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“When You Are Abroad, You Are Israel”

When Israelis go out of the country on business, they take on a whole slew of jobs
illustrative: Passengers have their hand luggage screened by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport, file photo (Ariel Schalit/AP)
illustrative: Passengers have their hand luggage screened by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport, file photo (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The sign just beyond passport control at Ben Gurion Airport could have been posted by a coach for his players to read en route to an away game:

“When you are abroad, you are Israel. Represent her well.”

The sign just beyond passport control at Ben Gurion Airport need not have been posted. Like it or not, when abroad, I am Israel.

I am Israel’s Headlines:

“It must be so frightening in Jerusalem these days.”

“You are so brave to live in the city of Jerusalem or anywhere in Israel for that matter.”

“It must be tough to say good-bye to your kids in the morning, when you never know what they day will bring.”

I am Israel’s Barometer:

“What’s the mood over there these days?”

“How are you people looking at the summer’s war now that a few months have passed?”

“What are you people saying about the upcoming elections.”

I am Israel’s Fortune-Teller:

“So, will Bibi win?”

I am Israel, Pariah Nation:

“They’re saying you people have better relations with Egypt than with the United States of America.”

“You know in Berkeley, a kid stood on campus with an ISIS flag and no one did anything. But when he stood with an Israeli flag, he attracted a storm of protest. I mean he stood there with an ISIS flag. What the hell is wrong with your government?”

I am Israel, Start-Up Nation:

“The dress you’re wearing is made by an Israeli designer? I had no idea you people were innovative in fashion, too. How sweet.”

I am synecdoche of Israel Holidays Past:

“I remember when my son and his wife went to Israel. They stayed at the King David Hotel. One night they want out to dinner, and wouldn’t you know, on their way back, they got lost. They were a bit afraid of wandering into, you know, the wrong part of town. But just in time they saw a police car. The policeman didn’t just give my son and his wife directions, he gave them a tour. All over Jerusalem. Can you imagine a policeman touring perfect strangers? And my son says the guy wouldn’t even take a tip. Can you imagine? It would never happen here.”

Yes, I am Israel—poor shul in a rich Jewish world. The gold of my Jerusalem—while perhaps familiar as words from an old song– is altogether invisible.

And then there is the concert.

Jerusalem’s very own Ariel Quartet. Hailed internationally, the foursome has been invited by Pro Musica Hebraica–an effort to present neglected treasures of Jewish music to America’s capitol city– to perform works of three generations of Israeli composers—Paul Ben-Haim, Mark Kopytman and Menachem Wiesenberg—at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

As they come onto the stage—two young women followed by two young men together with two violins, one viola and one cello—first impressions are unspoken but perfectly clear.

“The women are wearing blue and red!”

“Their one-strapped see-through gowns are so . . . revealing.

“So . . . 1970’s.”

“So . . . polyester.”

“And the men? Matching light grey suits, pale blue shirts and no ties? They might as well work for El Al.”

“They wear no make-up.”

“Their hair is unkempt.”

“The women look positively Amazonian. Look at the muscles on those two!”

“Check out the Goliath on the right? Can he possibly be an Israeli.”

“They are barely thirty years old.”

“Alas, how quaint.”

“My, but how unconventional.“

“How perfectly sweet.”

“How utterly backward.“

“You’d think someone would bother to teach them what quartets are supposed to look like. Pathetic.”

The Ariel Quartet is Israel–a poor shul in a rich Jewish world.

Then they begin to play.

And but a few bars in, the Kennedy Center audience is agog. Rather than black and white fingers gently pulling melodies from simple strings, they have before them a symphony of sparkling eyes and strong shoulders, a maelstrom of sharp elbows and rhythmic feet, a heated ensemble of sweaty and furrowed brows, of ecstatic breath. It is a pantomime of agony and triumph. It is a bloodied battlefield of bow strokes betting on eternity. It is a bed undone by unchaste love-making. It is a heat-scorched desert and tiny gifts of dew. It is a hurling storm and the open hand of a single stranger. It is inexpressible agony and unexpected joy. It is barren sound and bountiful silence. It is all of Jewish history and all of right here and right now.

There on the Kennedy Center stage stands Israel, the gold of her spirit–unabashedly embodied, exquisitely gentle and manifestly unafraid—aglitter. Like a woman of valor, clothed in scarlet strength and dignity, there she stands, laughing at the time to come.

Go forth, Ariel Quartet. Be Israel whose value is far above jewels. Give far and wide of the fruits of your hands, and you, Israel, will be praised at the gates.

About the Author
Sarah Kass is a mother of two daughters, a Yale graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and a serial social entrepreneur. At 27 she founded the first charter public high school in the United States, and was recognized as one of America’s 10 most promising leaders under 30. Now over 30 and a resident of Jerusalem--the original "city on a hill"--she remains determined never to "underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world."
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