My Aunt Tikva and Uncle Yehuda Ben Chorin were something of heroic and quizzical figures to me in my childhood. I remember Aunt Tikva and her youngest son Baruch…they came to visit some time after the Six Day War. Later, the handsome and rebellious, long-haired and somewhat hippie-ish Baruch came to visit me in my college dorm – and set the nubile bodies of my college friends on fire. But that’s another story.
That war traumatized my family. It was years before I understood what a victory the war was for Israel. Years before it was celebrated in my family.
Families are dysfunctional. My grandmother was the oldest of four sisters. She grew up in Tel Aviv, near the Carmel Market. Born in Russia during a time of abusive pogroms against Jews, my grandmother escaped in a rowboat in the middle of the night with her father and made her way to Palestine (which had a different meaning in 1903 than it does today). The family name of “Ginsberg”, which translates to something having to do with a stone, was quickly Hebraicized (a word my grandmother used a lot) to “Odem”, which is a biblical word referring to a stone on the priestly breastplate. My great-grandfather was soon arrested by the Turks who feared he was a spy for the British, and carted him off to Damascus. He escaped 18 months later and thumbed it back to Tel Aviv. Ok, he walked. The next two sisters were born in Tel Aviv, where they lived until my grandmother, who grew up hiding from Arab pogroms and Typhoid scares, left for the more prosperous and safe shores of Brooklyn, New York, meeting my grandfather and eventually moving to Bayonne, New Jersey. There, my grandfather became the founder of a Hebrew school, which guaranteed that generations of Bayonne kids had a foundation of Hebrew and Judaic history and knowledge and were properly Bar-Mitzvah’d. Another sister, 20 years my grandmother’s junior, was born in the US.
Back to Aunt Tikva…. In 1938, she and her husband, who she met and married in Brooklyn, decided to emigrate to what was still Palestine (the other Palestine) and she and Uncle Yehuda Hebraicized (yeah, there was a lot of that in my family history) his name from Freeman to Ben Chorin, as they made their way to some place in the middle of that land (the junction of this and the station of that….) and were pioneers of a kibbutz called K’far Menachem, committed to the “shomer ha’tzair” movement, an a-religious, socialist and non-bellicose, for the most part, ideology. They believed in working with their Arab neighbors and had no hostility or distrust…. a philosophy that they maintained throughout their lives, in spite of an atrocious unfolding of family history.
Which brings us to the first day of the Six Day War. We were at my grandparent’s house. I remember being there. I don’t remember the details. But my mother does. The under-appreciated and overly-criticized wife of the oldest son of the Odem dynasty – a highly matriarchal-ly driven family, where long before Gloria Steinem, the women were well-spoken, worked in responsible positions and were economic mainstays of the family. My mother was the one who picked up the phone on that dreadful day. The one who had to break the news to the American branch of the family.
The uniformed men walked up to the modest Kibbutz home that was barely better than an army barrack itself. My aunt (ok, my great aunt… great in every meaning of the word) saw them coming. She opened the door, looked them in the eye and questioned “Ey-zeh?” (‘which one?”). “Shenehem” (both of them), the officer responded.
Family pathologies are generated in all kinds of ways. A parent favors one child over another and sibling rivalry endures for decades. Nature imbues one child with intellectual skills and another with athletic prowess and divisions and misunderstandings divide a family forever. The oldest inherits the business, the youngest harbors resentment and incites disharmony for generations. In my family, that day gave birth to political divisiveness that continues to manifest in bizarre ways with ramifications that can’t even begin to be explained to an outsider (don’t get my started on my siblings reactions – or non-support – of my volunteer work to elect the first woman President).
My grandmother and her sisters communicated with each other by cacophonous bickering. All of the time. Dammit. All.of.the.time. That’s what they did. Except when the youngest brought out the accordion and we all sang Hebrew folk songs. Or, when they criticized the people the bloodlines married. Like my mother. Or my Uncle Yehuda, who by everyone’s account went a little crazy after that day in June, 1967. Otherwise, they bickered with each other constantly. Including Aunt Tikva from 6000 miles away. Over nothing important. At least to me.
Until the Oslo Accords took place. And then I got a glimmer of understanding.
Ahhhh, the Oslo Accords.
I was a product of a Zionist household. My mom, following in her mother in law’s footsteps, was president of the local Hadassah chapter, I became a lifetime member – third generation! – when I was nine. I wore a red plaid jacket with a puckered waist and a green wool skirt to the induction ceremony. (my obsession with clothes started early). I went to a Hebrew speaking “socialist/kibbutz” inspired summer camp (or so it claimed – I had a different outfit for every Friday night/Saturday morning Shabbat service/meal. Some socialist I was.) I remember the Bicentennial theme of the 1976 educational program. The color war team names were Stars and Bells….in Hebrew, of course. But more so, I remember that was the summer that the Arabs hijacked a plane to Entebbe and the brave and brilliant Israeli Army, led by Yonatan Netanyahu, staged a daring rescue mission that engendered a made for TV special on each of the three networks. Kol HaKavod L’Tzahal.
Support for Israel was monolithic in my childhood, regardless of your religious observance or affiliation. The blue and white JNF boxes that you threw your change in….knowing the words to Hatikva (the Israeli National Anthem) better than the words to the Star Spangled Banner…marching in the Israel Day Parade… until Oslo.
So long before rockets fired on Israeli cities and suicide bombers in supermarkets, Oslo was supposed to fix this situation where war broke out over boundaries once every ten years or so. Suddenly, the world was engaged in a “Middle East Peace Process”. Around a big table, the shape of which and seating arrangements around was a negotiation all of its own. And that “process” illuminated the divisions in my family.
