György Konrád: Aphorisms on the Durability of the Jews

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György Konrad

Aphorism On The Durability Of Jews

Being a Jew is a several thousand-year-old challenge. The Jews are a global people, present almost everywhere, and what has been around a long time stays around.

Jews exist, and have for ages! This peculiarity is a fact, and almost everything follows from it. Is there another global people? The Chinese may be even older, but they have melded less with the societies of the western world, have had less of a role in forming them, and those living at home are much more numerous than those living in the Diaspora. Jews are everywhere, bridging spatial and temporal borders, obstacles is characteristic of them.

Grudging relatives: the religious, Zionist – nation-state and worldly-universalist options are held together by the shock of the holocaust as absolute negative for all three. This is the only people that has remained what it is through the most diverse of times and environments. It passed through the others, through the differing roles and disguises of adaptation. Its assimilation is kept within bounds by the secret conviction that being a Jew amounts to no less than being anything else.


Jewish reflection bridges, links, comprehends through distancing, and easily swings up from the concrete to the abstract and back: it oscillates.

I see as Jewish this transcendent, surpassing passion, the ability of individuals to break away from their environment, to achieve distance, and to be able to view their own world ironically.

Jews are transcendent in a realistic way. They are not afraid to go past the given borders of the given world, they know there is more to it, they know people live beyond the hills as well.

It is an accommodating, polite, law-abiding non-conformity.

The spiritual basis: individuals having godly dignity of equal rank, integrity, inviolability, the idea of the unity of humanity, every person’s God is the same one.

For Jews, there is no intermediate metaphysical station between man and god, there is no god-man, no man become god.

That which is human should just stay that way.

Moses is a person, David is a person, Jesus is a person, all our fellow-men, all frail, and the truth of each one is partial.

And the messiah can let people await his arrival, he needn’t hurry.

A Jew doesn’t need to be religious; if he doesn’t believe, well then he doesn’t believe God, who is not human, but rather the eternal presence which sees and hears a person, even listens, God is spoken to by the religious.

Jews provided the biblical metaphor of the world.


Jews generally bring liveliness, they initiate, identities in friction are productive. They see from outside, not just from inside. The consciousness of Jews is generally paradoxical, others’ is too, but that of Jews is in any case, as a rule. Contrary impulses exist, and they do not want to suppress either.


A trans-national people in nation-states! Which direction should its heart pull? Toward the nation-state, or world Jewry? This is the kind of question that doesn’t need to be asked, because either answer is an undesirable constraint. A person’s freedom lies in weighing concrete alternatives and deciding according to principles, heart, taste and mood.


There is a Jewish global people, which now more calmly considers itself Jewish, because it has less need to be frightened, yet still, everywhere in the world, it feels some uncertainty, because there is not only a Jewish global people, but global anti-Semitism as well. The Israelis cannot feel entirely secure either, there too, there are neighbors who would kill them just for being Jews. There was once a renowned, later deified Jew who was killed for his words. It is a Jewish custom to get into that kind of situation. It is a Jewish custom to give words such exaggerated significance, even to die for them. It is Jewish history that a person is killed for being what they are.


The Lord, who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai according to the familiar narrative, said of himself, I am who I am. The Lord expects this godly identity from his chosen ones too. This terribly exhausting, groping identity. Who saw him? Who heard him? Moses, a Jew, who may not have even really been a Jew. Since then, the demand to be identical with ourselves has remained in force, as has the demand to honor the covenant which various fathers, and this – Moses – formed with the Invisible Voice. According to the prophets, it is a covenant with our conscience, with the voice of our soul. The secret of survival – say the prophets – is faithfulness to ourselves, to an undertaking.


The people of most nations can be melted in, it is relatively hard to do so with Jews. The something that preserves them unveils itself even on Jews who camouflage themselves – even if the disguise is long-standing and self-imposed. Following the Zionists, the Diaspora Jews are also beginning to resign themselves to being what they are, and are no longer even so dejected about it. They pop out of the box, here and there they appear with their portable God, embodiments of a peculiar strategy. Staying incognito has become less typical of worldly Jews, why should they conceal their Jewishness, sometimes they stray instead toward the tastelessness of boasting.


The person who is who he is, up to the level of civil courage, individually, is a type of person that can awaken ill-temper. Jews were most likely in advance of the Germans in modernization, in choosing Western values; to Jews, universalism was more self-evident. The revenge for this was Nazism. Actually, the Germans wished for the same thing: to enter the world at large. The European Jews lost, they were not watchful enough, and they weren’t good enough strategists, had they seen more clearly, more of them would have escaped. They did not defend themselves resolutely enough. Today, Israel and world Jewry stand virtually behind Jews living in any country. Jewish consciousness is stronger and less paradoxical in Israel and America than in Central-Europe, not especially far from Auschwitz.


