Barbra Streisand has been with Betsy and me for more than 20 years.
She first left her mark on us when we were making our maiden flight together outside of Israel. It was the winter of 1989, during our first year as a couple. After the lychee groves of the kibbutz, where our passionate romance started, and the highest mountain in the Sinai desert, atop which it continued to develop, we decided to take a trip abroad. We settled on Turkey. Not because of the weather (which is very cold in the winter). Not because of the beautiful beaches of Antalya. Not even because of the honey-soaked baklava of Istanbul. No, it was simply because buying plane tickets to Turkey was the cheapest way to vacation outside of Israel.
Since we wanted to save on the cost of lodgings, we decided to make our way from city to city by night bus. One night we found ourselves on a 10-hour bus journey, breathing air laden with cigarette smoke because the windows did not open, squashed between chicken cages, with stops every four hours for bathroom visits and hot apple tea. On one of the pit stops, thinking we might be able to make the journey less horrifying and weather the experience better, we bought a tape of Barbra Streisand and convinced the driver to play it over and over for the rest of the journey. It was Barbra who saved us on that Turkish night bus, and that is how we became her devoted fans.
When Betsy heard that Barbra Streisand was coming to our country for her first-ever performance in Israel, she declared that we had to go. Ticket prices were not exactly family-friendly, but we decided to disregard that fact by telling ourselves that “You only live once” and that “Barbra Streisand is 71 years old—who knows if we’ll ever have another opportunity to see her?” So we bought our tickets, which we designated as Betsy’s birthday present, and started to anticipate the concert with excitement.
To avoid traffic, we got to Tel Aviv four hours before the concert started. Coming to Tel Aviv from the Galilee in June, we could not stop feeling sorry for our Tel Aviv friends, living in a city that was so hot and so humid even before summer had reached its zenith.
A couple of hours before the performance started, the crowd began gathering in Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa. Excitement was in the air. The feeling of something special was about to happen. It was hot in the stadium, and veteran concert goers had brought along their hand fans. The instructions on the back of the tickets forbade bringing bottles into the stadium. I assumed the prohibition referred to beer and hard liquor and not innocent water bottles, but most of the crowd was totally compliant. We were a captive market, completely at the mercy of the vendors who exploited their advantage and overcharged us. At the start of the evening, a small bottle of water went for 12 shekels. By the intermission the price had gone up to 15 shekels, and by the end it was down to 5 shekels.
The concert started on time, and it wasn’t just the crowd who was excited. To applause, she stressed her Jewish background and her roots in Brooklyn, NY. “I don’t know why I waited 71 years to appear in Israel.” When she was asked which Jewish contributions to humanity she is most proud of, she said, “I am proud of the contributions that our people have made to medical science. And most of all, for inventing the chicken soup.”
I tried to connect the silken thread between the sound of the beloved diva’s voice and Israel in the summer of 2013. I felt as if the audience of thousands was enveloped in love from the renowned singer as if embraced by an eiderdown. The crowd was yearning for this love, for acceptance, for a hug, for validation. Although as a global star she belongs to “everyone,” and although she is a supporter of political and environmental issues that are universal, Barbra Streisand is first and foremost one of us. The Jewish woman who plays Jewish women in her movies (who doesn’t remember Yentl?). She even has a Brooklyn-Jewish accent. So she finally came home, to Israel. And she charmed us, her enthusiastic fans, with quotes from the Passover Haggadah, with Jewish humor and subtle self-deprecation, and, most of all, with the warm embrace of a Jewish mother for the State of Israel and the people of Israel.
Because despite the unfathomable, miraculous, historic achievement of establishing a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, and despite the image of us as being brash, strong and arrogant, the Israeli experience still contains remnants of the Diaspora, residual feelings of being a persecuted minority, our metaphorical suitcases packed and ready to leave. These characteristics tend to hinder the transition necessary to turn refugees, those who build a country and defend it from oppressors, into a strong, confident people at peace with ourselves and, in the future, at peace with our neighbors and with our own minority communities.
Perhaps that is also a function of age and maturity. After all, despite the Nobel prizes, the European basketball championship, Entebbe raid, drip irrigation, Iron Dome batteries, and all the other successes of our Start-Up Nation – we are only 65! Like young children, or perhaps like everyone everywhere, no matter what our chronological age and situation in life, we Israelis also need a Jewish mother, blessed with a wonderful voice and an appearance untouched by the ravages of time, to sing Hatikvah to us, enduring us that we are “am hofshi be’artzenu” – “a free people in our own country”.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His first book, “Benartzi” (“Son of My Land”), was published in 2012 and will be available in English in summer 2013. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.