Several years ago, a good friend of mine took issue with an opinion piece I’d written regarding American politics. The forgotten subject that I’d penned so passionately did not impact Israel in any way. She fumed, “Stay out of it. You don’t live here and you are meddling.” After the initial sting, I thought about what it felt like to her and, not begrudgingly, agreed. I have not meddled since except in relation to Israel, the dissolution of traditional Jewish values and/or the rising danger to Jews who live outside of Israel in countries that were once considered havens. By logic of my friend’s (accurate) sentiment, I deeply resent veiled threats of support and manipulative backhanded compliments about Israel’s vibrant democracy which, in fact, belittle us while hoping that Israel might become more palatable to Jews who do not live here and wish we were a little more like Sweden.
“Oh, you are so brave!”‘ “I admire you, living by your ideals!”‘ “Am Yisrael Chai!”; “Never Again!”‘ “We love Israel and pray for you all of the time!”‘ “My son is coming in Decmber on Birthright!” These heartfelt sentiments bolstered my spirit during shaky, terror filled, bus exploding, impromptu stabbing days. Except. Except that the result of Israel’s election is not to the liking of many of my friends. Those stateside buddies from summer camp, high school and college who had written to me during terror sprees and four or five wars in the 27 years I’ve lived here, feel uncomfortable. No one sent a thumbs-up on the election results, a kind-hearted ‘good luck’ or even a note of curiosity of whether or not I thought this was a good/bad outcome. This morning their silence is deafening because there is an awkward confusion as to whether or not I’m still “their kind of Jew.” The kind of Jew that is not so Jew-y that she can eat anything in any place; or find contentment when her children marry out of the faith because the non-Jewish partners are really fine people; not-so-fanatic as to skip the theater, film festival or 50th high school reunion because it falls on a Friday night or Saturday; certainly not a Jew who dresses in clothing that calls attention to his/her ‘Jewishness’.
This past week I attended a wedding in a pastoral setting in the Judean Hills. My husband Ronney and his late wife were very good friends with the bride’s family and although I’m the newcomer in the social circle, I’ve been warmly welcomed and felt honored to share in the celebration.
Approximately 400 people attended this simcha. Conspicuously absent were tuxedos, neck-ties, beaded ball gowns and Jimmy Choo’s. The male attendees wore clean white shirts, sandals, large knitted kippot (skull-caps) and beards. The women donned colorfully tasseled and elaborately styled headscarves, flowing dresses, hand-made silver and gold earrings and, of course, sandals. There were no fancy waitstaff with trays of crudites or sushi during the cocktail hour. The bride was surrounded by friends who sang and played bongo drums while women chanted earthy, rhythmic songs that have been sung for centuries. A palpable excitement enveloped the hall as the wail of a Klezmer saxophone accompanied a raucous sea of dancing men who accompanied the chattan (groom) to see his bride for the first time in a week! Older, married couples looked at one another and smiled, remembering their own long-ago nuptials. The single women, friends of the bride, appeared wistful as they dreamed of sitting upon the wicker throne one day soon, beholding their grooms. The mood was joyous, romantic and authentically Jewish.
But it was the chuppah, the wedding canopy that took my breath away. Outdoors on a mild November night, the stars and moon shone particularly bright in the grassy courtyard. Four massive wooden pillars were raised high into the air and the canopy itself was composed of tallisim (ritual prayer shawls) that had belonged to the grandfathers and great grandfathers of the couple. Just as everything else in the lives of these remarkable families, it made perfect sense to celebrate those who came before them and inspired a continuity of holy Jewish existence. Knowing from whence they came, they feel a little more certain of the path they hope to take, together. The entire ceremony was peppered with music, gales of laughter and loud cheers. (A friend of the groom operated a hand-held, electric bubble machine that delighted the many young children/grandchildren who were growing bored.) Some non-observant Jews mistakenly believe that stepping on the glass at the end of the ceremony is a signal for the festivities to begin. While it does denote the end of the chuppah prayers, religiously-observant Jews know that the shattered glass denotes fragility, a sign of destruction, a reminder that we are still an exiled people without a Holy Temple. Thus, just before stepping on the wrapped goblet, 400 of us sang through our tears, “Im eshkachach yerushalayim, tishkach yemini”; “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget it’s cunning; If I do not raise you, Jerusalem, above all my chiefest joy.” The glass is shattered, a couple weds, and Jewish life will, please God, flourish via this blessed link in our long and storied chain.
