David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

A salute to lone parents

For every lone soldier there’s a lone parent or two left behind. They, too, are worthy of our appreciation as we celebrate the independence their sacrifice has helped ensure.

The chorus of languages at President Rivlin’s reception for the 120 distinguished soldiers being honored on Independence Day for their outstanding service to the country was part of what made it so special. About a quarter of them were immigrants without parents here, what we refer to as “lone soldiers.” Highly idealistic and highly motivated, we applaud their contribution to the state and marvel at their readiness for self-sacrifice. As well we should. What we tend to ignore, however, is that for every lone soldier there are generally also two lone parents.

As we celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday by recognizing the contribution of so many young people who moved here on their own, it is fitting that we pay tribute as well to those they left behind.

I first realized what I’d stolen from my parents when my first child was born 40 years ago, a few years after making aliyah. It hadn’t dawned on me until then that I was taking anything from them when I informed them that I’d decided to trade in the comforts of America for what I was sure would be a more meaningful life in the Jewish state. Self-absorbed as I was in fulfilling my own dreams, I never gave any thought to what I was doing to theirs. Kids grow up and move away. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But grandparents are also supposed to have grandchildren around, and when I heard that first cry, counting ten fingers and ten toes for the first time, I had my first glimpse of what I was depriving them of.

When I moved to Israel in 1974 it was still a rarity to have a telephone in one’s home and making an overseas call was difficult and prohibitively expensive. Aerograms were essentially the only way to communicate, and they could easily take two weeks to travel in each direction. News shared of a first smile, a first step, a first tooth, a first day of school – it would be a month before the excitement on the other side of the ocean would be deposited in my mailbox, and even then, of course, without the hug that should have come with it.

How radically things have changed. Today my mother helps my daughter take care of her children via FaceTime. With the great-grandchildren sitting on the floor of their Herzliya home with an iPad perched in front of them, she, in New York, reads them the story of Peter the Rabbit, pictures and all. But still, there are too many moments missed, and the digital kiss is hardly an adequate substitute for the real thing.

As the years went by, I also came to realize that it was not just that I had deprived my children and my parents of one another – not to mention extended family — but also that I wasn’t able to give my mother and my father all that they deserved. At the age of 20, one only thinks of what one is supposed to get from one’s parents, not what one is expected to give them in return. Nor of the responsibilities that will fall on siblings also left behind in times of need.

In that regard, I’ve been particularly fortunate. My mother is turning 94 today and lives a fully active and completely independent life that should be the envy of us all, as did my father until his passing at the age of 89. But still, there were innumerable occasions when I couldn’t be with them when I should have been and even more when I would have liked to.

Yes, the life in Israel that I so long ago imagined being more meaningful has indeed turned out to be so. But separated from family, it has also been a large measure meager. The older I get, the more apparent that becomes.

Still, I’m blessed to have had so many years to deprive my parents of all that I did. And I’m counting on there being 26 more. But as one never knows what tomorrow will bring, I propose that all of us who have moved to this country and left parents behind – and who are lucky enough to still have them around – let them know how much we love and appreciate them and how aware we are of the sacrifice we imposed on them as we celebrate the values and dreams they planted within us and the independence we came here to ensure. No need, as I’ve done, to wait for a birthday to do that. They deserve our salute every day no less than the lone soldiers who have made them what they are.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.