Sunday, June 29, 2008

And the More We Retell the Story

Sing for your supper,And you'll get breakfast.Songbirds always eatIf their song is sweet to hear.(refrain from “Sing for Your Supper,”from “The Boys from Syracuse,”music and lyrics by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart)
It’s good to have friends. It’s better to have good friends. It’s best to have good friends who have good friends, as you will shortly see.
Yom Hatzmaut (Independence Day), in fact the sixtieth Yom Haatzmaut, was fast approaching, along with its twin, Yom Hazicharon, the day of remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism (whose number is approaching 24,000.) This being our first year here, we had no idea what to expect, except I sensed that it would seem more real, more urgent than these days would be back in The States. In many communities, there is always some kind of event, a commemoration/celebration, as the two days are smooshed into one event. In Passaic, where we lived for nine years, the event took place at “The Adas,” an older, mainstream Orthodox synagogue eschewed by the newer, more Yeshivish crowd that now dominated the community. You had to show up, if for no other reason than to be seen, to reaffirm your place as a “Zionist.” The evening service seemed perfunctory, even interminable, and there was a modest spread afterward. Whereupon, we would get in our car and drive back to our side of town, and that would be that. In Teaneck, I also had to show up for this event if for no other reason that I was always on the planning committee, which meant attending one meeting and coming early to the celebration to help set up. Usually, my job included putting out the chips and the pretzels and several thousand individual packages of an Israeli snack food called “bamba,” which were vacuumed up by hundreds of children, seemingly before the packages hit the table. There was a real attempt to make the event meaningful, and appropriately festive, but it never quite made it. It was always held in the largest, fanciest synagogue in Teaneck, and one could opine that the money poured into that building could have built a primary care facility in the Negev. (There seemed to be a subtle, unstated message: “We love Israel; but we’re staying HERE.”) Again, when the event was over, we got back in our car and drove to our more modest side of town. In Teaneck, there was at least one additional wrinkle. My buddy Arvin would pull together a minyan in the morning using the special Yom Haatzmaut service found in most Israeli prayer books. Of course we had to hurry through it, because we were all expected to get to work.
Here, a little bit east of Yerushalayim, as in most places in The Land, a week or so before the Big Day, Israeli flags began appearing – from windows, flagpoles, and streetlights, on balconies, fences, and cars. On the Friday before the Big Day, we received two polyester flags: a medium sized one with our Haaretz-International Herald Tribune, and a larger one with our Jerusalem Post. They were courtesy of Bank Hapoalim, which was giving out flags at all its branches throughout the country. The medium sized one fit perfectly on our gate, and was duly hung there, where it remained until we took it down, somewhat torn and tattered, after Yom Yerushalayim, (the topic of my next post, please be patient!) several weeks later.
Tina had asked us to join her in Tel Aviv for Yom HaZicharon. Two years before, she had been at the large, annual commemoration held in Kikar Rabin; now she is living on Rehov Mendelsson, a ten minute walk from where the event would take place, and she wanted to share this emotional experience with us. Barbara, Natania, (off from the army), and I hustled into Tel Aviv a few hours early in order to get some dinner (we had been warned that during the evening hours of Yom Hazicharon, everything, everything, is shut down [I don’t know about places like Mea Shearim] all across the country). We got to Kikar Rabin a little before 8PM when it was scheduled to start. Thousands of people were already there, with enough benches to hold the many thousands more who would keep drifting in. At exactly 8PM, the sirens went off for a minute or so, just as they had on Yom Hashoah. It was definitely becoming night, and the mournful sounds of remembrance coming from loudspeakers all around us contrasted with the lights from the large, new buildings surrounding us in this modern, Jewish city. As we are getting used to expecting, very little in Israel starts on time. Tina and Barbara wanted to stay at Kikar Rabin for the ceremony; but by 8:45, Natania and I were getting antsy, so we went back to Tina’s apartment and watched the event on TV (the only thing being show on local Israeli channels). I hope I’m not belaboring the obvious, but there is a substantial difference between having Teaneck children read out the names of Israeli men, women, and children who died in the last year – and whose names remain only names – and seeing the faces of their bereaved survivors, parents, spouses, friends – who are now our neighbors – on national TV, along with tributes by national leaders and music by the biggest stars in popular entertainment.
