Michael Feige

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Prof. Michael Feige was one of the victims of the terror attack in central Tel-Aviv on Wednesday night, June 8. On June 9th, twelve days ago, I received the following notification of his death:

Michael Feige was a gentle man and a sensitive teacher. His scholarship earned him the annual Shapira Prize in 2010 of the Association for Israel Studies for the best book published in Israel Studies: “Settling in the Hearts; Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories.”

A graduate of the Hebrew University in sociology and anthropology, much of his work was focused on memory and identity in Israeli politics and culture. He engaged in original research on the settlement movement and Gush Emunim as well as on Peace Now, the use of archaeology in contemporary Israel, the assassination of Rabin and religious fundamentalism, and the place of Ben-Gurion in national memory. After his degree he spent a year as a Fellow of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and then returned to Israel where he joined the Ben-Gurion Research Center for the Study of Israel and Zionism at the Ben-Gurion University campus in Sde Boker. He was also a Visiting Professor at Brandeis (Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, NEJS and Anthropology). In recent years he was serving as the head of the BGU program in Israel Studies.

Michael Feige leaves a wife, Nurit, and three daughters, many friends and admirers. Michael was a former AIS Board member. He was to have presented at the forthcoming AIS conference in Jerusalem. He will be sorely missed.

Yesterday, I planned to write a blog on China and Israel, but as the conference proceeded, I began thinking about writing once again on the BDS movement instead. Then this morning I woke up with my head full of Michael Feige. It is not as if Michael has been one of the ghosts that I live with – mainly my brother, but also numerous others who were joined most recently by Ned Hagerman, Stephen Clarkson and Abe Rotstein. All those ghosts were part of my life. These were people with whom I shared thoughts, feelings and experiences. Michael Feige was not one of those. I may have met him at a previous AIS conference, but if so, I do not recall the meeting. And just a little knowledge of who he was would suggest that any meeting with him would not have been forgotten.

One of the sessions I attended yesterday was called “Jerusalem Narratives.” Michael Feige was scheduled to present a paper at that session. The paper was presented by Noa Gilboa Kanarek. It was called, “A Wall, in her Heart: Rebranding Jerusalem through Popular Music.” The session was very moving, especially when his wife, Nurit, offered a response to the paper. That response, it became clear, was offered in the same whimsical way that Michael wrote many of his papers.

Nurit insisted that she was responsible for Michael writing a paper on Jerusalem in Israeli Songs because she, not he, began playing all those songs at home. True to form, since he could not avoid the onslaught, he joined in to listen and try to comprehend the fact and meaning of why so many songs have been written about and to Jerusalem, a phenomenon which he noted was not the case before 1967. His paper dealt with both the content of the new wave of music, why it came about and what this shift meant.

At the General Assembly meeting at lunch that followed the session, Professor Ilan Troen, the current President of the Association for Israel Studies and the Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, opened the meeting with an introduction to his old friend and colleague, the late Professor Michael Feige. Ilan was not offering a eulogy (although a very moving one was delivered at Michael’s funeral along with others published online, such as this one by Professor David Myers).

Michael was a man who was always modest in spite of his prodigious academic publishing record. He was collegial, not only with colleagues with whom he did research and wrote papers, but with all his students who, clearly from the remarks made by them at the conference, truly adored him. Though he was a critic of current government policy, he always engaged in criticism by making an enormous effort to understand the position of the other. And though he believed in speaking truth to power as a cultural anthropologist, he never did so as an assault on the other. Unlike his professional cultural anthropologist colleagues in the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Michael never abandoned the scientific values of detached observation and objectivity. In sum, he was an academic and intellectual mensch. This is the picture I formed as I listened to Ilan speak about the man he so missed.

But mostly, Ilan left the words of praise to others and to the words quoted in his obituary with which I opened this blog. Instead, because he found it so difficult to speak of his late friend, he read two poems, one by Chaim Nachman Bialik and another by Wislawa Szymborska. Ilan summarized the first three verses of the Bialik poem but read the fourth one. The poem reads as follows:

AFTER MY DEATH

Say this when you mourn for me:

There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity! There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
forever.

A great pity! He had a violin,
a living, speaking soul
to which he uttered
the secrets of his heart,
making all its strings vibrate,
save one he kept inviolate.
Back and forth his supple fingers danced,
one string alone remained entranced
still unheard.

A pity!
All its life that string quivered
silently shook,
yearned for its song, its mate,
as a heart saddens before its fate.
Despite delay it waited daily
mutely beseeching its saviour lover
who lingered, loitered, tarried ever,
and did not come.

Great is the pain!
There was a man – and look, he is no more.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
forever.

I woke up this morning thinking about the paper I had to present later, but what was most in my head were the words, “The music suddenly stopped. There was another song in him.” I then knew I would write this blog rather than another and would count on my memory in delivering a summary of my paper at the AIS panel “Conflict Within and Without.”

The other poem Ilan read was “Could Have” by Wislawa Szymborska.

COULD HAVE

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
speechless.
Listen,
how your heart pounds inside me.

For that was the main theme of Ilan’s comments on Michael Feige. Contingency! It could have happened to any of us. But it happened to a man who turned academic scholarship into ironic songs and examined songs for their irony, to a man who still had more songs to sing. As it happens, one of the themes of my paper this morning is contingency, the role of sheer chance in history. Some might call it divine intervention.

After Ilan introduced the need to recognize Michael Feige and gave it a very personal content, he turned the actual tribute over to Michael’s colleague, Dr. Paula Kabalo, an expert on civil society and, more specifically, the role of NGOs. She too belonged to the collection of scholars who live on the periphery of the periphery at Ben-Gurion Research Center for the Study of Israel and Zionism at the Ben-Gurion University campus in Sde Boker. The formal tribute of the Centre can be found on their website.

Though Paula’s recognition of her beloved colleague and collaborator was profound in content, true to Michael it was also humorous and whimsical. She began with one of Michael’s jokes on how you recognize when you live on the periphery of the periphery. You miss movies, plays, concerts, performances, services, and people from which you are cut off, climaxing in the impossibility of finding a professional plumber. Paula managed to convey the personality behind the scholar, his laid back approach in contrast to her Latin temperamental one, his ability to combine detachment with commitment, irony with profundity, and warmth with high intellectual standards. For even more than being a scholar, he was a mentor and friend.
Though I may never have met him, he now joins the pantheon of ghosts who increasingly haunt my life, but I can see him looking askance at even that idea.

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