Review of Letters to Talia

Reviewed Book: Letters to Talia (Yedioth Ahronoth. 2005)

On October 25, 1971, a high school girl living on an unnamed kibbutz near Haifa sent a letter to a twenty-year-old hesder student whom she had never met. She initially reached out to him because she wanted to know why, at a Gesher kiruv seminar she had attended the previous Sukkot, there had been no mixed dancing. The girl, an Israeli youth by the name of Talia, directed her question to this student on the recommendation of her father, who had met him while on reserve duty in the IDF while the two served on the same military base. Though their correspondence began with a seemingly technical yet light-hearted letter, it ended up sparking a two year long correspondence which went far beyond mere detail-oriented exchanges explaining specific practices in Orthodox Judaism. Besides exploring a diverse number of religious topics, the correspondence between these two Israeli youths developed into an ongoing conversation and a shared exploration of their deepest held beliefs and dreams. The two kept up a steady stream of letters for almost two years, until just days before the young man’s tragic death.

The reader of Letters to Talia (Michtavim Le-Talia in the original Hebrew), the published collection of these letters, is well aware from the outset of this tragic ending. The hesder student, an Israeli youth by the name of Dov Indig, fell on the second day of the Yom Kippur War, October 7, 1973, at the age of twenty-two. Thirty years later, his childhood friend Rabbi Haim Sabato, a founder of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, wrote a Sapir-prize winning novel/memoir, titled Adjusting Sights (Tiyum Kavanot)[1] based on his experiences in the Yom Kippur War. That memoir opens with a young Haim and Dov setting out to war from their homes in Jerusalem, and after they are separated into different tanks, Haim loses track of his friend. The rest of the narrative is structured around the young Haim trying to piece together what happened to Dov during the war. While in Rabbi Sabato’s memoir Dov is a central figure in the context of Haim’s journey, by the end of that book the reader has discovered very little about Dov as an individual, learning just enough about him to want to know more.

After the success of Adjusting Sights, seeing that people were interested in knowing more about Dov, Dov’s friends and family decided to collect and lightly edit his collected correspondence with Talia from the two years before his death, which they saw as a valuable window into his inner world. Letters to Talia was originally published in Hebrew in 2005 by Yedioth Ahronoth and later in English (in a somewhat weak translation) in 2012 by Gefen Publishing House. The compiler, Hagi Ben-Artzi, was a yeshiva friend of Dov’s with whom Dov had consulted while writing the letters, as he had never before attempted to engage in dialogue about Judaism with someone who was unaffiliated.[2] Ben-Artzi obtained Dov’s letters from the Indig family, who had received them from Talia as a memento of their fallen son and brother after the Yom Kippur War.[3] Ben-Artzi’s stated goals in publishing the letters include revealing the contributions of hesder students particularly in the Yom Kippur War, as well as encouraging dialogue and harmony between different groups within the Jewish people. Still, by his own admission, Ben-Artzi’s central reason in publishing Dov and Talia’s correspondence was to commemorate Dov with the hope that “Dov’s character will continue to illuminate our national persona, just as his own short life illuminated his surroundings with the light of kindness and great love – the love of God, the love of the Torah of Israel, the love of the people and land of Israel, and the love of all that is humane and worthwhile.”[4]

And indeed, these are pieces of his essence which come across strongly in Dov’s letters to Talia. The reader is struck by a correspondence that is at times stormy, argumentative, and deeply personal, but always honest and respectful. It reveals much about Dov and Talia’s inner worlds and their respective —very different, yet deeply rooted— forms of Zionism. Each of them comes into the dialogue without much experience outside of his or her respective community, with one hailing from the sheltered religious world and the other from the insulated kibbutz, yet as their letters progress, it is clear that each learns a great deal about the other’s world. When Talia expresses scorn or horror at a practice in the religious community, Dov is quick to correct misconceptions, whether through straightforward clarification or passionate unveiling of his innermost thoughts and emotions. By the same token, when Dov is impatient with and dismissive of those who are not religious, Talia is always sure to point out and correct his shortsighted disregard with a fiery reminder that though he may be acting as a teacher, he still has much to learn. Despite occasions of disagreement and misunderstanding, Talia and Dov share moments in their own inner worlds, free of debate and strife, such as when Talia describes the Tu Be-Shvat festivities or studying for exams and when Dov devotes entire letters to poetically describing his experiences scuba diving and observing Pesach as a soldier in the Sinai, suffusing them with his characteristic spiritual bent.

Initially, Dov and Talia’s letters are merely a give-and-take of halakhic issues; a typical exchange consists of Talia asking a question and Dov answering based on his reading and consultation with his teachers and with Hagi, usually followed by Talia’s response. While these exchanges invariably contain telling expressions of their personalities — whether describing everyday events in their respective lives or fervently arguing about concepts such as whether love and romance are the same thing — they can be somewhat formalistic. Only after the two have become more familiar and have met in person (at several lectures which Dov and Hagi gave at Talia’s school), and after several more heated confrontations in the letters, does the reader gets to the real heart of the book, where the letters are less about formalistic questions which can be answered by referring to textbooks and far more about explorations of beliefs. Though Dov intentionally imposes boundaries between himself and Talia so as to prevent their relationship from growing too personal — such as refusing to meet with Talia on a one-on-one basis — these boundaries are not apparent in the content of their letters, in which their exchanges are very open and at times very personal.

