By STEVEN MOSKOWITZ
Last summer I had the privilege of traveling to Israel and learning in Jerusalem. (I was there studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am blessed to be part of its Rabbinic Leadership Initiative
.) It never gets old for me to return to the place our ancestors first settled and my grandparents only dreamed of visiting. The State of Israel recently celebrated its 60th birthday. On May 14, 1948, David ben Gurion read aloud the Declaration of Independence and said, “Our call goes out to the Jewish people all over the world to rally to our side in the task of immigration and development and to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations—the redemption of Israel.” The people then sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem which concludes with these words: “To be a free people in our land/ the land of Zion and Jerusalem—l’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu.”
Now 60 years later we have grown accustomed to Israel. In 60 years we have grown at ease with a Jewish State. In fact last year I was teaching our Kindergartners about Israel on the occasion of Yom Haatzmaut and I asked them, “How old do you think Israel is?” “A thousand years.” “Oh no,” I said. “Ok five thousand years?” They kept shouting out numbers until I finally stopped them and told them the correct answer. It was interesting that not one of our Kindergartners moved down from one thousand, only up. They could not imagine that Israel was younger, only older. I told them how the dream of Israel is very old, but the state is very young. I told them that some of their great grandparents fought to make Israel an independent nation. They stared at me in disbelief. This Jewish year represents a mere 60 years since the creation of Israel. How will we celebrate this occasion? Will we to take Israel for granted? I hope and pray we will not. Only in Israel can we live as a free people in our land. We can live free here in the United States. But only in Israel can our freedom be wed with our ancient land, only in Israel do Jewish rights and Jewish history come first and foremost.
A story from decades ago. It was the year 1976, a historic year when New Yorkers celebrated the 200th birthday of the United States. It was also of course the year of my bar mitzvah—and although an historic occasion in the life of my family—not a historic occasion recorded anywhere else except in a small photo album. For the July 4 festivities New York planned Operation Sail, a gathering of tall sailing ships and warships from throughout the world to celebrate the 200th. The day before the Tall Ships entered the harbor navy vessels steamed up the Hudson. My family sat in our 22-foot Glastron on both days waiting for the warships and Tall Ships to pass by. I remember many things from those days. I remember the majesty of 200-foot sailboats. I remember the Russian naval vessel purposely sailing past its designated anchorage. Most of all I remember the moment when Israel’s naval vessel, the Galaxy, entered the harbor. Every horn on every boat sounded. Every person standing on land broke out in cheers, whistles and thunderous applause. The Israeli sailors stood at attention in their dress whites. The noise and commotion continued for several minutes. Why all the enthusiasm for Israel’s small navy? It was because only hours before Israeli commandos had rescued 100 hostages from the hands of terrorists at Entebbe Airport. It was an extraordinary military operation. For this young thirteen year old it was also an extraordinary moment of pride and Jewish awakening. Israel had asked no one’s permission. Israel had run to the rescue of Jews in danger. This time when people were separated by religion and nationality and when Jewish passengers were herded together, a small, young Jewish country rose to their defense. For millennia there was no such country to defend Jewish rights. On July 4, 1976, history changed course. History changed course in the direction of Jewish chutzpah rather than Jewish victimization.
Over 30 years later a similar story is being told. Only months ago in another secret raid Israeli air force jets bombed Syria’s nascent nuclear facility. While the details of this raid remain shrouded in secrecy and there is still more conjecture than substantiated fact, this note bears repeating. Israel again took matters into its own hands. Jewish lives were threatened and Israel ran to the rescue. I could offer more evidence of this point. I could tell stories of 1967, 1973 and 1981. But these stories are well known. They represent the turn from victimization to power. They represent the turn from allowing history to be written about us—and on us—to writing history ourselves. All these dates support the Zionist claim: the Jews have returned to history. We are now writing our own story. Whether we succeed, whether we survive is dependent not on the whim of rulers or the tyranny of kings, but on our hands. Our survival rests on our decisions. This is what having a Jewish country means. This is what the State of Israel represents. Yes there are most certainly dangers in Israel. There are of course a great many people who wish for Israel’s destruction—in fact this past fall, Iran’s president visited the United Nations and spoke at Columbia University. Thankfully, the New York City Police Department denied his request to visit Ground Zero. I have every confidence that Israel will soon confront our modern day Haman. In Israel, Jewish history is written each and every day. In Israel Jewish history is written by the works of our hands. Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes: “Yes, it may be, in some ways, more dangerous to be a Jew here [in Israel] than anywhere else in the world, but there’s also nowhere else where Jews get to chart the course of their own destiny. There’s nowhere else, in short, where the Jews can have what every other ‘normal’ nation has at least somewhere. How can a people that wants to survive in a meaningful way give up on that? It can’t.” This is exactly what my great grandparents only dreamed of and my kindergartners take for granted.
