(JTA) — If one were to imagine what the prophet Jonah saw on his way down into the gullet of the whale, it might be something like this:
He slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of warm slime, the effluvia of a thousand squids past. Tooth sockets above him now, rancid black pits. Teeth passing on either side, yellowed cones, one missing, one fractured, one putrid with rot…The quaking cave of the mouth…His bare foot plants into a cold mash.
The scene, however, is actually a passage from one of the year’s buzziest novels: “Whalefall,” by Daniel Kraus, tells of a 17-year-old diver named Jay Gardiner who is swallowed by a massive sperm whale, in whose innards he is forced to reconcile with responsibility for his late father’s last wishes while desperately trying to escape. The book has already been optioned for a movie by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer’s Imagine Entertainment.
Though billed by its publisher as “The Martian” meets “127 Hours,” “Whalefall” is actually a modern midrash on a very ancient biblical book — one Jews will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The novel is divided into two sections, “Truth” and “Mercy,” the tension between which the Book of Jonah sits. The ancient prophet, after all, is given a commandment by God to warn residents of the Assyrian city of Nineveh to repent, lest they be punished. Identified as “son of Amitai” — that is, “son of Truth” — Jonah objects to the possibility of repentance and God’s forgiveness, taking it to be a compromise of divine justice.
Refusing the order, Jonah flees by boat to Tarshish, a distant city. God sends a storm to toss the boat, yet an unrepentantly defiant Jonah heads to his cabin, content to sleep his way through a watery death. “Arise, call to your God,” comes the desperate cry of the sailors on the ship. “Why are you asleep? Perhaps mercy will be granted upon us by God and we will be spared.”
Jonah, under pressure, admits that he is the cause of the heavenly wrath, and the sailors, hesitatingly, haul him overboard. There, swallowed by a large fish, he cries out to God from Sheol, a netherworldly dark place of despair. Jonah yearns, in the fifth verse of the book’s second chapter, to merit reconciling with God by visiting his holy Temple.
“Whalefall” is also told with a dual structure, jumping between flashbacks to Jay’s childhood and frequent fights with his belligerent, zealous and neglectful father, and Jay’s race-against-the-oxygen-tank attempt to emerge from the whale. At one point, Jay falls out with his father and flees to the home of a girl named Chloe Tarshish, where he sleeps on a futon and watches foreign films.
In “Whalefall,” Sheol Landfill is on the outskirts of Salinas, California, where — a year before the suicide of Jay’s terminally ill father, Mitt — Mr. Sheol would let a 10-year-old Jay and his eco-warrior dad sift through the junkyard for castoff diving gear. Reassuring an anxious Jay that his father will emerge safely from the trash heap, Sheol comforts him: “This here’s my temple. Nothing happens without my say-so.”
The novel’s title comes from the scientific term for how a dead whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean. There its body is stripped by crustaceans and other sea creatures, sustaining an underwater ecosystem for years to come.
Jay’s own father chose a similar fate, as the novel reveals. A once vibrant and fit man — who would awaken Jay and his sisters with a daily call of “Sleepers, arise!” — he slowly descended into depression. A combination of cancer and melancholy over humanity’s destructive attitude towards nature led him to weigh down his body with diving weights and jump off of the side of a friend’s ship. When the friend, a kindly Jewish dentist named Hewey, informs Jay what happened, Jay can’t even bring himself to cry, so raw are his psychological wounds from his and his father’s quarrels.
Hewey, whose name is perhaps a punning allusion to the four-letter name for God traditionally unpronounced by Jews, embodies God’s moral argument for mercy in the Book of Jonah. And while at no point in the novel is Jonah actually named, it’s Hewey who brings him up: “Let me tell you the lesson of this prophet,” he says. “Truth never outweighs mercy.”
