“The purpose of the Jewish state is to transform Jews”
Daniel Gordis, “Saving Israel”
If during the Nine Days we are instructed to deny ourselves pleasure in anticipation of Tisha B’Av, then spending this time on the island of Kaui probably isn’t strictly kosher. I sit blogging from my lanai enjoying the sound of waves splashing against the shore just a few feet ahead of me. My travels this month brought me to the far extremes of our beautiful earth; from the lowest place to the wettest, from the most politically complex and volatile, to paradise.
When I left Israel a couple weeks ago there was one major difference from all my previous departures; I didn’t cry this time. I was leaving a part of me behind and it felt good. I spent a week and half in Israel staffing a JFNA National Young Leadership trip to Israel with 160 participants. But it was my 15 year old daughter I was leaving behind. Shira is spending 5 weeks experiencing Israel with her kvutza from Camp Gilboa of HaBonim Dror - a throwback Zionist youth movement. I could not have been happier to leave Shira, who is having the time of her life.
Shira noticed during our 2008 family trip to Israel, how Israelis have a candor; a straightforwardness, that we both enjoy and appreciate. This quality can be both a blessing and a curse. If you like getting straight to the point it’s great. If you don’t have a tough exterior it can be a challenge. Strong attitudes are the norm.
At Cafe Greg in Eilat this month I needed to speak with the manager. “There’s a problem?” His tone more an accusation than a question. My problem was now his problem. ME: “Yes”, I explained, “I ordered the Dim Sum which I thought was vegetarian but it’s full of chicken. MANAGER “Well it is written clearly on the menu that it is chicken!” ME: “Well, in your Jerusalem cafe the Dim Sum is vegetarian!” MANAGER: “The Jerusalem cafe is kosher, we are not!” ME: “Well I am not eating this!” A typical Israeli-style confrontational conversation. Issue resolved with neither of us admitting fault. Not exactly friendly but there were no hard feelings. (I had the gnocchi and it was delicious).
During the JFNA trip, Yad Vashem Holocaust educator Dr. Rachel Corazim, spoke to us about the museum’s recent major renovation of its exhibits to reflect new findings and attitudes about the Holocaust. Corzaim shared her mother’s story upon arriving in Israel as a 22 year-old pregnant Hungarian refugee who managed to escape a Nazi camp. A survivor on a kibbutz in the British Mandate, the kibbutznikim who arrive before WWII asked Corazim’s mother, “How could you just let yourselves be rounded up?” This was the mindset of Jews who left Europe before the rise of the Nazis. Independent, living in a tough neighborhood with Arabs, the Jews asked “why would you let yourself be taken voluntarily?” It was incomprehensible to the Jews already living in British Mandated Palestine that Jews in Europe would allow themselves to be captured without a fight. Corazim’s mother, a shy 22 year-old who didn’t speak Hebrew, remained silent. These Jews would not understand. A culture of silence among survivors began. They could only speak amongst themselves about their shared travails. Israel, as a maturing country, can only now acknowledge its previously unacceptable attitudes toward survivors. Yad Vashem’s Corazim emphasized “The Israeli narrative of the Holocaust is evolving.”
Israel is a mixed tapestry of survivors and refugees from around the world: Holocaust survivors (198,000 still alive in Israel today), FSU Jews (1,000,000+), Ehtiopian refugees (120,000), Jewish refugees from Arab countries (800,000). There is profound beauty and depth in a country that has held true to its core value to serve as a refuge to any Jew. Israel, their native land – maybe going back a few generations – but still the homeland of all Jews, has always been a haven for Jews fleeing for their lives. This rich, disorganized tapestry creates a culture of aggressiveness unlike most places in the world. Imagine a place with Jews who survived the Soviet Russian regime, Holocaust survivors, Jews forced to flee their homes of centuries in Arab countries, Jews fleeing persecution in Africa who had no previous exposure to modern technologies: it is a social worker’s haven. A melting pot of scarred people all with some sort of tragedy in common. Tension and arguments are bound to ensue.
Jews argue with each other. We disagree vehemently both in Israel and in the U.S. We struggle with the meaning of the State of Israel, what responsibilities should be incumbent upon all Israelis, what values must Israel uphold? Should 54,000 Haredim be required to serve in the IDF? The Tal Law (expiring today) aims to deal with Ben-Gurion’s miscalculation in giving 400 Jews an army exemption at the States inception. The Israeli Social Justice movement keeps issues like how Israel should deal with (non-Jewish) Sudanese refugees, at the forefront of political discussions. We disagree on which American is the best person to lead our country as president, in the context of who will be a stronger ally to Israel. We argue on how best to be a Zionist when we don’t always agree with the positions of the Israeli government.
Israel is a young, modern country. It continues to evolve and become a better place because we struggle together as the nation of Israel with these issues. Start-Up Nation even attributes Israeli success in Hi-Tech and its entrepreneurial nature in part due to its inherent nature to argue with authority. The name ‘Israel’ comes from Jacob wrestling with the angel of G-d. Doesn’t get more Chutzpadik that that! So arguing with each other seems just a natural byproduct.
Shira is learning the history of the Zionist movement by seeing Israel, staying on kibbutzim and traveling with HaBonim’s Israeli counterpart HaNoar HaOved. Experiencing mainly a secular perspective of Israel, she likely does not yet even realize its diversity or how life there can be difficult and complicated, but meaningful. She says she wants to make Aliyah. As Zionist parents of a young Jew, nothing would make us happier.
Reflecting from paradise over Tisha B’Av in Kauai, enjoying the sun, the ocean, the cool breezes, the peacefulness of the giant sea turtles floating by outside our lanai, my thoughts remain with Israel. Paradise is pretty much everything you’d expect (although apparently they mow the grass every other day early in the morning, which really needs to stop!). Even the language here is soft; mostly vowels and a few soft consonants thrown in. Compare the Hawaiian language to Hebrew – a language with NO vowels and mostly harsh sounding consonants. Chet, Tzadik, Chaf – even the alphabet is aggressive. But to this Jew this paradise is devoid of personal connection. Paradise is a great escape for a few days or even weeks. But I yearn for the Jewish tumult, the disagreements, the collective history and values we share.