A man is nothing but the image of the landscape of his birthplace,
Only what his ear recorded when it was still fresh,
Only what his eye took in before it had seen too much,
Whatever was encountered on the dew-covered path
By the child who tripped over every bump and clod of earth
-Shaul Tchernichovsky, A man is nothing but
Tschernichovsky was one of the founding poets of modern Israeli literature usually mentioned in the same breath with Bialik. An important theme for him was the nature of the identity of the New Jew: if we reject the restrictions of the religious tradition, then just what makes us who we are? However, his geographical answer to this dilemma, as it appears in the above lines, raises more questions than it answers:
If we interpret the poem literally, as a reflection of personal experience, then the small plot of land that is who I am is located in Glens Falls, New York, a beautiful resort town on the shore of Lake George where my family lived for the first few years of my life. I do have some vague memories, some images of the place, though I suspect most of them are reconstructed from photographs and family stories. If we zoom out a bit, then a claim can certainly be made that a core element of my identity is the landscape of the temperate regions of North America where I spent my whole childhood, from the Adirondacks to the Great Lakes. And there is no question that fall colors and winter snow and summer thunderstorms are deeply embedded in my sensory memories.
On the other hand, if we see the poem as referring to collective memory to our collective childhood as a people, then the image of the landscape of our birthplace is the landscape of Eretz Yisrael. As the declaration of independence has it, Eretz Yisrael is the birthplace of the Jewish People. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped.It is interesting to consider which memory is a more significant part of the identity of the traditional Jew that of his real birthplace (Glens Falls, etc.) or that of his collective Jewish one in Israel. I dont think the answer is simple. For the Jew in the Diaspora, Israel is ever present in the calendar, in the scenery of the biblical narrative; yet for the immigrant to Israel, the Old Country is ever present in many aspects language, visual memories, visceral responses to smells and tastes be it California, Russia, or Ethiopia. And even if that Old Country was a place of persecution and suffering, often the nostalgia for what his ear recorded when it was still fresh, what his eye took in before it had seen too much remains a powerful influence for the rest of the immigrants life.
But wait, theres more: where were we really born? As a people, as a political entity, what was the landscape of our birthplace? We can certainly make a case for the desert between Egypt and Mt. Sinai. Every week as we recite the Shabbat Kiddush, we refer to the memory of the exodus from Egypt. That formative event together with the revelation at Sinai can be seen as the ultimate formative memory of the Jewish people. Could it be that the image of the landscape of our birthplace is the majestic and forbidding wilderness of Sinai?
When our youngest son was three, we moved from Israel to Philadelphia, and lived in a temporary apartment for a few months before we closed on our house. One Shabbat after the final move, we told him, as we left synagogue, that we were going home. Where is home? he asked. Indeed, where is home?