Worldly Jews select what to keep of the prescriptions. They reduce their duties, their ritual obligations, and believe they have more important things to do in the spring than to burn the homec. They give religious discrimination no room on their bookshelf. There is more to life than being Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Being human means more than any sub-group identity. The task of Jews is to practice their humanity, to understand and appreciate the other person in their own particularity.


Humanity? Respect for the particular.

One prays this way, the other that way, they all long for something higher, more solemn, more extraordinary, superhuman, they all reach upwards, they all believe the godly is a kind of demand, the demand for purity, the wish that you rise above petty interests and petty affairs.

You should be able to extricate yourself sometimes from the physical reality of the here and now, to free yourself from earthly gravitation, to fly the bird of spirit, to observe yourself from the top of a mountain, from a bird’s eye view, to give a farewell glance out of the train window at that which is tied to one place, immovable. In the biography of an individual, the city is an episode. In the biography of the city, the individual is an episode. We hear the exhortation to view our lives from a calming distance, during a tea ceremony, in a desert tent, in an European bar or pub, or in a Near-Eastern café. The level we reach then is conducive to religious thought. Everyone is endowed with states of detachment, when the dream carries us away, when in a hotel room we feel everything that was until then, is far away, somewhere else.


Are you different in the hotel room, when you step out of bed, and go into the bathroom, put on the white shirt, gray suit, black shoes, then go down to the breakfast room, where everyone behaves more or less similarly. The worldly Jew is like other people. There are life situations in which the children of all nations do more or less the same.


The Jew transcends, but to where? In the direction of the familial paradise. Continuation is the meaning of his life, and in general, his wife is his conscience. Jewish utopia is the friendly dinner table. Heaven and the chorus of angels is no better than this. Wife, children, grandchildren, relatives, friends, guests, locals, and travelers around the table set for a holiday. It is difficult to conceive of anything more attractive, Jews wish all others this same utopia. This is the other-world, other also in the sense that it is safe for the moment, that no one breaks in for the moment, that the soldiers’ horses do not stamp under the window. Children remember this bit of warmth from the stove, familial happiness, when everyone loved one another, perhaps this was the other world, the one the Jew searches for here in earthly life, because he doesn’t think he needs to die before he can enjoy it.


Jews do not much mention or promise the eternal life of the soul. They acknowledge death. They do not believe we are consoled for all suffering, they are able to reconcile faith in God with the acceptance of human fate, for this reason I would call them ethical realists. They do not postpone salvation to the afterworld, to the supposed eternal life following death. They do not believe there exists heavenly correction, compensation, reconciliatory reparation for the mistakes of earthly life. What happened, happened and can no longer be changed. You may make mistakes, but there is no heavenly safety net.

The real happening is not over there, but rather here, this is it. And though this is sometimes a vale of tears and scandalous too, it is mainly the terrain of work and weekday joys and sorrows. Well yes, the Jew says, one has to work, it’s been this way since Cain, we lost our innocence, we bit into knowledge, into sensuality and into sin, carefree childhood is no more.

The ethics of adulthood, that is what wiser Jews search for, it is evident in their estimation that learning is worth more than fighting. Jews concede the world is powerful, even too powerful, and that unpredictable forces rage within it, so one must adjust to it, take account of it, acknowledge it, understand it, and after negotiating, one must come to terms with it, to find the least deleterious among the possibilities, without illusions about the lesser evil, but all this is not enough, because to this one must add something more.

Being chosen means that we all suppose it of ourselves, because we may each be chosen for something, and we try to discover what it might be. We give ourselves tasks according to the voice of our conscience. Only with helpful self-discipline is the adult possible. Those who insult others instead of working are not adults. There are non-adult public opinions. Being offended is not a realistic spiritual condition, and does not favour prosperous survival.

Jews would have cause to be offended as an orientation, but more mature Jews counsel against it; one must not retreat into a shell, but rather initiate, so that such misfortune cannot happen again. Jews have work to do, the world is interconnecting, being sewn together, the process must be promoted, because it is what prevents newer holocausts. The murder of anyone’s child is unbearable, and it must be particularly unbearable to the Jews. The task of Jews is to learn from Auschwitz, and to reject everything that is like it, resembles it, validates and excuses it, regardless of who is presently threatened by genocide.

The galut, the Diaspora, is the field of reality, the galut is parallel to globalization, dispersal over the globe: this means that Jews – while remaining faithful to themselves – must learn, must come to know this planet and its inhabitants, they must help in the work of reminding humanity that it is related.

