Israel is so many moments:
Israel is that moment when the flags are raised by the end of Yom Hazikaron, and smiles appear on solemn faces, and it’s suddenly Independence Day and we are celebrating but the transition leaves you numb.
Should we really always keep these days together, you wonder. Should we really link sacrifice and independence, blood and joy?
By now, 69 years into our sovereignty, we are so much more than a struggle to survive.
We thrive. We prosper. And we do so because we work and develop and create – not merely because we are willing to sacrifice our lives. Can our achievements shine, can our achievements inspire our children, when they’re always in the shadow of the memory of death?
But Israel is also that moment when your children exclaim “soldiers!!!” on an outing, like other children might yell “Elsa!!!” on a Disney trip. And you say “yes, soldiers,” and look at those young faces over the uniforms and smile through your tears of gratitude.
We didn’t have a Jewish army back in Auschwitz. Our children weren’t safe back then. They weren’t free.
Our soldiers, you think as you murmur “thank you for watching over us,” are a victory.
And then you shudder when you think about their mothers. And about you own children, and the day they’ll don the green.
Israel is that moment when your daughter does shout “Elsa”, as you drive by a Frozen poster on a wall.
But that poster? it’s in Arabic. and that wall? It hides a store the like of which you’ve never seen before, a place of colorful clothes and fruits and machinery and wood.
You took the wrong turn and ended up in East Jerusalem, and you’re a little freaked up but also very fascinated. Everything is just so different here – what people wear, the store fronts, the decorations in the streets… You’re less than two hundred feet from the Jewish area you know so well, but you’re also in a different world.
Well, almost entirely different.
Sultan Suleiman’s Walls still stretch grand and golden in the sun.
And Elsa smiles at your daughter from a poster, like she does in many stores downtown.
Because stones, and Frozen, trump divides.
Israel is that moment when you’re 15-year-old and a suspicious looking Arab gets on the the bus. You don’t want to call out, because what if he’s an actual terrorist and your shout will trigger the attack? And what if he is innocent, and you’ll embarrass him?
So you get off, just in case, and half the passengers are of the same mind apparently, and then you all wait together for the next bus. And then you get off that bus, too, when you get home.
Israel is also that moment when you hear sirens in the distance, too many sirens, but you’re a mother now and you’re shaking and you’re thanking God that your children are too young to take buses on their own.
You can’t stop shivering. You can’t stop asking yourself how on earth your own parents survived the Second Intifada with their sanity intact, How did they go about their lives when you were a teenager who got on and off buses, and death struck all around?
And then you see your fear reflected in your children’s eyes, so you force a smile, and get yourself under control.
You’re a mother now, you tell yourself.
You may feel like you can’t stop shaking. You may feel like you can’t go about your day.
But you have to.
Israel is that moment when you wake up in the morning and your father’s eyes are red. “Something grave has happened,” he tells you. “A Jew killed our Prime Minister.”
Hours later, you”ll see the same gravity reflected in your teachers’ faces, and in the way the people in the street won’t meet each other’s eyes. Years later, you’ll realize how one man’s sin tore a society apart. Decades later, you will tell your kids “a fellow Jew killed a girl in Jerusalem today, because he disagreed with her, and thought she was a sinner.”
And you will pray that the gravity in your voice will stay with your children, as protection against the Siren call of hate.
But in that first moment, looking into your father’s red eyes and listening to his voice, you’re only 9-year-old.
Israel is that moment when your own son, who is only two years younger than you were back then, tells you that he knows what’s great about life here. “Even though we have enemies,” he tells you, “we can fight them. We have our army. We can do things. And I know a great word for this – ‘Atzmaut,’ independence.”
And you think – it doesn’t matter if he heard this speech elsewhere, or came up with it all by himself. He gets it. He gets why we raise him here.
(And did we really understand that much when we were seven?)
