Having just returned from Israel, everyone keeps anxiously asking, “How was it? How was Israel? How are the people?” As if they want an assessment from the family member who visited the wounded patient at her bedside.
It is hard to focus on one answer. Some things I saw made me feel low and sad as I have ever felt. Other moments I witnessed reminded me why Israel is strong, why we will prevail and overcome this moment and why I am so proud to be a Zionist.
My colleague, Rabbi Josh Ben Gideon remarked that the atmosphere in Israel reminded him of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.” That is how Israel felt.
In a world of Twitter (X now), we do better with ‘It was the best of Times.’ Or, ‘It was the worst of times.’ Holding two truths makes our competing narrative hard to explain.
Perhaps you read last week about an Israeli coffee shop owner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Aaron Dahan owns and operates Caffe Aronne. He was unexpectedly knocked off his feet when his pro-Palestinian baristas quit in unison, leaving Dahan empty handed for the morning coffee rush.
Dahan, an Israeli born Jew, proudly hung a flag of Israel in his store and plastered the walls of his establishment with pictures of hostages who were taken from Israel on the 7th of October. The young, woke and naïve coffee makers working for Dahan decided to protest by donning Palestinian shirts and quitting. Apparently, they would rather be unemployed and stand on uninformed ceremony.
Dahan called his mother in panic and begged her to stop what she was doing and to get down to the store and help him make cappuccino. She did one better. She posted the story of what happened to Aaron online. Within minutes, it went viral. People lined up for hours just to order a macchiato or chai latte and support an establishment that is pro-Israel.
A few days before Café Aronne, Peter Tsadilas, the owner of the Golden Globe Diner in Huntington, Long Island began displaying Israeli flags and posters to support efforts to return the hostages taken in the Israel-Hamas war. Peter is Greek. The hostages have tugged at his heart strings. He thought he could raise awareness and do his small part from far away to make a difference.
Throngs of patrons to the diner complained. The pictures and advocacy made them uncomfortable. They wanted to enjoy his famous spanakopita without political interference. Tsadilas thought to himself, “These pictures make you uncomfortable? Goodness! What must these captives be dealing with? Or their families?” He held his ground, even though some patrons stop eating at his diner.
Tsadilas’ story also went viral, quickly. Within a few hours, the Jewish community of Long Island channeled their inner New Jersey and started frequenting this diner. The Jewish community stood up and supported Peter in amazing ways with more customers than usual and better profits than the average month. Good for Peter and for us!
Some people tell me these stories saying, “Rabbi. Did you hear about the coffee shop that was shut down because the pro-Palestinian workers quit en-masse?” or “Rabbi, did you hear about the diner that was being boycotted for being pro-Israel?”
A few other people tell me the other side of the story. “Rabbi. Did you know the wait for a pro-Israel coffee shop in Manhattan is more than two hours?! That is incredible!”
That is the conundrum of the Jewish story of today. It is either the worst of times or the best of times. In truth, it is both, at the same time.
The country and people of Israel were chock full of moments of despair, coupled with unprecedented moments of unity and strength. Naomi Shemer wrote in her song, Al Kol Eleh, “We bless the honey, and the stinger of the bee.” That sums up the emotions at this moment.
This is not a novel concept. The mixture of emotions is something native to our Jewish cycle. Glass breaking under a Chuppah, pouring wine out from our cups at the Passover Seder feast, blasting the Shofar of hope to conclude Yom Kippur, fasting the day before Purim are all feelings that go against the grain of the prevailing emotion of the moment. We are a people without one absolute feeling at any given time. We are a mixture of bitter and sweet, honey and stinger, protesters and supporters.
In our reborn identity, we must do better at holding these polarities in the same hand and at the same time. We are capable of that and more.
There is change afoot in Israel. It is awkward to describe, yet it is palpable on the streets and in the Israeli spirit. The people of Israel are about to be reinvented. Fortunately on timing, and not so fortunately for the reason, the Jews in the Diaspora are changing their identities too. In the long game, I am pretty sure this will be a good awakening for both.
Yossi Klein Halevi used a line with me this past week over breakfast in Jerusalem that resonated deeply. He said, “David, how did we almost allow a divorce between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry?”
That was the perfect metaphor. We had grown so distant, shared so few values, travelled in such different circles that our toes were no longer touching under the sheets. October 7th shocked us both into a shared rhythm with common identities and mutual enemies. We realized not only that we do have deep love for one another, but that we need our relationship to stay strong to survive. We are touching toes again. We are connecting again. It feels good and right.
My rabbinic office sees more than its share of marital couples on the brink of the abyss. For the many couples that have survived the darkest days, there are three key takeaways they have in common:
1) Hard work, serious sacrifice and dedication are needed to make changes.
2) Continually reminding the other of the past and the pain caused has a very short window of acceptability. Both parties need to look forward.
3) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all couples agreed that their relationship was stronger and better after going through their marital earthquake.
I predict that Israel and Diaspora Jewry will emerge from this moment stronger than ever. Pain and sadness are always the precursor for growth and development. We have both been seriously pierced and pained since the first week in October. I am convinced that this hard reset will result in the new and improved 2.0 version of our relationship.
Things will need to change, though. The nostalgia of Arik Einstein songs, falafel stands, silly t-shirts that read Guns n’ Moses and buying trinkets in the Arab Shuk will need to be replaced with more serious, thoughtful, modern and mature connections. A new Israel and new gratefulness of our Jewish identity needs to emerge. We can have a reborn appreciation of Israeli music and musicians, and a renewed appreciation of the curious mind of the Israeli. The Start Up chutzpah spirit can be better understood by those living outside of Israel. At the same time, Israelis will need to ratchet up their understating and support of pluralistic Judaism and how our religious streams function and thrive. Israelis can better appreciate that American Jews are more than a blank check of support. And Israelis can be better educated on the cadence of Diaspora Jewish life.
In 50 years, I have never witnessed unity in Israel like today. When I said that line to my favorite cab driver, Shimon, he replied, “that is because in 50 years we have never had unity like this. Ever!” He continued, “It is the only positive development to come out of this nightmare.”
The unspoken takeaway in Israel from this unity is that the status quo will not continue. Crooked politicians, religious streams bickering, negating non-Orthodox lifestyles, Jewish settler violence, systemic racism, threats of terrorism will no longer be tolerated. Extremism – on both sides – will no longer be stomached. It is about time! It is painful to appreciate what brought us here. Still, we are here, and we do not want to ever go back to what was. We will forge ahead with what can be. What must be. What can be. That will take both sides of the pond being in this together, in unity.
It would be tragic to let this moment of unity and harmony peter out in time. We cannot lose its momentum. It must be channeled for change and for good. That is up to all of us to have long memories of what was and the ability to let go of grudges and lingering resentments. We can hold those two incongruent certainties, simultaneously.
Ironically, a terror attack that reminds us of yesteryear will be the impetus that forges a new tomorrow. Let it be so.