Jay is trapped in the whale during an ill-advised solo dive looking to recover his father’s body. Off the coast of Monterey Beach after dark, he encounters an Architeuthis, a deep ocean-dwelling squid. While sperm whales don’t normally eat humans, they do eat squid, and Jay is taken into the whale’s mouth in a whirl of water. A sequence of dangers compounds his rapidly depleting air supply, including floating sharp objects, the whale’s crushing internal organs and a carabiner that he can’t dislodge from his diving gear while attempting to swim to safety.
As the New York Times put it in its review, “At a certain point he begins to seem less like Jonah and more like Job — the hapless vessel for every bit of bad luck you can think of, and a lot more besides.”
As Jay processes what he still owes his father while desperately fighting to return to shore, subtle allusions to Jonah surface. For every memory of his father’s abuse, there is a recollection of the lives he saved — just as the sailors on Jonah’s boat were spared. The sympathy Jay feels towards the swallowed squid could be an allusion to God’s argument, in the closing verse of Jonah, about the grace he will grant not only to the thousands of Ninevites “who cannot distinguish between their right and their left” but also to the similarly deserving “many animals.”
More explicit is Jay’s internal wrestling with whether we can change our very nature — a central preoccupation of the Book of Jonah and, of course, Yom Kippur. After all, it is Jonah, the son of Truth, who is “displeased” when God spares the Ninevites. Jonah cannot accept that God has changed God’s mind, or that the Ninevites might be persuaded to change their ways. He cannot accept forgiveness of wrongs.
Kraus is a horror writer who worked with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the hit film “The Shape of Water” and created the books that inspired the Netflix series “Trollhunters.” Early in his career, he made documentaries about American workers including Rabbi Jay Holstein, Kraus’ former professor at the University of Iowa whose class “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” he said was among the most formative he took.
Alongside conscious allusions to Pinnochio, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Kraus seems to offer a Christian understanding of Jonah. At one point Jay recalls his father’s noting that “a life of poor choices could be washed from you every time you dipped under,” a clear allusion to baptism. (It’s not a spoiler to say that Mitt’s body, like that of Jesus, is never found.)
Yet Jonah’s message in the Jewish tradition differs from Kraus’ reading. Forgiveness is not to be sought in superseding earthly existence and seeking rebirth through death. The pre-High Holiday custom to dip in the mikvah is a this-worldly charge to repair what has been sundered, in our relationships and in our environment, through our own imperfect individual efforts. We struggle, like Jay and like Jonah, with the obligations foisted on us by our ancestors. At the same time, we hope to find in ourselves the capacity to change and the mercy of God, that ability to forgive even when it feels untrue to our principles, as God did the Ninevites.
At one point, amidst the dark deep, Jay realizes he’s “got time to arrange his final thought. What would he like it to be?” When faced with the same choice, what will be our answer?
The post The buzzy novel ‘Whalefall’ offers a modern spin on the ancient Book of Jonah appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense
JNS.org – As Israel prepares for the strong possibility of a resumption of war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defense Forces is also currently in a heightened state of alert and preparedness along the border with Lebanon, responding to the continuous threats posed by Hezbollah.
Since Oct. 7, the IDF has deployed significant military resources, including artillery, tanks and engineering corps, along the Lebanese border, striking Hezbollah anti-tank missile squads and other terrorists whenever they are detected, either after an attack or preparing for one.
This low-intensity conflict when compared to Gaza has resulted in some 90 casualties for Hezbollah and nine Israeli casualties—six military personnel and three civilians.
Several Israeli homes and military bases have sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah strikes since Oct. 7, and tens of thousands of Israeli residents from areas near the border with Lebanon remain evacuated, displaced from their homes by the threat of the Radwan Hezbollah elite terrorist unit.
In response, the IDF has employed a defensive-responsive posture aimed at protecting Israeli territory from Hezbollah’s aggression but not escalating the situation into a full-scale war front at this time.
