Congregation B'nai Israel

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The Israel I Know

I remember the exact moment when I realized that there were two Israels in my life.  It was April of 2003, Jenny and I were ironically in the city of Cuzco Peru, preparing to hike the famous Inca trail.
We had recently arrived in Peru, embarking on a 2 month long backpacking trip through South America.  We check into our hostel in the center of town, and as we are unpacking our things, I hear loud voices in the adjacent room.  I listen more closely – these voices are speaking Hebrew!

I say to Jenny, let’s go say hi – their door is open, about 5 young Israelis, sitting and talking, clothes strewn about the room.  I feel excited to see them – it was just three years prior I had been on my first Birthright trip to Israel, as a junior in college. I spent four years at Brandeis learning to speak Hebrew, and here were my brothers and sisters from Israel, in of all places, a small city in Peru!  We began chatting with them, we introduced ourselves as Jewish from the states – yet fairly quickly I could sense that they did not feel the same connection to me that I felt towards them.

I attempted to speak with them in Hebrew, but they seemed to show no interest in engaging in the conversation.  After a few minutes in the room with them, they had gone back to their conversation in Hebrew, and we quietly walked out the door, they barely seemed to notice us leave the room.

For me, it marked a turning point in my relationship to Israel –it felt like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pulls back the curtain.  For the first twenty-two years of my life, the Israel I knew was an idealized version of the story.  From a young age I was taught to love Israel – in Religious school our teachers created mock-ups of the Kotel, the Western Wall, so we could imagine one day standing before the real thing. They taught us the geography, the food, about the people, the music, and my family and I attended the annual Israel celebration in downtown Boston, proudly displaying our Israeli flags and celebrating the country we loved so dear.

My summers at Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire were filled with happy memories of Israel – raising the Israeli flag every morning, the good-looking, funny, Israeli staff who came every year to put us through a day of Israeli military training, or to teach us Israeli folk dancing.  I pictured myself as continuing the tradition with those who danced in the streets of Jerusalem when Ben Gurion declared Israeli independence in May of 1948. In college, I traveled to Israel on Birthright. I recently opened up the photo album from that trip – photos of my tour group climbing Masada, eating hummus, hugging our Israeli guides, riding camels through the desert, and crying with our Israeli guides over the deaths of young soldiers who heroically fell defending the country.  Flying back to the United States, our group felt so deeply connected with the Israelis we met on the trip, with the land, a passion and love for Israel burned deep within me as I returned home to America.

Of course, that was exactly how the organizers of Birthright hoped I would feel – as contemporary sociologist Leonard Saxe writes in his book Ten Days of Birthright Israel, “The Birthright Israel program is aimed at directly linking the heart and soul of the young participant to an ongoing journey.  Birthright Israel was created, in part, to give flesh to the idealized, but often bare-bones and emotionally sterile account of Israel that many of the participants had been taught [as children].”Here’s just one example of how this plays out on the trip.

In the book, Saxe describes in detail the experience of the Birthright Israel participants.  In one scene, he shares an account of the group sitting in the famous cemetery overlooking the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee.  Perhaps some of you have been there – it is one of my favorite places in all of Israel. Many famous Israelis, especially poets and writers are buried there, including Rachel the Poet, who emigrated to then Palestine in 1909 and died in 1931. Her poems spoke to the experiences of the early Israeli pioneers who worked and developed the land around the Kinneret.

Saxe writes in his book,

“Here is how the guide presents Rachel’s poem to the group: ‘Look across the sea toward the Golan Heights.  This may even be the spot where she wrote the poem.  The poem is about living for today – here on earth.  The Zioniest movment was not just about anti-Semitism.  It was also about young romantics and idealist, people who believed in seizing the day, people who believed that by working together they could make a better world.  In this cemetery are buried the dreamers of a new and better society who came here to build and be rebuilt.  Over there, at Kvutzat Kinneret, lived A.D. Gordon who came to Palestine in his fifties and preached the religion of labor.  By working, by touching the soil, by redeeming the land we redeem ourselves.  We are now heading north into the living museum of Zionist ideology: Kibbutzim built by Russian and Czech and American Jews who came to create new lives and new societies.  Land, simplicity, communal sharing, reshaping material priorities, the holiness of today, living now.  

Many died, as Rachel did, of tuberculosis which she had contracted in Russia during World War I; conditions were tough, there were Arab raids, but they persevered.  They believed in themselves, they loved every tree and hill here.  They were home.  Welcome to the home of ideological Zionism.  This may be a cemetery, but it’s been visited for decades by thousands of young people seeking inspiration for life.  As you will see, this area is alive and booming.  You have entered the Manhattan of living Zionism.  Welcome!”

