We in the United States, who on a Fourth of July know how to get out the watermelon, fireworks and three-legged-race contests to celebrate even an odd-numbered national anniversary, are in a puzzlement as to why the soundtrack to Israel’s 50th anniversary seems to be coming from a somber old Leonard Cohen album, all alibis and ambiguity, rather than Sousa’s oom-pah.Editors of The New Yorker, New York and The New York Times seem to share the puzzlement. The best entry from the three, so far and by far, is The New Yorker’s (April 20) “Letter From Israel” by novelist David Grossman, coupled with a poem by Yehuda Amichai. After all, Israel’s murky 50th begs for a novelist or a poet rather than a journalist’s cold
eye.Amichai writes:“When I die, I want only women to handle me in the chevra kadisha … cleanse my ears of the last words/I heard, wipe my lips of the last words I said,/erase the sights I saw from my eyes, smooth my brow of worries. … Is he still alive?/And laugh and cry by turns and administer a last message/so it passes from me to the entire world. … And one of them will sing ‘God Full of Mercy,’/will sing in a sweet voice ‘Merciful Womb,’/to remind God that mercy is born from the womb, true mercy, true womb, true love, true grace…” playing on the Hebrew root-word for “mercy,” which is “womb.”Grossman’s piece, a mood indigo in prose, captures the voice of a native Israeli — which is what he is — and in four brief pages manages to portray the humbled beauty of a soldier in Lebanon; the thrill of realized Zionism, Rabin’s face of a sabra grown old; the sudden intimacy of a stranger on an Egged Bus who whips out his kidney x-rays while through that shadowy prism Grossman views the varied populace of Jerusalem. “Those are my kidneys,” the man explains. “They’re always making sand and stones.”Grossman relates the crisis, perhaps illness, of Israelis when “for more than 30 years — ever since the Six-Day War — they have been caught in a profound historical error, which has wound itself inextricably around them. It could be that the violence is beginning to invade the inner tissues, turning even a brother into an enemy. Or perhaps it is the inevitable disgruntlement of those who have experienced a great miracle that has become no more than human reality laden with contradictions and bruises.”In contrast, New York (April 27) magazine’s cover story, “Is Israel Still Good For The Jews?” is like The Beatles’ “Daytripper,” a big teaser headline that takes you half the way there, if that far. It touches on the usual American-Israeli divisions in the usual way. Their report, in almost a parody of New York’s silk-stocking focus, tells how several American wheeler-dealers meeting in an Upper East Side apartment got in over their heads trying to produce a Hollywood-style series of anniversary extravaganzas at Israel’s request, though Israeli officials had no real interest in paying the freight.Then we get a rehash of the oft-told tale of non-Orthodox American Jews who feel alienated. We meet only millionaires and machers, no poets, no bus riders.The New York Times (April 6) has been running an occasional series on Israel’s 50th, focusing on the pluribus without the unum. In this issue we get a primer for those born yesterday, neat boxes on settlers, on Sephardim, on hedonists, on the pioneers, and a map with facts and figures. Did you know that Israel is 80.5 percent Jewish? But Grossman, in The New Yorker, puts the percentage in clearer focus: Immigrants from the former Soviet Union constitute almost a fifth of Israel’s inhabitants, yet they show few signs of blending with Israeli culture; Israeli Arabs are another fifth of the population; tens of thousands of Ethiopians still feel like pariahs; tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews still do not “recognize” the state or Zionism. Just how many “regular” Israelis are there, anyway?n For all the big-name Jews working at big-name journalistic outposts, the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing went to Bernard “Buddy” Stein, the Jewish editor and co-publisher of The Riverdale Press, a small-town, but big-time, community paper in the Bronx, circulation 14,000.Stein, 56, a former Free Speech Movement demonstrator and one of the founders of the Berkeley chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, took over the family newspaper, along with his brother Richard, when their father retired in 1980.The Riverdale Press hasn’t been shy about tackling Jewish issues, be they local or Israeli. “I’ve written about Israel,” says Stein, “and have gotten into a lot of hot water over that; I criticized it editorially back when the intifada was going on. I wrote, of course, about the Rabin assassination.” Then there was the big local controversy over a public menorah on public property. “I was really of two minds about it,” he recalls. “The two clauses of the First Amendment were clashing with one another.”The Riverdale Press was firebombed in 1989 immediately after the publication of an editorial defending Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”Every year since, says Stein, “on the anniversary, I’ve written an editorial about Rushdie, and this year’s editorial was included in the portfolio [presented to the Pulitzer jury]. As I said to the jury, it’s our way of saying bombs can’t destroy ideas.”The bombing so destroyed the paper’s offices that Stein was forced to publish the paper out of temporary quarters for eight months.Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, says, “I called to congratulate him as soon as I heard he won. … I like people who have absolute integrity. He’s been supportive of me; he’s been critical of me. But I always respected what he said. I say this knowing that he may very well be critical of me again. But we have not only a respectful but a deep and loving relationship.“He’s an absolute universalist, but he has very strong Jewish roots, and feels strongly about the Jewish mission of tikkun olam.”Some of Stein’s crusades over the years have focused on the physical and educational condition of local public schools, and for access to the Hudson River parkland that runs the length of Riverdale’s western border.“What I especially like about him,” says Rabbi Weiss, “is that someone who can write like he can write could work for a national or city-wide publication. But what he says to me is that he considers this important and this is where he’s making his stake.”And now, from his community paper, he’s won Pulitzer recognition competing against everyone from the Hudson to the Pacific.