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How I won the revolution in Vilna, 1905

Jeremy LeighFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

A small plea for the importance of the historical imagination. This is your chance to go on your own Jewish journey and end up in Vilna in 1905…or Cordoba in the 10th century – or in fact who knows where.

Jeremy Leigh lectures in Jewish History and Israel Studies at the Hebrew Union College and also the Machon l’Madrichei Chutz L’Aretz in Jerusalem. He is the Director of Jewish Journeys, an educational initiative to promote Jewish travel around the world. “Jewish Journeys” is also the title of his last book.

So here it is about 106 years ago last summer, I was in Vilna and at the time I was a member of a political party which some of you may know called The Bund. It’s a Jewish revolutionary party and the purpose was to find a new way in which Jews could participate in the struggle for a better world. It was revolutionary, it believed in universal justice and I was very proud to be there at the demonstration where we were taking on tsarist autocracy and trying to overthrow a class system and at the same time create a new space for Jewish culture. I was involved in writing a leaflet which was called, “We Must Not Forget”, and the problem was that at the critical moment you can probably see some of the images here and this is just the early stages, we can keep clicking…..and I’m in that crowd, actually we zone in a little bit more you should be able to see me there.  But at the critical moment where I was about to start handing out the leaflets it was the moment where the police were about to come over to our side. At that moment the shopkeeper arrived. Now that’s a reference that I realise is lost on half of you but may be with some of you. So I want to share the reference and just say that the shopkeeper is the man of my inspiration as a history teacher. There was a cartoon that was very popular, it’s still available on YouTube I guess and for those who collect collect will find it called Mr Benn and Mr Benn was a suited man who would go every so often to a shop where he would try on a sort of a fancy dress costume and he would leave and go through the front door and he would suddenly be in the world of fantasy. If we just click for one second, there’s Mr Benn and that’s really the episode, there weren’t that many of them, but that’s him with the red knight and if we click again we should have him in Vilna at 1905. And the problem was at the critical moments that I was about to hand out my leaflets the shopkeeper arrived and invited me to step back into the dressing room shop and that’s really the launch really for what I wanted to really say as my, sort of, I don’t know if it’s my sermon but it’s certainly my piece that I want to pitch. I, the ability to go into moments of history and I don’t know if it’s fantasise or imagine, but to say, “that’s my moment of history”, that’s my question for you and simultaneously as I’m speaking, you are all thinking about what is your moment of history that you wanted to be? Would you have wanted to have been one of those people who were on the very first community of Jews who settled in the Rhineland? Somewhere in the 8th, 9th Century at the beginning of Ashkenaz. Were you one of the people who sat reciting poetry with fellow, I suppose people living in Southern Spain at the beginning of Andalucian Spain but you speaking Hebrew, they speaking Arabic, somewhere in the 10th Century near Cordoba? Or were you one of those people who actually had the opportunity, to have a conversation with those people who were, well you can decide who those people were, which is your historical fantasy? And I have to say one of the things that fascinates me about the shopkeeper is in truth I never really wanted to leave the scene; I imagine that if we really had this conversation, if Mr Benn stepped into Jewish history or rather if the shopkeeper did, he’d be pulling the people out because they wouldn’t want to leave. Because the past is fascinating and the past is an amazing place for us to explore the sense of self. And I have to say the reason why I’m sort of making this my pitch is that after a number of years as a history teacher there is a sort of a little sense of worry in the air and the worry is this, and again decide where you want to put yourself into it; That the past is not what is always was, history is not always understood the way that it once was. And in fact there is a phrase which is sometimes used, it’s been the title of books, it’s certainly been the title of articles and it’s sort of applied to what is generically called a younger generation. And the phrase is this, that the past is a foreign country, the past doesn’t inspire why? Well the truth is I’m not entirely sure because it inspires me, but it may be that because we’re very present obsessed, it could be because we’re egocentric, it could be because we are so wrapped up with the things with a multimedia world that actually everything is happening in the here and now and what’s lost, and I suppose for me this is part of it, what we lose is a world of historical imagination. It’s the world, the ability to step back. There are amazing reasons, by the way, why one might want to actually do that.  It could by the way be because to some degree it makes us feel a little less lonely, in the present, by having the interaction with all the people that went before us we discover that the challenges, the dilemmas of the now are actually the challenges of dilemmas of people in the past. Now with that by the way I guess one should probably say that the past is not necessarily understood by all people in the same way. You know I’m aware of the fact that some people want to shut out the past. This summer, by the way, and if I’m really honest about my fantasy about being in Vilna, it is sort of a maybe an unhealthy recurring moment of imagination. But there were other events that happened just after the summer which did make me think maybe people don’t want to have the conversation with the past. There was a character in the 12th Century, 13th Century Ashkenaz a Rabbi by the name of Meir of Rothenburg who was taken captive and held ransom to raise money out of the Jewish community. And he as it were realised that the price that was being asked for his freedom, was a price that he didn’t think should be paid, the community would be impoverished. I don’t know, I wonder whether the Prime Minister of Israel was aware of a conversation with the Meir of Rothernburg deliberating about the release of Gilad Shalit or offering that price. He has very, had lots of things to worry about, as did all the people concerned about Gilad Shalit, but the conversation is bigger than just the here and now. There’s a context to the things in which we do. So