Behind my desk there are two framed photos, panoramas taken at my two ancestral abodes, my homes: Boston and Jerusalem. Boston’s sometimes called the Athens of America and never is that comparison more apt than when, imitating the ancient Greeks, they run the Boston Marathon. On Monday, Athens and Jerusalem became one.
In his classic work of 19th century Zionism, Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess claimed that Jews would never find a permanent home in Europe, contrasting the exilic experience, represented by Rome, with that of returning to Jerusalem. Though roundly criticized at the time, Hess’s vision came to be seen as prophetic. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, I’ve come to ask myself some of the questions Hess asked in his magnum opus. Where, in fact, is home, and where am I not in exile?
It’s at moments like last Monday when I realize that, much as I love where I live right now, my heart knows two other places as home, and that’s the way it will always be. And those two places are quite similar, and now more similar than ever.
Monday’s double terror bombings bore an eerie resemblance to double bombings in downtown Jerusalem in 1997 and 2001, with the second blast designed to inflict maximum casualties on those fleeing from the first. Even before the highly visible Israeli flag could be seen waving in the Boston Globe photo, Monday already was a day of classic Boston-Jerusalem synchronicity, at least for me, a child of two exiles.
I haven’t lived in Boston since I left for college, but my heart has always been in the east and, despite living in western Connecticut, Yankee territory, I’ve always maintained my Boston loyalties. I make frequent pilgrimages to both of my homes; to Jerusalem, most recently last August, and to Boston, last Wednesday.
So I sat down in front of my TV on Monday to celebrate Patriots Day as any proper Boston expat would – by watching the Red Sox game, which was conveniently available on the out-of-town cable baseball package I had just purchased.
The Red Sox always play at 11 AM on Patriots Day, so I manipulated my morning tasks just so I could find my way to the couch in time for the first pitch. It wasn’t just about watching the Sox, who, after all, play almost daily for six months. It was about being part of the Patriots Day scene. I live only one state away, but the only thing Connecticut people know from Patriots Day is that, when it occurs on April 15, it gives them an extra day to pay their taxes. No one here understands just how this holiday brings together an entire state (OK, two, since Maine also observes it), united by a history of heroism, a classic story of the few against the many. With the Shot Heard ‘Round the World still ringing in our ears, and Revere’s Midnight Ride (whose lesser known sidekick William Dawes stopped at my elementary school) a central narrative for every Bay State schoolchild, the Minutemen are our Maccabees. And I mean it. Since my childhood, Boston Jews have linked Minuteman and Maccabee, again and again
Patriots Day is Boston’s little secret. The world-renowned Boston Marathon could not be found on a single national sports network last Monday, after migrating around the dial for a few years. I couldn’t even find updates on ESPN’s bottom-screen crawl. No one cares about our little holiday, and that’s how we Bostonians like it. For one day, it’s as if we are a distinct little country, like we were when we were the only state to vote against Nixon. The People’s Republic of Massachusetts, free to celebrate our true Independence Day in our own quirky way with our quirky accents and funny habits, like starting a baseball game at 11 AM and closing down all the roads so throngs of us can watch people dressed in skivvies run themselves ragged. I miss Patriots Day, and I was homesick on Monday even before this year’s tragic version of the Shot Heard Round the World.
But this year, there was another Independence Day happening at the same time, taking place far, far away, in my other home. Fortunately, my cable package also includes The Israeli Network (don’t ask how much I shell out for cable each month ), so I could watch the Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremonies from Mount Herzl live from my aforementioned couch.
And so, dutifully, at 1 PM on the east coast, I switched from the Sox to watch my other compatriots celebrate the victory of the small and weak over the powerful (and once again, the British) in their own quirky way. And really, how many nations literally dance in the middle of a cemetery, at the grave of their founder, right after crying themselves silly for twenty four hours, turning mourning into celebrating with the single flip of a few neurons? And then, they top off their celebration, the President and Prime Minister sing together, a nails-on-blackboard stunt clearly designed to draw Abu Mazen back to the peace table in exasperated desperation.
It’s hard for me to explain Yom Ha’atzmaut to Americans, even to American Jews, because this is one holiday Israelis seem to prefer to keep to themselves and because over here we have trouble with the kind of emotional intensity the Zikaron – Atzma’ut changeover demands. Until 9/11, our Memorial Days were mostly excuses to go to the beach or buy a car. If we want to ride a roller coaster, Americans go to Six Flags – or watch the Red Sox – rather than live our lives by Israel’s crazy-quilt, bipolar calendar.
But on Monday, Boston’s calendar resembled Jerusalem’s, in reverse. With echoes of the Sox winning walk-off hit still ringing from Fenway’s famous left field wall, one hour later that icon, only a few blocks away from the bomb blasts, became a western Wailing Wall. In an instant, Boston’s Independence Day became Memorial Day (and, fittingly, it still was Yom Hazikaron here in America), and the celebrants were reduced to tears, and some of our dancers lost their legs, and the dance floor became a cemetery.
At that moment they were dancing to verses from Isaiah 2 on Mt. Herzl:
And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And simultaneously, runners from over fifty nations were panting down Heartbreak Hill toward the finish line, reinforcing with each breath the vision of the ancient prophets, as well as the ancient marathons, of a time when all wars would cease. America’s Athens and Jerusalem truly became one. And then, in a flash, Boylston St. became Ben Yehuda.
I first read about the explosion on Twitter, while I was watching Israeli girls dancing on Herzl. As the horrible news trickled in, I had that terrible, helpless feeling I’ve had all too often regarding Israel. Ever the exile, powerless, stricken to the core, yet so far away. But this time it was about Boston.
One can plausibly argue that the desire to return home is the strongest human impulse, an instinctive one, which, like the sex drive, can be seen as a manifestation of that biological and spiritual desire to return to the womb. We spend so much time trying to recapture that feeling of home. Boston has never failed to open its arms for me; which is why I am still shaken to the core about what happened.
I feel the same way when Israelis are harmed. But up until last week, until hearing about the Sharansky proposal to foster Jewish unity at the Western Wall, I still felt like an exile, even while in Israel. As I’ve written in these pages before, for Jews from the liberal streams, to visit the Kotel has been to experience a new form of exile at the very moment of supposed return. The Judaism that we grew up with is not accepted in the singular place that was intended to be for all of us, our courtyard of ingathering.
Maybe Sharansky’s plan will enable me and others like me to feel fully at one with Jerusalem, our exile ended at last.
And then, with the Kotel and Green Monster both welcoming me home, perhaps I’ll come to see a day when neither place will bring me to tears, and the beautiful children in both of my home communities, the Minutemen and the Maccabees, will be able dance on their Independence Days without pause, without a care in the world.