A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview. The list of factors includes his Jewish friends in childhood; his Anglo-American grandmother who instilled in him a love for both the Bible and the people of the Bible; his admiration for Franz Kafka; and his fascination with Jewish mysticism, especially through the work of its great interpreter, Gershom Scholem.
For example, I am a conservative; I hate the Communists; I hate the Nazis; I hate the anti-Semites, and so on. In “The Aleph,” one of his best-known stories, a melancholy narrator stumbles upon the mythical single point at which everything in the world can be viewed and appreciated at once: “the only place on earth where all places are seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” The promise of the Aleph, even as it ultimately proves illusory, is that a single person can somehow gain access to, and connect with, the infinite complexity of mankind and the universe.
But I don’t allow these opinions to find their way into my writings—except, of course, when I was greatly elated about the Six-Day War. In “The Aleph,” Borges draws on several Jewish and specifically kabbalistic symbols: Ezekiel’s description of the divine chariot (one of the biblical touchstones of classical kabbalah); the kabbalistic term “,” the Limitless One, which refers to God’s unknowable and undefinable ultimate essence; and of course the use of the Hebrew alphabet itself, which he terms “the sacred language.” True, he intersperses these references with others to Persian mysticism, esoteric mathematical theories, , and numerous other texts and traditions.
To understand what that is, it’s helpful to have some familiarity with his work more broadly.
Borges’s fiction, seen by many scholars and critics as the precursor to literary postmodernism, plays with perspective, with the boundaries that separate reader from writer, with the reliability of his frequently mysterious narrators, and indeed with the frequently uncertain meaning of his parables.
It’s thus all too easy to understand him as viewing these diverse sources of wisdom as interchangeable, or at least as sharing a common source.
Yet the role he assigns to the Hebrew language is unique, since it is only by finding the Aleph that a person can see all else clearly.
In 1934, the Argentinian magazine It may not have been especially noteworthy for a modernist author to admire such Jewish contributors to Western culture as Heinrich Heine (who converted to Christianity) or the Polish-born Brazilian actor and comedian Elias Gleizer, or even Charlie Chaplin—who, though not a Jew, could be seen as a stand-in for any number of Jews who distinguished themselves in Hollywood and in comedy, often taking Gentile-sounding names.
Indeed, the choice of Heine and Chaplin suggests a liking especially for those Jews who have transcended, or even shed, their Jewish identities.
In his 1951 lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” he decried efforts to emphasize nationalism through literature: “What is our Argentine tradition? By the same token, he publicly condemned Nazism and the Holocaust far earlier than most of his contemporaries, and took the Argentine intelligentsia to task for its pro-German and anti-Semitic leanings.
” he asked, “Our tradition is all of Western culture. Yet one episode suggests that Borges’s political stance flowed not only from a hostility to chauvinism in general but also from a more specific philo-Semitism.