I wanted to suggest by the way that what I’m suggesting here is not what is often regarded as the interest in the past. It’s not sort of well any number of words, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s certainly not kitsch, it’s certainly not inauthentic images of a glorious distant sort of heroic past. It’s none of those things, it’s also by the way not a fetish, this is not The Sealed Knot society, no this, and I hope I don’t intend to be sued by them. So it’s the, if you’re not familiar with them it’s an organisation of people that sort of celebrate, that carry out historical re-enactments. The idea of spending my Sunday afternoon dressed up as a Cavalier or Roundhead on Hampstead Heath, I don’t know maybe if they did the Vilna game I’d be in for it but… but the point is it’s not that. What I’m talking about is, is  imagination, its engagement it’s about, well not really fantasy but it’s certainly going beyond oneself. And if you’re still struggling to work out because you only have 3/4 moments of history to draw from, then have a conversation with a friend and big that up to 20,30 or 500. But sooner or later there is the chance to feel that actually I really am connected with something bigger. So I wanted to suggest a number of different ways of phrasing it, because there is a model of the past which is really the way we tend to learn it in school or the way we teach it in university, it’s cognitive, it’s driven by information, it’s factual. And there’s no room for ignoring all of that and that has to be there, but it’s only one of the modalities for thinking and imagining the past. A second one is one which maybe fits into a distinctively Jewish consciousness, which is the world of memory, collective memory. The problem or maybe the great thing about that is the collective it’s always us, it’s always we, we’re always feeling together. It’s a little bit like a cloud that passes over and you feel that the shadow that’s lost from the sun kind of comes over all of us and we are all here together at that moment, it tends to be used for sad moments. It’s very powerful and it’s very evocative and it’s very moving and it’s very necessary on occasions but it’s not the same as cognitive learning. But the truth is, the one that I’m really pressing is the third and the third sort of is, and I think if we click we should be able to get – that’s the image that I’m thinking of. It’s an idea that I claim as not being my own, it was taught to me by my teacher Eli Glynn who was a wonderful teacher, who sadly died a number of years ago. But he taught me this image of history is like looking at a star because a star is old light, it’s light that happened another time ago and what we’re seeing is the journey that light has travelled through time to get to us. And in so doing we need to know that what we’re seeing is not what actually happened, we’re seeing part of what happened. If we click again, then you can see actually really closer up what’s happening, you’re only seeing one side of the star, one side of the planet, one side of the projection. But the reason I’m pushing that one is this; That model works because we’re in it. The third I suppose moment for me which really forms the basis of a lot of what I guess is my passion for teaching is this, it’s the dialogue, it’s the conversation, it’s the ability to have the conversation that doesn’t just go across space but it goes across time. I want the conversation with the people in Vilna and I also want the conversation people doing poetry and the people who were settling in Ashkenaz. I want the conversation of sad moments; I want to ask any of the people I’m inspired by why they did what they did. I want to know why Isaac Babel chose to go to Moscow and get himself arrested and eventually leading himself to his execution. And I say that knowing that may mean nothing to any of you but I may have planted one of my characters in your mind and you may go off and find out about it. Now in saying all of that there is a question of really well what really is the purpose of the dialogue? How far can this really go? And so in the same way that we’re inspired by the light there is a I suppose a sense of recognising that for all that I’m going to advocate a deeper engagement with the past, not to make it a foreign  country but to make it our home territory. It’s not the be all and end all. There is a wonderful anecdote told and I really don’t know whether this happened although I think it probably did that on the 14th May in 1948 the chief Rabbi of Rome led the Jewish community down to the Arch of Titus and everybody walked backwards. Walking backwards through history, that’s an amazing thing, by the way don’t do it because if you walk backwards through the Arch of Titus you’ll fall of the end of the little step there. But nevertheless the idea is very powerful. What’s that moment about? Is that moment about them? Or was it all about Titus? Was it all about the Roman occupation of Eretz Yisrael? What was it really about? Well that’s the conversation, that as a moment seems fascinating but the really, the bit that fascinates me isn’t the walking backwards, it’s what happens after they walk backwards. What did they then say? Time to go home? Or let’s really stop  for a moment and think about the power of the moment, how do we look to the future? What goes beyond us and that for me is the fascinating, the wonderful thing. The past as a place which makes one feel that you’re not  a lonely person in the Jewish, in all of Jewish time and space. One last comment and it’s a phrase or it’s an idea that comes into a very controversial conversation which is prevalent across the Jewish world, specifically in Israel and it’s a conversation about who is a Jew? It’s torn our politics apart, it’s tearing the Jewish people part, it’s doing terrible things. The Israeli teacher, philosopher, thinker Ari Elon, has a wonderful phrase which he uses and it’s the piece that I wanted to conclude with. And he says, “you know I want to talk about the question of who is a Jew?” But he says, “for me a Jew is somebody who looks in the mirror of history and sees the reflection of themselves as a Jew.” That’s not about Halacha and it’s not because Halacha isn’t important and it’s not because I’m not saying the other modalities of Jewish life aren’t important. I just want the chance to see the reflection of myself in another pane, in the pane, the pane P,A,N,E, in the pane in the reflection of the mirror of history and what comes out of that, by the way, doesn’t mean to say that I’m upset that actually the title was a lie. I didn’t win the revolution in 1905 and actually  The Bund were largely destroyed, but the vision, the optimism, the excitement that led me to that spot, that will always be there. Thank you

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