Of all the places in the world to experience a Zionist rite of passage, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland would appear to be the most unlikely of locations.
Walking the halls adorned by memorabilia such as Elvis Presley’s golden jacket, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust suit and John Cougar Mellencamp’s motorcycle, it is remarkably easy to get pulled into a vortex of American nostalgia inspired by some of the most dazzling musical hits of the past half-century.
As someone whose pop music tastes are largely confined to that greatest of decades, the 1980s, I suddenly found myself drifting, wistfully carried back in time by familiar melodies to a world that once was.
But as Albert Einstein pointed out, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” and before I could bask too much in lustrous reminiscences, the familiar sound that accompanies the arrival of a text message roused me from my stupor.
It was my son’s phone that had intoned, signifying that the message he had anxiously been awaiting had at last arrived.
With military precision, at exactly 11:00 Eastern Standard Time, the IDF had informed him, much to his relief, that he was being drafted into the combat unit that he had dreamed of joining.
The smile on his face was matched only by the sense of pride that surged within me as he read me the text in flawless Hebrew.
The message was written in typical, stilted bureaucratic style, but even the dryness of the words could not cloak the momentousness of the milestone that it portended.
Like his older brothers before him, my son would soon enter the ranks of the Jewish army, spending nearly three years of his life in defense of the Land and people of Israel.
After wishing him a hearty “Mazel Tov,” we embraced, while a number of aging rock ‘n’ roll fans observed the scene with unconcealed curiosity, undoubtedly wondering why two Jews at a tourist site in Cleveland were celebrating the contents of an iPhone message which to them must have sounded like it had been written in Greek or even Klingon.
As I soaked in the moment, it occurred to me just how different my children’s path is from my own.
Born and raised in the United States, I too waited impatiently as a teen for news to arrive, but it was news of a very different sort. Each day, I would call my mother on a pay phone (remember those?), asking her to check the mailbox for a reply from Princeton to see if the university to which I had applied had been sensible enough to accept me.
The choices I faced, such as which college to attend or what subject to study, seemed at the time to be so fateful and full of consequence, which surely they were.
But how could they possibly compare to the weight of the options that my Israeli-born child had to choose from? After all, deciding between studying 18th-century political theory or international affairs can hardly equal the gravity of whether to opt for a combat unit or a job behind a desk.
Reading Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau, and debating the finer points of natural law and human liberty helped to mold my thinking and worldview, contributing to my own moral and intellectual development.
But imbibing knowledge, however profound it might be, seems like a luxury when compared with rolling through the mud and learning how to handle a weapon in order to defend the right to imbibe that very same knowledge.
And this, perhaps, is one of the greatest dividing lines between American and Israeli Jews, one that neither side can possibly comprehend.
After high school, young American Jews make a choice that will decide their own future. Their Israeli counterparts must do the same, but their individual determination will help to decide our collective future as well.
I say this not to denigrate our brethren across the ocean, God forbid, but rather to highlight the inherent meaning and sense of duty that young Israelis must embrace at such a young and vulnerable age.
It is tempting to view this through a bittersweet lens, to wonder whether our children might be better off being sheltered for a few years among the ivy-clad walls of academia rather than thrust into the realities of the world in which we live at the age of 18.
But serving the nation and a higher purpose is one of the greatest of all Jewish values, and for values to have meaning, mustn’t we actually try to live by them? So as much as I enjoyed listening to Phil Collins or Bruce Springsteen while attending college in America, I’m glad that my sons, and the generations that come after them, will spend their formative years in a far more consequential pursuit.
They too will one day look back and recall the music of their youth. But it will be accompanied by a melody of service to our people that will resonate until the end of time.