Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Happy 60th Birthday, Israel
It's modern Israel's 60th birthday. As every day, today is a miracle; even more so for Israel.
I grew up wondering what it was about Israel that had all my Jewish friends so reverent, so stalwart. Israel was one topic about which you did not joke, about which there was no dissent, a rare subject for a group of argumentative people. Most of my childhood friends were "very Reform," meaning they didn't even know, much less keep mitzvot. They ate "kosher style" bagels and sandwiches at Junior's Deli (on Westwood Blvd. near Pico in West L.A.). They went to services, usually at some overflow location, for the High Holidays; they lit menorahs. That was about it.
My family did none of it; my Jewish father had married a non-Jew and our home was basically devoid of religion, save for the Guideposts pamphlet-size magazine my mom got by subscription every month, the "God loves you" publication of Norman Vincent Peale. Though she kept each issue by her bed, she never spoke of it.
Though all my school friends were Jewish, there had been the interlude when at age ten a new friend moved onto the block--the daughter of an Episcopal priest, who made it a condition of our friendship that I attend their church in Beverly Hills. Dutifully, I tagged along with the "PK" and sincerely wanted some of the spiritual goodies that family lived by--but try as I might (and I did try, learning their liturgy and even becoming "confirmed" at age 12 along with my friend), that lightening bolt from heaven never struck, and when my friend moved away, so did any attachment to her brand of religion.
That left me back with all the Jews, just when they were having bar and bat mitzvahs. I had a great time attending those, but watching my friends give speeches about the arrival of their adulthood was more ludicrous than meaningful. In high school, along with my friends, I joined the George Gershwin chapter of the B'nai B'rith Girls (the Reform youth group, the goal of which is to insure that Jews date only Jews). This was before the Reform branch declared that lineage moves through the father as well as the mother, so I was the group's blond "ringer." I dated the Jewish guys, cozied in with my new best friend, whose family ate chocolate babka, and attended high holiday services, leaving the tedium with my cohort for acceptable breaks and then tip-toeing back to the endless prayers.
What does all this have to do with Israel? Even in such a non-spiritual Jewish world, Israel was sacred. It was understood that Israel was God's apology for the Holocaust. You gave tzadaka to Israel. You prayed for Israel. You planted trees in Israel. You evaluated political candidates on their support for Israel. Then you voted for the Democrat.
My family was conservative. My Jewish daddy, who never made any reference to his birth-faith, read US News and World Report at the dinner table. He voted for Nixon and in 1964 Goldwater--I still have a metallic gold campaign button that reads, "I'm an extremist, I love liberty!" written around Barry Goldwater's smiling, bespectacled face. But when it came to Israel--well, Israel was special and worth defending at all cost.
My first trip to Israel was 22 years ago, after my Orthodox conversion and much intense study. In order to make a phone call then, you had to deposit hexagonal silver tokens with holes in their centers into the pay phone--if you could find one. Then, you hoped there was an operator to put the call through. Sometimes people lined up waiting to use the public phones, since many private citizens did not have their own. The traffic was sparse; the country had the feel of a third-world, developing nation where not everything worked as it should.
I have been to Israel many times since; this summer my husband and I will escort 200 tourists there again (taking our fourth tour), eager to amaze and awe them with the ruach so palpable there. Our daughter lived in Givat Shaul for a seminary year; close relatives have made Jerusalem their homes. Israel has emerged as a high-tech center for the world (the assonance nearly compelled me to write "a high tech mecca," but I just couldn't do it), where cell phones are ubiquitous and sophisticated. The pace is fast; cars squeeze through non-lanes and park on the sidewalks. And religiously, as the level of Jewish connection around the globe has grown, its fervency and urgency in observance at its source and center has burgeoned exponentially.
So, Happy Birthday, Israel! Sixty years is not a long time in the sweep of history, and only a blink after an exile of 2000 years. But the amount of change, advancement and strength that has gathered in that short span only confirms it as the Land wonder-fully blessed and unique.