Moby-Dick is still essential reading in today's godless age

(Photo: Unsplash/Matt Hardy)

It all happened such a long time ago – between Nice and Suez to be precise.

Exactly 10 years after the War, my mother returned to Nice in the South of France to thank all those people who had saved her life. The code-name had been 'Les choux-fleurs sont arrivés', and whenever someone had phoned her with that message, she would get on her bike and cycle to the next safe house.

For some reason, the French in that area had carried on saving her during the War at risk to their own lives. And much later, when the War was over, she received reparations every year from the German government. What exactly the Germans had done to her she never spoke about – Mum kept herself very much to herself.

When she left for this trip to Nice I was only four years old and I felt abandoned. For some reason that I still don't understand, my parents hosted a different German or Austrian school-leaver every year. She would live with us, learn English and help Mum with light housework. When Mum left for Nice, one of these girls was left to look after me, and I admit I resented her.

So, knowing how much I loved to swim in the sea over the road, she gave me a book to read. It was by an American writer, Herman Melville, who was born 100 years ago, in 1919, and I have only just read it. The book's name is Moby-Dick.

I was a voracious reader, but mainly of Fairy Tales from Many Lands, which was frightening enough with its witches and goblins from what to me at the time were strange-sounding places, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Little did I know the role these countries had played in the Holocaust, nor did I ever dream that one day I would visit Lithuania to research our Jewish past, now extinct. The fairy tales spoke for themselves – they were truly scary with pictures to match, but not so much that I was too scared to read them.

Moby-Dick, by contrast, with its tiny font and no pictures, huge paragraphs and unremitting language was in a different league altogether. It defeated me then, and was to do so until now - even now I am not sure that I have taken it in fully.

And then Mum came back and Dad told us that we were likely moving to Australia, as England was no longer a safe place for Jews. By this time it was 1956 and the Suez crisis was upon us, which Dad described in great detail and accurately as being a British plot, led by Anthony Eden, to once again make the Jews do their dirty work for them. By now we had the new State of Israel, but Mum's sister lived in Australia, so we had better go there, Dad said.

We never did make it to Australia as things began to calm down and the antisemitism subsided – for the time being.

For me, Moby-Dick represented the danger zone between the Holocaust, maternal abandonment and the repercussions from Suez.

I was recently lent a book called The Broken Estate by James Wood, who writes about the link between literature and religious belief.  There in Wood's book was an entire chapter devoted to Herman Melville and what struck me more than anything was that Melville, author of the book that some think is the greatest American book of all time, had actually visited my home patch and even sat on the dunes outside my house, watching the sea go by.

He visited the tiny seaside backwater of Southport in 1856 with his friend, fellow-novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who at that time was the American Consul in Liverpool for the anti-abolitionist side. This takes me back to the time that Liverpool University invited me to start courses on Hebrew and put the former consulate state room at my disposal. Hebrew had never been taught before at Liverpool, because clerics were barred from teaching. What they wanted was a non-preachy approach which would draw people in – and they thought that I fitted the bill.

After staring at the sea in Southport with Hawthorne, and being disappointed, Melville travelled to Israel and subsequently wrote the longest American poem in the English language, entitled Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And this was well before Mark Twain's much more famous visit 10 years later. Both authors spoke about the desolation and depopulation of the land which now holds over 9 million people, 7 million of them Jews from all over the world.

So what is Moby-Dick? It is the story of a modern-day Jonah who is out to find G-d and recognizes that his quest is impossible from the outset, since G-d, symbolized by the whale, is unreachable by mere mortals. However, the important thing is the journey and the final showdown between man and G-d who is so elusive and works in mysterious, unfathomable ways.

Moby-Dick is one of the most difficult books I've ever read, even though it is in English.  It is really about man's struggle with G-d, but written from the point of view of an expert whaler. There is even a Torah of the whale, just as there is a Torah of G-d. Melville was imbued with Jewish biblical norms and the whale, for Melville, becomes G-d.

We in the Jewish community have just celebrated Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when we read the story of Jonah, in which the whale is actually a female fish. And, as most people know, Jonah doesn't understand how G-d's forgiveness is able to encompass obvious sinners. But that is what Yom Kippur is all about. We are all sinners and G-d forgives all of us daily.

Woods describes an account by Hawthorne of the visit to the Southport dunes with Melville who had apparently "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated. It is strange how he persists ... in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sandhills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other."

The sea in Southport was always boring. You could clamber over the dunes and run for what seemed like miles across flat sand until you reached the water, which was always disappointingly shallow. If you managed to get a proper swim out of it, you were lucky. But I remember always feeling better afterwards.

Other seas, like the ones experienced in real life by Melville and by those of us who love swimming, can kill you. I remember watching the news one evening in Israel and among all the wars, terrorism, boycott movements and antisemitism, the headline that night was that a young man in his mid thirties had just drowned off the deceptive Haifan coast where I also used to swim. Later, one of my closest friends drowned in the Haifa seas, where waves can come up suddenly and engulf you before you even realise it. You always know you are taking your life in your hands, but somehow you can't resist the pull of the sea. For those who love the sea, this can be compared to our irresistible pull towards the Divine and especially on Yom Kippur.

Melville was one of those who understood this.

From Yom Kippur we carry on into Succot, the festival in which we live in a hut for eight days to reproduce the fragility of our lives in the desert and to remind ourselves of our dependence. At this time, we reflect on G-d's world which is different from ours. The Succot festival, finishing next week on Simchat Torah, 'the Joy of the Law', reminds Jews everywhere that we do not know what is in store for us. We always keep a bag packed – just in case. But for Melville, a packed bag wasn't an option. For Melville it was simply 'Do or die!'

This is what Woods says: "The love of metaphor literally leads Melville astray theologically. His 'wandering' love of language breaks up his G-d, and he encourages this; his love of language bribes him, turns him against that rival, the Original Author.... In Judea, in 1857, Melville is put into a cold trance by the rockiness of the landscape. 'Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity?' he asks himself. The land must have produced the religion, he feels.... [T]he diabolical landscapes great part of Judea [sic] must have suggested to the Jewish people their terrific theology."

At one point, Melville asks how you can understand the head of the whale if you cannot even understand its tail. "Thous shalt see my back parts ... but my face shall not be seen." This comes straight out of Exodus 33, with G-d talking to Moses in similar language.

And again, the whale is compared to the altar, just as, according to the Mishnah, a camel (more common in Israel than a whale) could act as the base for a Succah-hut! There is a whole chapter, entitled 'The Whiteness of the Whale' and at Yom Kippur many people wear white.

One of the most telling lines of the book is when Melville states that: "some whalemen ... declar[e] Moby-Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)."

Did Melville know that the same word, 'olam' in Hebrew, signifies both eternity in time and the unbounded cosmos in space? For as we also state, 'G-d is the place of the world, but the world is not His place.'

So I have no idea whether the 19-year-old German girl who looked after me when I was four knew all this about Melville and Moby-Dick. In a way it doesn't matter. It has taken a whole life-time to come to terms with the White Whale and to realise that wherever you come from and whatever you take for granted has a different meaning for everyone else.

If you haven't read Moby-Dick yourself, I suggest you do so as soon as possible. Because although its message is stark, it is also essential reading for our largely unbelieving and godless age.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.