Out There: Singing Israel's praises abroad

The different ways I have seen the country are as much a result of changes I have undergone as the result of changes that have taken place within the country itself.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
How to sing Israel's praises in a strange land, to paraphrase the well known psalm, came to mind while marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut this year not in Israel, the natural place for their commemoration, but rather in the US. "You are not going to be here for Yom Hashoah," my youngest son asked a few weeks ago when he learned I was going abroad for a couple weeks. "What are you going to do about the siren? Do they sound the siren in the States?" "No," I replied. "They don't sound the sirens in the States." Which got me thinking abut how my kids have grown up so different than I, and how they grew up believing the natural order of things was for a siren to sound across the country to memorialize 6 million Jews, or commemorate the sacrifice of some 22,000 IDF soldiers. That, actually, was one of my goals when I moved here 27 years ago - to raise kids for whom the "Jewish stuff" was actually the natural order of the universe. In that, at least, we succeeded. Some 12 summers ago, when my oldest son was only eight, we spent a couple of weeks in Denver. One stormy Friday night a siren sounded there, and my son - as he was taught in school - got up from the table and stood at rapt attention, not realizing this siren had nothing to do with the Holocaust or Israel's wars, but was rather just a tornado warning. While everyone else was scampering for the basement, he stood with his head slightly bowed, arms at his side. It's all about what you're used to. TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS is not an insubstantial period of time in my life, nor in the life of this country, and it is how long I've been here - first as tourist/university student, then as yeshiva bocher, employee, husband, father, homeowner, soldier, father of soldier. Yet I often still feel like an outsider, but that is more a fault of my own than one I can place at the country's doorstep. Indeed, in these days of retrospectives written about Israel, much of the faults we toss on to the state are really just our own imperfections. The state is a mirror of those who make it up: If the state is shallow, adrift, cynical, it is a reflection of us. If the country is strong, resilient, alive, that, too, is a reflection of us. My roles have changed during my years here, as has my vision of my adopted land. Indeed, my vision of the country has changed as my roles have changed. I've gone from starry-eyed tourist soaking up every hike, to weary traveler begrudgingly schlepping the kids on treks because I deem it the Israeli-fatherly thing to do. I've gone from a spiritually thirsty yeshiva student who loved to roam the alleys of Mea She'arim, to an impatient consumer who goes to the crowded streets of that haredi neighborhood very reluctantly and then only to buy certain items on the cheap, the place no longer having any pull for me. I've gone from overly romantic idealist seeing pioneer values realized in claiming empty hills in Judea and believing there really could be a a way to work things out there with the Palestinians, to tempered pragmatist who sees no way to benignly hold on to those hills, yet realistic enough to understand that giving them up will create as many problems as staying there. THE DIFFERENT ways I have seen the country, the different ways it has appeared to me, are as much a result of changes I have undergone as the result of changes that have taken place within the the country itself. I have grown older, gained some experience, lost some exuberance, become much more cynical and, as a result, have looked at the country differently. But certain things have remained constant. I'm still moved by watching soldiers being sworn in at the Western Wall, am filled with pride by acts of Israeli valor - be they military heroics, athletic achievements or even a mundane news report of young technological whiz kids cracking terrorist cells on the Internet. Sure, the country we live in now is not the same one I came to more than a quarter century ago - it is less idealistic, less of a collective, more materialistic. But so am I. It is also more efficient, smoother around the edges, not as rude or as brazen. As I am as well. We've changed, both the country and myself. Not necessarily for better, or for worse, just changed: gotten older, learned, faced more challenges, had to make decisions, made some right choices and some wrong ones. Much has been written over the last few weeks about a country adrift, one that did not live up to its initial promise. Please. The initial promise was unrealistic, overly idealized. We face a bitter and often cruel reality here - a reality that forces us at times to compromise some of our values. We are not the pristine vision that was dreamed of 60 years ago - but that vision was just that: a vision. Real life, the day to day, is much more complex, messier, more complicated. For hundreds of years Jews could only dream of a state, and their dreams were often over-idealized. It is easy to love something that exits only in the mind, it is then possible to idealize it, place it on a pedestal. But when you come face to face with it, the reality often clashes with the vision. To paraphrase Dostoyevesky, it is easy to love humanity, it is the person coughing next to you on the bus whom it is difficult to like. And in Israel, there are a lot of folks coughing on the buses. Yet it is within the confines of a very difficult reality, a bitter and cruel reality, that this country has still managed to thrive. This is a country that is vibrant, a country that pulsates with energy, that is alive, very much alive. It is also a country in which kids think marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut is the normal thing to do, not the aberration. And that small thing - amid everything else - is both telling and something not to be taken for granted.