Israel at 64: What I Am Celebrating This Year
Fellows of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute write about what they are celebrating on Yom Ha’atzmaut 5772 (Israeli Independence Day) as Israel turns 64:
DONNIEL HARTMAN: For This I Am Thankful
TAL BECKER: Israel’s People
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: Hebrew Music
STUART SCHOFFMAN: The Successes of Zionism
GIL TROY: The Sounds, Smells, Sights, Tastes and Touch of Israel
When I read Israel’s newspapers I get depressed, when I meet its people I get inspired (well, sometimes).
The Jewish people, persecuted so often in our history, developed a certain ability to defy the system, to work around it, to improvise. Our tradition of Jewish learning, built on questioning and constant argument, produced an almost endless capacity to challenge authority and cast doubt on conventional wisdom. Now we have a country full of people who think the rules, the accepted way of doing things, do not necessarily apply to them. That makes waiting in line here infuriating. It makes a police officer’s stern reprimand an invitation to an argument. It makes many rules and bureaucratic procedures opening positions, regarding which we can always claim we are the exception. It makes for a state that is nearly impossible to run; for a citizenship – to paraphrase Golda Meir’s famous quip – of 7 million prime ministers.
But this very same maddening and constant insurgence against authority makes Israel the land of the possible. It makes the untenable complexity of Israel’s predicament manageable and even invigorating. It is its own check on the arbitrariness of rules, and the capricious exercise of power. It makes every conclusion temporary, every state of affairs subject to review. It makes for a vibrant, passionate, feisty society where my children grow up believing, with a real measure of legitimacy, that they can be agents of change in this world. So, this year, I celebrate my country’s insistence on not accepting that the way things are, are the way things must be. I celebrate our people’s refusal to be docile – a meek and obedient urban class. I pray that our citizens never succumb to apathy, and that our children never have their curiosity extinguished. And I celebrate our audacity… well, when it’s not driving me crazy.
Trying to understand Israel without knowing its music is a bit like the deaf person in the hasidic story who sees people dancing at a wedding and assumes they must be mad. Israel celebrates itself most passionately through song. Along with literature, music may well be the great cultural achievement of the Hebrew renaissance.
Hebrew music often functioned as the carrier of the secular Zionist ethos. Yet in the last decade it has become the opposite: carrier of a growing Israeli turn to Jewish spirituality. The new genre is being created by some of this generation’s leading musicians: Ehud Banai and his cousin Meir Banai, Berry Sakharov, Etti Ankri, Kobi Oz, Micha Shitreet. They and others have helped create a renaissance of piyut – the prayer poetry of Sephardic Jewry. Popular concerts have brought together traditional paytanim – or singers of piyut – with rock musicians, creating a seamless continuity between medieval Diaspora and modern Israel.
One result of the spiritual turn is the growing democratization of Israeli culture. Once controlled by a relentlessly Western-oriented Ashkenazi establishment, the Israeli music industry now reflects the country’s ingathering of cultural traditions.
And so on Independence Day I will be celebrating the vitality and elasticity of Israeli music. I intend to wander around downtown Jerusalem and listen to live music. And then drop into the Tav Hashmini, the Eighth Note, the basement palace of Israeli music on Shammai Street, and treat myself to some CDs. There’s the new album of crooner Yossi Banai, who just before his death last year asked leading rock musicians to each write the music for another of his songs – a loving tribute from this generation of Hebrew singers to a forebear. And another collaborative CD of Israeli musicians who composed music for poems written by fallen soldiers.
Those collective efforts reflect the generosity of spirit, the “Hallel” of thanksgiving, that is the core of Israeli song.
Many Jewish holidays involve celebrating a core, unconstrained experience – even in the face of the knowledge that that experience is limited, or in the face of realities which conflict with the experience. Think of Passover and the celebration of freedom when we know the Israelites are far from their destination, and celebrated by Jews throughout our history when they were anything but free. Or Sukkot, with its celebration of confidence in the face of the elements and the belief that we are covered by the protective divine tent, even when lived out in the chilly winter air of Krakow or Boston.
Holidays are the opportunity to concentrate an ideal in its extreme articulation, the moments when we pause from realities to acknowledge the importance of dreams. Yom Ha’atzmaut must be the same: the moment when – in the face of major challenges to Israel’s reality – we acknowledge the unique and extraordinary ideals that underlie Israel’s founding and its continued thriving.
This year – amidst a sometimes painful, doubtlessly evolving, and increasingly important public Jewish conversation about Israel and its meaning for contemporary Jewry – I am pausing to note just how extraordinary this moment actually is. The Jewish people, thanks to the gift of the State of Israel, are engaged in a conversation truly not possible before 1948: a conversation about what Jewishness should mean inside and outside a sovereign framework, and one that is not just about aspirations and ideals but is tested on a daily basis, a conversation about ideals with implications for realities. This is Jewish history in the making, as it has been for 64 years, and whether or not we feel today that we know all the answers, it is this ideal reality that we should be celebrating today.