Transcendence is familial continuity, plus self-control, or I might say the humility that makes it possible. Life subordinated to self-discipline and purity laws, in which bodily habits gain religious significance, and thus sanctified, are lifted out of the sea of the profane, just as the holiday is an exception in the row of weekdays. The Jew wants to protect this realistically attainable worldly afterworld, or to help it to safety in the shadow of the menacing power, to help it survive. The outside should be modest, the inside rich. To smuggle the holiday into the world, so there can be a holiday. The compulsory Sabbath is the order of intellectual distancing, to reflect upon our life. The Sabbath is created and preserved for this purpose. We cleanse ourselves, eat well and look into the candle’s flame.


Like the writer of these lines, many worldly Jews do not distinguish the Sabbath: they try to make a Sabbath out of every day. They do not distinguish the sacred and the profane, they like them to play into each other. They do not attend the synagogue, they read instead, and though it may be out of pride, or laziness, they rarely like to become entangled in collective rituals. All of world literature is theirs. Every good book, every work of art they admire constitutes a higher authority. Non-Jews should also regard as their own all of Judaica, from the Bible up to the present day. This text is also Judaica, and no less Hungarica. Every work of every Jewish author – regardless of the language it was written in, can be regarded as Judaica as well. The works of Jewish authors contain their way of thinking and their sensitivity, but if the work in question is really a work of art, then the nationality of the author is perhaps not irrelevant, but certainly not of primary importance. The significant work crosses borders, cultures, centuries. The worldly person chooses, and is interested in all kinds of sacred books, but the “sacred” books of worldly Jews are the ones they choose. Worldly Jews choose their own sacramental objects. Though they can see orthodoxy as beautiful, they do not spend as much time on ritual obligations as those require. Instead, they have personal rituals, they regard as their own that which appeals to them.


To be a Jew is an extraordinary obligation to study. One must be familiar with all the national civilizations with which Jews are involved, or have closer contact. This is especially true for the Diaspora Jew, because Jews in Israel are just as apt as any other people to overdo national navel-gazing. They are so occupied with their own affairs that they have little attention left for the world at large, unsurprisingly, as the affairs of the neighborhood are often life and death matters. The Diaspora Jews also have their own subcultural egotism, but they are compelled to understand the other local sensitivities, and in order to prevent anti-Semitism from becoming a menace, they attempt to neutralize local xenophobic romanticism in their own way. To save their skin, they must influence public opinion, because if they do not perform this work, it may come to pass that they get killed, and of course this has happened even when they tried diligently to carry out the work, but did not succeed.

In the worldly Jew’s circle of friends there are Jews, but there are non-Jews as well. They eat what the locals eat, everywhere. They do not suggest or imply the things the locals like are impure and unholy. They do not distinguish themselves by dress or hairstyle, because they would consider that pointless eccentricity. At most, they distinguish themselves unwittingly. Why only unwittingly? Are they afraid to identify themselves? Do they not want to acknowledge being Jews? I can hear the accusing question. But I never wear anything folkloristic anywhere. Actually, I consider even my immediate material environment accidental. The environment does not impede me in deeper thinking. I am loath to stand out willfully, I am not a concretist-animist. I do not wear my religion or world view on my person as an emblem, I have never worn any kind of badge in my lapel. Most likely, secularization will continue, people want to dispose of their free time themselves, and only occasionally to take part in collective church services they feel are too long. They are reserved in their appreciation of religious rituals, whose essence is that we obey, lower our heads before the eternal and bow frequently.


Jews come in as many kinds as there are people. What makes a person a Jew is saying they are one. If they say they are, then this state of affairs probably concerns them, they mull over it, even feel some communality with other Jews, living and dead. It is infrequent for someone of non-Jewish origin to declare themselves Jewish. Every other definition is uncertain, the only sure criterion of Jewish identity is if a person calls him/herself a Jew, and this is so even if neither mother nor father was Jewish.


Greater integration is good for Jews: they become one among many. Mass anti-Semitism is not normal in the EU, because the different being neighbors is increasingly normal. The relationship of worldly citizens of big cities to religions resembles their relationship to national cuisines, they enter alternately the restaurants of various nationalities, and do not eat the same dish (solet) every Saturday.


Autonomist isolation is not in the interests of Diaspora Jews. It is not to their advantage to descend from the major to the minor circuit, and to develop a minority intimate culture (which possibly comes to require positive discrimination). A more fortunate choice is to validate their own colors while being woven into the whole. Diaspora Jews have a stake in local integration, the prophet Jeremiah already saw it this way and counseled it. Jewish citizens living in various places wish to be a part of the society and culture of their country-city. What does integration mean? It means they respect the law, pay taxes, and participate in public life, they speak the local language either as their native language or as a learned language, they become familiar with the culture of the local majority, and try to augment it. On the other hand, Jewish communities are loosely connected parts of a kind of virtual world Jewish community, they are related to each other and to the Jews of Israel.