Some books you don’t read as much as you climb aboard and ride.
From the first page of The Flying Blue Meanies: Surviving the Bipolar ’60s in America and Israel, you’re buckled in and barreling down a highway faster than the law or common sense allows. Then, the benefit of seat belts removed, the only things separating you from the pavement are a motorcycle helmet and a sense of balance. And that sense of balance – physical, emotional, psychosexual and spiritual – is going to be sorely tested.
Ilan Chaim’s book is a coming-of-age story as well as an end-of-an-age story. It’s ostensibly the tale Michael Spikov, a Jewish teenager from the suburbs of Philadelphia and his struggle to find love, adventure and meaning as he tries to remake his life in Israel. However, as it takes place predominantly in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s also the story of a dynamic and unsettling milieu, although it is smartly left to the reader to write the epoch’s obituary.
The book does much to contradict the witticism, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Spikov was there for it all and (more or less) remembers it all. For anyone old enough to have lived through those times in all their brittle insanity, there are plenty of reminders on every page to jog your own faded memories.
More than LSD, free love, and rock and roll combined, it was war that defined the ’60s in which Michael comes of age. It is largely the conflict of hating America’s adventures in an unjust war of its own making, and loving Israel for its military successes that in many ways opens our hero to a more complicated, fuller life.
In the US, Vietnam and the threat of being drafted created the so-called generation gap. There have always been differences between the generations but this was different. American fathers who served willingly in World War II were often hard-pressed, at least in the war’s early days, to understand why their sons weren’t motivated as they had been by patriotism when duty called.
In Israel, the 1967 Six Day War changed not only the map of Israel but the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the world. The changes generated from that conflict electrify the protagonist of Blue Meanies, as it did so many at the time. More than merely thrilling, it gave a sense of meaning, purpose and muscle to the suburban Zionist platitudes of American Jewish youth. An 18-year-old hippie could be a pacifist in his parents’ house, but when it’s his ancestral home, everything changes.
Yet, Michael’s journey from the suburbs to the Holy Land turns out to be a pilgrimage fraught with setbacks, disappointments, injuries and emotional strain. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that the FBI, the Jewish Defense League, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a variety of well-meaning but rather psychologically flabby psychiatrists get in the way.
What does not get in the way is sexual modesty. Michael is a nearly insatiable, priapic adventurer. It’s not just Michael, it’s the times and the influence of music upon them.
These were years when lyrics were more than rhymes to string the notes together, they were anthems and words to live by. One essential set lyrics that plays a large part in the story belongs to Stephen Stills: “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”
“If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”Stephen Stills
It’s easy to criticize such thin philosophy with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight, yet for a wide swath of the younger population – the hero of our book included – it was the zeitgeist. In fact, for a brief historical moment, musical icons sang bumper-sticker instructions for life that were good enough to base a life on by virtue of nothing more than the icon’s predilection for marijuana and long hair.
If that sounds like a curmudgeon’s take on foibles of the past, it is only because the foibles of the modern age have become too small to deserve comment. Today, icons have been reduced to influencers and manifestos have shrunk to 280 tweeted characters.
If anything, Meanies reflects a time of greater seriousness of purpose, no matter how silly the conclusions drawn during those years might appear today.
It is here, where I wanted more from the book.
What drew Michael so strongly to certain aspects of his Judaism? What motivated him to find meaning in the newly born Israel? Was it simply a product of his home life, large parts of which he rejected? It seems that when Michael tries to explain to himself what his motivations are, there are deeper questions that need to be answered.
Michael’s journey, after all, is a search for meaning... and sex, but the need for sex is self-evident; the need for meaning is often self-generated.
These aren’t just questions for our protagonist, they’re questions for everyone who has immigrated to Israel or has entertained the thought of immigrating. And while what follows is not an answer, it provides some thoughts around which to address the issue.
For a moment, let’s forget the geopolitics of Israel and pigeonhole the millennia of Jewish history. Try to think for a moment in a vacuum in which the only question being addressed is the “Why?” of the Jewish world’s interest in Israel.
In that very narrow context, is it possible that one of the reasons Israel is such an intense place to live is that the 30% of the population who came here, came here with an idea in mind? That they came for an ideal? Not just an idea, but an ideal.
How many of those millions were on the verge of killing themselves, as Michael briefly was, before they decided to salvage their lives with aliyah? How many immigrants had run out of options? How many were desperate to imbue their lives with meaning and found that meaning in the modern State of Israel?
The book doesn’t answer those questions but it sharpens them in a way few other recent stories have done. Although, there’s a far better lyric to sum up the book than “love the one you’re with.” If anything, that distinction goes to the Grateful Dead: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
The Flying Blue MeaniesSurviving the Bipolar ’60s in America and IsraelBy Ilan Chaim314 pages; $15