Looking back, I don’t believe presentations like these were designed to be propaganda, but rather one way of reading Israel’s narrative, one way of building that connection between Americans and Israel – he makes sure to note that Americans worked the fields alongside Russian and Czech immigrants – even his phrase the Manhattan of living Zionism, is surely designed to sew another thread between American Jews and Israel.

And that was the narrative I returned home with at the age of 19 – that’s the narrative that deepened my love and admiration for the land of Israel and its people, that is the narrative that propelled me to become a staunch Zionist and defender of the land of Israel. Thus you can imagine why that moment in Cuzco hit me like a bag of Jerusalem stones to the stomach – those Israelis had no interest in talking with Jenny and me.  Introducing myself as Jewish, trying to speak Hebrew – it barely warranted a glance. Granted, they had just finished their army service, And wanted total freedom, and they had seen things that I will probably never in my life experience or witness.

That moment, however, just three years after my Birthright trip,  was my brief yet impactful introduction to the real Israel, the complex and complicated relationship between Israelis and American Jews- it was the first crack in the idealized narrative, and there would be many more to come, when a few years later I spent a  year living in Jerusalem, meeting with Israelis – ordinary citizens, writers, activists, and politicians. I rode with Israeli taxi drivers who said that women had no business becoming rabbis.

I volunteered at an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center, learning of the immense challenges and sub-par conditions that Ethiopian Jews face when they arrive in Israel. Religious Jews shouted terrible things at me as I rode my bike through their neighborhood on Shabbat.  Through a program called Encounter, I met with Palestinians on the West Bank, hearing their stories, and I walked through an Israeli checkpoint, with armed Israeli soldiers standing above us on the catwalk, trying to imagine what it would be like if my commute every day was exponentially worse than passing through airport security.

I befriended Israelis whose sons were in the army –there when they came home for Shabbat, when mothers hugged their sons with such emotion and gratitude unlike I had ever seen in my life in the States.  I prayed alongside Reform rabbis, striving to make Reform Judaism a real option for Israelis, despite the immense pushback from the Orthodox community.  I walked the aisles of the Tel Aviv crafts market on Friday morning, surrounded by Hebrew, talking with artists about their stunning crafts, the Israeli sun glistening off of the pottery and Judaica.  I left Israel with a much different feeling than I had eight years earlier – I had lost my naiveté, my emotions and intellect, filled to capacity, I had opened myself up to the real stories, I got that there was another side to that Birthright narrative.  Yet Israel felt more like home to me than ever.

Cue this past year, when for many of us, wherever we stood on Israel, or whichever was our narrative, the idealized Israel was not only collectively cracked, but it was smashed to pieces.  The man with the hammer was an author named Ari Shavit.  Many community members this past spring participated in our One Synagogue One Book read of Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land.  Over 90 people sat in the Pavillion with Rabbi Prosnit to reflect, discuss, debate, and ask questions about the stories that Shavit presents in his work. If you haven’t read it yet, I certainly endorse reading it –

Shavit presents about as real an Israel you can find in any book on the topic.  Each chapter, in a sense, challenges the idealized narrative, such as the monologue I presented earlier by the Birthright Israel guide.  In my conversations with congregants and colleagues about the book, one of the most challenging chapters for many is the chapter entitled, Lydda, in which Shavit shares the story of an Arab city that from 1922 to 1947, sees an economic boom, healthy population growth, modernization, good schools, and peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs.  In 1947 that all changed – a civil war between Arabs and Jews erupts, yet both Arabs and Jews regard the Lydda Valley as a zone of restricted warfare.  Fast forward a year to 1948 – The Jewish army enters the city of Lydda, and their soldiers are fired upon.  The Israeli brigade commander gives the order to open fire on thousands of Arabs gathered in a small mosque, more than two hundred civilians are killed.

As Shavit writes, “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.”  He continues, “When news of the bloodshed reaches the headquarters, Yigal Allon askes Ben Gurion what to do with the Arabs.  Ben Gurion waves his hand” Deport them… By noon, a mass evacution is under way.  By evening, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column, disappearing into the East.  Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda.”

Shavit goes on to reflect, “Lydda is our black box.  In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.  The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda.  If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.  If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.”