By then, my grandparents had retired to the sunny concrete strip malls and newly arisen barracks of retirement villages (not really different than the kibbutz of my Aunt and Uncle) of Delray Beach, Florida. My grandmother, a lifelong ardent Zionist who continued her reign as the uber-Hadassah volunteer bookkeeper, a semi-permanent position throughout her life in America, was interviewed by the local newspaper about her views on the “peace process”. Her distrust of and, well, forgive me, but hatred for, the Arabs, was there for all to see in print: they perpetrated attacks on her and her family in Tel Aviv….they killed her nephews. The “peace process” was doomed to failure, the Arabs couldn’t be trusted.
CBS’ Bob Simons travelled to Israel to interview Israeli families on their views. Of course he found his way to the middle of nowhere, at the junction of “what’s this” and “why”, otherwise known as K’far Menachem. He found these people, the Ben Chorin family. My Aunt Tikva, whose surviving two children were granted exemptions from military service after 1967, but nevertheless elected to serve (being assigned non-combat positions). My crazy Uncle Yehuda, who we all adored, maybe more so because of his being off kilter. Who converted his inconsolable grief into establishing a ministry within the Department of Defense for the study of that very same grief. Long before studying “post traumatic stress disorder” became fashionable, my uncle collected the research from around the world of the effects of grief on the human psyche. Bob Simons walked with my Aunt Tikva and Uncle Yehuda through the Bet Habanim (House of Sons), originally erected to honor my cousins, the brothers killed on the first day of the Six Day War, and heard their stories. Standing on the green lawns of the kibbutz, he looked my Uncle Yehuda in the eye and asked him, “would you be willing to give up land for peace?” and my uncle, staring back with his big blue eyes that had gone slightly mad in the years since June of 1967, with my Aunt Tikva looking at him with a faraway look in her eyes, perhaps thinking about the two sons whose lives were extinguished far too young, looked straight into the camera, and responded: “Yesterday”.
Tikva and Yehuda’s great grandson was called up to Gaza in last summer’s round of fighting. Gaza, the place where his never-known grandfather lost his life in a war in which Israel acquired the territory, only to relinquish it 40 years later….how ironic. My cousin Zur tried to make sense of it to me. The inheritor of this pro-peace ideology, but still the man who grew up without a father, said that he couldn’t leave this land, where our had family spilled so much blood.
Another cousin, a daughter of another of my grandmother’s sisters, married an Israeli and moved to Ashkelon when I was a teenager. Ashkelon, close to the border with Gaza, has been a special target of those indiscriminate rockets for over a decade. Ashkelon is where every home has to have a “safe room” and the sound of alarms warning of incoming rockets is as frequent as the sound of rap music blaring out of cars on Tenth Avenue. I ache over the deaths resulting from the aerial bombings of Gaza by the Israeli Air Force. But I am mystified, no, horrified, that no one seems to care about what those rockets attacks have been like for the people of Israel, especially Ashkelon, over the last decade. I’m disgusted when I see the vitriol on Facebook. If you claim to have compassion for human suffering, why don’t you have compassion for ALL human suffering? Why haven’t the people who allege that the aerial bombardment is inhumane at least condemn the rocket attacks on civilians too? Or at least express sympathy for the victims? Do they not deserve to be acknowledged? I don’t understand it and yes, I take it personally. Families bicker. But they’re still families, and this is mine.
So here I am. An American Jew. A product of an Orthodox day school education. An alum of Young Judea. A former crochet’er of yarmulkes. I stood in front of the UN countless times to be counted as a supporter of Israel. A past chair of the New Leadership Division of Israel Bonds. I think so much about two sisters who lived through the same threats to their childhood. The same wars. One who lost two sons. One who lost two nephews. One living the Zionist dream. One committing her life and volunteering her time to support it. One who believed in sacrifices for peace. One who believed that there was no one to make peace with. Who is my spirit legacy?
Territorial wars with adversarial nations have turned into rocket attacks from stateless terrorist groups on unarmed civilian populations, which has turned into bombardment on civilian populations by air force assaults to stop those same rockets. A war of the most organized, committed sophisticated army in history held hostage by teenagers willing to strap on belts full of explosives – an enemy that can’t be seen, who hides in schools and underground tunnels.
Most of the American descendants of that man who escaped the pogroms of the Ukraine in a rowboat with an infant daughter, who later escaped from a Damascus prison, follow the spitting anger of my grandmother, whose disgust and distrust blinded her to the existence of other families who also suffered losses. I don’t. I am the ideological heir of my lovably wacko Uncle Yehuda and my stoic Aunt Tikva, who remained committed to their idealism until their dying days. I believe that there is a path to peace, elusive though it may be.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Israel. I am a post-modern, 21st Century American Zionist (those adjectives are important, after all, Zionism means the dream of building the State of Israel and I don’t live there, so I’m a watered down Zionist at best – not to admit that is totally disingenuous). I will defend unapologetically Israel’s right to defend itself. But I still believe that one must fight for the dream of peace. At all costs. I suppose I understand that my grandmother, who left because she couldn’t tolerate the hardships of life in pre-state Palestine, had to justify her choices by believing that there was no hope for peace. I think it’s the easier path for American-Zionists to follow. But to me, it is the determination, the commitment, the “ein brerah” (there is no choice) teeth-gritting pain of my Israeli relatives that guide me to believe (and stand up for) constantly seeking a path to a solution, whatever it may entail, a dream, that some form of peace, or at least quiet, is possible. Otherwise, why would anyone choose to build the land and stay there? How can one truly be free – or moral – without at least the dream of peace? So we keep talking….keep hypothesizing….keep seeking a solution, even a short term one. That, to me, is the animation of the dream of Zionism for which so much of my family blood was spilled.