Israel is that moment when you’re sitting on a roof-less “train” loaded with children, and they’re all fidgeting and chattering and asking “are we there yet” for the tenth time, eager to reach the pick-your-own-apples orchard that you’re heading to. And as the train rolls ever so slowly through the winding mountain path, the recorded guide meticulously points out nice, age appropriate points of interest to observe.
Like the Hezbollah watch towers to your right.
And the tank tracks from the Second Lebanon War down below.
And that spot where an Israeli wind surfer ended up in Lebanon by mistake. And was ALMOST lynched.
But we saved him.
(Our army did.)
Israel is that moment when Jerusalem disappears behind your back, and yellow hills dotted with sheep and goats and Bedouin encampments open up around you, and the Dead sea is there on the horizon. It’s glittering, flat and vast, under the sun.
And it’s that moment when you lie on the salty, salty water and the mountains loom, surreal, above you. Once upon a time, your ancestors produced Persimmon oil on these slopes. Once upon a time, seekers of purity escaped Jerusalem and its Temple, and came to live up in these caves.
(And 50 years ago in the battle for Jerusalem,three Israeli archaeologists joined the paratroopers as they fought to conquer the Rockefeller museum in East Jerusalem, desperate to find the documents that disappeared from these old caves – )
Now, though, the mountains are empty, and the shores are full of tourists and bathing suits and people taking selfies of their mud-covered chests.
But the mountains refuse to fade into the background. They have a silence of their own, these peaks, and it’s somehow deeper, and more present, than the commotion all around.
Israel is that moment when you stand between Caesarea’s ancient aqueduct and the modern power plant, right there between the creations of two technological civilizations, and you think about the Roman governors who used to live here, and watch chariot races as our temple burned.
But it’s also that moment when you sit down for a drink in neighboring Or Akiva, and the 84-year-old woman who shares your table tells you how she came here from Iraq in 1951, and stayed in the same apartment in Ramat Gan ever since.
“The Romanian olim came and left to other neighborhoods, and the Yemenites came and left, but I stayed because my apartment is on the ground floor. And I want to stay on the ground.”
Her eyes are what my mother used to call ‘Haifa eyes’, after the ocean – blue and green and full of light. They dance as she smiles, and as she tells me how only two of her 13 grandchildren inherited them. “The others are sad about it, but they’re all healthy and well.”
I think about Rabbi Akiva, after whom the city is named. I think of the Roman soldiers who killed him. And I think of what the Roman Empire left behind: Old stones and a reputation for ruthlessness, and an arrow-straight aqueduct standing broken by the sea.
I look into the dancing blue-green eyes of the woman across from me as she says “I want to stay on the ground” and speaks of her grandchildren, “who all live in Israel,” right here on this ground upon which Rabbi Akiva bled. And I think about the fact that his legacy is still alive today – in this city which we chose to name after him, in the values I follow, in the words of prayer I say with my kids every night, as we recite the “Shema Israel”.
His story lives on through me and through Tzivya, whose eyes are still dancing, sea-blue and green.
And I think to myself – it’s a nice aqueduct, Romans. And I’m sure the chariot races were lovely.
But we win.
Israel is that moment when you visit Gamla, which rises out of the ravine, ruins and all, a reminder of an ancient war and utter devastation.
You expect it to be austere, like the griffins that favor it.
But it’s all soft browns and peaceful trees and a tranquility that defies the memories of war.
Israel is that moment when you crave coffee while walking down Zichron Yaakov’s super-chick, pseudo-European promenade, and the boutique coffee place that catches your eye carries two signs.
One identifies is as an Italian restaurant.
The other tells you that this is where activists from the Haganah, Irgun and Lechi hid weapons and planned operations against the British mandate.
Because in Israel we may drink our coffee strong or decaf, sweet or black, brewed or instant. But we always get it with a splash of history on top.
Israel is that moment when there is a piano in a Tel Aviv train station, and a soldier on his way home for shabbat sits down, weapon and all, and plays Bach.
