This is my first post on the TOI blog and it feels like a good reason to relive my Jewish evolution over the years, as well as the history of my connection to Israel.
I always consider that my childhood was impacted by three events, the JFK assassination, the death of my Dad when I was 14, and the Six Day War in 1967.
Though born in the Netherlands, in 1963 we were living in Switzerland and neither my Parents, my Sister or myself yet mastered sufficient French to understand when, on the evening of November 22, the black & white television in our living room suddenly showed pictures of John Kennedy. We understood that something bad had happened, but that was all.
The next morning, I went to a newsstand across the street and copied the headline “Kennedy assassine” from the Tribune de Lausanne, on a piece of paper, went back home and looked up the meaning of “assassine” in a dictionary, and then understood the calamity that had happened to the youthful US President, who was so popular in Europe. It set in motion a great interest in the far away America with the horror of the JFK assassination in the background, but the dynamism and freedom spirit of America an attraction that ultimately made me move to the US.
Four years later, back in the Netherlands, I remember on a Monday morning in June 1967 arriving at school on my bicycle and a friend telling me that there was a war in “my country”. At the time my Jewish life was very limited. I knew that I was Jewish, but knew very little of what that meant. We did not keep kosher, rarely went to a synagogue and two years earlier I almost did not celebrate my bar mitzvah. My Dad had lost most of his family in the concentration camps and came out of the war with incomprehension of the existence of a Higher Being who would let the Holocaust happen. It was only when an Uncle told my Dad that he had no right to choose my Jewishness for me, that he relented and had me study for my Parasha and we celebrated my bar mitzvah in the Lausanne synagogue. A year and half later my Dad passed away in Rotterdam.
When this school friend told me that there a war in “my country”, it woke something in me that I had not felt before. I was born in the Netherlands, as were my Parents, Grand Parents, and in fact for generations going back at least to the year 1800. I was more interested in America than in Israel, and “my country” was the Netherlands, not Israel.
The Six Day War was a big thing in the Netherlands, with the vast majority of the Dutch rallying behind Israel. At my school, on the second or third day of the war, there was an event to support Israel. The small and young Israel was the underdog and there was an intense pride growing in me that my friends were rooting for the Jewish State.
Another four years later, in 1971, my Mother offered me a trip to the USA as present for high school graduation, joining several of my class mates. Instead I chose to go to Israel alone, with a duffel bag and 900 Guilders (US$ 407) to spend. The 900 Guilders lasted me 6 weeks, traveling by Egged and Dan, from youth hostel to youth hostel, criss-crossing Israel several times from North to South and West to East. I remember long trips at the back on Egged busses, next to an open window as the busses had no air conditioning. Every hour on the dot, the bus’ radio came on with the latest news, of course in Hebrew which I did not understand. I also remember that during those long trips I read one book after the other, mostly Solzhenitsyn that I bought at Steimatzky book stores. And then there was coffee at Rowal on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, experiencing the economic contrast with beggars soliciting from the Rowal patrons. Jerusalem was a whole different experience, walking through Mea Shearim, staying safely at cheap Arab hostels near the Damascus Gate, enjoying falafel at Uncle Moustache in the Old City, and the heart warming new relationship with the Kotel, including a Shabbat meal and singing with Shlomo Carlebach. After six weeks my money had run out and flew to Geneva where I was about to start University.