A plea from across the chasm


Some of us, both here and there, live in the space between Israel and America. Often that space feels like a millimeter, almost a whisper. We watch the same shows on Netflix, munching absently on Bamba. Or Pringles. We page between Haaretz and the New York Times, Kan and The Atlantic. We dream in Heblish, and when we wake up there is an extended pause before we recall exactly where we are. 

Sometimes the gap is wider. Like when in the US, I get judgy looks after sending a kid on their own to walk to a friend’s house in town, or rolled eyes from Israeli parents when I tell my own kids that they are not permitted to join in the game of catch with the meduzot (jellyfish) that have washed up on the beach. 

Right now, that distance feels huge, a chasm that is nearly uncrossable. How is it, exactly, that we have arrived at such different conclusions about how to handle the pandemic that is ravaging both of our countries? 

Some of the disparity comes from how our two societies view the individual. America has always valued individual responsibility above almost all else. It is why we are more comfortable sending our kids to eight week long summer camp, to universities in far-flung cities. We miss them so, but believe that the experience of being on their own, of learning how to navigate the world without a parent there to help with making meals, with doing laundry, this will teach them how to live as adults in the real world. 

Israel has always taken pride in valuing the collective. “Tov lamut be’ad artzeynu”, it is good to die for our Homeland, the last words attributed (or likely misattributed) to Joseph Trumpeldor before he lost his life at Tel Hai, ring in the ears of anyone who has studied Zionist history. The ongoing mandatory army service in Israel has often been touted for its ability to bring together disparate cultural groups for a single purpose. And unlike in America, those very soldiers go home for shabbat to their families, where their meals are prepared, their laundry dispatched. 

From an American perspective, Israelis seem uniquely predisposed to do what is needed in a pandemic. But that’s because they don’t know about the frier. No one in Israel wants to be caught being a frier. No one wants to be the loser, the idiot, the one who got taken advantage of. So if my next door neighbor is getting away with something, shouldn’t I be able to as well?  Blame centuries of antisemitism, or a parliamentary system that has to give away little nuggets to ensure a stable coalition, blame a young and fragmented society that has lost trust in a system that keeps re-electing a man who is under indictment, accused of making every Israeli look like a frier. But where is that loving collective? The one that never leaves a soldier behind, and never lets you be alone for shabbat? 

This week I was on a call, of Israelis and Americans. The main discussion topic was how to create a program that would satisfy the Covid needs/requirements of Americans and Israelis together. Israelis on the call kept repeating how they understood that Americans were “frightened.” I heard this echoed in the mouth of the American president, who yesterday told Americans, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Of course there’s fear involved when dealing with a deadly virus. And despite those comments, I’m certain Israelis feel the constant low level anxiety that rises when they have a tickle at the back of their throats. 

But that’s not what motivates me, and lots of my cohort here in New England, to keep following these admittedly painful guidelines. I want nothing more to sit around my shabbat table with a big group of people, laughing and singing until late on a Friday night. To watch as my kids spend time with their peers, newly long limbs falling casually over one another like pick-up-sticks. I want to go to the damn store and take time picking the perfect piece of fruit, be inspired to make a special meal from something I find, rather than ordering groceries off my phone. I want desperately to give my good friend, who lost her father to Covid a few months ago, a protracted, hard hug, and let her lean on me for as long as she needs. I want to daven in shul with hundreds of people as the tunes and words wash over us like a wave carrying us to shore. 

I want all of that. I wanted it six months ago. But I am, we all are, right this very minute, in the process of performing an enormous mitzvah. The kind we couldn’t even have imagined a short while ago. We have the power, through our actions, to save lives. Thousands of them. The merit to perform such a mitzvah is not given to us very often. As individuals, we can choose what we want to do with that obligation. As a community, if we make the wrong choice, it won’t just affect us right now, at this moment. It will echo through the generations. What a powerful moment to be a part of. What an opportunity to show who we are. 

I hope this latest lockdown will help make a shift in the culture in my other home as well. It is painful to feel we are this far apart. The chasm opens up in front of me, and I want to pull the two sides together, by sheer force of will. Please, be frierim. Please, stay inside, wear masks, cancel family gatherings even if it hurts. Don’t act in fear, act with determination and love. Think of the families who will be forever changed if you can save even one life. Tov lamut be’ad artzeynu, but it’s so much better to live for it. 

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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