Israel is that moment when you see an olive tree in the middle of Tiberias, and a sign explaining that it’s 520 years old.
Which means living things and roots can outperform walls and wars and Empires: This tree has been here longer than the current walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, withered the fall of two empires, and witnessed the arrival of the banished Spanish Jews in 1492 – – -And the Jews who fled from Arab countries back in 1948.
This tree, and the fact we know its age, means that memory can outstrip time, too. And as you drive by the tree with your children, the memories that brought us back from exile are in the forefront of your mind.
Israel is that moment when the Arab student who shared your table in the University’s library asks you to watch over her computer for a second. And it’s that moment when you run into her later in the bathroom, when you’re trying (and failing) to rearrange the head-cover that marks you as a religious married Jewish woman. She smiles at your reflection in the mirror, and says “tie it lower”.
Her own religious head-cover is masterfully wrapped, so you smile back, and try to do it her way.
Israel is also that moment when you ride home on the bus with a Mormon exchange student, and you’re bursting with questions, but she just shakes her head at you. “Sorry, but I can’t tell you about my religion, I’ll get in trouble. The law here prohibits it. They call it missionary work.”
And you get it. You really do. But she must see the disappointment on your face, because on the next moment she winks and leans toward you and goes on to answer all your questions in hints and semi formed sentences and quiet murmurs.
Not quiet enough, though, because by the end of the ride a guy with a beard and a huge white yarmulka leans into your bench from behind and says “thanks, this was fascinating.”
He ends up helping your new friend get home.
Israel is that moment when you finally make it to the mountain peak in Qumran.
There was so much talk about this archaeological site in the weeks before that moment – newspapers lauded the new display in the caves, family friends described the darkened spaces with a glint in their eyes – and your parents decided you simply must see it for yourselves. And now, three hours after you started the trek and many steps uo-up-up the mountain later, your sister and you are looking around, and you’re confused. Where are the caves?
You happen to glance down at the valley. “Why are all the people not climbing the mountains,” you ask your parents. “Why are they all walking from the parking lot to the valley below?”
You all look down at the commotion. Then you look at the winding, never-ending path that got you to the peak.
Years later, you will remember that moment with amusement. After all, one could say that the Essenes who lived in the Qumran caves overshot the mark, too: They aspired to create the peaks of perfection and purity in their little society, but, in their refusal to engage with society at large, failed to leave an impact down on earth.
But in that first moment of realization, staring down at the valley, all you can do is sit down, and not too gracefully.
“Well,” you say,” at least the way down won’t take as long.”
Israel is that moment when you give an uplifting speech about the meaning of Passover to a group of elderly Russian speaking olim. You speak with the passion and confidence of an 18-year-old, with the conviction that your words will inspire and transform.
(Israel was built, against all odds, through the confidence of youth – )
And it’s that moment after the lesson, when you stop by one of your students, an intelligent lady who used to be a scientist in Russia. You want to know what she made of your great words.
“So, what’s on your mind,” you ask her, smiling.
But she’s not smiling.
“I’m worried,” she says. “We got by so far, mostly on rice. But now that they raised the price of rice, I’m not sure what we’ll eat.”
It’s Qumran all over again, you think in that moment. It’s a reminder to engage with real life, with real people. It’s a reminder that the best intentions sometimes overshoot the mark
It’s a reminder to mature.
Israel is that moment when you’re standing by the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, holding hands with other people in sweaters and coats.
The line of people holding hands goes on and on, past the curve of the road, further than the eye can see. You know that it leads all the way to Gush Katif in one direction, and all the way to the Western Wall in the other. You know that this human chain binds together old timers from the Irgun and settlers and grandparents and infants in their mothers’ arms, all standing together to protest Prime Minister Sharon’s Disengagement Plan.
Some people are here because they love the Gush, some came here for the principle. But all of you are links in one completed chain.
