I confess there was a time when I thought Israel was the most annoying place on earth.
Fair or not, my aversion to the Jewish state was an adolescent reaction to my mother’s adoration of all things Israel. It took me a while to come around to her world view.
Things didn’t start out negative. As a child of the 1960s I absorbed our synagogue’s newsreel narrative of Israel’s formation following the horrors of the Holocaust and understood there was a powerful connection between the piles of striped corpses pulled from the Nazi death camps and the flag-waving Zionists shown in their new Jewish home, folk dancing and living on collective farms. I enjoyed watching Otto Preminger’s Exodus and listening to the schmaltzy Molly Picon soundtrack of the Broadway musical Milk and Honey, and was excited when family members planted trees in Israel for my birthday.
In 1966, my parents took their first trip to Israel and brought me back a dagger from Jerusalem’s old market. It had inlaid grooves into which an attacker could smear poison to finish the job. I attached it to my belt and wore it around the neighborhood, unaware it was probably an Arab’s weapon.
After my Bar Mitzvah in ’67 we went to Israel on a trip sponsored by a stuffy group called Pioneer Women (now known as Na’amat). Thrilling as it was to kiss the Wailing Wall and stand on land won in the Six-Day war, I bristled at the 7 am bus tours and endless stops at memorials – there’s a famous family photo of me scowling at Yad Vashem. The kibbutz food offended my American tastes (a whole fish’s head!) and I was mortified when my dad pushed me to get Abba Eban’s autograph while we were dining at the King David Hotel.
Soon after, my mom went all in for Israel. First came the albums by Topol, the toothpaste-named singer who played Tevye in the Hollywood version of Fiddler on the Roof. How many times did she play “Those Were the Days, My Friend?”
Then it was the lectures at the Y, the Jaffa oranges, picture books on Masada and Herzliya, and all those Israeli salads, with weird ingredients like chick peas and tabouli. “Come quick!” she’d shout from her upstairs bedroom – “Moshe Dayan is on the Today Show,” or Theodore Bickel or Teddy Kollek. It never ended.
In 1969 my mom took her first of multiple solo trips to Israel for archaeological digs – how dare she leave us for weeks to brush dirt off ancient shards? Who would fix my dad’s herring breakfast and my flank steak dinners? She made new attachments and on return got caught up saving Soviet Jews, helping many prepare for emigration to Israel. Our home soon filled with Israeli art and artifacts – precious rocks and miniature shovels that had to be displayed just so in our living room. Meanwhile, she and her Pioneer Woman comrade Kitty huddled over their next mission and guest speaker. Why couldn’t we just go to the country club like other Jewish families?
It’s not that I had any political or existential gripe against the country – but maintained an eye-rolling disinterest in Israel as a form of petty protest against the Star of David descending on our home. I withdrew further when I got to college and had no qualms about dating non-Jewish girls, avoided Hillel and toyed with enrolling in an Arab literature class. The more my mom was all-in, the more all-out I went.
Then in the fall of 1973 my mom told us she was going back to Israel to volunteer during the Yom Kippur War. How reckless, I thought. But my friends all said “How cool” and I began to reassess my mom’s sabra yearnings, thinking maybe she was her own sort of pioneer woman. She drove soldiers back and forth from the front, encountering casualties only once when she accidentally struck some sheep. Some of those fighters later studied at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and of course they were invited to our house for Shabbat dinner. She once told me she was more scared driving a golf cart down a fairway than shuttling a jeep around in a war zone.
As the years passed and my own Jewish identity strengthened, I realized I hadn’t fallen far from my mother’s tree, especially as I saw the double-standard Israel suffered in the eyes of the world. Certainly some higher influence made me marry a woman who turned out to be an ardent Zionist (and fantasy Mossad agent), and send our youngest son to Jewish day school. And measure the worth of celebrities and government leaders based on their views of Israel. And even abandon one synagogue for another that didn’t equivocate in its support of Israel. My mom’s devotion, her heroes and yes, even her salads now make sense to the contrarian teenager I used to be.
My mom, who died in 2011, would be up in arms at recent events, calling out the Ivy League hypocrites and others blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks and justifying murder under the false banners of “context” and “resistance.” She would be raging at the fecklessness of the UN and chiding the Biden Administration for its softness on Iran. Her Hebrew may have been faulty for Kaddish but I know she’d light a memorial candle for all of those killed on October 7, while rushing to rallies dressed in blue-and-white. And she’d be calling me for assistance on how to watch the daily IDF updates on Instagram. I’d tell her I’m here for her and of course, for Israel. And that I’ve started listening to Topol and Milk and Honey.
Mr. Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.