Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Meaning of the Jewish State

Growing up, patriotism and national pride meant reciting the pledge of allegiance each morning with my hand over my heart, the 7th inning stretch at Yankee games, that famous kiss at the end of WWII, July 4th barbeques, and the markings of a good 'ole American summer--watermelon, corn on the cob, grilled chicken, American flag bandanas and a picnic on our family's backyard before making our way across the street to the annual fireworks show at the community college. For me, patriotism was tangled up with nostalgia for things that happened before I was born, for the perfectly manicured obedient housewives who transformed into Rosie the Riveter, American flags that hung on the porches of soldier's wives, for Paul Revere's flight of warning, for picket-fenced suburbia with their glass milk bottles and town fairs and poodle skirted dances, and for MLK Jr.'s dream. Sometimes I think of our forefathers; of Washington and his cherry tree and white-powdered wig and of Lincoln and abolition, and sometimes I think of the Industrial Age and our booming commerce and the American influence that seeps even into the most obscure villages in the heart of Africa. Sometimes I think about the idea of the "American Dream" and New York's "streets of gold" and the slogan that inspired us all--"yes we can." But with all the entanglement of loosely tied images of war and redemption, proactive success, and the American way, growing up, patriotism for me was more of a relic, it was more like a neatly packaged token tied up with a perfect red, white, and blue starred ribbon to be revered from its corner on the bookshelf but for the most part overlooked.

In Israel, patriotism is anything but a proud thought drifting on the wind. Rather, it is ingrained into the air, mixed into the water, built in to everything they do. Being Israeli is being a Jew and being a Jew is being a part of the Jewish Homeland and even the most secular Israelis will stand up tall and with chins held up during their anthem. Patriotism touches the fabric of every family and sprinkles along the waves of every generation that has settled here. Here, every single person knows someone who was injured or G-d forbid died during their service to defend the Jewish Homeland. And almost everyone is linked to the history and outcomes of the Holocaust. So when the days are building up to recognize the suffering and sacrifices that have been and are still being made to realize this dream of Israel that I take for granted, they are ones to consider seriously, they are days full of reflection, tears, pride, and memory. Every corner is decorated with a flag. Every schoolchild wears an Israel pin or writes about being Israeli or shares a story, or dances round and round. Every news channel is inundated with coverage of each ceremony and event and every synagogue, city, and school has a ceremony to acknowledge the sanctity of these days. And every radio station plays nonstop music about war, sacrifice, and love and everyone knows all the words, even the babies. These are the songs of Israel--they are not songs about silly teenage problems or sex or drugs, they are songs with words behind the words and meanings behind the meanings, because when you sing "it will be what it will be" or "things will be better" those ideas are packed in with real battles, real death, real sacrifices, real dreams, real hopes, real miracles, real people, and real things. For me, these past two weeks have reminded me why this place is a blessing and how important it is to keep fighting for and educating in order to keep this realized dream alive, because who knows how easily it can slip from our fingers.

After it all, I was sitting with my Saba, grandpa, in his home on the kibbutz and he was talking about the difference between his experience of the first ever Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and this 64th one that was filled with ceremonies, songs, and as always in my family, meaningful speeches. He stared off somberly into the distance and clenched his wrinkled fists as he explained that for him, the idea of a Jewish State and Israel's inaugural celebration of existence was so much more than the revitalization of the age-old dream of the Jewish people to return to their homeland--for him, a Holocaust survivor who had lost his father and himself been saved from the edge of a death pit, suffered in the ghetto and later on in the camps, who had survived the Death March and then later on worked with my Savta, grandma, to clandestinely bring 80 orphans of the Holocaust to then-Palestine after 9 month's internment on Cyprus (just to name a few things he did)--the first Yom Ha'azmaut physically, spiritually, and figuratively brought him back to life. He was renewed in every sense and  then went on to lead an inspirational life. I tried to put myself into my grandparent's shoes if only for a moment, to try to process the unbelievable awe and pride of this miracle of suddenly having a Jewish homeland, but no matter what inspiring symbols of Zionist glory I could dredge up it was impossible to truly understand. 

It is a joke in our family that not a day goes by in my Saba's house without mention of the Holocaust, and it's true. Within minutes of my visits any little thing, from the pile of oranges he so gratefully keeps in the kitchen to the latest article he read, my Saba can expertly link it to his survival and what came before and after (much like my father can do with his beloved game of baseball). He talks of luck and he says that all that happened to him was all a matter of chance, but I don't believe so. As I try to put myself in the position that he and my Savta were in I simply can't imagine how they survived. Yet despite all these personal roadblocks of the privileged life I've led, the two-week span of Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to Yom Ha Zikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) was the one that I most looked forward to experiencing in this miracle of a land that within my lifetime has simply always been and which I take for granted will always be, and a reality of sacrifice, blood, tears, sweat, resilience, and miracles that I will never be able to fully grasp. I still tried. And it was a fortnight of continuously renewed knowledge that I am doing and being exactly who and what I am meant to do and be. Here's just a small list of the ways the fantastic experiences I have had these past two weeks:

