Dear Ms. Walker:
Please think of this letter like those notes full of wishes that people fold and fold and fold to fit into a crevice in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I tell you this because I just re-read The Color Purple, in all of its epistolary glory, after I learned that you wouldn’t allow the book to be translated into Hebrew.
I tell you this because letters like Celie’s—thousands of letters like hers—live in the Wall until they are swept away by maintenance workers. But before that happens, I’d like to believe that those words reach heaven on the breath of all the prayers constantly hovering over Jerusalem. These multi-religious pleas and praises to God are what the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai described as “the ecology of Jerusalem.”
Celie and Shug have their own astonishing floating theology. Neither of them has ever found God in a church. God is genderless. God is nature. God is part of everything and so are we. Jews and Christians and Muslims. Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis. “God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t,” Shug tells Celie. God loves beauty for the sake of beauty. Nothing makes God angrier than walking by the color purple in a field and taking no notice of its glory.
There is so much color in Israel. Some of it invented though, like the Green Line. I imagine that kind of color is anathema to your politics, to your soul. I don’t like it either. But I must tell you that I am still a Zionist. I feel the same way about Israel that Celie’s missionary sister Nettie felt about Africa. The first time she set eyes on the African coast something like a large bell struck her soul. The first time I went to Jerusalem my friends made me get out of the car and physically walk into the city. I felt like a pilgrim. But the first time I truly saw Israel — the golden colors of Jerusalem stone, all shades of blue in the Armenian quarter, the glittery reds and pinks in the Arab market — was when I landed in Israel directly from visiting the ashes of Auschwitz.
Or more accurately the ashes of Majdanek, another camp in Poland. Auschwitz is a tourist attraction. You can buy a hot dog outside of the sanitized concentration camp. The piles of shoes and pots and pans that the Jews thought they needed when they were deported to concentration camps look more like sculptures—frozen by history and cliché. But Majdanek is black, charcoal black, and the bleakest place I’ve ever seen. The day after I visited, I was in Israel and it was the first time I shed personal tears for the Nazi genocide of my people. It was the first time I understood why Israel has always been and will always be the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
But life has never been a fairy tale in Israel. There are distinct geographic and class divisions. They exist as sharply among Jews as they do between the Palestinians and Israelis. But to call these social problems apartheid is a false historical equivalency, Ms. Walker. Israel is not an apartheid state. There is no official policy of discrimination of any one people as there was in South Africa. Yes, there is injustice and oppression. But there is also an entire society of Celies— Jewish women burdened by sexism, misogyny and wholesale ignorance. These women need Celie. I know that somehow The Color Purple will reach some of these women surreptitiously if the book is available in Israel in Hebrew. They’ll read that God’s will has nothing to do with their husbands’ ill wills. God is a savior. Their husbands are jailers.
If your book were translated into Hebrew, I would hand out copies in the streets of Me’ah Shearim in Jerusalem and B’nai Brak in Tel Aviv, where women are forced to cross the street in deference to men. I’d hand them out in the back of buses where women are corralled because of some twisted, sinful interpretation of Jewish religious law. I’d distribute them to Palestinian women, for many of whom Hebrew is also their first language.
But until I have your book to give them, these women are as mute as pillars of salt. That was Lot’s wife’s punishment when she was instructed not to look back at the ongoing destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. But how could Lot’s wife, whose name was believed to be Judith, not turn around to make sure her children were safe. Celie looked back to locate her children too and for that she was also entombed in a metaphorical stony pillar of salt. But she didn’t stay trapped. When she broke out of her numb existence it was not so much a miracle, but an act of womanhood.
Don’t your Palestinian and Israeli sisters deserve to read Celie’s story? Don’t they need to know that noticing the color purple is their God-given right too?
What a wonderful, beautifully written post! You link the themes in The Color Purple so artfully to what is happening in Israel today.