It’s fine that Israel is so well
represented on Nasdaq and sends ophthalmologists to Africa, but if there were no State of Israel the whiz kids of Silicon Wadi would be in Silicon Valley, the ophthalmologists would be flying in from elsewhere, and no one would be the sorrier. Nevertheless, each of us carries around a more private set of observations and benefits that could have only come out of Zion, and Zion alone. Here’s one list of six, and it could easily be 60 for every candle on the cake.
1: Sitting On Top Of The World
Time and prayer have sanctified the Wall, and there may be no place more beautiful than sitting at the Kotel as the moonlit sky turns indigo,
into dawn. There are few textures more pleasing to the fingertips than the stones smoothed by caresses that came long before our own. There are few places more conducive to communing with God, ideally when the plaza is sparse and serene.
One place that is more conducive is the Temple Mount itself.
If you ever get to wondering what gives the Palestinians such confidence, the Temple Mount is a good place to start. On that mount, you feel on top of the world. The Holy City, the hills beyond, almost the sky itself seems below you.
Looking down from the Temple Mount, the people appear small, looking straight-ahead at the stones. That is what Jews do in the diaspora; we pray facing in the direction of the Wall, bound by linear geography.
But up on the Temple Mount, a wide, mysterious and luxurious expanse, the soul is startled by the epiphany that the only direction to face is up. On the Temple Mount, for the only time on earth, a Jew transcends earthly orientation.
Inside the Dome of the Rock is the bare rocky hilltop. On one side of the hilltop is a small staircase, easily missed. The stairs lead down into a cave within the bedrock, within what is called the Foundation Stone itself. This cave is the Well of the Souls. Some say the voices of the dead can be heard, or the voices of the unborn, like the sounds of an ocean within a seashell. Better yet, your own soul can be heard in the silence. One can get dizzy there, wondering which way to face, like Adam trying to hide in the cool of the day. There is no place more wondrous in which to meditate, to say a Psalm, to be silent, intimate with the ineffable.
The one thing you can’t do in the Well of the Souls is daven as men do below, on earth. Perhaps you’ll never speak to God that way again.
2: Hobo’s Lullaby
Maybe, like the old folk song, you wish you were a headlight on a northbound train, but most freights don’t run through Jewish neighborhoods. And it’s hard to run away with the circus, when the circus travels by trucks driven by teamsters instead of horse-drawn wagons driven by Gypsies. In an age of fear, it’s no longer a hitchhiker’s world. But you can always go to Israel.
Sure, there are some American kids who really want to study in yeshiva there. But for almost 40 years now, thousands of young Jews have also discovered that Israel is a perfect first adventure away from home, sanctified enough to get your parents to pay, and unsupervised enough for a young soul to get lost.
One traveler tells us of a sweet memory, awakening in a Tel Aviv youth hostel by the Yarkon River, talking to strangers, walking past the white low-lying Bauhaus flats on leafy streets in old Tel Aviv, and along Dizengoff to the sea, just getting lost and being all the better for it.
From Banyas, the birth waters of the Jordan, to the oasis at Ein Gedi; from Rachel’s Tomb to buying contraband in the Old City; from late-night tearooms to the ice-cold mikveh of the Holy Ari in the northern highlands — the freezing water gushing from a mountain spring — this land is a raft for Huckleberry to ride.
3: Anthem of The Night
“Hatikvah,” of course, is Israel’s national anthem but Zionists have always had a second unofficial anthem, “Techezakna” (Birkat Am, the “People’s Blessing”) heard less now than it once was, but no less powerful for that. The lyrics are by Chaim Nachman Bialik, written in the 1890s for the beleaguered settlers of “the First Aliyah,” and it’s set to the melody of a defiant Russian worker’s anthem. It comes at you like a steam locomotive coming slowly out of the station, picking up speed, its very rhythm telling listeners to get on board or get out of the way.
A rough translation: “May they grow strong, the hands of our gifted brothers. … Don’t let your spirits fall, but be joyful, with song. … Come, with one voice, shoulder to shoulder, to the aid of the people.”
The words are somewhat boilerplate for a first-rank poet, and sound better in Hebrew, “Techezakna ydei kol acheinu am chonenim,” but perhaps more than any Zionist song it touched the Jewish people in the right way at the right time.
