Chanukah always feels like unfinished business to me. The festival is born of the culture war (which became a real war for a time) between Hebraic (Jewish) and Hellenistic (Greek) civilisations, but although the Jews won independence for a while, neither has ever won a decisive victory. As Matthew Arnold noted, Western civilisation is a seesaw between the Hebraic and Hellenistic, one side being more dominant for a period, then the other. At the moment I would say the Hellenistic is very much in the ascendant.
Maybe that’s why celebrating Chanukah can seem strangely premature. Or maybe I just feel it more keenly than other Jews because I don’t know how to navigate the seesaw (can you navigate a seesaw? I’m very tired). I want to be Western/Hellenistic, but a lot of the (post)modern world terrifies me. I want to be Jewish, but the Haredi world stifles me. Where do I go?
I went to the Imperial War Museum this afternoon with my Dad. I was slightly worried about whether it would depress me (it was really just an excuse for some father-son time), but it was OK. We spent most of the time in the World War I section and saw quite a lot of Edwardiana and then spent a bit of time in the post-1945 galleries, which were quite sparse. A couple of things stick in my mind: Siegfried Sassoon’s letter of protest against the war (although I’m not sure if it was the original or a copy). A letter from a general laying out cautious battle plans for the campaign season, in the margin of which a more gung-ho general had written “BALLS!!” A German propaganda poster (I like propaganda posters) that was supposed to encourage German civilians to trap rabbits so their pelts could be used for the war effort (how? For clothing? I don’t know!), which featured a rather sinister picture of a giant rabbit with red eyes like it was possessed by a demon. I’m not sure what the artist was on. And a lot of photos of mud and squalor.
I came home exhausted and haven’t really done much. I’m not doing any work on the novel again today, although I did do some Torah study. There isn’t much else to say, so this is a poem I wrote in 2014 on the centenary of the war. It isn’t a great poem (I’m not sure if A. J. P. Taylor is really the right muse to have for a poem), but otherwise this will be a ridiculously short post. The last line ties in with the ambiguous feelings about modernity that I mentioned in the beginning of this post.
The long spring of nineteen-fourteen flowered
With the customary dry platitudes:
Sweet-scented flowers in such brilliant hues;
Intoxicating sunlight flowing like wine
Through the crystal glass of urban windows;
Lovers’ trysts in open parks and cheap hotels.
The streets were awash with women in lace
And men sprouting luscious thick moustaches
The Victorian age in its last bloom.
Summer exploded with assassination.
The rest followed swiftly, punctually,
Like the timetables of those old railways:
Gas, machine-guns, mines, shells, planes and tanks.
Factory methods applied to killing,
Slaughter by the million, industrial death.
Empires rose and fell on a conveyor belt.
Soldiers left tearful loved ones behind them,
Their trains running on across the continent
Until they were met by their C.O., Death
And his chilling, intractable greeting,
“Welcome to Modernity.”