Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

The Farewell Party

Susan Sontag’s “divided soul”

Print Email

In 1977, I happened to be in to New York, and Susan Sontag invited me to a farewell party in a Greenwich Village church. It was a farewell to herself; she thought she was about to die of cancer. Everyone spoke with sorrow. She laughed out of fear, like a Jew who always jokes about the worst-case scenario. We sat together on the roof of her house on the West Side and spoke for hours about what it means to be a Jew. For America, she was simply Left, but when I asked her how she would characterize herself, she said, “First, I am a Jew.”

We met in 1973, when she came to film a documentary about the Yom Kippur War. She chose me and Professor Yuval Ne’eman; I represented the Left, as I was then, and he represented the extreme Right. The documentary flowed between our hushed discussions and bereaved parents in a temporary cemetery for 1,000 casualties.

It was easy for her to connect to me—that angry Jewish grandfather in everyone’s family. She possessed genius, beauty, and pain. Like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, whom she admired, she was a Jew of a divided and conflict-ridden soul. She was beautiful and smart. She had anti-Israeli feelings, the kind which only Jews can develop, but if she prayed at night, it would be to the God of Israel. Throughout the years, she spoke with me about Zionism, Judaism, and anti-Semitism. She trusted me because I was not a liberal American, just a sad Israeli. No one but she understood the Jewish humor in my book Adam Resurrected, and no one praised it as highly.

In her essays and books, I found her two souls intertwined, her ultimate desire to be right even when she was not correct. It is difficult for me in a few words to describe her face at the farewell party, or what she whispered quietly about the Jews and Israel when she was not in her milieu. She knew that that when one fights for justice, there is always injustice on the flip side.

As it turned out, I became such a fundamental part of her life that, in our meetings together, I could stir within her the longing for something eternal from which she sprung. When I sat with her and her friend Joseph Brodsky on Morton Street, one could feel the slight anxiety of two people who knew that they were Jewish and did not always want to be so. I always described her as—and she will always be to me—a nightingale of reason.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Cats don’t need round-the-clock attention. They are the low-maintenance members of the family.

God is real unless declared integer.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Farewell Party

Susan Sontag’s “divided soul”

More on Tablet:

Rediscovering the First Woman Rabbi

By Laura Geller — Ordained in 1935, Regina Jonas died at Auschwitz. Now, she’s being honored.