Israeli flag waving at a Tel Aviv beach..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was many years ago. My grandfather was walking with me along the banks of the grim and mighty River Neva. I was five years old. The former imperial capital glittered with gold, silver and granite all around us. Saint Petersburg, then Leningrad, is beautiful even in its never-ending senility. Everything and almost everyone around us were Russian: the fairy-tale palaces, the vast gardens, the air of the Russian northwest. Yet the shadows we cast on those magnificent buildings and formidable monuments were Jewish.
My grandfather was born Ber ben Leib Dyatkin in Vitebsk, now part of Belarus. However, though that was the name on his passport his entire life, nobody called him that. His friends and co-workers knew him as Boris Lvovich, a version of his name easier on the Russian ear. In many ways that is the story of his generation.
Crushed by the Soviet and Nazi terror, their Jewishness was something very private. Like a precious stone on a pirate ship, it was not to be shown to others or it would be taken away (at times together with one’s life). At home my grandparents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand. There were no Jewish holidays, no mezuza on our door, not a single Hebrew letter on numerous bookshelves. There was really nothing Jewish in our house. Or so it seemed.
The outer facade of my grandparents’ Jewishness was utterly crushed, the inside burned and pillaged. Yet a far, dark corner contained a flickering spark of Yiddishkeit. A few Jewish writers “blessed” by the Soviet propaganda machine adorned our bookshelves: carefully selected works by the “proletariat friendly” Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim. But they described a world long gone and hardly relevant or even understood.
The real spark was the radio set that late at night would catch the short waves and let us hear, despite persistent jamming, the fighting voice of the living and breathing Jewish people: the transmissions by “The Voice of Israel.” Those were not the voices of survivors, but of fighters. Suddenly, being Jewish had meaning besides the sad shadows on the streets of Leningrad. Now to be Jewish acquired meaning beyond the past, becoming one with the present and future of the people of Israel.
For us those voices over the radio had a very personal touch. Some of my family moved to Israel prior to my birth. They were from Riga, Latvia, with strong and proud Jewish identity; latecomers to the budding Soviet family of nations. My grandfather called them “the real Jews.” And thus my connection to the land of Israel has always had this personal touch, the feeling of nationhood, the tribal feeling so derided and frowned upon in our days by the media and “internationalist” elites.
There is nothing backward or religious in this sentiment. The feeling is purely of a kinship nature. It is a feeling of shared history. It is a conviction of common past, present, future and fate. It is an appreciation of having a large extended family, a raucous bunch of very different individuals, but a family nevertheless.
To be Jewish is to be part of that collective of the people of Israel.
Judaism is a cultural glue to make this Jewish sojourn a better, more human community and maybe, just maybe, make the rest of the world a more hospitable place. To separate oneself from this commune is to cease being Jewish. But every nation, as every family, needs a place to call its home: to leave in the morning and come back to at night.
Israel must exist to sustain the nation. Not only is it the shield and the sword, but also, and not less importantly, the cultural and spiritual well of the people of Israel. In the chaotic and global world of ours, having a center, a safe place, is a prerogative, a necessary insurance policy for the nation’s survival. In that we can only rely on ourselves.
The State of Israel is truly a wonder of our days. It is the Third Temple, the Third Commonwealth, though not in the form or the shape our sages promised many centuries ago. But it is true to their aspiration in the body and spirit. Seventy is toddler age for a country. I wish my country, the State of Israel, eternal youth in, spirit, ideas and energy.
As for myself, I never stop admiring the immense achievements of Israel and its people. Thinking about them, really thinking about us, I feel like that boy from Leningrad of yesteryear threading the pavement of life and holding hands with his grandfather – but no longer afraid to cast our Jewish shadows.The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.