Thursday, May 12, 2011

You Ain't Gonna Rain on My Barbecue

“I remember back in the States the ongoing disputes as to what prayers to say on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Here in the Land, pretty much everyone understands that we are living a miracle and acts accordingly — at least on this one wonderful day of the year.”
Fred Casden of Ma’aleh Adumim (2007 from Teaneck)
It started with a request from our good friend, Abby Leichman.. Among her other journalistic pursuits, she seems to be the 'foreign correspondent' for the New Jersey Jewish Standard (an aptly named newspaper, as I will explain below). She was writing a series of articles for them about Yom Haatzmaut, and she hoped to collect a series of short statements (ostensibly one or two sentences) from former New Jerseyites about “How do former North Jersey residents feel about celebrating Israeli Independence Day in the land of Israel?” Being a sensible person, and having a deadline to meet, Abby sent out an e-mail to a selected group of ex-pats, people like me who always have something to say and are willing to say it at a moment's notice (cynics might describe this condition as “diarrhea of the mouth”).

What choice did I have, but to rise to the occasion, having about three days, including Shabbat, to ponder the matter? The first sticking point was the desired length. It is hard to be brilliant and brief at the same time. But, before there were sound-bites, there were aphorisms to give us inspiration. (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde; “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself” – Mae West) Nothing I could come up would be as clever or poignant as these examples, but I would give it a shot. Then I thought, even if I can make it short and snappy, what would there be to talk about that would grab the attention of the intended audience?

The New Jersey Jewish Standard, a very 'standard' American 'Jewish' newspaper. It would not be fair to say that every paper of its kind in The States is the same; they vary widely in coverage and quality. What they have in common is a standard starting point: 'Federation Judaism,' a sort of liberal, cure the world, big tent kind of approach. By design, a lot of lukewarm commentary and not much punch. Often, the most interesting items in The Standard were the Letters to the Editor, taking the paper to task for what the paper wrote or failed to write. But consider The Standard's readership: a heavily Orthodox readership in Teaneck, divided into liberals and conservatives, and a larger amorphous non-Orthodox constituency throughout the rest of Bergen County, politically liberal and percentage-wise less involved in things Israeli. What would I, could I say about Yom Haaztmaut that would resonate with any sizable percentage of them?

Giving a description of what goes on here on this holiday is relatively simple. Doing it in a way that doesn't make or draw misleading comparisons with holidays in The States that purport to have the same purpose is much harder. Explaining what the day is all about is very, very difficult – even if your readership has supposedly bought into your value system.

I can write plainly that Yom Haaztmaut is (in fact, means) Israel's Independence Day. People in The States can relate to that: Fourth of July. The day before is Yom Hazicharon, a day to commemorate the 24,000 men, women, and children who have died defending their lives and property since Jews began moving out of Jerusalem's Old City in the mid 19th century; this year there will be 240 or so more martyrs to add to the list. Everyone can relate to that. Americans have Memorial Day and Armistice Day; add on to that memorials to the victims of 9/11.

I can write that Barbara got the last inch of room on a second bus ( the first was way too crowded to stop for more passengers) on the way back from Jerusalem to Ma'ale Adumim at 1:30PM – six hours before Yom Haaztmaut would start. In The States, traveling around 'The Holidays' can also be a nightmare. At night there will be fireworks; all through the day, intrepid Israelis will be making barbecues anywhere they can drive to and get their grills going (as with Lag B'Omer, don't leave your laundry out on the line unless you really like the lingering aroma of meat patties in your BVD's). Again, fireworks, barbecues? Not unique to The Land.

So trying to squeeze a description of what takes place here into a few dozen well-chosen words is inherently self-defeating. Anyone who is reasonably interested in life in The Land already knows something about our holiday. Reciting the bare facts won't cut it for anybody else because we're still left with the next-to-impossible task of explaining what any of it means.

Consider these two very different scenarios, if you will. It was almost a given that sooner or later European nations would head off to the New World and subjugate the aboriginal population. It was likely that England, the strongest, most efficient nation at the time and the one most interested in colonization, would grab a large, usable hunk of the property. It was not surprising that the transplanted Englishmen would insist on their own form of government. It was fortunate that their leaders did a good job of it. There was no certainty that the nation would grow and prosper and remain united. Yes, you can see the hand of G-d in all of the above, in the sense that every time an infant comes out of a womb, the hand of G-d is present. But The Hand of G-d? Is anybody talking about obvious, overt miracles as being the cause of America's success? If you were ever at Gettysburg, did you see any signs near the battlefield, “Nes gadol haya po” (a great big miracle happened here)?

What about our situation: a people homeless for two thousand years, vilified and hunted down almost to extinction more often than we'd care to think about, returning to our home turf and seemingly making a go of it, despite the hostility of an awful lot of people – including some of our own. Two questions: are we dealing with the hand of G-d or The Hand of G-d? Is it even possible to describe Israel's sixty-three year history without making reference to the many miracles that seemed to have occurred both on battlefields and in beleaguered towns, kibbutzim, and cities during times of war and terror? And what difference does it make (and to whom)?

Before we moved to Teaneck, we lived in Passaic – a much more fractured community. Every year on the evening of Yom Haatzmaut, the remnants of the 'Zionist' community would gather at 'The Adas' for a community celebration. It was a fairly lackluster event, but you had to show up – just so the 'faithful' knew you were still there . In the morning, if you wanted to participate in a minyan, you certainly had your pick. I often thought about putting together a chart describing what was going on in every shul: some pretended that nothing was going on – regular davening including tachanun (a part of the service which is omitted on festive occasions); others eliminated it. Of the latter group, some included Hallel (psalms of rejoicing said on the holidays); some didn't. Of the ones that did, some included it where it normally would be; some put it at the end. Some included the bracha that normally precedes it; some didn't. (In Teaneck, there is always a small, private minyan that follows the special service commonly used in Israel. Most synagogues followed it only in part; but nobody said tachanun.)

If there is no community celebration of Yom Haatzmaut nearby where you live in The Exile, then the question of whether you're going to head over to it or not doesn't come up. If you're not planning to go to shul that morning anyway, it's kind of unimportant what prayers they're going to include. But when rabbis and synagogues on the west bank of the Passaic River make a conscious decision to maintain the regular prayer service on Yom Haatzmaut, you have to assume they're making a statement about how they feel – or don't feel – about the day and the event (that and a reflexive reluctance to tamper with the set order of prayers). Here in The Land, even our secular brethren are living the miracles that go on every day. Everyone is too busy fussing with the fire in their little mangal to worry about somebody in The Exile raining on their barbecue.

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