Reflecting on Israel at 70
I met my old friend Rebecca in the remarkable and exquisite setting of The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a surprising haven of tranquility in a divided city. After our meeting, I walked through the streets of this part of the city, so different and unknown to me compared to West Jerusalem, whose streets are as familiar to me as an old friend. Not so many tourists here, just the Arab/Palestinian population living their lives in their home on these bustling streets. I walked into the Old City through the Damascus Gate; the first time in my many, many visits that I had ever entered this way, mingling with the locals, feeling connected and wary and other all at once. I passed the mosques and the churches and the too quiet market stalls, and was surprised how quickly I reached a security point for access to the Western Wall plaza where a whole different scene awaited, with a population both more and less familiar; the Jewish worshipers, tourists, Bar Mitzvah celebrants, at this site that claims to be ground zero in holiness for our people. I have no doubt of the extreme historical and spiritual importance of this place, but many doubts about what it has become. Those ancient stones carry unbearable pain and if they could speak, what would they say about the scenes that unfold in front of them as they become a Jewish fetish? A whole industry has grown out of bringing 13 year old boys and their families here to be called up to the Torah, but I cannot help wondering what the Torah has become in all of this; like the Wall itself, a deeply sacred item has become an object used for posed shots for photos and videos of these innocent boys in suits. Who knows how much of the inner world of Torah seeps into their souls while their bodies awkwardly follow directions of the photographers to hold its outer form and smile and look deep?
In spite of ambivalent feelings and mixed emotions, I placed some “kvitlech” petitionary notes, prayers into one of those aching cracks in the wall. Not something I usually do, but I was asked to specifically, and I actually spent some time thinking of all the people for whom I wanted to offer prayers and I wrote and offered these prayers, both believing and not believing in this act.
As I continued my walk out of the Old City and back to the German Colony in West Jerusalem that I know so well, I reflected on the whole notion of this as a unified city and what that can mean in the reality of the complete diversity of its population. East and West are separate worlds and this holy, broken place continues to be so deeply important for Jews, Christians and Muslims and we need to find better ways to share it and to honor the multiple narratives that demand our attention.
The following day was erev Yom HaZikkaron, the day leading into Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. I went to Tel Aviv for my last days in Israel and I was in a car with my cousin Charlotte when the siren sounded at 8pm announcing this solemn day. Along with almost everyone else, we stopped, got out of the car and stood in silence for the duration of the wailing siren. It is very powerful to witness the country coming to a virtual standstill for this minute, as an act of remembrance; the buses stop in the middle of the streets and the passengers get out and stand to attention. The consciousness is focused and very different to Memorial Day in the US as I have experienced it. From the time that siren sounds (and there is a second, longer siren at 11am the next morning), all of the shops, bars and restaurants are closed, and for the whole day, TV and radio stations play solemn music and stories of those lost in conflict, terror, violence. My cousin and I were on our way to HaYarkon Park to join over 6,000 people for an alternative ceremony, a “tekes” organized by The Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace, which had both Israelis and Palestinians talking about their devastating, shared losses and their hopes and dreams. There was music, video and very moving testimonies. The Israeli Supreme Court had overturned Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ruling to ban the Palestinian participation and over 100 were permitted to come and be part of this ceremony of shared memory. The main speaker was Israel’s acclaimed author David Grossman, who lost his own son Uri in the Lebanon war. He blew me away with such eloquence and gentleness, and his passionate and challenging words to Israel on this sad day. He said that Israel was a fortress and not yet a home; claiming that while so, so many groups are marginalized and while the occupation continues, Israel cannot really be called a home. He spoke of the complexity and diversity and humanity of so many and, in a brilliant reworking of a phrase in the Talmud, he said “Elu v’elu divrei Yisralim chayyim – these and these are the words of living Israelis.” You can read his full speech here. There were very angry protesters outside shouting slogans of hate and massively delaying the exit after it was over, but I was so moved and grateful to have experienced this loving and hopeful act of shared memory and commitment to a better future.
Yom HaZikkaron was my last day, for now, in Israel, but I did see the beginning of Yom Ha’Atzmut, Independence Day, before heading to the airport. I spent most of the day by a pool and on the beach with family and friends, stopping once again for the sounding of the siren, but I joined the same friend Rebecca from the American Colony Hotel, for a special Havdalah ceremony, marking the transition from memory to celebration. Most Israelis move very quickly from a day of sadness, solemnity and introspection to a day of fireworks, music, dancing and barbecues. Some bizarre traditions have emerged, like hitting one another with giant, inflatable hammers and spraying each other with shaving foam – both products very available for purchase. Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, the Havdalah host, is a very popular and vibrant, Tel Aviv based community integrating progressive Jewish prayer and Israeli culture. It was a very beautiful event beginning at 6pm as Yom HaZikkaron was drawing to a close and going into the beginning of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Just as the transition from Shabbat to the week has its special ritual, so the creators of this ceremony have felt that this transition needs its own ritual. With moving songs, prayers, readings and teachings to mark the last moment of the day of memory, there is then a specially designed Havdalah with candles, wine and spice and adapted blessings to ease into the reality of celebration, as the joyful music and dancing begins. There was a great deal of depth and beauty in this event and I was grateful to have this very different experience to the one the previous night before leaving the land. We left the Einav Cultural Center in central Tel Aviv and entered into Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square) where the party was beginning in full force for Israel’s 70th birthday party! We saw the impressive firework display, and yes, the hammers and the foam and the flags and thousands of people in the streets. There was a gigantic stage set up in Rabin Square where performances and video would be going on well into the early hours of this Independence Day.
That was the scene in the streets of Tel Aviv that I left to get a taxi to the airport for my long journey home and, as always when I spend time in Israel, however short or long, my body, heart and mind are all stirred up with the many different images, sensations, thoughts and feelings of this beautiful and complex place. There is so much to celebrate on Israel’s 70th birthday, this land I love; Israel has always felt like a home for me since I first arrived there almost 35 years ago, but David Grossman’s important and provocative words are alive in me as I write this on the plane on the way home. Home. What is a home? A place where we feel safe to be just who we are, peaceful and secure, with good relationships with our neighbors for whom this is also home. There is so much to celebrate and still so much more to do.