What I celebrate on Yom Ha’atzmaut are the successes of Zionism. For Theodore Herzl, a Jewish State meant, not least, a restoration of Jewish pride. For the various beneficiaries of his vision, it has meant a strong, sovereign, democratic nation among the nations, a laboratory of Jewish values, a realization of messianic dreams. These volatile elements, as Israel turns 64, fuel the assumptions and aspirations that govern our daily lives.
I celebrate the remarkable durability of Israel’s imperfect democracy. After the Six Day War and occupation of Palestinian lands, or miraculous reunification of the Land of Israel – or both, the choice is yours – ideological and religious factionalism in Israel exploded in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. We have since weathered the divisive disengagement from Gaza, and last summer’s massive, non-partisan demonstrations against social injustice.
Today, a tight focus on Iran and its linkage to the Holocaust shapes a public mood of wariness and suspicion of the outside world, of the Muslims and European Christians who have a long history of hating us. With anti-Semitic enemies like that – a threat far greater than the Palestinians – the present regime will apparently be with us for a while.
I celebrate the extraordinary vitality, creativity, resilience, courage and downright joy that manage to coexist in Israel with a grim political situation (the world’s 14th happiest country, according to a recent Columbia University study). I celebrate, and envy, the optimism of so many Israelis. Israel, like America, is an invented new nation – and a nation of inventors. One of our products is a mechanism of “utilitarian denial” that manages, like $600 headphones, to reduce to a whisper the background noise of a coming train wreck: a one-state solution that will spell the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
I celebrate, above all, the freedom of the Israeli press. Our journalists are free to tell it like it is and how it ought to be. To joke about the sacred, to mask subversions with irony. To take pride that in other countries in the region they would be thrown in jail. I look forward cautiously to celebrating this same precious freedom when Israel turns 65.
This past summer, I stood, along with 300 guests, at a joyous outdoor wedding in the Judean Hills. Immediately before the recitation of the blessings under the canopy, baskets carrying rosemary and lavender, which were growing on the hills in abundance, were passed through the assembled crowd. I watched, mystified, as each guest took a branch of herbs, inhaled deeply, and then sang out in unison the traditional blessing upon smelling fragrant spices.
Until that moment, I had associated this blessing only with the smell of stale cloves from the supermarket stuffed into a tiny spice box brought out on Saturday nights as part of the havdalah ritual marking the end of the Sabbath. Fast forward to this past January, when I was again in Jerusalem, walking with a colleague toward a parking lot on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. He paused, bent down over the sage bushes growing all around, inhaled deeply, and recited the blessing.
While A.B. Yehoshua’s infamous description of diaspora Jews as a “fancy spice box” that releases its fragrance only once a week may be grossly overblown, he is calling attention to an important feature of Jewish identity in Israel which I celebrate this year: the return of Jews to a concrete connection with a land and physical environment that is sometimes punishing but also has the capacity to nourish the body, the soul, and the mind.
Early Zionists spoke of “Jewish concreteness” as an alternative to Jewish particularity. In the original conception, traditional Jewish religious andethnic identity would be transformed into a national identity consisting of cultural elements that every nation has, such as language, literature, and art. Jewish culture would be specific but in precisely the same way all national cultures are specific; it would no longer bear the burden of particularity and chosenness.
There is another way to understand Jewish concreteness, however. “Concrete and particular” as a complementary pair, is a common way in my line of work to signal that law is in the details, in the singularity and specificity of each case, and each discrete action, which deserves attention.
I am celebrating Israel this year with all five senses.
I rejoice in the sounds of Israel, from the medley of happy, healthy kids shouting as they play in Jerusalem’s playgrounds – which include the Old City’s ancient alleyways – to the awestruck quiet on Yom Kippur, when through custom not compulsion, few Israelis drive.
I delight in the smells of Israel, with the Galilee and Negev in full bloom after a winter of real rain, and that drooping purple plant, the wisteria, entrancing with its sweet fragrance as I wander Jerusalem’s streets.
I celebrate the sights of Israel, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new I witnessed as I ran the Jerusalem half-marathon this year with thousands of others, starting with the symbols of modern Israeli statesmanship – the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry – and then cutting through the Old City on the way up to the new neighborhoods of Arnona – and back!
I appreciate the tastes of Israel, particularly the flavors I can savor just by waltzing down Emek Refaim Street – from Joy’s modern fusion to Caffit’s creative choices to Marvad Haksamim’s Sephardic delicacies to Buffalo Steak House’s entrecote to Sushi Rehavia’s Sushi, and to my new discovery, thanks to my daughter, the eclectic 54HaMoshava – and all are kosher.
And I toast the soft touch of Israel – it feels right to be a part of the Hebrew Revolution, where pigs-in-blankets (mini hotdogs in buns) become Moshe be-teva, Moses in a basket. It feels good to be in a place committed to building an idealistic Zionist “us” not just indulging the never-satisfied “me.” It feels grand to contribute to an experiment in nurturing a liberal democracy with a Jewish sensibility, a modern country proud of its ancient past, a Start-up Nation which is also a Values Nation. Chag Sameach.