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Israel, be my Tu B’Av valentine

I no longer feel the toe-curling love I felt when I first met Israel as an adult, but I've come to realize that 'staying for the kids' works just fine

The first mention of Tu B’Av, the holiday some call Israel’s “Valentine’s Day,” is in the Mishna: “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel/Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards.” (Ta’anit, chapter 4)

Beginning this year on the evening of August 15, Tu B’Av raises real questions. Leave aside whether we need another obligatory date night and rush to buy last-minute chocolate and flowers. Tu B’Av invokes a brutal gang-rape perpetrated by members of the tribe of Benjamin and ensuing bloody civil war. The other tribes consequently swore an oath forbidding Benjaminite men to take wives. But later regretting this decision to impose extinction on Benjaminite men, they came up with a creative fix:

“Look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them’.” (Judges 21:20-22)

Tu B’Av’s celebration of this abduction and reenactment of the previous rape is certainly enough to raise my eyebrows, but not the only thing that has me thinking about this holiday. You see, my friend and rabbi, Miri Gold, celebrated the 42nd anniversary of her aliyah on Valentine’s Day 2019 with a joyous meme – all pink and red hearts declaring her unabashed love of Israel. Since then, any Valentine’s Day reawakens some nagging questions about my own love of Israel. Of course, I still love Israel. But am I in love? Am I only staying for the kids?

Let’s face it – the last 13 years have not been easy. Israel and I go to bed angry more nights than not. I’m constantly taking her inventory. She ignores my efforts and takes me for granted. She costs me money and health. I grumble publicly about her failings. She calls me names: Weak Left, Traitor, and worse. She’s much older. So am I. And neither one of us looks good these days dressed in white and dancing in the vineyards of Shiloh.

I don’t doubt the toe-curling love I felt when I first met Israel as an adult in 1972. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Mysterious. Unfolding before me like a flower. I looked down from my green wooden cabin on the ancient palms surrounding Kibbutz Ein Harod’s fish ponds and believed in my heart that A.D. Gordon was speaking to me personally when he said: “Nowhere in the world can the Jews savor the taste of Homeland save in the Land of Israel.”

Weeks after I arrived, speaking my ulpan’s second-grade Hebrew, I stepped off the bus at the Tel Aviv Central Station in Tel Aviv and realized that I could not only understand what everyone around me was saying — but answer in the Hebrew of the small child that I was when I left Israel with my father. It felt like a miracle. Israel got me. She had always known me, and most of all, she knew what it meant to be a child of Holocaust survivors.

But you know how it is. That first stage of head-over-heels love is a drug. Dopamine surges. Seratonin drops. Our feelings for the love object increase until — after six months — our serotonin levels are like those of a person with OCD. You stay awake to watch them breathe and skip meals. Because who needs food?

Four years later, dopamine plummets. Those butterflies in your stomach become — at best — moths and those endearing quirks have you searching for the exits. Hopefully and with time, oxytocin kicks in, creating a lasting bond that makes you affiliate with and nurture your beloved.

Marriage counselors say that coasting on oxytocin vapors is not enough. Couples who stay together for decades these days must share a primal secret. A shared history of abuse, social gawkiness, mix-and-match personality disorders, they both get off on chickens, etc. Mine is the Holocaust — an undeniably compelling bond. I wondered to what extent I should let the Holocaust shape my life.

Until Passover 2019. My husband and I were playing in a ditch at Kibbutz Gezer with my 3-year old grandson. He was Moses, my husband was Aaron, I was Miriam, and of course, he named his father Pharaoh. As I was following my grandson’s command to find sweet water for Am Yisrael, I suggested that we also needed water for our livestock — donkeys, camels, goats, sheep, and cows.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because if we don’t have them in Eretz Yisrael, we won’t have ice cream,” I said.

“But we’re in Kibbutz Gezer. There’s plenty of ice cream here,” said my grandson.

Then it dawned on me. I am here for the kids! For grandchildren who effortlessly perform the mitzvot of seeing themselves as slaves fleeing Egypt and seeing themselves as free. It’s about friends like David Leichman who freeze milk and honey into the world’s best #LeichCream on Passover’s Second Holiday. And rabbis like Miri Gold — who bakes her Aunt Belle’s chocolate cake on our birthdays when she’s not busy teaching and inspiring us with her sage interpretation of Torah and pink and red hearts.

Yes, I know now that Palestinians love the Land they call “Palestine” as much as I love the Land I call “Israel.” I hope we will always share this love and pray we can turn our primal secret into joint custody.

I wish everyone happy holidays חג שמח and عيد مبارك‎. I am staying in Israel for love. And it is worth remembering on Tu B’Av, Eid al Adha, or any other holiday, that love is as good a reason as any.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am the author of Hershele and the Chicken Skates, was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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