From the Diaspora – with Love: The Power of Israel

My father loves Israel, but I don’t know why.

Whenever terrorism has occurred in Israel – from the onslaught of rockets to a bombing aboard an Egged bus – my father has sat glued to the TV watching the news.  To see his expression, you would have thought he knew the wounded child being carried away on a stretcher, or the hysterical woman in the crowd being propped up by other witnesses.

But he can’t know them.  He’s never been to Israel.

He’s never stood atop Masada, with a cool wind whipping around him and whispering of the ancient tragedy that happened there.  He’s never laid a trembling hand upon the last remnant of the Holy Temple and pressed his forehead against the smooth stones, almost literally trying to get his head around the fact that he’s standing in the place that our ancestors prayed centuries ago.  He never stood at the Golan Heights with Syria in plain view – or inside the labyrinth underground tunnels that snake their way throughout the mountain – and marveled at the miracle of Israeli troops taking that hill under fire from enemies with such a strategic upper hand.

As I have.

I was fortunate to grow up with Israel in my life, even though I didn’t make my first trip until the ripe old age of 24.  My mother shared her passion for Israel shaped by her work with the local Hadassah Chapter.  The JCC summer camp I attended brought us the (then, in the late 60s) brand new concept of the shaliach (or, in this case, shlicha) in the person of the exotic blue-eyed, olive skinned Edna.  We were mesmerized by her stories, by her accent.  Heck, as sheltered and ethnocentric as we were back then, we were captivated merely by the fact that she wasn’t a native Pittsburgher.

My father, on the other hand, didn’t grow up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.  He attended a Catholic college.  And he had the misfortune of going out into a largely anti-Semitic world with the name Hyman Ginsberg.

No, my father didn’t have the benefit of a Jewish identity and daily Jewish life reinforced by going to an elementary school with a grand total of perhaps 15 non-Jewish students, most of them related to each other.  He didn’t belong to Young Judaea and kick off his shoes to dance to “Mayim” in that way we all envisioned the Israelis were doing at that very moment in the streets of Tel Aviv.  He didn’t have a college roommate who went off to Israel for junior year abroad and sent back the most amazing stories.  As I did.

What he did have was World War II.

There were many occasions when my brothers and I attempted to send my father to Israel (along with my mother who, finally, after decades of begging, made the trip without him).  Twenty-fifth anniversary.  Fiftieth anniversary.  Random birthdays.  His standard line was, “I’ve been abroad, and I really didn’t like it.”  To which one of us always replied, “Yes, but this time we’re not planning to drop you on a beach with a gun in your hand.”  But still he was having none of it. 

Sadly, he is a victim of the media.  He fully expects that suicide bombers will be detonating themselves in the restaurant where he dines, that rockets will be falling on his hotel.  The enemy has done a very good job of deterring first-time visitors, with the help of the media.  And there seemed to be nothing we could ever say to drive the images of destruction and wailing victims from his mind.

And yet, he loves Israel.  Because further back in his mind are images that are decidedly more horrifying.

After landing on that beach, my father made his way through Europe with his squadron.  There are stories he’s never told, whether to save his children – or himself – from the pain, I don’t know.  But what we all do know is that he eventually ended up in Germany, where his unit liberated a concentration camp.

Imagine this: a guy named Hy Ginsberg comes upon a group of emaciated, critically-ill Jews – and the bodies of those who couldn’t hold out until the Allied forces could reach them.  And this guy named Ginsberg knows the near-dead specimens of human beings he’s seeing are the (barely) living evidence of what much of the world thinks of Jews.

Fast forward to May 14, 1948, and once again the world is telling us what they think of us.  Or, they’re letting the Jordanians, Egyptians and Syrians tell us.  But the Jews are not going down without a fight this time.  They’re not taken by surprise, because they’ve seen what people can do, how low they can sink.  And, having already lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, they’re fighting like they’ve got nothing left to lose.  Because, tragically, for many that was the case.

The Jews do lose.  Many lives and our holiest site.  But we win our land.  Our right to live.  Our pride and dignity.

So, as my father – and every other Jew who lived through the Holocaust (whether personally or from a distance) – would say, “What’s not to love?”

So, in the end, it doesn’t matter that he hasn’t prayed at the Wall, hasn’t visited the archeological digs, hasn’t seen the natural beauty of the Galilee, the majesty of the three-tiered city of Haifa or the thriving business and cultural center of Tel Aviv. 

He’s seen something much more powerful: the need for a Jewish home.  What’s not to love? 


About the Author
Ellen Roteman is Director of Marketing Communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh