Helen Thomas and my uncle’s נינה


My Uncle David, may he live to be 120, is — I think — on the threshold of beholding that singular culmination of a life well spent, one that Hebrew blessedly condenses to a single syllable, nin נין, and that English contorts into "great-grandchild."

I sense this because, when I was in Israel a while back, we stopped by his granddaughter’s home, and it just seemed — ready. I don’t know how I know this, but there’s a sense one cultivates in cultures that make child-rearing a value above all others that a home is ready. It’s time.

So who will this kid be? It’s a natural enough question, right?

Except, Helen Thomas adds a weird layer of significance to it.

My uncle, raised by my fiercely Zionist grandmother, walked to Palestine from Turkey. There, on a kibbutz, he met a young woman who was the secular child of a religious couple; her father had fled the Hebron riots in 1929; his family had been there since I don’t know when. Her mother — I think — was the daughter of Russians who came in one of the aliyots.

They had two children, and the oldest married a schoolteacher whose Dad — I met him a couple of times, so I’m pretty sure of this — was from the former Czechoslovakia. Her mother, who is still with us thank God, has a slight Romanian accent.

I think.

My uncle’s granddaughter married a really nice young man, and, you know, I have no idea who his parents are. I wasn’t in Israel for the wedding. He seems Ashkenazi, but, nowadays, even that’s a hard call.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter. (You’ll notice, lots of "I thinks.")

Except, Helen Thomas, weirdly, has made it matter.

When this kid — say it’s a great-grand daughter, a נינה — "goes home," where does she go?

To Turkey? Should she walk back?

The Czech Republic? Slovakia? (The world has changed!)

Russia? Which Russia?

Germany? (The groom, it must be said, has a touch of the yekke about him.)


Is that what Helen Thomas wants?

To engage in this loopy discourse is at once disorienting and revelatory.

Of what other nation is this contemplated? And yet, bubbling up through the shock, there is the occasional strident accolade for Helen Thomas’ tirade.

Expect them to multiply.

Recent-ness (that’s not a word, because it shouldn’t be) cannot underpin any answer. Modern Zionism started not with Theodor Herzl, but with Moses Montefiore’s philanthropy aimed at expanding the Jewish presence outside Jerusalem’s walls, starting in the 1820s. It’s about that time that Jews became a plurality in the Jerusalem area.

That makes it older than European settlement in New Zealand. Lots of problems there over the decades with the Maori. Is anyone, seriously, contemplating repatriation to Britain and the Netherlands?

What about the American West and the Canadian interior? Hawaii? Alaska?

And then there’s that "modern" in "modern Zionism." It doesn’t account for the Tiberias settlement established by Dona Gracia and her son, Joseph Nasi, in the 16th and 17th centuries. It doesn’t account for Judah HaLevi’s heart lying in the East in the 12th century. It doesn’t account for the Haggadah’s commentators, in the centuries after the Second Temple fell.

It doesn’t account for the Second Temple.

We all come from everywhere else. We are all descendants of an ancient bright idea in a valley, perhaps in what is now modern day Ethiopia, in Kenya, who knows.

Yet it seems that it is only Jews who are always supposed to be elsewhere. Not everywhere, not a single where, but elsewhere. Our home, apparently, is where no one can go.

Is that where Helen Thomas wants us to go?

History is replete with tragic, catastrophic, even, displacements. The Palestinians have suffered one of these, yes. Alleviating that pain, filling that emptiness, is what this vexed, hexed peace process is about.

In part.

It’s also about my Uncle David’s נינה, and her right to grow up, speaking the Hebrew her great-grandfather acquired as a teenager walking into the land of Israel, and never, ever fearing having to leave.

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