Despite their youth and Dov’s relatively cloistered yeshiva background, Talia and Dov display a startlingly wide breadth of knowledge and interests in their letters, as well as erudition in expressing their various opinions. The topics discussed include such diverse subjects as evolution, the Holocaust,[5] marriage and intermarriage, faith, the role of religion in the State of Israel, authorship of Tanakh, history, and national security. Discussions also include reactions to various current events, such as the Langer mamzerut case and the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis and massacre. In his search for answers to Talia’s questions, Dov displays evidence of an extremely expansive reading list: from Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler to Rabbis Avraham Yitzchak and Tzvi Yehuda Kook; from German psychologist Erich Fromm to Russian novelist Boris Pasternak; and from Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Dov is also profoundly marked by the influences of his teachers at both his hesder yeshiva, Yeshivat Kerem Be-Yavneh, and at his high school, Netiv Meir, displaying a particular reverence for his former principal, Rabbi Aryeh Bina. In many cases, it is very clear in which path Dov’s personal hashkafot lie, and the reader is often exposed to a heavily positive impression of many aspects of dati le’umi hashkafa from Dov’s explorations and explanations in his letters. Indeed, depending on the ideological bent of the reader, there may be aspects of Dov’s beliefs which some will not share, or will even object to vigorously. Still, even those readers who do not share all of Dov’s personal beliefs are likely to be profoundly struck by both the depths of Dov’s knowledge and the conviction with which he expresses and shares it. Talia, for her part, is fully up to the challenge of matching her conversant; while she personally describes herself as being far less into her schoolwork, when Dov recommends Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving, Talia stays up until 2:00 a.m. to read the entire book through twice.

As college-age, religiously striving readers, we identified personally with Dov’s character, and found his familiar age and stage in life to be significant factors in the way in which this book impacted us. The mature sophistication and conceptual range of Dov’s answers are certainly more impressive in light of his young age. Indeed, both Dov and Talia come across as clear, eloquent writers and complex thinkers in their own respects; however, in our opinion, the impression of surprising maturity and wisdom despite his youth comes across most strikingly in Dov’s case. Dov is a complex character. On the one hand, his passion for and devotion to Torah and the State of Israel, combined with his combination of intellectual curiosity and deep loyalty to tradition, make him seem like a formidable figure even as he is driven by an aspirational and relatable idealism and passion. On the other hand, the reader can also see in him many familiar flaws that young people know so well, such as his occasionally excessive naivete and idealistic passion, as well as his own admission that at times he possesses fewer answers and more strongly held beliefs. In fact, what is most compelling about the letters is not necessarily the specific answers to Talia’s questions which Dov provides—though many are in fact fascinating and well thought-out—so much as the intensity of his ever present underlying idealism, conviction, and spirituality, characteristics attested to in interviews with some of Dov’s friends which appear printed at the back of the book. Dov emerges as an engaging, unjaded individual who seeks to live a life consistent with all his ideals, unabashedly seeking and identifying divine revelation in the happenings of everyday life. At the time Dov is writing the letters, he is at a crossroads in life, still looking for his purpose and role, yet still outspoken, fervent and intellectual in ways which belie his age. In fact, it is ultimately Dov’s youth which puts him on more even footing with Talia and allows their conversations to begin and develop. It is hard to believe that Talia would have been so honest, personal, open, and blunt as she is had she had been writing to a forty-year-old rabbi.

From the book’s title and byline, an uninformed reader might think that Dov plays a defining role in the correspondence as the teacher figure of the two. While in a sense this is certainly true, the correspondence recorded in the pages of Michtavim Le-Talia is colored profoundly by the influence of Talia and her letters. Talia is sharp, intelligent, and unafraid to either crack a joke or issue a devastating rejoinder when she feels it necessary. Whether at the beginning of the correspondence, when Dov can sometimes be a little pat and polemical in his answers, or at the end, when Dov in his passion for the subject can occasionally be accidentally insensitive, Talia never hesitates to make her objections and counterarguments heard, even as she never stints in her admiration and praise when so much of what Dov says strikes a chord. In a way, it is Talia’s letters which contribute to the maturation of the dialogue from a mere ‘ask-the-rabbi’ style question-and-answer chain to a real exchange of heartfelt ideas: it is Talia who continues to push Dov past what can be merely answered through books and articles with her pointed contradictions and searching questions. In fact, in reply to one particular letter of Dov’s, which seems to Talia to disparage the secular, Talia’s infuriated response leads to what is perhaps Dov’s most personal and important letter, in which he discusses his personal mission to act as a bridge between their two different worlds and to combine the ideals of both. Talia’s opposition in many ways instigates Dov’s getting out from behind the teacher’s desk and engaging with her on a deeper and more personal level, examining his own weaknesses and struggles and bringing a deep genuineness to the discussion. It is Talia’s character which brings this book from a merely polemical discourse to a narrative filled with vitality, in effect transforming it from a one-sided lecture to the interactive give-and-take of the beit midrash.