The next morning, Natania headed back to Jerusalem, and Barbara and I decided to take a short, self-guided tour of some of the Bauhaus buildings in central Tel Aviv, thanks to a local bookstore which, for a modest fee, would give you a set of earphones, a map, and some directions (more about this some other time). After this, we too headed back to Jerusalem and from there to our headquarters a little bit east thereof.
It would soon be time for Yom Haatzmaut. Preparations had been going on for several days for the really big celebration in Kikar Tzion at Ben-Yehuda St. Barbara wanted to join the fun; I just wanted to go to our beit knesset and thank Hashem for sixty good years for our State and ten good months for us. (It occurred to me later that I could have done both: gone into Jerusalem, davened there, and then gone to the celebration. Next year.) There was a larger than usual crowd at Mussar Avicha for the Yom Haaztmaut davening. No speeches, no refreshments; none were required. We were home. We are home. We are very grateful.
The shacharit service the next morning was at some semi-normal time, late enough for me to get there. Thanks to Arvin’s minyans in Teaneck, I was able to follow the special service. The difference was that we were not in any hurry to finish because in The Land, everyone is off from work on Yom Haatzmaut, and almost nothing is open.
Now would come the real test: if we were going to be authentic Israelis, we would have to participate in a barbecue. (I’ve heard unconfirmed rumors that anyone who didn’t smell of charcoal was liable to have his citizenship revoked.) Now it is true that American Jews have barbecues on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day, but these backyard affairs cannot match in scope or zeal what the Israeli collective will undertake whenever the opportunity presents itself. Like ants scurrying about, tens of thousands of families will take over any available space in parks or by the side of a road or highway. Each man of the house will commence a virtuosic performance over his grill or mangol, fanning the flame with a makeshift cardboard device just so, as an orchestra conductor would wave his baton to get exactly the right sound from his musicians. After witnessing this passion for grilling and the over-the-top enthusiasm for bonfires on Lag b’omer, I have an idea (which I cannot prove) that this pyromania stems from an unquenchable, if subconscious, national longing for the restoration of our Temple and the prescribed daily sacrifices – the barbecue of all barbecues.
On our own, we would have been left out of this national experience (probably having spaghetti for dinner). But once again, our friends Jeff and June came to our rescue. They had been invited to “Israeli friends” in Rosh Ha’ayin, and a phone call by them later, we were invited as well. The only thing we had to know was that we would be asked to “sing for our supper.” Everyone present was expected to speak for a few minutes about their experience in Israel. Well, you know me: I can always be called upon to offer a few thousand well-chosen words on virtually any topic. So this would not be a problem.
With difficulty, Barbara and I made it into Jerusalem, after waiting an hour for a bus (we were slowly getting the picture of how little was working on this day) where we met the Glazers in their rented car, and we headed out to Rosh Ha’ayin to their “Israeli friends.” As with most things with Jeff and June, there is a story involved. It seems that they were living in San Antonio at the time, where they were allegedly the only “observant” family in the city. They got a phone call from someone in the community, asking them to host a religious Israeli family who was visiting Texas. So June got on the phone and invited them for Shabbat, but with the following caveat: she was seriously pregnant; if she went into labor and Jeff had to get her to the hospital, Avi and Rivka would have to take care of the Glazer’s two sons. Somehow, everyone agreed to this arrangement, and, sure enough, June and Jeff had to leave for the hospital, leaving Avi and Rivka with the two boys. From this rather odd beginning, a twenty plus year friendship developed. When the Glazers moved to New Jersey, Jeff was always available to pick up the Ginsbergs from any local airport, day or night. The Glazers had visited their friends in Rosh Ha’ayin several times, and, in fact, all of their three sons had been there for a Yom Haatzmaut barbecue at different times, but this would be the first time the parents were there.
As we drove on the highway going to Tel Aviv, we began discussing an article I had seen in one of the English language newspapers about Israeli flags. There is one local company which makes real flags, I assume, out of cotton. Of course, their business is not helped by their synthetic competition, polyester flags which last as long as a “truce” with Hamas. Then, there is the protocol of the magen David on a flag which can be hung horizontally or vertically. Take an American flag, with its stripes and its fifty five-pointed stars. It’s good to go whether you hang it horizontally on a flag pole, or vertically draped, say from a window. The Israeli flag is different. Stop for a minute and think about how it looks: the two blue horizontal stripes on a white background with a six-pointed star in the middle. Now turn it on its side, so it’s now vertical. The magen David is now sitting on its side! To hang the flag vertically, you need a different configuration, one with the star turned around. A company which makes real flags has this all figured out, and they are, justifiably, upset with imitations made in Asian sweatshops where such niceties are not observed. We had a grand time looking at all the flags and pendants hanging either horizontally or vertically along the way, seeing which ones had the star rotated correctly – much as you would play “let’s find the out-of-state license plates” with your kids on a long trip.
