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Apr 26 2012

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, I’m Longing for Israel

By at 1:49 pm

israeli day parade new york cityWhen I was young, Yom Ha’atzmaut meant one thing: the Israeli Day Parade in New York City (and hot pretzels. So two things.) Even though the parade was always held weeks after Israel’s actual birthday, that delayed celebration was nothing short of ecstatic. From the time I was a wee Jew I’d dress in blue and white and proudly march down Fifth Avenue, singing along to old folk songs from the 70s and waving an Israeli flag. At some point, the synagogue or school group I was marching with would break out into circles and we’d do a quick dance to Od Lo Ahavti Di.

As a teenager, Yom Ha’atzmaut became less about being an American Jew who loved Israel because her parents did, and more about actually loving Israel independently, because I’d had my own experiences there. By my teen years, I had traveled to Israel without my parents, and while they were footing the bill, I was the one doing all of the experiencing. Rapelling off the rocky walls of the Ramon Crater, sleeping under the stars in the Negev Desert, living in my own apartment in the development town of Ma’a lot, making shakshuka and learning Arabic, smoking my first cigarette–aptly named “Time” because, of course, these were the times of my life.

Later, as a college grad, I returned to Israel in an even more independent mode (I was at least attempting to support myself) and, at the precipice of the second Intifada, I was actually reading the newspapers and trying the best I could to keep abreast of politics. Yom Ha’atzmaut was no longer just parades or barbeques on the shores of the Kinneret–but rather, a reminder of the phenomenon that is Israel and her multitudes.

I knew much more then than I did in the early days of my affair with the holy land–I had passed through enough checkpoints to realize that while Jericho and Hebron were reasonable daytrips to take with my family when I was young, they weren’t places I’d travel to any longer. But I endured the discomfort of a cognitive dissonance–loving Israel but feeling uncomfortable that not everyone who loved that land was allowed to enjoy it as I was–because I couldn’t imagine life without Israel.

So I kept returning to Israel on the in-betweens. A year after college, a winter after that, a summer to follow, a few months scattered in between. And while my love for Israel didn’t diminish, my life in America grew. A job working for the Israeli consulate in New York led to a grad school career which led to teaching and writing and marriage and babies and suddenly, its Yom Ha’atzmaut again and I’m realizing its been seven years since my last trip to Israel.

Call it cliché, but I miss the smells and the tastes and the nonstop talk. I miss breezy Friday mornings in Rehavia and dead-hot bone-dry Saturday afternoons spent dozing on a moshav deep in the Jordan Valley. I miss the thrill of sleeping outside in the Sinai desert and I miss talking politics with local friends over coffee. I miss speaking Hebrew regularly (my accent has plummeted to the depths of Americanism–I couldn’t roll a resh now if my life depended on it). I miss watching blanched stone and green spruce roll by out the window of an Egged bus. I miss great hummus, great coffee, and great fruit.

I miss having my finger squarely on the pulse of the place–much as I read and follow up, I can’t possibly understand the nuances of the politics as I would if I were living there. I don’t speak to my Israeli friends often enough to understand their perspectives. I’ve become an observer of the situation and not an active part of the fabric of that place. I haven’t celebrated Israel’s independence in any official way, in years.

I talk to my husband regularly about how much I miss Israel, but Jon’s experience of the place is different from mine. He cares about Israel but not in a visceral way. Jon’s attachment is hereditary, dictated by history, lineage and religion. He loves the lofty values espoused in Israel’s Declaration of Independence but feels let down when the country fails to live up to those values. His two trips to Israel were fraught with adolescent angst cut with a touch of I-can’t-turn-off-my-struggles-with-the-glaring-economic-and-social-inequalities here. Jon follows her developments closely, roots for her, and prays for her well-being. But he does not long for Israel as I do.

So we are something of a mixed marriage, and on this Yom Ha’atzmaut I’m wondering where that leaves Avi and Maya. While they’re still small it might not seem to matter, but I have a need to know now, how we’ll manage their relationship with a place that’s so fraught with complexities, but so central to my identity. How will Jon and I reconcile what we want to teach them of Israel? When is it the “right time to go”? Do we have an obligation to teach them immediately of those disparities and that painful war, or can Avi and Maya live in the land of barbeques on the Kinneret and Od Lo Ahavti Di for a while, as I did? Is it wrong to want them to? Is it unfair to offer them Israel as a place to go and find their Jewish selves, when really, that might not even be possible anymore?

Israel taught me about myself and about my history and religion, but mostly, Israel taught me about patriotism, and about what it means to love a place from its dirt and stone to its sea and sky. At one time, I felt for Israel a passion that I’ve still never felt for the country of my birth and that feels like something crucial to pass on to my children, no matter what.

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