Published originally in Blogcritics Magazine, 26 June, 2009
Copyright © R. Kossover, 2009, 2011
My father*, may he rest in peace, was born in Russia-Poland in 1908. Many of the adults he knew, the Jews in the village of Yenzhiveh where he lived, were veterans of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War that had occurred only a few years before he had been born. Some of these veterans came home famous, like Joseph Trumpeldor, a man who didn’t live in Yenzhiveh. He lost an arm in battle, and emigrated to the Land of Israel to help found Jewish villages there. He died fighting Arabs in 1920 at Tel Hai. His name is memorialized in the Zionist youth organization, Beitar - בית''ר -, which is the mnemonic for - brit hano’ár ha’ivrí ‘al shém yósef trumpeldór – “Covenant of Hebrew Youth Founded upon Joseph Trumpeldor’s name”. Most of the veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, however, resumed their daily lives and did not rise to such fame.
But my father heard from these war veterans nevertheless. They would talk about the battles they fought, the country they fought in, and the wondrous and terrible sights they saw there. One needs to understand some history to realize that the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was not fought in either Russia or Japan. It was fought in China, over Chinese territory. At the time, the Chinese Empire was so weak it could not keep out foreigners from fighting over its land. During this humiliating period in Chinese history, Jewish Russian soldiers saw China, its millions of inhabitants crowding Manchuria, and saw, amongst other things, that the symbol of this country was a dragon.
Only one dragon was known to Jews – the Leviathan.
In stories my father related, he told me to beware the Chinese – that they were a sleeping giant who would one day awake. He told me that the Chinese were like the Leviathan – which he called livi-yússen, the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word líviatán.
His description was as follows:
“The livi-yússen is a giant whale, and the world rests on this giant whale. One day the livi-yússen will overturn, and when it does, the world will overturn.”
I would listen to this fantastic yarn and say, “Yes, Dad.” But my father had a nasty habit of being right, even when it appeared that it was impossible that he should be so at the time.
Leviathan was a large whale-like sea creature, who may have had 7 heads according to some legends. A lengthy description of him comes from the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job:
His strong scales are his pride,
Shut up as with a tight seal.
One is so near to another
That no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another;
They clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezes flash forth light,
And his eyes are like
The eyelids of the morning.
Out of his mouth go burning torches;
Sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth
As from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals,
And a flame goes forth from his mouth.
In his neck lodges strength,
And dismay leaps before him.
The folds of his flesh are joined together,
Firm on him and immovable. His heart is as hard as a stone,
Even as hard as a lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the mighty fear;
Because of the crashing they are bewildered.
The sword that reaches him cannot avail,
Nor the spear, the dart or the javelin.
He regards iron as straw, Bronze as rotten wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
Sling-stones are turned into stubble for him.
Clubs are regarded as stubble;
He laughs at the rattling of the javelin.
His under-parts are like sharp potsherds;
He spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the depths boil like a pot;
He makes the sea like a jar of ointment.
Behind him he makes a wake to shine;
One would think the deep to be gray-haired.
Nothing on earth is like him,
One made without fear.
He looks on everything that is high;
He is king over all the sons of pride.[Job 42:15-32]
Also, according to Isaiah 27:1, on the Day of Judgment the Lord will slay Leviathan:
'In that day the Lord will punish,
With His great, cruel, mighty sword
Leviathan the Elusive Serpent —
Leviathan the Twisting Serpent;
He will slay the Dragon of the sea.'
[Isaiah 27:1 (bold print mine)]
The site also quotes passages from the apocryphal Book of Enoch [1 Enoch 60:7-8], Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra (75a) and the Bible, Psalms 74:26, but the main descriptions are reproduced above.
So, now that we have a fuller description of the Leviathan at hand, let’s look again at my father’s fantastic yarn. In the 1950s it indeed sounded like nothing more than that. The world was divided between two giant powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and everyone worried that these two powers would go to war one day and leave the planet nothing but a radioactive cinder, and that the inheritors of the planet would be... cockroaches. Indeed, Albert Einstein had said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
In this world, China did not count too greatly, in spite of its many millions of people, but the Chinese Red Army had fought the United States Armed Forces (and their allies, the Turks, Australians, and New Zealanders) to a draw in Korea. At the time, the United States was the manufacturing giant of the planet. One could buy everything in the States from soup to nuts, and see on the label, “Made in America”. This label did not mean that all the parts were imported from foreign countries and assembled in America – the lame meaning it holds today. This label meant that everything except the most raw materials unobtainable in the United States came from America.
In this world, the dollar had real meaning – from the ring of the silver in the silver dollars my dad would toss me every now and again – to the fact that an ounce of gold was worth $35, that this price was the benchmark of the international financial system, that everybody owed money to the United States of America, that oil was bought and sold in dollars, that air and hotel fares were quoted in dollars, and that English, the binding language of the United States, was the language used by all pilots in the sky.
The Samsung 753s computer screen that shows me what I’m typing now was probably made in Korea. The cannibalized CRT that powers the computer displaying this image was made in China or Korea. In fact, the only things that I can safely say were ‘made in America’ in my rental home in Israel is the desk my father bought me in 1960, the chair he obtained from Brooklyn College that I’m sitting on right now, the Southwestern Bell Trimline Freedom Phone on my desk to my left (which I’ve had forever), four bookcases made from hard wood in the States in the 1960s, me, my wife, and my kids.
Let’s not talk about the dollar. It has no ring to it. Not anymore. The Pocahantas tokens I have in my drawer that say “one dollar” on them have barely any intrinsic value at all. The same goes for all the other tokens that say “half dollar”, “quarter dollar” “one dime” and “five cents”.
Let’s not talk about what is manufactured in the United States. A year ago, I might have said cars and boats, but today, “Made in China” is far more likely to be seen on manufactured goods here and everywhere else in the world. Let’s not talk about who owns all those bonds the United States Treasury has been hustling in the last few years. “Owned in China” is stamped upon them as well.
Some folks talk about the United States being the “last superpower”.
To be terribly blunt, about the only wealth-creating nation on the planet today is China. Today, 50 years after my father told me about the livi-yússen, the giant whale the world sits upon, China is the giant manufacturing power the world relies upon for a whole host of goods. Australian kids learn Mandarin – not because they are interested, but because they understand who the real power in their neck of the woods is. The power that China wields is indirect – but palpable. A China-friendly regime rules in Nepal. The nations in Southeast Asia are careful not to challenge the “elder brother” in Peking directly. When the United States needs money, there is usually a trip to Peking for some hard negotiating (a.k.a. begging) involved. Chinese influence can be seen throughout Latin America.
But there is more. Twice in recent years, Chinese military officials have threatened to use nuclear weapons to counter the United States. The Chinese are a careful lot, not given to empty threats, bluff or bluster. While these threats to attack the United States with nuclear weapons are not extant today, they have been made, and the American ruling elites have taken note. And it does not take a lot to see that a nuclear exchange between the Americans and the Chinese would be a lot like that livi-yússen overturning, what my father described 50 years ago.
When we look at what the livi-yússen really is – a dragon, the symbol of China - we see what may well be truth in my father’s warnings. Today, at least 1½ billion people inhabit the People’s Republic of China. And if this livi-yússen overturns, the world will indeed overturn with it.
Dad, do you always have to be right?
* Dedicated to Louis Kossover, זיסקן לייב בן צבי-הערש, may his memory be for a blessing for his family and for all the People of Israel, who died on 26 June 1976.