There’s a story, from 1943, of 20 women fighters, captured by the Nazis, being taken from their cell, bound for death, singing Bialik’s words: “Afrot artzeinu baasher hem sham.”
In the Yizkor book of Sopotskin, a Belarus town, it is recorded how the Zionist youth group sang Techezakna in the forest and around the bonfires of Lag b’Omer, “Al ipol ruchachem, alizim, mitronenim, bo’u shehem echad, leezrat h’am.”
In Yad Vashem can be found the testimony of Esther Dublin, from the Lodz Ghetto: “In the most difficult times of 1941, Feivel came to our house, and told us that they were secretly organizing all the youth groups in the ghetto, including my group from the 4th grade in Hashomer HaZair. From that time on, I held my head up high. We would meet twice a week, sing songs in Hebrew, prepare for aliya to Israel, learn about the land. … The older members taught us about Chaim Nahman Bialik. We sang Techezakna…”
There was once a time when hundreds of thousands of Jews didn’t have a better friend than the kid who could teach them the Zionist stories and songs.
4: Sensuality and Zion
Exile was never understood as strictly geographical. With the loss of Jerusalem came an exile from sensuality, from the music of the Temple, from our animal selves — mirrored in the absence of the incense, fires and sacrifices of the Temple, replaced by a prayer service built on words. Granted, several millennia of Jews figured out a way to have children, but the easy sexuality of biblical characters such as Judah, Tamar, David and Solomon was by and large replaced with sleeves that fell below elbows, and nothing but pale white ankles could be seen below a hem. Modesty wasn’t wrong but Zionism offered a correction.
With the return to the land something happened, rippling out to the diaspora. Prime ministers and rabbis took off their ties, the demands of an army made a virtue of basic training, the physicality of men and women draining swamps and laying bricks in the heat brought a change of dress and comfort with the body. The forests of hedges protecting Sleeping Beauty were disappearing as she was awakened after a 2,000-year sleep.
5: Israeli Art
There is nothing that better reflects Zionism than the revival of a Jewish artistry that is natural and organic, not ironic and self-conscious as it so often is in the diaspora. This is best currently exemplified by Jerusalem’s Ma’ale School of Television, Film and the Arts, and singers such as Ehud Banai.
Because Ma’ale is thoroughly comfortable with religion, and respectful to all religious and political choices, while maintaining an artist’s critical eye, it has produced some of the most honest and beautiful portraits of Jewish life and its dilemmas ever seen on screen, something that only the absolute best of Yiddish theater and literature was able to approximate.
As for Banai, who operates in a similar musical zone, suffice it to say that the single best song I ever heard about my New York hometown — from the rebbe to Shlomo to the bodegas — is Banai’s “Brooklyn,” as seen out of Zion.
6: The Morning After
At Jewish weddings there is the breaking of glass, to remember the incomplete joy, the unfinished Zionist restoration. Dear reader, let’s leave this story and celebration incomplete, as well, with rockets falling as you read this. But let it be known that there are young Israeli men who not long ago slept down the hall from their parents who tonight sleep on army cots next to tanks and jets.
These young soldiers hear the breaking glass in Sderot and are not afraid to break some glass themselves. They present themselves like a verse from Bialik, b’ezrat ha’am, in the service of their people.
These young kids, like the holy Chad Gadya, know that there is a cycle of violence and that cycle ends with God who will end the forces of death. To those who dreamed of Zion in the worst nights of the last century and centuries, these kids — young men and women, actually — are the hands of God in the flesh.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether Israel, or any other nation can long endure, half unafraid, half feeling doomed. There are fatalists, those who are convinced there is no military option, no diplomatic option, no demographic future, no real point to old-fashioned Zionism — the idea that this specific land and this specific people are holy and braided together in ways that we’re still learning to understand.
Israel is 60. Some people don’t think she’ll see 80. But one father of a soldier e-mails from Israel that his son is not alone: “Thousands of kids are vying to get into the most dangerous units. Still. Despite everything. And that’s why in the end we’re going to win.”
Sderot is the night.
These kids are the morning after.