A piano-playing paratrooper
My first trip to Israel in 1977 left an indelible impression on the LA kid I was back then. People dressed simply, from their “tembel” hats (which literally means dunce caps) to their biblical sandals. Most women didn’t bother with nail polish or even makeup. Modest floor tiles were everywhere.
These memories came rushing back to me in recent days, as I toured Israel on another visit. The contrast is astounding: an advanced and wealthy country, thriving, booming, exhilarating. Despite the political disagreements that dominate the conversation, I hope this Passover people will reflect on how much there is to celebrate as well.
Most people now simply have no recollection of how it was back then, on my first trip. The quasi-socialist country featured but a small selection of tiny stick-shift cars. Hitchhiking soldiers awaited rides. Solar-powered showers were slow to warm up. Phone calls to the US were an extravagance. Smokers lurked in every corner, puffing on a local product with a pungency all its own.
It was all quite exotic to me, a kid in a safari jacket introduced to Israel as a Bar Mitzvah gift by his worldly 65-year-old grandmother, a vibrant woman often mistaken for my mom.
I remember meeting heroes of the ‘67 and ‘73 wars in front of the Kotel in Jerusalem with Mayor Teddy Kollek, a legendary figure even then. I remember peering at archeological digs in the Negev. Visiting kibbutzim like Givat Brenner, where my grandmother supported young classical musicians.
We flew by Arkia all the way to the tip of the Sinai Desert at Sharm El Sheikh. We visited the Santa Katarina monastery in the middle of the peninsula, controlled by Israel at the time. We took buses to the sweltering Dead Sea and the far more verdant north. We traveled through the then-peaceful West Bank.
My grandmother Edith, wealthy but not flashy, could have chosen luxury, but she went for more modest accommodations out of consideration for the couple joining us: her cousin Ruth, a victim of the Nazis, and her husband Hank, a burly and friendly former American GI.
Edith B. Greenberg, stoic and cultured, was a founder of the famed Music Center and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. She hosted the weekly book club and swam daily in her pool nestled into the hills of Bel Air. Edith was outspoken with strong convictions, and a proud member of President Nixon’s Enemies List.
Although she was born in San Francisco in 1911, German was her first language. And she idealized her father, Joseph Krieger, who had come to America from Bielitz (then in Austria, and now in Poland). Incredibly, he went on to invent the first commercial tea bag with his wife, my “Great Nana.”
I have no pictures of this Israel trip, and I think I know why.
It dates to 1930 and my grandmother’s decision to forego college and instead spend a year with relatives in Europe. There are photos of her frolicking with family, enjoying skiing in the winter and picnics in the summer. Most of the cousins she got to know and love there were murdered in the Holocaust. The tragedy that followed these joyful memories made Nana superstitious about photography of beloved family.
Despite the occasional Teutonic aloofness, my Nana was also lovable and loving, humorous and gregarious. On our trip, I remember her beaming with pride at how her fellow Jews had made a desert bloom. She passed that love onto me, her grandson.
That trip planted a seed. At the tail end of the ‘70s, I stayed with a salt-of-the-earth Israeli family one summer. In the ‘80s, I studied, explored and volunteered. And in the early ‘90s, I made Aliya, even serving briefly in the military. I didn’t end up staying, but my love of Israel and appreciation of its unique value are things I try to share with others, especially my wife and our three children.
Last month, I joined a contingent of shul-goers from Chabad of the Berkshires, the area of western Massachusetts where I now live. I’m not a tour group guy – but I enjoyed seeing Israel through the eyes of people from my community, several of whom were first-timers.
I was a somewhat derelict member of the group, often venturing out on my own on social and business meetings, returning for the buffet meals. But I partook in several excursions, including a trip to the Grave of Samuel and then to Shiloh – which, by crossing the Green Line, left liberal friends in Tel Aviv aghast. Politics aside, the history and physical beauty cannot be denied.
I was moved on Shabbat at the opulent Waldorf in Jerusalem with Chabad, when “Chazak, chazak, ve-netchazek” was said in unison by hundreds, reminding us that the main thing is not to be afraid. I wandered the German Colony and Baka with a friend from the group, talking to American transplants we met on the street while waiting for the doors to open for Maariv. We joined democracy protests in the cold rain of Jerusalem that night as well.
One highlight of my trip though was public transportation – safer, faster, cleaner and newer than before. That underscored for me how the country had changed. The changes were actually evident the moment we landed, as we pulled up next to a FlyDubai aircraft.
We were all also struck by the walkability of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Even in Tel Aviv, despite high-speed trains and skyscrapers and an astounding amount of construction cranes, much of what’s genuine has been preserved. Like the hole-in-the-wall humus places that charmingly endure.
Taking in the “in between” moments. Hearing the important perspective of Israeli Arab cab drivers. Seeing soldiers coming home for Shabbat reuniting emotionally with their parents, gushing with pride at the bus stop. Lovers embracing with a machine gun draped over one shoulder like the olive branch draped over the sword.
Listening to a soldier play on a public piano at a train station – a red booted paratrooper playing mainly for himself, echoing the spirit of a country, an only-in-Israel sight to behold. For locals, I suppose, all this is commonplace.
Despite the challenges that we all see in the news, including previously unimaginable mentions of “civil war,” the country brims with urgency, creativity, and energy. It’s sexy and warm, fearless and fearful, united yet divided, divine and mundane, strong yet still in pain. It is a technological and military power now. It is both a beacon and a cautionary tale.
Such contradictions are my takeaway from the tour, enabled by the generous support of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the passionate and persuasive Rabbi Levi Volovik, a bridge for Israeli and diaspora Jew, connecting us as one. I’m bringing back to the Berkshires a renewed love for the Land of Israel and its people, with all the beauty and baggage that entails.
Think of Israel from a distance, I am reminded of a song by the much-loved Arik Einstein, who sang: “I have love within me, and it shall prevail.” I also can relate to his song “sitting on the fence,” for I too am torn between the US and Israel, with “one foot here and the other foot there,” as the song goes.