But you’re also a link in the long chain between the Jewish past and Israel’s present and the joint future of the Jewish People. And Israel is that moment, years later, when you think back and know that the second chain is far more important than the first.
God, please thwart the Disengagement Plan, you pray in that moment by the Old City’s walls
God, you pray later, we disengaged from Gush Katif. But don’t let us disengage from each other. Don’t let Israeli society succumb to hate and pain.
We need our roots. We need our visions. And God, we need each other.
Israel is that moment when a driver noticed three toddlers marching down the road from a Kibbutz up north, getting rather too close to the highway.
“We’re going to Tiberias” they explained, when the driver pulled up and asked them where they were going to.”To buy pizza.”
Israel is also that moment when your sister in law, who volunteered in that kibbutz, tells you about this incident on her next visit to Jerusalem.
Your sister in law, you think in that moment, came here from L.A, where kids don’t roam the streets alone. The kids she told you about never lived outside their small community, where wandering about is absolutely safe.
But she, and you, and these kids from that village up north, will all form this country’s future side by side.
Israel is that moment on June 1st, 1947, when a young Moroccan Jew named David Ben Simchon set foot on Israel’s soil for the first time.
Ben Simchon knelt and kissed “the earth, the chips, the dirt.” He even swallowed some soil – “out of love, out of pleasure, because I achieved my goal. I made it.”
In that moment, as Ben Simchon knelt and kissed the dirt, it didn’t matter to him that he was weak and weary after twenty one days at sea. It didn’t matter to him that his shirt was stained with his own blood, a silent testimonial to his long fight against the British soldiers who tried to stop Jewish immigrant from entering this land.
It didn’t matter to him that in the very next moment he was to be dragged to a different ship by the soldiers who beat him, and taken to an internment camp in Cyprus.
In that moment, all he cared about was the fact that he won: He and his fellow passengers refused to be evacuated without setting foot on Israel’s soil, and there they were, and there he was: kissing it.
“That moment,” he recalled later in an interview to the monumental Mini series documentary The Pillar of Fire, “it was the most wonderful feeling I remember.”
Israel is also the moment when you find Ben Simchon’s story in a dusty, large tome, hidden on a shelf in the Hebrew University’s library.
You sit there in the Mount Scopus campus, the campus that stood abandoned for the long nineteen years between 1948 and 1967.
You sit surrounded by the view of the desert and the Old City, by Jewish and Arab students, by olim and sabras and tourists and books about Israel with too many stories to tell.
You sit there, and look down at your feet. They’re planted on the floor. On the ground. On this land.
(“I wanted to stay on the ground,” Tzivya said – )
And you think about the young man who knelt on the shore seventy years ago. You think about the reverence of his kiss.
Israel is that moment when vendors fill the streets with Sukkot supplies and decorations, and that moment when all the stores start selling menorahs and doughnuts over night, and that moment when they overflow with hamantashen, masks, and cheap liquor.
Israel is that moment when you point the eucalyptus trees to your son, and tell him about the courageous people who settled Israel, and how they had to fight malaria due to swamps. “The brought the eucalyptuses to Israel to drain the swamps, because it’s a tree that drinks a lot of water.,” you tell him.
As you speak, you can’t but marvel at this land, where even the fauna tells a tale.
Your son listens carefully, and thinks for a while.
“But if they already brought the eucalyptuses,” he says, “couldn’t they bring some cute koalas, just for fun?
But Israel is a plethora of fun moments, too.
It’s that moment when you first dive into the red sea and a wonderland of corals, and you’re ten and the world is just HUGE. And it’s that moment when you take your own son to dive there, and the world is smaller now, but his wonder makes it grow.
It’s that moment when you ride a train through Jerusalem’s biblical zoo, and your kids, and the Arab kids, and the charedi kids, all yell “Look, lion!”
…Even though it’s actually a bear.
