I never thought that I would cry over trees. But I did.
For much of my life there’s been one thing that I have hardly ever done. I would not cry. I suppose psychologists or psychiatrists could probably discern some deep underlying reasons for this strange behavior but, for me, it was very simple. Crying could be considered a sign of weakness – something I was inclined to avoid.
I do vividly recall the group of boys who chased me through the fields behind our house in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the mid-1930s when I was about seven years old. They were yelling: ”Let’s get the fat little Jew!” and other similar endearing expressions of their desires. Well, they were right. I was somewhat overweight and I was a Jew, but that did not give them the right to chase me.
They finally caught up with me and the bigger one put my head into his forearm and squeezed and twisted. He promised to release me if I cried. Under the circumstances it did not take much more inducement. Somewhere around this time I must have decided that, in the future, I would learn to control my impulse to cry.
In recent years, I’ve become more prone to allow myself the luxury of responding to some situations with tears. In 1978, when a robber’s bullet brutally tore my little brother Steven away from us, I was completely distraught but dry-eyed. But, when his oldest grandchild celebrated her bat mitzva, that earlier loss overtook my emotions. These days on Yom Kippur I will arrive early so that I can spend a few quiet moments before the memorial plaque. All the memorial lights are burning including the three marking the names of my parents and Steven. Then, when the services reach Yizkor and my thoughts return to Steven, my parents, and the many family members, innocent victims of the Holocaust, I find relief in the tears that mix with my prayers.
In private moments I will now indulge myself with a tear or two as I contemplate the choices my children have made or the challenges that they will yet have to meet, or as I am overcome by the joy of watching our grandchildren, or as I wonder over the miracle of my wife’s love and the more than 55 years that she has so loyally devoted to me.
BUT, CRY over trees? These days, as the Israelis and the Arabs are trying to find a way to live in some form of harmony, there are many elements that distinguish the two parties. None is more obvious than the relationship of each to the land. In the more than 130 years since the founding of modern Zionism and the over 60 years since the founding of the Jewish state, Jews have tended the land with love and care, firm in the knowledge that this little country is all that will ever be ours. Pioneers, such as my Uncle Alfred, would struggle with the land to determine which crop might survive and thrive in this harsh climate. Many attempts failed, but Alfred and his fellow pioneers persisted and slowly the land began to bloom.
One of the major efforts in this endeavor was the planting of trees. Each year on Tu Bishvat schoolrooms empty out as Jewish children, clutching seedlings in their little hands, march out to the countryside, plant trees and spend the day singing, dancing, and celebrating the joys of spring. These efforts, combined with the formal reforestation program of the Jewish National Fund, started ever so slowly to turn vast areas of rocky hills into patches of green. The little seedlings grew and, as years turned into decades, the patches of green met each other and formed a carpet of trees covering the bare rocks. Before the 1967 war, when Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip, the border between them and Israel was clearly visible simply by where the trees stopped and the barren hillsides took over.
The forests are a great source of pride and joy to Israelis. On each holiday and on most weekends, vast numbers load up their cars and troop to the country to enjoy their forests and the chance to relax in the company of friends and family. The forests have become a symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish people and of the Jewish state.
WHEN I am visiting Israel (which I do twice a year) I get most of my news from reading The Jerusalem Post. Nevertheless, on some occasion, when major news stories break, I’ll turn on the radio and listen to the hourly newscast in Hebrew to get the gist of what is going on. It was in this fashion that, during a visit in 2001, I first got an inkling that something terrible was happening on the road to Jerusalem. The reports were incomplete, but one thing was certain: The road to Jerusalem was closed to all traffic in both directions. In a country that, unfortunately, is used to bad news, this nevertheless sounded very ominous. It wasn’t till the following day that the road was reopened and it was two more days before I was on that road on my way to Jerusalem.
I was completely unprepared for what greeted me when I reached Sha’ar Hagai. What had been the beautiful green forest was now a sea of gray and black. As far as I could see the trees, those magnificent symbols of Jewish rebirth, had been turned into ashen monuments. I was stunned. I stepped on the gas and pushed the car up the hill hoping to reach the end of the devastation. But kilometers passed by and still there was nothing but ruination on both sides of the road. Those proud beautiful and majestic cypress trees were just blackened stalks standing forlornly on the mountainside. It wasn’t until I reached Shoresh that the countryside once again turned green. For me, the disaster was monumental.
I pulled off the road and wept.
It wasn’t just the trees – although that was reason enough to cry – it was what they represented.
My thoughts went back decades before we escaped from the Holocaust to the thousands and thousands of little blue-and-white metal coin boxes that had been part of nearly every Jewish family’s life. In every country, on every continent, the little metal pushka with the coin slot on top, the locked trap door on the bottom and the blue Star of David on its front was as much a symbol of a family’s Jewishness as a menora or mezuza. I thought of the millions of hard-earned and carefully saved coins that were dropped into these containers. Each coin was a promise to resurrect the Jewish people by the planting of trees in Palestine. Each little donation represented a silent prayer for the restoration of a Jewish homeland.
Our family was not different from the others, and our parents encouraged us to make regular contributions into our pushka. A man from the JNF would visit from time to time with his magic key that would unlock the bottom of the box so that he could collect the contents. I thought of all the other children who proudly brought these boxes to the JNF offices to have them unlocked and watch the flood of coins spill from the opening.
Each blackened dead tree stood there like a silent witness to the
destruction of those whose generosity had created the trees. Here and
there, just like in the Holocaust, a tree or a group of trees still
stood untouched having been somehow, like our family, miraculously
saved. But the vast majority were just ashes.
Yes, I cried over trees, and each time I pass through this area I am
gripped again by the same sadness. To me that forest represented a
small victory in the Jewish struggle for survival. But new trees have
been planted and some day may once again cover the mountainside. It is
the task of the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust to see to
it that these young trees survive and thrive. I know they will. This
fact is one of the great joys of my life.