The importance of Talia’s contributions to the discussion is thrown into even sharper relief when Talia is contrasted with her best friend, Maya (also a pseudonym), who is mentioned occasionally in Talia’s letters as she embarks on a path quite different than Talia’s own. Maya had been to the same Gesher seminar which sparked Talia’s letters to Dov, but fascination with religious life takes her much farther than it did Talia. While Talia strives toward understanding the religious world and intergroup dialogue, declaring herself to be a believer albeit a non-practicing one, Maya goes a step further: she learns with a rebbetzin from Kfar Chabad, meets with Hanan Porat (a leader of the settlement movement) to discuss moving to his religious kibbutz, and switches to the vegetarian table at the kibbutz to avoid eating non-kosher food. When Talia is crying after introspection brought about by one of Dov’s letters, Maya tells her that she had had those same feelings and that they were what was propelling her toward religion. But Talia is very different; while Maya takes these feelings and uses them to spur her to action, Talia remains doubtful, questioning, wondering whether there is something wrong with her such that she cannot seem to find the internal clarity that Maya and Dov seem to be feeling. In a sense, the reader feels lucky that it was Talia’s father and not Maya’s whom Dov met on his army service; one wonders how a series of letters between Dov and Maya might have gone, if so much of the challenge of the correspondence would have been lacking and the conversation may never have gotten beyond a relatively straightforward teacher-student dynamic on either end. It takes Talia much longer, with much more back-and-forth and much more soul searching, to reach a place where she felt ready to take on a Jewish ritual, and, from a reader’s perspective, the book is much better for it. As it happens, that Jewish ritual was observing Yom Kippur of 1973. The letter that she wrote the day before, in which she shared with him this immense commitment and eagerly awaited further correspondence with him, did not reach Dov before his sudden death within mere days of its being sent.

Dov and Talia’s correspondence can be hard to read, especially toward the end, as the specter of Dov’s death hangs over the reader’s experience with each letter. When reading Letters to Talia, there is a strong sense of unrealized potential and dreams unfulfilled, especially when the two speak of their hopes and uncertainties for the future–dreams the reader knows Dov will never be able to fulfill. One cannot help but read Dov’s last letter, written a week before his death as a Rosh Hashana message, as a coincidental epitaph. In that letter, he speaks of the State of Israel in the context of national redemption, wondering about his own role in this process. Describing his own doubts about an appropriate career path which would best contribute to the state, he describes having settled on religious education, seeing it as the foundation for securing the future of the Jewish people as a moral, ethical, believing, Torah-abiding nation. He describes his dreams of creating a new link in the tradition of the Jewish people, one wholly rooted in the traditions of the past but characterized by the vibrant and new nature of the “Torah of the Land of Israel.” He implores Talia to recognize that religion does not have to be limiting, but can combine all of one’s interests and talents and connect them to something greater. He asks her to keep on sending him letters, saying that he will be happy to give her guidance as she grows more spiritually aware. One week after the letter is written, Dov is killed in a tank at Nafah Quarry, and the reader’s heart is ripped in two.

As a reader, it can be tempting to read Letters to Talia as a mere correspondence between two people discussing issues in Judaism. In our opinion, such a reader would be missing the point of this book. There is, of course, that element to the story; yet, the views that are elucidated by Dov have basis in the writings of many great Torah authorities, and if one simply and solely wanted to learn about these views, one would be better served reading these writings oneself. Letters to Talia is so much more than that; it is the firsthand record of two young people, like us in so many ways, having the kind of deep conversation that one can live a lifetime without experiencing. It is a record of two people being almost unbearably honest to one another, being passionate whether they are right or wrong, and urging us as readers to explore our own passions and religious feelings. It is the story of two people stripping down many of the pretenses of religious and secular life, connecting praxis with great depths of spiritual feeling. We wonder at how such people could have existed, but since they did, we think, perhaps, we can be the next ones to have this conversation.

Chani Grossman (SCW ‘18) is a junior studying Jewish history and biology.

Avigayil Rosensweig (SCW ‘18) is a junior studying Tanakh and English.

 

[1] Thanks and appreciation to Chani’s father for introducing us first to Adjusting Sights and the rest of the works of Rabbi Haim Sabato (all of which we very strongly recommend), and later to Letters to Talia. He had no idea what he was going to unleash.

[2] Ben-Artzi is a ba’al teshuvah himself, winner of the 1965 Bible Contest, and, incidentally, the brother-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is married to ben Artzi’s sister, Sara.

[3] Talia herself agreed to their publication as long as she was referred to pseudonymously. Talia is not her real name.

[4] Michtavim Le-Talia, Preface, page X (Gefen 2012)

[5] Both Dov and Talia were children of Holocaust survivors.