There is a reason that I join this story of a pure and righteous wedding to the previously mentioned tale of political smarm and conditional friends-of-Israel who attempt to manipulate outcomes. The wedding’s host family are founders of an organization that provides interest-free loans and financial guidance to Israelis in need. Observing the crowd, Ronney and I recognized scores of doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers, so many teachers, ambulance drivers, medics and other people who dedicate their lives to the service of community and country. The young women had all performed one or two years of National Service and the boys in the room were soldiers. Handsome, holy, patriotic sons and daughters of Israel who secure our borders and allow us to sleep at night. These jovial, wholesome people with whom I had the honor of sharing the dance floor are contemptuously called, “Settlers.”
The Hebrew word for ‘settlers’ does not translate to ‘colonists’ or ‘usurpers.’ Mitnachelim comes from the root word nochel, ,an ‘inheritor’ or ‘heir’. Any other interpretation of the biblical injunction for Bnei Yisroel to ‘inherit’ and work the land constitutes literary – and inaccurate – rewrite. A man-made twist to a Divinely inspired pledge. But if I, too, relied on an antagonistic press to formulate opinion on Israeli policy and define these admirable Israelis, I might also view them with disdain. However, it is these salt-of-the-earth individuals who bravely protect this tiny sliver of land that God bequeathed us with little more than unwavering devotion to family, tradition, historical pride, Torah observance and sometimes – too often – their very lives. I’m humbled in their presence.
Two posts which illustrated the unified Israeli heart appeared on Facebook the morning of the elections. Both were written by mothers:
Shira wrote: “Doing my civic duty for the fifth time in four years, my husband and I voted for different parties. Still, we both voted “for” rather than “against,” with our hearts, in support of candidates whose values resonate with our own. Half of the country is going to be depressed tomorrow; we hope it’s not going to be our half. Like many others, we have people with wildly divergent political views in our family. Whatever the outcome of the election, we need to remember that we are all voting for what we think is in the best interest of our people and of our country. May God bless the State of Israel.”
And from Michalli: “I feel an overwhelming sense of pride and privilege. The right to live in Israel, in the country of Israel. The right to vote, where everyone has a voice, that there is a democracy. I was not born here but this is where I belong — a young, developing, amazing and prosperous country. A sense of connection and deep caring for one another. We are furious, we fight, we scream and argue. But at its root, it is music because this cacophony is the ‘voice’ of caring. With God’s help, we will be able to fulfill our obligations and vote for what we think is best for all Israel. We mustn’t forget that we are all in the same boat, all of the citizens! Ultimately God runs the world with a special, Divine supervision for the people of Israel and the land of Israel. May we all be successful.”
The miracle of Israel mustn’t get lost in political discourse. The people have voted and the “miracle in the desert” will prosper, make mistakes, thrive and, as always, struggle mightily with issues of cheshbon nefest/spiritual accounting. Just as the flowing river will not stagnate, Israel/Jacob continuously wrestles with issues of human rights, never shying away from thorny cultural matters that may or may not align with the mindsets of respective members of Knesset.
We don’t need smug lecturing from those who profess to admire us from afar. Because Israel is less about bagels-and-lox and more about a fragile existence which relies on identity and values that were explicitly outlined in a 6,000 year old blue-print called ‘Torah’. Anything else, well-meaning or not, is a façade.
Reprinted with permission of San Diego Jewish Journal, December, 2022.