Its approach is characterized by a reactive rather than proactive stance. Operations are tailored to respond to specific threats and attacks from Hezbollah, avoiding initiating aggression. This goal remains to protect civilian lives and property, as well as to make sure that Hezbollah cannot surprise the north as Hamas did the south. Still, the decision of any expanded war efforts in Lebanon remains up to the war cabinet.
Hezbollah’s tactics, meanwhile, involve embedding its operations within Lebanese civilian areas; using southern Shi’ite villages as bases of attack; firing anti-tank missiles at Israeli northern homes and military positions; and continuing to pose a serious and persistent threat.
The question of whether the Radwan unit, which has murder and kidnap squads much like Hamas’s Nukhba unit, could breach the Israeli border and conduct attacks has no clear answer at this time, although the IDF is present at the border in large numbers and has proven effective at detecting Radwan unit movements in real-time.
Hezbollah’s terror tactics not only endanger Lebanese civilians but are designed to complicate the IDF’s response—a familiar use of human shielding that Hamas employs as well in Gaza.
In this explosive situation, the IDF currently exercises restraint in its counterstrikes, relying on precise intelligence to target terrorist threats while minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.
UNIFIL ineffective in curbing provocation
The role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in challenging Hezbollah’s flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans Hezbollah from operating in Southern Lebanon, is nonexistent.
Worse yet, Hezbollah has been actively using UNIFIL as human shields, launching attacks on Israel in some cases from tens of meters from UNIFIL positions.
UNIFIL’s ineffectiveness in curbing Hezbollah’s activities is self-evident, highlighting the limitations of international peacekeeping forces in such scenarios.
Despite this, the IDF continues to remain in contact with UNIFIL and has been transmitting its concern over Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities with no tangible results.
So far, Israel’s policy on the Lebanon border is a delicate balance between essential defense and cautious restraint. But it remains unclear how long this can continue since northern residents will not return to a persistent Hezbollah threat to their lives in the new, post-Oct. 7 reality, and the IDF cannot remain fully deployed in the north indefinitely.
The result is a paradox that appears to suggest difficult decisions in the future by the Israeli war cabinet if the north is to be sustainable and its residents granted a new sense of security.
The post On Explosive Northern Front, Hezbollah Lurks; IDF Conducts Precise Defense first appeared on Algemeiner.com.
The Determination of Israel’s Reservists
JNS.org – Who is the Israel soldier? They can be of any age and profession. It may have been a long time since they held a weapon. Many of them are at Tze’elim, one of the IDF’s largest bases, just across the border from Gaza on yellow sand.
When I meet them, they are waiting, as the brief ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding. A short time later, Hamas broke the truce, attacked Israel with rockets, and the fighting began again.
These soldiers are older and more emotional than you would imagine. Their intentions are clear: “Never Again.” The Oct. 7 massacre will never be permitted to reoccur. Israel must be freed from the nightmare of Hamas.
In Tze’elim, rows of barracks and numerous disorderly tents house thousands of soldiers of all kinds. We meet with a group of them from Brigade 252. They are soldiers from the miluim—the reserves. They have completed their three-year military service—or two years, if they are women—but they all keep their “miluim bag” under the bed. If the phone rings, as happened on Oct. 7, they rush to the front, whether they are in Tel Aviv or traveling in Japan, whether they are left-wing or right-wing, professors or taxi drivers. They tear themselves away from the operating room and the shop, the lawyer’s office and the bus they drive.
Commander A. is thin, with gray hair and a kind smile. He is religious. On the morning of Oct. 7, he was in synagogue without a telephone. Someone told him “something never seen before is happening.” A. rushed to his collection point in the south and has yet to return home.
On Oct. 7, the reserves were immediately thrown into the battle to retake the kibbutzim that had been attacked and massacred by Hamas terrorists. They hunted down the Hamas men who remained and collected the wounded and dead Israelis in the fields and on the roads. A. closes his eyes. He has seen hell.
