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The Farewell Party

Susan Sontag’s “divided soul”

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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.

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The Farewell Party

Susan Sontag’s “divided soul”

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