World War II, formerly German, Polish, Slovakian, Iraqi, Turkish Jews decided it would be best if they had their own base of power, a seat in the UN, a government that could raise armies.
The only trouble was someone was already living there. The rest is history -- and what is history, other than a constant advertising campaign by the side who won? A traumatized people flooded into a place that perhaps their distant ancestors were forced out of, and said, "If we will it, it is no dream. This is the land of milk and honey. We were promised, we've suffered enough, goddamit, and we're not going to be pushed around any more."
Milk and Honey starred Molly Picon. Part of the deal about live theater, live theater in New York, is that you get to see the actual stars in person. Molly Picon was a big Yiddish theater star near the end of her career then, which started in Eastern Europe. I once saw a 1930s film in which she cross-dressed as a boy to travel with her widowed father. But nobody cross-dressed in Milk and Honey. No old vaudeville shtick for them. What was the plot? Who knows? They came, they saw, they made their homes with only minor, sanitized struggles, they dipped their bread in honey and drank milk. The actors danced -- my grandmother watched a fat woman dancing and whispered to me, "She's very light on her feet," which gave me hope that fat people could have redeeming qualities. And they sang, "This is the land of milk and honey, and this lovely land is mine!"
You know that scene in the movie Cabaret, where a group of appealing German children are singing, "The future belongs to me," as the camera pulls back and reveals them to be Nazi youth? Everyone says it's bad, unproductive, button-pushing, to in any way compare what has happened, what is happening, in Israel to Nazi Germany. Basically I agree. At least to the part about how it freezes people in their tracks and shuts down any possible dialogue.
But look, it's time we understood this: ordinary Germans were not any more monstrous than you or I. We know -- we get reports and don't pretend you haven't heard -- of massive brutalities against civilian populations in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The world has been transformed by technology to the point where we cannot honestly say these things are not happening in our backyards, that we can't smell the stench of mass graves being dug this week.
People who are defeated in these wars we try not to notice look for vindication, revenge, reparations at the least. Men mostly, but not only men, although men's reactions define the dramas of vengeance. They look to get back what they had before, and often this gives them the chance to invent a before that is more wishful thinking than reality.
"Mine," say the champions, the youth who fight the good fight to honor their ancestors. "Mine," say the Israelis, convinced the world is still against them (and certainly the Israeli policy makers are doing their best to make their fear a self-fulfilling prophecy). "Mine," say the Palestinians, whose name for the war of 1949 is not Independence but The Disaster. "My land, my future."
New York is a language-based city. No other place in America has newspaper stands on every street. LA is a city of mirrors, Chicago of industry, San Francisco of cool, but New Yorkers talk. They have words for everything. And they have their gorgeous theaters, where congregations gather to affirm their faith.
My grandmother and mother believed in the theater, its process of catharsis and transformation. They wanted to show me both the glory and the substance of what they believed in, what they longed for -- a place in the world. And perhaps I have not betrayed them after all. My true inheritance is the temple of dreams. If I will it, I can inspire, I can take both sides of a tragedy and say: let's make a new play. It is still possible to imagine a dialogue reverberating with centuries of grief in which the actors gradually accept responsibility for the damage they've done and then listen to each other. A satisfying drama in which the curtain comes down on peace.