The human spirit: Our own narrative

The telling of our story felt good to me.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
I was in uncharted territory - not only because I had traveled far from home and was on a maiden trip to a land of vast expanses and rivers. The hospitable Jewish community of Winnipeg welcomed me with Canadian cuisine: triangular salmon party and homemade Shmoo Torte with caramel icing. In addition to talks within the Jewish community of Winnipeg, the community organizer arranged for me to speak at two prestigious private high schools, mostly non-Jewish, but with a substantial Jewish minority. In both, I was invited to give an hour-long update about Israel. Where to begin the story? I didn't want to explicate the government scandals or the latest rounds of negotiations. What seemed most urgent to me was an explanation of the entire enterprise. I suspected that most of the students - the Jews included - had little more than a sketchy notion about whence the State of Israel had come into the world. More important for me was to give them a sense of from where the local Jews had come. They had grandparents who had immigrated from Europe and who had homesteaded the fertile wheat fields of Manitoba, but how had they left our Jewish homeland in the first place? INSTEAD OF the Gregorian 1948 I started with the Hebrew 1948: the story of Abraham and Sarah. I skipped ahead to King David with his special connection to Jerusalem, and on to the Babylonian and Roman empires - chapters of history that I assumed would be familiar context. But it seems that Nebuchadnezzar and Titus have slipped from the curriculum. I described the expulsions of the first and second centuries, how so many Jews were banished from our homeland as slaves that the price of slave labor fell on the flooded world market. Picture your ancestors leaving in chains, I urged them. The tallest and handsomest of the 17-year-olds were selected to be paraded in the Roman triumphal marches and others for arena entertainment. The abject slaves' only hope was to find a community where Jews had settled and who would redeem them. And so they entered the world of Diaspora, traveling from one country to another, but never giving up the desire to return despite persecution and assimilation. For 18 centuries we yearned for Jerusalem in our daily prayers. A few managed to defy the hardships and maintained a Jewish presence in Zion. Contrary to the possible assumption, the breaking of the glass at Jewish weddings isn't a lucky charm against the breakup of the marriage, but the fulfillment of a pledge to remember Jerusalem even on the happiest of days. FROM THERE I galloped ahead to Theodor Herzl, his lack of interest in religion per se and his sensitivity to the language of the Dreyfus trial. The movement he started is called Zionism. Herzl might have sounded like Don Quixote to a people long dispersed among the nations, but his words resonated in the hearts of many Jews who were willing to give up their familiar homes to travel to the ancient but desolate homeland. In 1893 60,000 Jews lived in the pre-state area along with a mix of 92,000 Christians and Muslims; both Jewish and non-Jewish populations grew with the influx of modern Jewish settlement and economic vitalization. How does a country get permission to be a recognized state? We talked about the League of Nations and the UN, about how the community of nations gave legitimacy to the establishment of the State of Israel. Who came to live there? I talked of the arrival of the survivors of concentration camps and refugees expelled from Arab countries, and yes, how it turned out that unhappily the world has Palestinian refugees, while all the Jews were absorbed in Israel. Good-hearted teens, they'd heard about the Palestinian refugees and understandably sympathized with their suffering, whether it was self-inflicted or not. In the early years of statehood, Jewish immigrants who arrived lived in tents. Food was rationed. We had a little time to figure out how Israel got from there to modern Israel in 60 short years despite never having a single day of peace. Cellphones, instant messaging and Intel operating systems - to name just a few - owed their existence to the genesis of Israel. Such was my account of the Jewish people and its state. My narrative, I stressed. Others might tell it differently. "NARRATIVE" IS a loaded post-modern term, of course. In a sense even speaking of diverging narratives undercuts the absolute truth of what you are presenting. You have your version and I have mine. In each of the schools there was at least one vocal student well-versed in the Palestinian narrative, but I had the feeling that for nearly everyone, the Jewish narrative was fresh and new. These high-school students now had another narrative of the Middle East to consider. My host and the organizer of my Winnipeg visit was resourceful in making sure I got to venues usually beyond the Jewish community. It also struck me that I had never before presented a streamlined history of the Jewish people and Zionism. The telling of our story felt good to me. In times when the scandals and mistakes of our country loom large, sometimes all of us need a reminder of the roots of Zionism with which we fell so passionately in love.