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Angel Dust

Jacob struggles with the angel in this week’s parasha. As a new book about an Armenian family’s history shows, we must do the same.

Liel Leibovitz
November 19, 2010
Raffi Hovannisian at a demonstration in Yerevan, Armenia, November 2005.(Herbert Baghdasaryan)
Raffi Hovannisian at a demonstration in Yerevan, Armenia, November 2005.(Herbert Baghdasaryan)

Anyone interested in the trials of modern Israel might do well to turn to this week’s Torah portion for a brief discussion of etymology. After wrestling with a wrathful angel all night long—an angel embodying the essence of his brother, Esau—Jacob, his hip dislocated but his spirit soaring, triumphs over the heavenly creature. The angel, in awe, issues a name change as a reward. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob,” he tells the aching patriarch, “but Israel, because you have commanding power with an angel of God and with men, and you have prevailed.” Israel, in other words, means he who had prevailed over the divine.

It is an apt description of Jacob, and it’s an even more poignant one of the state his ancestors established on the same sliver of earth millennia later. What we do is prevail: over ourselves, over each other, over God. Herein lies the true triumph of the Jews, herein our tragedy—no matter what demons conspire against us, it is us we must trust in and us we must fear.

Family of Shadows, the recently published, stunning debut by my friend Garin Hovannisian, delivers this point with uncommon acuity. The work of history, a chronicle of Garin’s family, begins with his great-grandfather Kaspar. As a young boy in western Armenia, Kaspar survived the Armenian genocide, washed up on America’s shores, and built a life of comfort streaked with sadness and longing for all that had been lost. His son, Richard, first-generation Californian, became a celebrated professor at UCLA, the first to chronicle his people’s tragic history. Richard’s son—and Garin’s father—is Raffi, a charismatic lawyer on track for corporate greatness. Change a few of the names, move the promised homeland a few inches to the left on the map, and one could easily imagine the book’s protagonists as Jews, going through the same cycles of suffering and rebirth.

The final third of the book, however, delivers an unexpected turn, one deeply relevant to this week’s parasha and one we would all do well to ponder as we think about Israel and its agonies. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Raffi, a lifelong activist in Armenian organizations, was moved by the fulfillment of an ancient dream—an independent Armenia—to abandon his successful legal practice and move to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. He was 32, clever and charismatic and endlessly hopeful. He was given a single fax machine and the title of foreign minister, which were all he needed to convince many of the world’s nations to officially recognize his nascent nation. Raffi’s future looked bright, Armenia’s even brighter. And then the old ways set in: the Soviet-style corruption, the nepotism, the violence, the political instability, the greed, the cowardice, the anxieties. One by one, liberties were lost, strongmen given fiefdoms of wealth and power, and democracy skidded away. All Raffi Hovannisian could do was writhe in disappointment and watch the eternal, utopian dream of free Armenia drown in the pools of the real: Armenia was now an independent nation, but one mired by self-inflicted corruption and ineptitude.

I asked Garin which might have been more devastating: the old wounds of genocide or the fresher ones of witnessing the independent nation of Armenia dispense with so much of the promise it once held for so many men and women, at home and abroad.

“You’re brave to ask,” he said, “and I’m mad to answer. In 1915, on the west side of Mount Ararat, the Ottoman Turkish government eradicated an ancient homeland. In the next few years, a million and a half Armenians were murdered. In 1991, on the east side of Mount Ararat, the Armenian people declared independence from the Soviet Union. In the next few years, a million and a half Armenians abandoned their own homeland. And so the Armenian Genocide of 1915 was a catastrophe conceived beyond our control—even our imagination. Surely it is the more tragic, and enduringly traumatic, event. But it must be said that the ongoing exodus is immeasurably more disappointing. Because it isn’t the fault of any foreign tyrant. It is the fault of our own tyrants. It is our fault. We achieved the dream—the promise of democracy and justice—and then, together, we renounced it.”

It’s a sensation not unfamiliar to many American Jews. As Peter Beinart famously argued, witnessing Israel’s rightward swing—embodied by such recent controversies as the loyalty-oath requirement and the proposed Rotem conversion bill, as well as by the ascent of hard-line politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—more and more young Jewish Americans shy away from identifying as Zionists or interacting with Israel. Beinart captured the predicament with a woeful quote from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, describing, in 2003, his experience interviewing young American Jews. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” Luntz reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they’ rather than ‘us’ to describe the situation.”

This should hardly come as a surprise. Despite the gallant efforts and vast resources the American Jewish community invests in keeping its young interested and attached, it is hard to ignore the fact, more poetical than political, that “we” is a pronoun that resides exclusively in history’s stately halls, in the grim catastrophes and miraculous regenerations that define us as a people. When these stately halls give way to more earthly edifices like parliament buildings and government offices and courthouses, we too often become just a collection of individuals, bickering and hateful. And facing the maddening crowd, facing your brothers’ faults and your own, standing by as the dream curdles—that’s a special kind of ordeal.

We’re fortunate, then, to have Raffi Hovannisian as a guide, and his son as a storyteller. As Family of Shadows draws to an end, Garin gives us one more peek at his father, chastising a large crowd of Armenian intellectuals and political leaders for failing to live up to their own ideals of creating a just and free society. But Raffi can’t end on a desperate note. “Armenia’s centuries-long quest must end in triumph,” he says, “like the road to unreachable glory.” Such is the man’s—and the book’s—grace, knowing that glory lies beyond reach yet carrying on as if it were already in our hands.

If we are ever to transcend the tiring and the banal, the draining cycle that empties our conversations of meaning and keeps our young at bay, we would do well to take Raffi Hovannisian’s example and understand that the most dire struggle is the one we fight with ourselves and our brothers, a fight without winners and without ends in which the only successful outcome is the embrace of two exhausted pugilists.

We saw sparks of this fight earlier this month, when a group of young Jewish activists howled their cri de couer by interrupting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They were first silenced, then condemned, and, finally, largely ignored. No matter what one thinks of their chosen method, these young activists are wrestling with the angel. Sooner or later, we all must do the same.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.