Yom Ha Shoah
-An article about my Savta and her friend who escaped from Auschwitz and the powerful drawing of flowers personifying their relationship that was published as part of the research (It was interpreted that my Savta is the smaller flower holding the older flower's hand):

-The dizzying silence of what feels like the entire world freezing in reverence during the country-wide siren.
-Blinking at the confusion of traffic that starts right up again once the siren has ended.
-Learning more about the life-saving participation of JDC to save thousands of lives before, during, and after the Holocaust and being so proud to be playing a small part in this meaningful organization's work.
-Slipping into a closed pizza place to use the bathroom and instead being glued to the floor in front of the TV to join the two pizza guys there in watching the lighting of the six memorial torches during the ceremony of Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum) and thinking about how my Saba was one of the lighters honored just a few years ago.
-It making sense that a low, powerful wind swung its way around Jerusalem, chilling us to the bones.
-Pushing through a crowd of a few hundred young Israelis not to get into a rock concert or the latest club, but to obtain a valued seat at an evening of Holocaust Songs.
-Almost not getting tickets to the evening of song because it was sold out.
-Waiting for the evening to start and staring confusedly at a picture of the Eichmann trials and then feeling breathless when learning that the very building we were sitting in for this evening of memory was the same that was built in a startling three months for the very purpose of that trial.
-Sitting with hundreds of my peers, swaying and crying to the moving words and tunes that we all know (and so grateful to my Ima and uncle that they exposed me to them) and feeling like one with the Israeli people.
-Singing to a chorus of harmony the words of a song that make me think of my Savta and between speeches feeling the impact of the Holocaust for the first time in a long time and letting the tears flow.
-Talking to my Saba the next day about his talk to my cousin's children's school of around 400 children and hearing that my little cousin cried when she heard his story.
-My Savta's roses blooming on and continuing her legacy. Remembering how one of the ways she survived was by volunteering to garden in the camps. Thinking of this in the sweet rose-aired garden in front of their house as I sip tea and read my book.

-Also hearing that my Saba channeled all of his strength to climb up to the stage and recite a small speech on behalf of the still-living survivors on the kibbutz.
-Arriving at one of the after schools a week later and seeing a wall of the children's paper towel charcoal drawings of Holocaust images and having them run up to me to tell me the story behind each one. Them explaining that in the camps, many people drew on anything they could find and that is why they drew on paper towel.

Yom Ha Zikaron
-Rushing out to my balcony and pausing with the world once again as the siren echoed throughout the country.
-Posters, memorials, photographs, and somber stories plastering every street and public institution, remembering fallen soldiers and victims of terror.
-Feelings of guilt and gratitude that I could not truly appreciate the full meaning of this day.
-More and more Israeli flags being hoisted in the air.
-A huge Israeli flag waving in the breeze on our balcony (thank you, Ayal).
-Walking through town and following the echos of music until arriving at Kikar Safra to a packed square of people singing songs of memorial.
-Making our way back through the quieted streets to our apartment where my incredibly talented neighbors were holding their own evening of song on our balcony. Walking into my apartment full of 40 people and instantly knowing the words of the song by heart and jumping into the middle of the floor to sing, sing, sing.
-Loading a manual of hundreds of Israeli songs onto my computer from a USB that was being passed around and listening to a debate of which song we should sing next--there are so many!
-My heart being filled.

Yom Ha'atzmaut
-Streamers, fireworks, music, dancing, concerts, the entire city rising to the air and dropping down again to the beat of happy drums: we're 64 years old!
-A new brand of music streaming over the radio waves, this time upbeat and making me tap my feet.
-Being able to say "chag sameach" (happy holidays) to EVERYONE you pass and knowing that they are celebrating too.
-People wrapped in blue and white.
-Parties EVERYWHERE, the whole country transformed into a disco ball, Israeli style.
-Running through the streets at the first sign of fireworks to get up to my balcony and watch it from there. Holding my breath as blue, purple, green, and gold popped in the sky right below a bright crescent slice of moon hanging beside a single sparkling star.
-Being woken up by two more sets of fireworks coming from different directions.
-All the flags.

-The whole country shutting down and everything being closed because anyone who is anyone is celebrating.
-The next day the country warping into one big BBQ and partaking in the meat-filled festivities.
-Winding through jumping children in the Israel museum, which was open for free, and waving at a beautiful view of Jerusalem from the "ahava" sculpture overlook.
-Later on, watching a ball of BBQ smoke rise up from the remnants of BBQ in every open space from my view point on the balcony.
-Trying to shake the smell of BBQ out of my clothes and giving up.
-Going to sleep, exhausted, and making the transition into Shabbat...

To every Jew in the world, wherever you were during those days, I wish you the revitalized love and pride I felt these past two weeks and I wish us all the 65th year, and the 66th, and all the years to follow.

Chag Sameach!

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