Soon after arriving on June 30 my friends and I ventured to the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival. We sat in Jerusalem’s outdoor amphitheatre, Sultan’s Pool. Now Sultan’s Pool is no ordinary theatre. It was constructed nearly 500 years ago by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman who also rebuilt the Old City’s walls. It is a magnificent amphitheatre that sits outside the Old City and in the valley of Hinnom, a valley referred to by the prophets of old, a valley whose ancient practice of child sacrifice gave rise to the Jewish image of hell, Gei-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom. Jeremiah’s harsh words and Amichai’s lyrical poems swam through my heart: Yehuda Amichai writes: “An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion/and on the opposite mountain I am searching/for my little boy… Our voices meet/above the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us…. Searching for a goat or a son/has always been the beginning/of a new religion in these mountains.” (Poems of Jerusalem, 1987) It was a cool evening and blankets were given away to help keep out the chill of Jerusalem’s desert evening. The Old City’s walls were awash with lights. I remembered sitting in this very spot some twenty years ago with my then girlfriend Susie and watching Santana perform. There were no seats then, only the ancient stones of the pool—and Santana jamming and talking about peace. “I say to these walls, man, let there be peace.”
The film festival began with a few speeches. First a petite 90-year-old woman, Lia Van Leer, chair of the festival spoke about her passion for Jerusalem and film and how especially proud she was that next year the festival will mark its 25th anniversary. An achievement award was presented to Avi Lerner and Danny Dimborf, Israeli born producers who have made it big in Hollywood. Their company has produced such classics as “Delta Force—1, 2, 3 and 4.” The final speech was delivered in broken English by the chair of the Berlin Film Festival, Dieter Kosslick. He spoke about his long time friendship with Mrs. Van Leer, making some embarrassing slips because of his command of English, telling the crowd of nearly 10,000 how he looks forward to sleeping with Lia in the same hotel when they both attend Cannes. (I presume the word order is different in German.) He laughed when he realized his gaffe and then told this story. When he was a young boy he witnessed the rise of Nazism and the devastation this ideology brought to the world and his country. He spoke about how the Nazis once burned Jewish books in his native Berlin. Because his birthplace saw the destruction of Jewish books he vowed to rectify this wrong. Every year Mrs. Van Leer brings him a gift. It is a book written before 1933 and written by a German Jewish author, a book that is tattered and worn, a book that seems beyond repair and that can no longer be read. Every year he lovingly takes this book and has it restored by a book binder in his native home. Every year books that would have been burned by the Nazis return to their native home and are there restored and I imagine thereby restore a piece of this man’s tattered soul. There was silence and then a standing ovation. He declared the festival open and we watched the opening film, “Ratatouille.” Yes that’s right. Only in Israel would the Jerusalem Film Festival open in an ancient Turkish pool with speeches by an elderly Jewish woman and a repentant German and culminate with a Disney movie. In Israel one of the greatest compliments you can offer is: “This is American.” Israelis’ love of everything American is proof that an important part of Zionism is: “Let’s just fit in.” On the other hand, unlike any other nation, Israelis feel that their everyday actions redeem the atrocities of a former century. On that cool desert evening I participated in redemption. I witnessed a German man publicly offer atonement. I watched a Disney film in an ancient pool and declared, along with 10,000 other Jews: “We can laugh and play just like you.”