With only a few missteps along the way, we arrived safely in Rosh Ha’ayin. Hooray for the Ginsbergs, because otherwise we might all have lived out our lives in Israel and never visited this community. Simply put, olim don’t live there. (There are sixty one listings in the Kehilot Tehilla community guide and forty two in the NBN listings, but you will not find Rosh Ha’ayin in either one). Not that there is anything wrong with this town; on the contrary, it is one of Israel’s successes. This was one of the many places in which Ben-Gurion’s Labor government dumped North African refugees (in this case, Yeminites) during the early 1950’s. It could have remained one of the country’s economic basket cases, but because of good fortune, good planning, and especially good location, is now a thriving community – about as big as Maale Adumim – with lots of Israelis who do quite well, thank you very much.

One look at the Ginsberg’s home and you know that they are part of that group of very middle class Israelis. Despite the fact that we arrived considerably later than we had planned, we were easily the first guests there. We met Avi and Rivka, their son Yoni (the grill master) and their daughter Achinoam, and thanked them from saving us from a spaghetti dinner in Maale Adumim. We insisted on helping them set up, and I got to put out forty plastic chairs in the front yard. (I kept thinking, “How many people do they expect to show up?”). But sure enough, slowly but surely, people began to show up. There were some of Yoni’s and Achinoam’s friends, but we discovered that most of the people who came were friends that Avi and Rivka had made during their stay in America and who over the years themselves had made aliyah. (Our hosts are among the certain wonderful people in this world who collect friends and maintain those friendships over the years.)
And so we ate, made some new acquaintances, ate some more, talked some more, and (I’m embarrassed to say) ate some more. Finally, as afternoon clearly was becoming evening, It Was Time….. We were all asked to congregate outside, take one of the chairs, and get ready to “repay” our hosts. We were all going to “sing for our supper.” Say something about why we came to Israel, how life has been here, something, anything appropriate for Yom Haatzmaut. Most of the former Americans had mastered the native Semitic tongue and many gave their remarks in Hebrew. For some of us, unfortunately, our eloquence (even our full comprehension) still remains uni-lingual. So I listened politely and absorbed as much as I could. I am proud to report that June did us proud by reading a statement in Hebrew which she had written (and had corrected first by her ulpan teacher). If you are wondering what I said: I never speak from notes, so weeks later, I do not remember exactly what I said. But if you are part of my audience, I think you have some clues about what I was talking about. I must have received a passing grade, because we have already been invited back for next year! We “benched,” (recited the blessings after the meal) convened a minyan for maariv, and finally people headed to their cars (we would not get beakfast!). The Glazers kindly drove us back (we only got slightly lost) to Maale Adumim, and our first Yom Haatzmaut was over.
It was a week or two later that something “struck me.” I was working on one of my projects, editing the English language version of R’ Aviner’s commentary on the Haggadah (which I am relieved to say I have finished), when I re-read the following fairly familiar lines, “So even if we were all wise, all clever, all old, and all expert in the Torah, it is incumbent on us to discuss the Exodus from Egypt. And the more one talks about it, the more praiseworthy one is.” Then it occurred to me that the Ginsbergs and those of us assembled in their home were following some very good advice in expressing their thoughts and gratitude for this miracle in our lifetime, the creation of our Medina and our return to The Land. Even though I lived for sixty six years in America, my circle of friends and acquaintances remained fairly narrow; so I have no idea how many people in Middle-America gathered around a Thanksgiving dinner or Memorial Day/ Fourth of July picnic would think about asking their guests to say something about the bounty of their life. I must admit that I do not know if this is at all common here; I am sure that there are many Israelis who never get beyond waving a piece of cardboard over burning charcoal. But what an introduction to this wonderful day in Jewish life! My own personal assignment is that when, please G-d, we return next year, I will understand a little more of what is being said, so that I can report back to my faithful audience.

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