The Jewish state's buried treasures

The Jewish states burie

Fill in the blank: In the year 2009, Israel celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of _____. Chances are that if you spent any time in the country over the past 12 months and were semiconscious, your answer would be "Tel Aviv." Unless you are still celebrating May 1 as International Workers' Day and are a trivia freak, in which case you may have responded: "Deganya," the very first kibbutz, which happened to come into being at the very same time as the first Jewish city in modern times. Interesting. When the Zionist idea first entered my consciousness in the late '60s, I'm fairly sure that had I been asked then what we would more likely be celebrating 40 years hence, the metropolis or the farm, I'd have bet on the latter. For Jewish youth in the Diaspora living in an age of isms, Tel Aviv represented so much that the revolutionary movement of Jewish self-determination seemed to be revolting against: individualism, capitalism, materialism and hedonism. Israel's communal settlements, on the other hand, were perceived as the embodiment of the very opposite: collectivism, socialism, asceticism and altruism and were fêted as a harbinger of a new social order, proof that human nature could indeed be reoriented. Hi-tech was not yet part of our vocabulary, and it was social, not computer engineering that was then touted as being Zionism's great gift to humanity. Our movement, after all, wasn't only about making the world a better place for the Jews, but a better place for everyone. SO WHAT happened? Why is the party taking place along the shores of the Mediterranean rather than the Kinneret? Perhaps it's a matter of numbers. There are some 390,000 residents of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and more than 3.1 million in the urban sprawl of Gush Dan of which it is the hub. Deganya Aleph claims only some 550 inhabitants, and all the communes it mothered fewer than 130,000. But the answer cannot be attributed entirely to statistics. The kibbutzim were never home to more than 2 percent-3% of Israel's population, even in the years preceding statehood, yet they once dominated the Zionist self-image and provided the entire enterprise with one of its most popular myths - not without foundation - that the top echelon of the country's leadership was nurtured on the ethos of communal children's homes. No one argues that anymore, not in an age when "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is no longer the ideal, not even in the abstract, and when there is nothing pejorative in characterizing an individual as someone who knows how to look out for himself. This shift in values has not spared the kibbutzim, which have gone through a process of privatization that has made them something of anathema to their founders. (That process overtook even Deganya just a few months ago.) Meanwhile, there has been a concurrent retrospective reevaluation of Tel Aviv and a popularization of all that it meant for the nascent movement of Jewish national liberation. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the year of festivities in the city that never sleeps will officially wind up on December 15 with the opening of a new historical museum, located just across the street from the historical home of Chaim Nahman Bialik. It is this history, and the contribution of Israel's national poet and his contemporaries to the Jewish renaissance, which infuses the merriment with substance. Despite the remark popularly attributed to Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv's first mayor, welcoming the first reports of prostitution in the city as a reassuring sign of the normalization of the Jewish people, one somehow doubts that Mayor Ron Huldai today finds similar comfort in the latest reports on human trafficking in his city, or on the poverty in its slums, the exploitation of its foreign workers and the rise in crime on its streets and beaches. Bialik, in any case, would most definitely not. Witness to the wretched suffering wrought upon the Jews in the Kishinev pogroms, eloquently documented in his epic poem "In the City of Slaughter," he beseeched his people to create a city of hope in their Old New Land: "On a summer's day, a scorching day at high noon / with the sky a blazing furnace / the heart seeks a quiet corner to dream - / Come to me, come to me my weary friend." But if Tel Aviv in its revelry can boast Bialik as its native son, the kibbutzim around the Sea of Galilee can claim Rahel as their native daughter. And 2009, it turns out, is the perfect year in which to do just that. By stunning coincidence, 1909 was the year in which both poets first came to the Land of Israel, which means that this is a centennial celebrating not only the first Jewish city and the first kibbutz, but also the people who built them. The poetess of the Second Aliya laborers spoke on behalf of them all: "I have not sung to you, my country / nor have I glorified your name / with heroic deeds / or the spoils of war / Only a tree have I planted with my own hands / on the bank of the gentle Jordan / Only a path have my feet trodden / upon the open fields." Bialik and Rachel died long ago, but what of the idealism, romanticism and passion they personified? By chance, I recently had the opportunity to visit the two cemeteries in which they are buried, along with so many other pioneers of their generation, sung and unsung alike. IN THE center of the country, it was at the end of a workday, against the bustling backdrop of busy coffeehouses and traffic-filled streets, framed by tall buildings whose lighted windows at dusk revealed a vitality that those who had witnessed the city's dawn, and whose graves I was wandering among, would have found impossible to prophesy. Ahad Ha'am, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Haim Arlozorov, Yosef Haim Brenner and Menahem Sheinkin all lie within earshot of Bialik. In the North, it was at night, with the moonlit Kinneret - visible through a grove of lofty palm trees - shimmering silently in the background, a resplendent reflection of the nature and harmony cherished by those whose final resting place I was trespassing. Rahel's eternal neighbors include Moshe Hess, Dov Ber Borochov, Nahman Sirkin and Berl Katznelson, to name only a few. Well, perhaps one more. When Rahel was buried in 1931, one of the mourners at her graveside was Rivka Sapir, a founder of Kvutzat Kinneret, the communal settlement that Rahel had made her home. She held her one-year old infant in her arms. She would grow up to be none other than Naomi Shemer, first lady of Israeli song, now interred just a stanza away from her lifelong inspiration. One visit was every bit as inspiring as the other. While the headstones above ground reveal only the briefest hint of the biographies they eternalize beneath, they constitute a stirring testimony to the countless lives lived in pursuit of a common dream, multifaceted though it may be. Which aspects of that dream reflect our ideals today? Which remind us of our successes - which of our failures? Which represent our aspirations? Whatever answers we may have individually, collectively we owe our presence here today to these men and women and to the infrastructure they fashioned, to the ambitions they nurtured, to the ideals they cherished and to the dreams they wouldn't relinquish. They are our buried treasures, of inestimable value. The more we dig into their past, the more we familiarize ourselves with their stories, the wealthier shall we become. Try it, you'll see. The next time someone asks you what centennial Israel celebrated this year, tell them: the arrival of Chaim Nahman Bialik and Rahel Bluwstein in the Land of Israel. You'll feel richer already. May we be deserving of their sacrifices. May we be worthy of their legacy. The writer represents worldwide Masorti/Conservative Judaism on the executives of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, where he also serves as head of the Department for Zionist Activities.