The 252 was then sent into the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, home to 50,000 inhabitants who serve as human shields for what is essentially a massive rocket launching pad. The reservists were trained in a mock-up of a Gaza city. They practiced how to enter, shoot, exit, climb, attack and go through tunnels full of TNT. They trained against ambushes, snipers and RPGs.
A. says that, when they went into Beit Hanoun itself, “We had to quickly learn a lesson: Beit Hanoun’s ambush is in his heart, not its outer circles. The terrorists let you enter easily. There’s a row of houses, two or three more, and that’s where Hamas is waiting for you—where you don’t expect it, in civilian structures.”
A. explains, “If we decide to destroy a structure and there are civilians inside, we warn the civilian population. … There are precise rules for evaluating whether we have to act, whether it’s essential because if we don’t act, the lives of soldiers or Israeli civilians are in danger. We try to stop Hamas’s continuous use of human shields by moving the civilians out completely.”
A. is happy to say, “Of civilians killed in Ben Hanoun, the number is zero.”
Israeli soldiers, however, were killed. Maj. Moshe, a 50-year-old engineer who works in high-tech, explained, “An army generally advances on a territory that, once occupied, is the starting point of your next step. But here, through the tunnels under the ground, suddenly you find the enemy shooting at you from behind.”
Thus, great efforts were made to locate the tunnels. “With the use of sophisticated instruments, and also sometimes suffering unexpected explosions given that Hamas’s specialty is to mine everything with large quantities of explosives, we quickly understood that the tunnels were a very sophisticated network, not holes of various sizes dug here and there, but an enormous spider web that converged on the urban center.”
“The structures used by Hamas, which they protected with human shields, included a mosque, a school, a hospital, a public swimming pool, civilian homes, children’s rooms, even their beds. There were weapons everywhere,” he says.
As a result of the truce, Moshe states, some of the evacuated civilians have begun to return. “We can block them,” he says, “but not attack them or approach them. There is a truce.”
Nonetheless, I point out, three soldiers were wounded two days ago in an attack. “True,” Moshe replies, “and we returned fire. If we are in danger we respond.” He notes that some of the returnees are Hamas terrorists, “but we are in a truce, we act according to the rules of defense.”
“We have two ways of being at war: offensive and defensive,” he continues. “The offensive is much easier: You face the enemy. You can move. Defense is unnerving, even dangerous, especially when there are civilians around.”
However, he says, there is much to do, even during a truce. “For example, we had completely dismantled the explosive systems inside a building, and then we realized that everything had been mined again.”
Hamas, he says, is “easier to deal with than endure while you can’t move. So, we wait for orders. The mission is to destroy Hamas and bring the kidnapped people home. That and nothing else.”
Now that the soldiers are back at war, the humanitarian issue is certainly important to them; not because of what the Biden administration tells them, but because that is what an Israeli soldier is.
First and foremost, however, they are Jews who know exactly what was done to their people on Oct. 7 and will continue their war of justice and survival. One of them tells me, “Yes, I feel when we fight, feel it physically, that our kidnapped citizens are not far away, and I fight for them too with all my heart. This is the most just war of all time.”
The Moral Bankruptcy of IfNotNow
JNS.org – A few days ago, I attended a webinar entitled “Jews for Ceasefire,” presented by the young Jewish anti-Zionists of IfNotNow. It was hosted by an earnest young woman named Gen (IfNotNow activists often don’t use their surnames), who began by reaffirming what the group calls its main goal: to “end American support for Israeli apartheid.” She went on to emphasize that all the positions taken by IfNotNow are “deeply grounded in Jewish tradition.” To prove the point, she called on Rabbi Monica Gomery, who led a prayer and enthusiastically praised the group’s work.