A few weeks later our group of rabbis traveled to Israel’s North to see firsthand the devastation of the Second Lebanon War. We saw scared forests and stood within feet of the Lebanese border and looked off in the distance to see the yellow flags of Hezbollah flying on rooftops. We visited Kibbutz Manara and there met with kibbutz leaders. When we arrived after our long journey the kibbutzniks served us cakes, fresh fruit and tea. When I entered the room an elderly woman came up to me and asked if I would like some tea. “Of course,” I said. Only later did I learn that this woman was Rachel Rabin, the sister of the late Yitzkhak Rabin and one of the founders of the sixty year old kibbutz. Kibbutz Manara is built on a windswept mountain top on a finger in the Galil region. It is a most unlikely place for building a home. The wind made us feel cold on that July morning so I could only imagine what it was like in the Winter months. Rachel plied us with stories of her youth. She showed us old movies, recently uncovered from the Simon Wiesenthal archives, and would declare with glee, “There’s my husband.” We asked her many questions. “How did you survive last summer’s war? Are you worried about the future?” To this last question she responded with what I now call the Annie Bleiberg finger point. Annie Bleiberg is an esteemed member of my congregation and a survivor of the Holocaust. It is this sort of finger pointing that only someone who has survived extraordinary things can offer. Our Annie survived the Shoah. Our Annie lived through Auschwitz and every year tells her story to our sixth graders. In that story telling she usually waves her finger in defiance and exclaims, “I will tell you what fighting back is. I jumped off a moving train when we found out it was going to the Belzec death camp. That is fighting back!”
I saw this same finger waving oceans away. Rachel Rabin did the same thing when she responded to our question, “Look. We built this kibbutz over 60 years ago in a place where no one thought people should live. We moved boulders with our own hands. We planted orchards in inhospitable soil. We carried our children on our backs down the mountain when the Arabs attacked.” And then she holds her finger in the air and darts it at us and exclaims, “So you want to know what will be. We have had great leaders. We have had bad leaders. There will be hard times. There will be easy times. We will survive. What we overcame 60 years ago far exceeds any challenges we face now or will face in the future.” Perhaps this country was built not by soldiers, politicians and pioneers but by women like Rachel Rabin and Lia Van Leer. Sometimes I think the survival of the Jewish people rests not on the shoulders of prime ministers and rabbis, but on the shoulders of ladies who wave their fingers at fate.
Unlike today’s leaders the prior generation of Israel’s leaders did not pine after fame and accolades. They devoted themselves to the task of building a Jewish nation and rebuilding the Jewish spirit. Some years ago I visited Ben Gurion’s grave at Kibbutz Sde Boker. Sde Boker is located near Beer Sheva, in the middle of the Negev desert. Ben Gurion is one of only two prime ministers not buried in Har Herzl in the line of prime minister’s graves. Ben Gurion’s grave sits alongside that of his wife. They sit by themselves on a hill overlooking the desert. One would not be surprised if his grave said: “First Prime Minister of the State of Israel. First Defense Minister of the State of Israel. Founder of the Histadrut labor union. Author of the Declaration of Independence.” It says nothing of the sort. It reads in Hebrew alone and states: “David ben Gurion; 1886-1973; aliya to the land 1906.” That’s it. The year he was born. The year he died. The year he immigrated to the land of Israel. Now you could say when you’re really famous and really important you don’t need to say anything else. But if you said that you would be missing the import of Ben Gurion’s life and the significance of all the everyday people who fought for the State of Israel and built up the Jewish nation. If you said that you would be missing the importance of your contribution to the building of the state. Israel was not built by prime ministers but by ordinary people.
There is a story that when Ben Gurion was still prime minister he was driving in his motorcade through the desert and his eyes caught sight of Sde Boker. He said to himself that this is where he would like to retire. When he was finished with the affairs of government he would like to return to the kibbutz life of Sde Boker. So he stopped his motorcade and asked the gathered kibbutzniks if he could become a member. The kibbutzniks responded, “Well Mr. Prime Minister we will have to vote on it.” Only in Israel would a bunch of Jewish farmers say to the prime minister, “We have to vote on it.” They eventually voted on the question and admitted him to the kibbutz but not without controversy. Apparently some said, “He is not going to pull his weight. Presidents and foreign dignitaries are going to want to visit the kibbutz. He is going to ruin our nice quiet life.” Can you imagine the chutzpah. I am sure there was someone at that meeting waving their finger in the air and screaming that kibbutz life is no place for retired prime ministers. I am sure there was someone who said, “The guy just went to meetings. We moved boulders with our own hands. We carried children down the mountain.” At Ben Gurion’s grave there are only a few stones and the occasional mountain goat and this brief epitaph. There are no lengthy prayers, no masses of men in heavy black coats. At Ben Gurion’s grave the few stones say only, “We built this with our own hands. We are here to stay.”
