I’m sure it was the paperback’s vintage seventies cover art that caught my eye when I spied Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account sitting on my public library’s “paperback exchange” shelf among the countless worn and tattered bodice rippers, John Grisham thrillers and mass-marketed detective novels. Thinking to myself how interesting it might be to read a vintage first hand account of a Nobel Prize winning American novelist’s travels through Israel, I decided to grab it. After letting it languish unread in a pile of books under my cheap home entertainment system for months I decided one evening to finally give it a try. After only a few pages into it, I was pleasantly surprised. One might think that a travel memoir published in 1976 would not make for enjoyable and fascinating reading. Quite the contrary. To Jerusalem and Back is an intelligent, engaging and well-written literary time capsule describing both a nation and a region that no longer exists.
Published in 1976, Bellow recounts his travels and adventures in the Jewish state during the previous year of 1975. This puts it, relatively speaking, in a bit of a quiet period, that is after the bloody Yom Kippur War of 1973 and before the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978. During his brief visit Bellow met with a number of dignitaries who, while at the time were considerably influential, have since passed into history; people such as Yitzhak Rabin, polymath/ambassador/Knesset member Abba Eban, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, Palestinian newspaper editor Abu Zuluf, and even visiting Ukrainian-American violinist Isaac Stern.
What I really liked about Bellow’s book was its ability to paint a picture of an Israel and a surrounding Middle East which no longer exists. The Israel visited by Bellow in 1975 is no longer besieged by a bellicose Jordan and Egypt. While Lebanon is no longer in the throes of a bloody civil war, its para state of Hezbollah now threatens. After the Shah’s overthrow in 1979 Iran has gone from ally to adversary. The only constant seems to be Syria, which has remained at odds with the Jewish state to the present day. While the Soviet Union and its promotion of Marxist-Leninist inspired national liberation or even other forms of pan-Arabism no longer inspire groups like the PLO, Islamism has become the dominant ideology of choice of those engaged in armed resistance against Israel.
But also in this memoir you see early signs pointing to today’s familiar Middle East. At one point Bellow is pulled into a discussion with several Israeli’s regarding their consternation over Egypt’s distribution to its troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur War of religious-oriented antisemitic propaganda, perhaps prefiguring the tenets of today’s radicalized interpretation of Islam. Even in 1975 Bellow encounters those with a growing concern over the disparity in Arab versus the Jewish birthrates, leading to a fear that in time the Jewish Israelis will eventually be left a demographic minority. Complicating all of this is the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights and the troublesome existence of the Jewish Settlements.
On a somewhat trivial note, two additional things touched on in Bellow’s memoir point to our more contemporary setting. At the beginning of the book, Bellow mentions an American State Department official/CIA operative assigned to the Middle East and entrusted with the mission of bringing the newly independant Arab nations into the American fold. His name was Miles Copeland and his son Stewart would go on to be the drummer for the rock band The Police. Near the end of the book, Bellow in his discussion of pan-Arab political rivalries, quotes from the works of American Middle East scholar Malcolm Kerr. Malcolm’s son Steve would go on the win five NBA championships and currently holds the league’s record for best three-point field goal accuracy. Kinda interesting, huh ?
I enjoyed reading Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back. Just because it’s an old book adorned with cover art that’s long since gone out of style it doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.