Israel turns 70 this year, and we are just four months short of sharing a birthday. I’m that much older than the Jewish state, though surely not wiser, even as the sages teach that the seventh decade bodes both the beginning of old age and the attainment of wisdom.
I’d like to believe that I am neither, though in reality seven decades is a very long time, as I am reminded every time I am asked to click on the year of my birth and can’t believe how long it takes to scroll down to 1947. And wisdom, well, wisdom belongs to the prophets and sages, surely not to a 70 year old woman, no matter how she has strived for a life well lived. There is still so much to do, so much to learn.
That said, I have never lived without the miracle of the Jewish state, even if my awakening to its existence, and the hold it has on me, did not occur until well into adulthood on my first trip to Israel. It was, to use a time-worn phrase, life changing, which does not nearly describe its insistent tug on my heart, but, as I wrote after that first visit in the early 1980s, it was a profound experience, substantively changing who I was and how I defined myself. I had not before seriously considered what it meant to be Jewish, or what it meant to be American, or how I, in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s words, negotiated the hyphen of being both. But as I wrote then, reflecting on my return, I left for the trip an American Jew; I returned as a Jewish American.
To suggest that the pride that infused my redefinition of self, that the fierce, unexpected, connection to my Jewishness, to the notion of peoplehood, to the land of Israel, caught me by surprise, is an understatement. I had been raised observant Reform, with at least a grasp of the Jewish story, an understanding of its trajectory from creation to revelation to redemption, of the drama of the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom and its reimagining in the creation of the Jewish state. Yet it was not until I had the opportunity to see it, to touch it, to taste it, to smell it, that I felt that story in my kishkes.
Israel was mine, and yet, as an American, it was not, but it provided a sense of belonging that transcended space and time, a grounding that connected me to generations that came before and those after. And a grounding that as an American Jew I could make my own.
So as Israel begins its seventh decade, still so young and full of promise, yet wrestling with agonizing questions of its own identity as it seeks to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, I remain proud at what it has accomplished and trust that it will realize a future with the wisdom that as the sages portend comes with maturity.
And I pray that it will continue to exert its compelling hold on the Jewish imagination, as the realization of a dream, as a beacon of light and hope in the world, as it did for me, and so for those who follow.