It’s that moment when the vendor in the shuk gives you an extra orange – “you look pale!” And that moment when a stranger cheers your child with a joke, “I have a son his age, you see.”
Israel is that moment when you rush to Mount Herzl to attend the national Yom Hazikaron ceremony, but the siren stops you in your tracks before you make it to the cemetery –
And it’s that moment when it catches you in your bedroom all alone –
And that moment when you’re sick, and couldn’t make the ceremony you so wished to be at, and the siren wails –
And it’s OK. It’s always OK. Because when you stand there on the road with countless others, or alone at home, red eyed and sleepy and in pain, where you stand doesn’t matter at all.
Because this siren means that you are not alone.
As an Israeli, as a Jew, you’ll never be.
Israel is that moment when you’re visiting in the US and hear that there was a terror attack “back home,” and it physically hurts to be so far away –
And it’s that moment when you rush to check for facts in the nearest computer –
And it’s that moment, years later, when our boys are kidnapped but you can’t go and pray with others, not when you have a baby at home, and you recall your pain back in the US and this isn’t so different, and you crave to be with others, to feel with others, not alone –
And it’s that moment when you wonder why no one organized a prayer for moms with children –
And that moment when you freeze. No one organized it yet, you think, but you can.
Israel is that moment when other mothers and children crowd your living room and you all pray together.
And it’s that moment, later, when you think that this is what Israel is all about. When we declared our independence we stopped living by other people’s plans and programs. We became the authors of our story.
We chose to be the authors of our fate.
Israel is that moment what David Ben Gurion announced that “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” with the flags of the state he was about to declare hanging, blue and white, over his head.
White, like the new page we were turning.
Blue, like the strings the ancient Jews wore on their clothes.
Israel is also the moment when you see on the news blue and white talitot stained with blood, after four men were murdered in a shul.
And it’s that moment when you hear about the Druze policeman who died to defend them. And you think how in Israel, we’re more than just Jews.
Israel is that moment when the first snow falls like ashes on Mount Hermon, and that moment when it brings Jerusalem to a grinding, total halt.
It’s that moment when the red roofs of Jerusalem’s German colony, and the broken misshapen houses of Beit Tsafafa, are all covered in white just the same (snow is the great equalizer-)
And that moment when the snow melts, and trees fall, and old timers shake their heads and say “this is nothing compared to the big snow of—-”
And it’s that moment when the poppies pop open down south and that moment when the almond trees start blooming by Jerusalem and that moment when the children sing (or mis-sing) the songs of springtime, and that moment, too soon afterwards, when it becomes unbearably hot –
Israel is that moment when the Judean hills lose their grass and grow yellow.
And it’s that moment when little kids in flip flops lick their ice cream on the beach.
Israel is that moment when you give birth in Jerusalem. It’s that moment when your son yells “the flag!” when you stroll down the streets of this ancient-modern city, and the moment when you say “Shema” with him back home.
(The Romans thought they stopped Rabbi Akiva-)
It’s that moment when you dance with your son and the Torah scrolls outdoors on Simchat Torah, out in the streets where our soldiers fought in 1948 –
And that moment when you bring your son to kiss the ancient stones our paratroopers bled for in 1967 –
And that moment, one day down the line, where the son you are raising in Jerusalem will don the green and mount an army bus.
So maybe, you think, as the flags are raised and Independence Day begins and the sorrow for our fallen turns to joy, maybe it’s OK that these days are connected.
Maybe it’s appropriate. Separating these days won’t take away the presence of sacrifice in our lives, so why bother?
Maybe this juxtaposition can remind us to celebrate our children’s freedom, and not only honor sacrifices past. Nor, I think, and hug my son too tight, the ones that loom ahead.
Maybe our sacrifices, and our achievements, can all stand together in this moment, side by side, without overshadowing each other.
After all, they all coexist here in Israel. They all stand together under this country’s scorching sun.