It took Israel turning 75 for me to realize what should have been obvious: there are memories of facts, but also of experiences and feelings that accompany those facts.
In my lifetime, there has always been an Israel. It was an established country when, in 1973, at age 18, I traveled there to study and volunteer as a member of Young Judaea’s “Year Course” program. (Affiliated with Hadassah, it’s the largest gap year program in Israel, through which teens connect with their Jewish history and culture and the complexities of the Jewish State.)
Although of course I knew that the US has been around longer than Israel, I understood both countries to be recognized entities on the world’s map. That is, they both existed; they simply were. With Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and, despite continual external political challenges, I never doubted Israel’s continued existence. Just as I had never doubted that the US would continue to exist. Both were key parts of the world as I knew it. Even though the threatening Yom Kippur War launched 11 days after I arrived in Israel, I felt at the time that Israel simply was and will always be.
It’s only as my cohort of baby boomers has started to retire and Israel has reached 75 that it finally occurred to me just how young Israel was in 1973. Barely out of infancy! I was 18. Israel was 25. I was maybe 20 percent of the way through my life and only looking forward. Israel had existed only about 12 percent as long as the US. At 75, the US had just gone through a devastating civil war and was still wobbly. On the scale of the Jewish people’s political nationhood (starting with King David), 25 years is less than one percent. My friends and I were young adults; Israel was at best a toddler: young, vibrant and at risk.
This past May, en route to a Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day) concert, mulling over the meaning of three-quarters of a century, I finally started to think about what it might have been like not to have an Israel. I know the history. I knew that many pioneers, like the poet Rachel, died of TB and malaria while draining the swamps. I had studied the early Zionist thinkers. (My high school copy of The Zionist Idea still sits on my bookshelf.) As a member of Young Judaea, I sang the songs of the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the pre-state Jewish underground army. I danced to tunes like Hora Mamtera, celebrating the water sprinklers that enabled Israel’s desert to bloom.
In 2023, on Yom Haatzmaut, I finally calculated that my parents had been adults when Israel was founded. In 1948, my mother was 20 and my father, 25. She was working and he’d already completed some college and served in WWII. Both were life-long supporters of Israel, whose families were scattered or killed before and by the Holocaust. But I never thought to ask them how they felt when Israel declared its independence.
Over the years, I’d gathered facts—I know when and where they were born, where they were raised, where they studied, etc. I know my mother was a member of Hadassah and that they were both active participants in the Jewish community, passionate about democracy and invested in the wider world. But I never asked them how it felt to witness (probably by radio) the founding of a Jewish state, how it felt for these scions of wandering Jews to witness a new homeland. Were they thrilled? Ecstatic? Dancing in the streets? Worried?
It was 25 years after independence that the Yom Kippur War broke out. I was in Jerusalem when Israel was again attacked by forces bent on her destruction. A letter sent by special courier from Hadassah to Kennedy Airport and then by special delivery to our parents, related that we Year Coursers “are distinguishing [our]selves in service to and compassion for the people and State of Israel.” The letter assured our parents that we were all fine and would be “volunteering [our] services at various kibbutzim — all in secure areas.” Was this reassuring? Were our parents worried? Probably. Were they confident or proud? I hope so.
How did our parents feel about the letter, composed in Jerusalem on October 8, 1973 and probably received on October 10, four days after the start of war in a still-young country? Though it never occurred to me then that Israel would not prevail, now I know this was naïve. What I don’t know, will never know and never thought to ask is, “What did my parents feel about all this?”
All I know is that no one asked or told me to come home and no one from our program left. Did this signify support and confidence? I will have to suppose so. Now, when chatting about memories—whether small, family happenings or world-shattering events—I am learning to ask about feelings.
Memories of facts are important. Memories of experiences help fill in gaps. Asking “What did you think at the time?” and “What does it mean to you now?” can make facts come alive with context, perspective and emotion, so that they resonate with and educate the next generations.