Toward the end of my summer visit, the fast day of Tisha B’Av occurred. This is the day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE. It is a day of mourning and fasting and a day in particular when Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations is chanted. In the past I had gone to the Wall, the closest place to the ancient Temple’s site. This year my friends convinced me to go to the Tayelet for the evening prayers instead. The Tayelet is a promenade that overlooks the village of Abu Tur and in the distance the southern side of the Old City. We gathered there with members of a local Conservative synagogue. It was overwhelming. Unlike the scene at the Wall, with ultra Orthodox Jews pining after the lost Temple, this crowd of 400 sang modern songs and recited ancient prayers. We sang Hannah Senesh’s “Eli, Eli—My God, My God; I pray that these things never end. The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of man.” We turned to our prayers. The words of Retzei jumped off my siddur: “Baruch Ata Adonai, ha-ma-cha-zir sh’chinato l’tzion—Find favor, Adonai our God, in Your people Israel and in their prayer. And return the sacrifice to the Holy of Holies…. May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You, Adonai, who restores the Shechinah to Zion.” I marveled at the walls of the Old City aglow despite the falling of evening. We have indeed returned. I stood there singing with hundreds of other Jews. The Shechinah has indeed been restored. We sang: “Yehudah l’olam teshev b’yerushalayim—the Jewish people will dwell in Jerusalem forever.” I waved a finger at history. I waved a finger at God. (I surreptitiously waved a finger to the East.) No more mourning. No more fasting. There I stood where tradition says Abraham first glimpsed Mount Moriah when he ventured to do God’s bidding and to bind his only son. And there I sang. We have indeed returned. I will sing. I will shout for joy.
Too often our questions and worries drown out our songs. Israel has not resolved all questions. There are many worries about security and the lingering questions about its most recent war. There are questions about the continued threats of Kassams and Katyushas. There is the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. There is the simmering tension between Israel’s Jewish values and its democratic traditions. The questions will continue for another 60 years. It is a Jewish country of course. I can look at these questions and become disheartened and disillusioned. Or I can wave a finger at fate. I can hold on to the stories of only in Israel. And so I conclude with a story from a Shabbat in Jerusalem.
Two hours before the start of Shabbat I strolled down the trendy street of Emek Refaim. Jerusalem was just beginning to wind down for Shabbat. There was barely any traffic on the streets. People were walking the streets with bouquets of flowers for their Shabbat tables and last minute purchases of food and wine. I wandered into Cafe Hillel for an afternoon espresso and sat thinking about the day and the weeks of learning. As I sat in the cafe trying to review my pages and pages of notes all I could think about was the homicide bombing that destroyed this very restaurant (on September 9, 2003). I was now sitting at a rebuilt table and sipping coffee in a repaired cafe. I could not help but think of the lives and families that were shattered. But I looked around and all I saw were smiles. All I could hear were laughs. All I could here were songs. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins. There are few places you can walk there without stumbling upon a memorial to the victims of terror or to a memorial to Israeli soldiers who fell in the many wars that touched this golden city. One would think that this too would color the mood here. But again Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins. My weeks of study were framed by the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, marking the day millennia ago when the Romans besieged this very city and on the other side by the full fast day of the 9th of Av, three weeks later when the Romans destroyed the Temple and the city, murdered the majority of its inhabitants and carted the remaining Jews the first time in millennia the Wall’s plaza was filled with Jews praying. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews were crying for the lost Temple, for the fulfillment of the Retzei’s sacrificial firepans, and for their sense of a loss of a mythic past. I will not cry. I will not mourn. I will revel in the songs of thousands of Jews. I will rejoice that we have returned to this city. I will recall that today, in this unique and blessed age, Jerusalem is no longer in ruins. There may very well be untold ruins below our feet. But there is no ruin in the air. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins. 60 years later Israel waves a finger at fate. Israel writes Jewish history each and every day. L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu. We are indeed a free people in our land.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Hadassah Magazine’s May 2008 issue
Steven Moskowitz is rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Broovkille in Jericho, New York. He is a Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow.