On anthems and allegiance

Why this ultra-Orthodox Democrat will observe Yom Hazikaron.

IDF reserve soldiers drill 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
IDF reserve soldiers drill 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
For the first time in my 17 years living in Israel I plan to observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, not because I am Israeli – I am not – but because I am Jewish.
For me there was always a difference. Come April 15 I will escort my visiting American students to Mount Herzl where we will hear eulogies for those fallen. We will recite Psalms and grieve for dead Jews – husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who died or were murdered as noncombatants on sovereign Israeli soil – a modern variation on an ancient theme. We may not care for “Hatikva” or “Jerusalem of Gold,” but we can care enough for tears.
I am, in my synagogue in Jerusalem, a pariah. A self-identified ultra-Orthodox Jew – complete with beard and sidelocks – I twice supported Barack Obama, the candidate my fellow worshipers would hardly mention by name. Back home, in New York, I am a registered Democrat, a political affiliation increasingly unfashionable among my coreligionists. This past November I saw the political conservatism in my congregation mirroring its traditionalist theology. Recognizing a consistent reactionary agenda I shrank from both its expressions, and began assessing my allegiances.
I was always a Jew first. My most significant accomplishments are in the realm of religion as are my most awesome frustrations. I study Talmud, pray three times a day and am perpetually fretting about commandments. My most lasting states of euphoria result from religious activity and most crushing disappointments from failures in religious endeavors. My relationship with God pervades all aspects of my existence, and my dearest, most satisfying moments occur when considering the spiritual significance of creation.
I am also an American. I can name more than 10 states, 10 dead presidents, 10 flavors of Ben & Jerry’s, 10 theories of who killed JFK. My favorite sport is baseball; favorite music, jazz; favorite victual, hot dogs. I prefer bourbon. I was born and raised in New York; have been uptown and downtown, to the east side and to the west, to Coney Island and to Long Island, on the parkways and expressways, in the cabs, on the subway, on the ferry and to the Met. I graduated college at Lincoln Center, went on school trips to the Museum of Natural History, proposed to my wife in Central Park, got drunk in a bar in the East Village. I’ve had snowball fights with African Americans, played billiards with Asian Americans, worked odd jobs with Hispanic Americans, and got speeding tickets from Irish Americans. I talk like a New York American, walk like one, think like one and act like one.
For many years I had no desire to be an Israeli. I don’t like haggling or soccer, don’t like yelling before 10 a.m., prefer straight answers to arguments. I miss the fall, root beer, and rain in the summer. I detest sunflower seeds. I prefer potato chips to Bamba, Entenmanns to Angel’s, Sam Adams to Maccabee. The reason I emigrated to Israel is because I could. For thousands of years Jews have yearned to tread this ground, a majority of whom were never afforded the privilege. The prayers I pray and Torah I study are replete with allusions to the benefits of this land, and though I dare not claim to recognize them all, I accept them to be true.
Recently, however, my thinking has changed, and while maintaining an affinity for New York, I have noticed an emerging regard for autonomous Israel. Hiding behind my passport and my Talmud is a heart tender for its heritage. I have began to ask: While I can be a committed, sensitive, principled Jew and not an Israeli, why would I want to be? Why should I not be both, and what am I sacrificing if not?
IN THE early years of my relocation to Israel my religious and nationalistic identities were unconnected. I was a Jew first, American second, and entirely at ease.
Throughout my childhood Zionism was mostly ignored, making it natural to pass over while engaging the spiritual elements of my Jewishness. Barring Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865-1935), who was viewed as an anomaly, the rabbis I grew up respecting attached little priority to the State of Israel and I became ambivalent regarding its being. Israel was at best a side-dish to the main course of my religion – the study of Torah and eminence of its laws.
That was then. Now, as I discover my liberal political views at odds with the elitist views of my congregation, I question too their other standoffish platforms – those that relegate Israel to the edge of the plate. Historically opposed to the State of Israel, my rabbi’s rabbi’s rabbis may have argued coherently against its establishment but today, such arguments seem beside the point. A dissent that began in earnest has evolved into a cultural diffidence, empty of clear reason. I cannot argue confidently against the existing Israeli state and more importantly, why would I want to?
To mourn as a Jew for dead and murdered Jews does not require Israeli citizenship. I can grieve as one and not the other. I can also, as the argument goes, observe more relevant days of mourning throughout the calendar year and not bring about my sorrow on a randomly contrived morning. But, as one who has stood at attention throughout “God Bless America” and trembled as my flag was unfurled, I know well the potency of ceremony. I know how nationalism – like religion – can feel stirring, heartening, transcendent.
As an American I have relished the sentiment of patriotism, the goosebumps of a national anthem, the lumpin- the-throat of a flag half-mast. Perhaps this Yom Hazikaron I will find a way to combine my religious and national identities. Perhaps I will cry both as a Jew and as a patriot. Perhaps, in addition to Psalms, I will sing of being “a free people in our homeland,” of a golden Jerusalem which I will forget not.
The author is a rabbi and family therapist in Jerusalem, where he maintains a private practice working with adults and children.