Morris Allen

Staring Forward, Looking Back

What a whirlwind the last week  has been.  Now back on the familiar streets of  “my” neighborhood, I was struck by the stark contrast between my Monday in Jerusalem and the start of my Wednesday in Mendota Heights.  On Monday, my last day of my quick trip to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday, I spent the afternoon basically alone with her.  I gave her wonderful caregiver the afternoon off, my devoted sister was relieved to be able to stay home for a day and except for a lovely visit with one of my nephews, it was mostly my mom and me for several hours.  In days gone by those hours would have been filled with conversation, questions, laughter and disagreements.  Now it was mostly filled with staring eyes focused on me and me wondering what it was, if anything, those stares were trying to comprehend.  An occasional smile, an appearance of a tear in her right eye every now and then, and a nodding head entering a period of somnolence — that was a result of 100 years of living and a constant desire to shut out a world that must be overwhelming in its inaccessibility.

That afternoon, as my mom slept in her recliner chair, I watched the national ceremony marking the 26th Yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin(zl). PM Rabin was murdered by a fanatic opposed to his moves towards peace.  The ceremony at Har Herzl, Israel’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery, was powerful and profound.  It was also a reminder for me of how different the daily life of American Jews and Israeli Jews really are.  I refrained over the year and a half of “One Person’s Response…” to commenting on the situation in ISrael and the challenges she faces and the needs she has for peace.  I did so, because I was writing from Mendota Heights, and place matter when writing from the heart.  For too many people, the only issue they know about Israel is the Palestinian issue.  Indeed, the coding for calls to many congressional offices concerning Israel, regardless of the issue generating the call,  is  “Israel/Palestine.”  It is as if an entire country, an entire nation, 7 million peoples lives are reduced to a single issue and binary response.  Sitting in a chair next to my mother as she slept, I watched this solemn, yet hopeful,  ceremony.  I was reminded how deep the chasm is between these two large Jewish communities on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.  The ability to get to Israel in 10 or 12 hours (from New York) doesn’t approach the day and night difference with which each of us live.

Israel has undergone a political transformation in the last 6 months that is significant.  Most American Jews and certainly most Americans in general would have no understanding of the profound change that has occurred. For the first time in 12 long years, the long-standing political powerhouse and his party are now in opposition.  He, like the defeated past American President with which we are forced to deal with daily, is doing everything he can to delegitimize both the current government and the democratic institutions that come with a thriving-albeit imperfect-democracy.  He was the first opposition leader in 26 years to not come to this national ceremony held at Har Herzl.  Why, because he would be simply the opposition leader-not Prime Minister; because he would have to endure the comments about seeking unity and restoring civility in the political and national discourse(something like his defeated American friend he has tried to destroy); and because in 1995, his rhetoric  in attacking the then PM Rabin was often cited as potentially dangerous—particularly for a loose cannon who sought to prove his loyalty to hate.  The scene was remarkable—a PM who spoke to the hopes and dreams of a people and not simply a nation.  A PM who spoke about his own experience of being in the military when Rabin was killed and the profound challenges it presented.  A PM who spoke about reconciliation and the need to forge a common vision for a country that has been under political siege for too long as a result of his predecessor.

I know when I was a congregational rabbi, the Shabbat that preceded Yitzhak Rabin’s yahrzeit was always noted in shul.  On the day of his yahrzeit, an El Molei Rahamim was recited on his behalf.  I would imagine that those traditions continue.  But to witness this ceremony, to listen to the singing of the Hebrew version of Walt Whitman’s “My Captain” was to experience and to understand how deep the gulf is between us.  Just as Israelis cannot  fully appreciate the visceral response that the murder of George Floyd had on so many of us as American Jews, we are truly unable to understand the depth and breadth of daily differences which mark the lives of a people across the pond.  As my mother slept and I watched both her and the TV, I reflected on her last 34 years of life living in Jerusalem.  She carries with her an unbelievable arc of life—from being a first generation daughter of two immigrant parents growing up in a disheveled section of Omaha among Jews, Italians, other ethnic and racial communities to resting in a recliner chair inside the independent state of the Jewish people. My  mother has lived the arc of the 20th/21st Century Jewish experience and now cannot express her thoughts or share her beliefs.  Perhaps the eyes filled simply with staring have nothing to do with me at all—but rather are in some ways her own “processing” of a century of rapid change, of unbelievable loss and accomplishment, pain and joy, challenge and opportunity.  Maybe, just maybe when I reach 100, I will better understand those stares and not think that they are limited to trying to understand who my child sitting across from me may be—but rather trying to imagine what merit it has been to be a part of this people.

About the Author
Morris Allen is a retired congregational Rabbi, served as Sr. Community Liaison for Rep. Angie Craig(MN02), is currently serving as the Interim Head of School for the Columbus Jewish Day School and is a constant thinker about Judaism and the responsibility that comes with it.
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