Two weeks ago I turned 49. A birthday, but one that feels redundant. The big Fifty is coming in a year, and 49 is the one I had to endure on the way to the real celebration – or lamentation – of a new era. Tomorrow, Israel will be 69, and an effort is needed to make this occasion special – even though we already know that next year, when the big Seventy comes, the celebration will be probably more special.
I spent the week before Yom HaAztmaut – Israel’s Independence Day – on the road, traveling between Detroit, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and New York. I spent it talking to groups of Jews and to individual Jews. I spent it talking about many things, Israel included. One conversation I had was with David Shtulman, the outgoing executive director of the Jewish Federation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I owe him credit for an observation he made that I found useful: In our discussion of the relations between American Jews and Israel, and in our fear that Jews are distancing from Israel, we keep focusing on young Jews. Shtulman suggested that we ought to look more carefully at older Jews. That we open our eyes to look at these Jews who we know used to love Israel – and still want to love Israel – and are often sad that they can no longer feel towards Israel the way they did twenty, or thirty, or forty, or fifty years ago.
It is true. A sense of sadness, of longing, often creeps in when I have a conversation with Jewish Americans about Israel. A sense of longing for the younger, more attractive Israel. A sense of longing for the Israel they fell in love with many years ago. Maybe in 1948, when it was established. Maybe, more commonly, when it was almost twenty, and had a great victorious war against its enemies fifty years ago, in 1967.
In fact, not just Jewish Americans convey such sentiment. Jewish Israelis do too. A famous Israeli song – not quite new – begins with the words “they say things were happier here before I was born” and goes on to recount several exciting details of early Zionism. “A Hebrew watcher on a white horse in a dark night. Near the sea of Galilee [Joseph] Trumpeldor was a hero.” Maybe it is all gone now, the song continues. “Maybe it is all gone.”
And indeed, a lot of it is gone. Israel is no longer a tightknit community of a few hundred thousand or even a few million people. I was almost shocked to learn this past weekend that even the eight million I had in mind as the updated number of Israelis is no longer valid. We are getting closer, much closer, to nine million (8.6 million is the updated number). It is hard to have intimate relations with nine million Israelis. And it is hard to retain a sense of freshness and excitement at the age of sixty-nine.
Israel does not owe anyone – not American Jews, nor Israeli Jews – a constant supply of excitement. In fact, Israel ought to seek some normalcy. It ought to strive to provide Israelis with a boring routine of normalcy. But normalcy and routine and an older age have a price. They all make it harder to get excited, to be emotional about a country.
It is harder when we think about a beloved country as it is when we think about a beloved spouse. In order to keep loving our partners when the relationship become a welcome routine, we are told to work on the relationship. We are told to apply whatever means available to us – romantic dinners, weekends spent together, buying flowers, buying chocolate, complimenting each other, putting the phone away for a conversation. Just Google it, and you’ll find a plethora of such advice. Advice such as giving “a moment (or more) of your full attention and presence every single day.” Advice such as “expressions of gratitude for this special person’s presence in your life.”
That’s good advice, even if it is somewhat tacky. It is good for having a better relationship with a spouse or a partner, but it is also useful as one thinks about one’s relationship with a country – with Israel. Working on the relationship becomes important as the years pass, as the early excitement of a new relationship wanes, as the wheels of time erode the passions of adolescence. Israel is no longer a blushing youth. It is no longer a tantalizing novelty. It is no longer a hard-to-believe reality. It stands before us – lovers of Israel – at sixty-nine. Not yet old, but no longer young. Not yet wrinkly, but no longer tight.
Yes, the big Seventy is coming next year, but this does not mean that we can casually skip, or neglect the 69th birthday. In fact, it is better if we give “a moment (or more)” of our full attention to the presence of Israel “every single day.” It is better if we do not forget to express “gratitude for this special” country’s “presence” in our life. Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, is our Valentine’s Day for loving Israel. We ought to make a special effort on Valentine’s Day – and then every other day – to keep loving a country, to love it even more than ever, at 69.