Life in Israel, especially for an oleh hadash, is full of activity, action, and the constant question, What next? What do I have to do in order to learn, to understand, to get my bearings, to blend in, to make the unfamiliar my own?
And yet, sometimes I would be on a highway, momentarily lulled by the rhythm of the road, or strolling down a shaded street in Tel Aviv or Haifa, or anywhere in Jerusalem, and suddenly I would realize where I am, and I’d think, smiling, “I should pinch myself – I’m in Israel!”. “I’m studying Hebrew!” “I hear Hebrew everywhere!” “Israeli music – so soulful, so melodious, so heartfelt – is all around me!” Traveling around the country, I say, “Look, this is where ‘the Spirit of the Lord would move Samson at times between Zorah and Eshtaol’. Here is Rachel’s Tomb. Here is the palace of King David. I am here, in The Land, in the center of the world!”
My family in the US would write to me with half-anguished hints at my insanity to be staying put in a place being barraged by rockets. My friends would ask in earnest whether I planned to return to the States, what with a war going on in the country to which I immigrated. At the same time, all I registered on my end was an endless calm. All I felt was a state that owed more to the heart than to the mind.
And so, I began to think that Israel must have some sort of substance in the air that acts as a euphoriant, an anesthetic for the potential pain of the rockets and the war and the danger, a fine, fine milk-and-honey mist that fixes that which ails you before it does.
I had spent a quarter-century in the US, and although I had said the Pledge of Allegiance five days a week, from seventh grade to the end of high school, I never felt visceral fealty to the US flag, never got that flutter in my heart when the veterans would hang a gap-toothed row of Old Glories from the porches down some quiet old street. Not that I had disregard or disrespect for what the flag meant to others; not that I didn’t know the history of the country or the flag. I knew. I just didn’t feel it in my gut.
And yet, when I see a simple white prayer shawl with two blue borders, marked in the middle with two overlaid triangles, even though I spent half of my childhood in a country where there was acknowledgement neither of my people nor of their tradition, even though I had seldom done anything remotely requiring me to put on that prayer shawl, when I see it, I feel deeply, irrevocably, and beyond the ability to do it justice in words – I feel an identification with this simple symbol, I submit to an ancient, powerful stirring. I finally feel one with a nation.
Of course it is easy, too easy, to “bring to reason” the idealists, the romantics, the rose-colored-glasses brigades, to simmer them and their interminably, unbearably enthusiastic – practically messianic! – ilk down, to point to the uncertainty of Israel’s future, to its shaky prospects as radical Islam rises the world over, to speak faux-reasonably about the sense it would make to buy a bunch of land in South America as an insurance policy, in case something happens, and, perhaps, quite reasonably about The Samson Option, as prophylaxis, so that nothing would. It is always easier to see everything as potentially corrupt, cynically manipulated, no longer worth the paper or cloth it is printed on. And individual points of view can be so subjective. An erudite, sensitive, talented writer – a native Israeli – told me that she associated the Israeli flag with fascism, since, at the political demonstrations she attended as a young ultra-leftie, the only people waving the Israeli flag were the ultra-right supporters of Meir Kahane.
Well…this, too, shall pass.
My cousin’s sabra husband, a glorious fount of in-your-face wisdom and pithy quotes from American films, said to me once while we were having a mild-mannered argument about hamatzav, “Excuse me, DL!” (he calls me exclusively by my initials) “You come to my country, and suddenly you know everything, and you tell us how to do things!” and my immediate, visceral response was, “Look, Aba Hasan (not his real name) this may seem like a strange and chutzpah-ridden thing to say, but I consider this to be my country just as much as it is yours.” No device used to win an argument, these words described how I truly feel.
Far be it from me to tell people how to live their lives, to come up with recipes for winning the war on terror or for pulling off the hearts-and-minds campaign to convince the left and the right to unite under a single banner. Politics and telling people how to live their lives are not what drives me. What really makes me feel alive and at home and content is this: as I drive down her highways and stroll down her shaded lanes, as I hear the angular, sussurating lullaby of her language, I repeat to myself, like the Shema Yisrael, over and over: I am ecstatic that I am here, a part of Israel. Live forever and prosper, and know that I love you, my homeland – the white and the blue.