“Do I wash my hands of Zionism?”, Shavit writes,  “Do I turn my back on the Jewish national movement that carried out the deed of Lydda?  Like the brigade commander, I am faced with something too immense to deal with.  I see a reality I cannot contain. Lydda is an integral and essential part of our story.  And when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

He concludes by saying, “If it wasn’t for them, the Israeli soldiers in Lydda, the State of Israel would not have been born.  If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born.  They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”

Reading Shavit’s book is intense, it’s real, a deep rabbit-hole from which there is really no returning.  One cannot read my Promised Land and return to the Israel of hummus and camels, of those dreams and hopes of the early pioneers despite all the odds- for us as American Jews we can no longer view Israel with the proverbial rose-colored glasses, we now know too much.

Even if you have not read Shavit’s book, certainly not one of us could escape the war that took place this summer between Israel and Hamas – rockets fired daily from Gaza as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the network of tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel, clearly to carry out acts of violence and terror towards Israelis.

Israel responded with Operation Protective Edge – carrying out air strikes and a ground operation to eliminate Hamas operatives, the tunnels, rocket launchers, and ammunition posts throughout Gaza.

For the first time in my life, Israel seemed truly vulnerable, to an enemy that clearly is growing strong, more sophisticated, and knows how to pull at the heartstrings of the rest of the world.  So much of the world came out against Israel’s actions even I, and you now know my story, had to ask myself – “is there something I’m not seeing?”  “Is this just anti-Semitism or has Israel somehow lost its way?”  It too seemed that many American Jews made the choice to disengage this summer. Yes, the Reform Movement and NFTY proudly continued on with their Israel trips despite the rocket attacks, but overall tourism numbers were way down.  And Israeli friend I spoke with said that many Israelis feel completely alone right now.

Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, recently spoke to this point on his blog, reflecting on his most recent trip to Israel, writing, “I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have.  I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, each of us inherently obligated to one another despite our difference.  I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel… and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other expression of the very spirit that create this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation.”

The events of this summer have created a new paradigm for American Jews vis a vis Israel.  With Shavit’s book and the war this summer, how can we return to the idealized Israel narrative?

Just a few weeks ago Israel tried to return us to the idealized narrative, and the attempt seemed to fall flat on its face.  You may have seen the rather humorous Israeli ad campaign encouraging young American Suburbanites to move to Israel.

The essential message was that life in the American suburbs is boring, (I take offense to that)but life in Israel is super exciting – as writer Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in an article in Haaretz about the video, “Israel is presented as a chaotic and colorful, Birthright-evocative exaggerated scenario on the beach.  The young hero’s chest is suddenly covered with a carpet of dark hair; he is presented with a slew ofexciting activities – success in hi-tech, stuffing his face with falafel, yelling at strangers in a movie theater.”  She continues to write, “It’s a humorous campaign that might have been just a tiny bit more effective a few months ago, before Israeli beachgoers were splashed all over the international news, running through the sand to escape Hamas rockets.”

I watched the video and thought, it’s just not going to work to go back to that Israel narrative.  We need to create a new paradigm, a new way of both presenting Israel to our kids and connecting with Israel as adults.  One that somehow blends the idealized Israel, which brought many of us to love Israel in the first place, with the real Israel that is now in our faces more than ever.  One that presents the Israel narrative as complex, beautiful and real.  One that will help American Jews reconnect, once again feel passionate towards Israel, from a place of love for who she truly is, not who she perhaps once was or who we want her to be.

Such is Ari Shavit’s ultimate message at the end of his book – for all its challenges, and difficult history, it’s the only Israel he knows, and he deeply loves his country.  This too is one of the key themes of the High Holy Days – love with all of the imperfections – this applies to ourselves, our family, friends, and as Jews, we add Israel to that list as well.

Over the past few months, Jewish singer and songwriter Michelle Citrin, who you will recall joined us last year for our BIFTY Shabbat,has been posting pictures of Israel on Facebook under the heading “The Israel I know” She posts pictures from her travels throughout Israel, of people, park benches, landscapes, animals, food, marketplaces and even graffiti – it’s the Israel she loves, the Israel that is so real to her, the Israel that she deeply connects with. It’s pictures like Michelle’s, books like Ari Shavits, that prompt us to each ask, “What is the Israel I know?  For me, it’s a blend of the idealized and the real, from the cemetery in the Kinneret to the Israelis I met in Peru, it’s the Israel I know, the one I feel so connected to,the place I love, with all its imperfections, beauty, dreams, and challenges.

May this new year be a time for us to each write a new Israel narrative, one that speaks to the new realities of the world, blends the idealized and the real into “The Israel I know” – may we continue to be engaged, to visit, read books, watch Israeli films, listen to Israeli music,meet the Israeli emissaries, attend public talks, and continue to connect and discover, for each of us to say, “This is the Israel I know” – may our connection to the people and the land remain strong and resolute, and may we too always pray for her and her neighbors to find peace.

Shanah Tovah.