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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : The Confessions of a Tormented Former Zionist Radical : MEMOIRS OF A JEWISH EXTREMIST An American Story by Yossi Klein Halevi; Little, Brown $22.45, 256 pages

January 03, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist" is a coming-of-age story set in the '60s and early '70s, but Yossi Klein Halevi invites us to view the familiar landscape from a wholly unfamiliar point of view. All the verities of the counterculture are turned upside down, almost literally: Halevi's memoirs are notes from the underground of right-wing Jewish radicalism.

Halevi is the son of a Holocaust survivor whose gratitude for a safe refuge in America was tainted with a certain contempt for the complacency of American Jews: "The 6 million American Jews had survived in place of the 6 million of Europe," Halevi explains. "We burned so they could move to Long Island."

Halevi grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn in the '50s and '60s, a hothouse where right-wing Zionists and fundamentalist Hasidic Jews clashed over matters of faith but embraced a common distrust of the outside world.

"We were like survivors of a nuclear war," he writes. "We had been poisoned by a knowledge no outsider could understand; only in isolation could we nurse each other back to equilibrium."

Halevi came early to a kind of radicalism that was his own answer to the demons that afflicted the Jewish people. By sixth grade, he had already started a group that he dubbed the ANA (Anti-Nazi Agency); he had been recruited as the "Borough Park elementary school chairman" of the movement to save Soviet Jewry; and he wore the paramilitary uniform of a right-wing Zionist movement called Betar, which taught him things that were simply never mentioned in the yeshiva where he studied Torah: "The gun is your friend."

Halevi, like the other Jews of Borough Park, was haunted by history. He grew up in a subterranean world; after all, he had been taught from earliest childhood that his father had survived the Holocaust by burrowing into an underground shelter in the Transylvanian woods, and the ghetto fighters of Warsaw made their heroic last stand from the sewers.

"We had given democracy a chance," Halevi writes. "In ANA, we discussed acquiring sewer maps of Borough Park for the time when we would have to go literally underground."

Halevi was not entirely estranged from his generation and its rites of passage--he smoked pot, wore bell-bottoms, fought with his parents over the Vietnam War. But he gives us a crucial clue to what radicalized him and prompted him to emulate the young martyrs who died for Zionism under the leadership of men like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

"I wanted to be like them," Halevi declares. "And though afraid I lacked the courage to kill and die, I feared an ordinary life even more."

Eventually, the fear of an ordinary life lured Halevi into Rabbi Meir Kahane's fledgling Jewish Defense League, the ragged edge of Jewish activism. But, as we suspect from the very first page of his "Memoirs," Halevi was not a true believer. Indeed, his book can be read as an account of how he climbed back out of the ideological hole in which he had buried himself.

"Prison, flight, madness: Those seemed to be the options for anyone who went underground," Halevi finally concludes after considering the fate of the bomb-throwers who were his comrades. "What, after all, was the difference between Palestinian rage and mine?"

Early on, we are given a clue that Halevi's heart and soul did not belong wholly to the warriors. He was a disciple of a hater like Kahane, but he also found himself drawn to the example of Shlomo Carlebach, a Hasidic troubadour whom Halevi describes as "the poet of the lost Jews." Slowly, it began to dawn on him that extremism was a dead end; he fell in love with a non-Jewish woman, and they immigrated to Israel with much gentler ambitions than he had once embraced.

"Through her eyes, I saw the power of sanctifying a physical act," he writes of the ritual observances performed by his wife after her conversion to Judaism. "I saw Judaism in its pristine vitality, stripped of social deadening and historical trauma."

So, in a curious way, "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist" starts out as the tormented confessions of a former radical and turns into a love story with a happy ending. Halevi has roused himself from the nightmare of history, crawled out of the hole where he had sought refuge, and stands upright as if for the first time.

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