Next up was Noa, a young woman who said, “I’m going to root us in the moment.” “The moment,” however, did not include Hamas’s Oct. 7 genocidal attack on Israeli civilians. Noa said nothing whatsoever about it. Instead, she presented a litany of alleged Israeli abuses inflicted on Palestinians. Her omission appeared to be deliberate, as it helped portray the IDF’s defensive military operations in Gaza as an unprovoked act of aggression.
Following Noa, there was a testimonial from a young man named Boaz. He made what appeared to him to be a confession that his grandfather helped perpetrate the “nakba.” What he meant was that his grandfather was a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. For Boaz, his father’s participation in Israel’s successful effort to prevent a second Holocaust was a source of shame, not pride. As he explained, he was trying to work through his guilt. A poster behind him bore the slogan, “Palestine will be free,” a popular euphemism for that second Holocaust.
After Boaz’s self-flagellation came the highlight of the webinar—an appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib has been an ally of IfNotNow for some time. In fact, the group’s leadership began collaborating with Tlaib before she was elected to Congress. During her presentation, Tlaib referred to them as her “siblings.”
Sporting a t-shirt that said, “Justice from Detroit to Gaza”—a slogan that falsely connects Israel to police brutality controversies in the U.S.—Tlaib declared that Congress must demand a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and “stop funding war crimes.” Like her IfNotNow supporters, Tlaib conveniently made no mention of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages held by Hamas.
It apparently did not bother the leaders of IfNotNow that the House of Representatives had just censured Tlaib for her genocidal call to free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Indeed, IfNotNow leaders repeat the same call in their training sessions. That training also endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically strangle Israel, as well as the so-called “right of return,” which aims to demographically eliminate the Jewish state.
It seems that IfNotNow leaders are unperturbed that Tlaib has characterized Hamas’s rampage of crimes against humanity as justified “resistance” to an “apartheid state.” These Jews, it appears, are perfectly happy to align themselves with someone who supports murdering large numbers of Jews. They are also unbothered by the fact that Tlaib posted a video on social media that says, “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people”—a genocide that is not happening. One of IfNotNow’s campaigns calling for a ceasefire is entitled, “No Genocide in Our Name.” Having erased Hamas’s genocidal attack, IfNotNow appears to have fabricated one.
In addition, IfNotNow has officially endorsed Tlaib’s statement, “You cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” To them and other young Jews who clasp hands with Tlaib and her compatriots, condemnation of Israel is the sine qua non of being a progressive, and a policy of racist exclusion must be imposed on any Jew who doesn’t get with the program. IfNotNow looks to Tlaib to lead the way, even though, like antisemites throughout history, she is happy to exploit them and eventually discard them once they have outlived their usefulness.
Most tellingly, IfNotNow has been unfazed by Tlaib’s open antisemitism, such as her claim that American supporters of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” clearly invoking the “dual loyalty” libel. She has also engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, talking about the “people behind the curtain” who are exploiting victims “from Gaza to Detroit.”
Worst of all, Tlaib is the only member of Congress to call for an end to the Jewish state. It should not be surprising that IfNotNow is fine with that, as they proudly state that they take no position on Israel’s right to exist.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has perfectly and accurately described such people as “Hamas’s useful idiots.”
The origins of IfNotNow’s ideology are obvious. Like Tlaib and many other “social justice” ideologues, IfNotNow divides people into two groups: Oppressors and the oppressed. Depending on your racial or ethnic identity, you by definition belong to one or the other. There are no gradations, no nuance and only one permissible narrative. Thus, decades of genocidal Arab violence go unmentioned, including the Oct. 7 massacre. There is only Israeli oppression and Palestinian “resistance.”
It would be a mistake to believe that IfNotNow is an inconsequential outlier. They have nine chapters across the United States and an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. The webinar I attended had more than 1,600 attendees.
They also have powerful friends and an enormous amount of money. According to NGO Monitor, IfNotNow has received grants from the wealthy Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the New Israel Fund’s Progressive Jewish Fund and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
All that, plus support from a member of Congress. It seems that racism, hate and support for genocide pay off.