No ‘Place’ Like Israel

"If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches From an Anxious State" by Daniel Gordis (Crown Publishing, $24).

In the summer of 1998, Daniel Gordis and his family moved from Los Angeles to Israel. It was supposed to be just for a sabbatical. But after being there for a while, the family decided to become permanent residents. It was a time of euphoria in Israel. The economy was booming and peace seemed just around the corner. The Gordises felt confident that their children would be part of the first generation of Israelis to grow up in a land at peace.

From the beginning, Gordis kept in touch with his family and friends back in the States by e-mail. His letters were so well-written and so insightful that the people who received them passed them on to others who asked to be included on the list, and soon he had a bigger readership for his reports than he could have ever imagined when he started.The Jewish Journal published some of his letters as did The New York Times Magazine.

And then came the matsav (situation). The dream of right-wing Israelis — that it was possible to occupy the West Bank indefinitely and control the Arabs who lived there — came crashing down. And the dream of left-wing Israelis — that they could adjust the borders here and there and that it would be enough to achieve a lasting peace — came crashing down, too.

The assumptions with which the Gordis family had come — that the Arabs want peace as much as we do, that they could have peace on the northern border just by getting out of Lebanon, that the world understands what we are trying to do — all have been blown to pieces. And a new stage, a nerve-wracking stage that has been going on for more than two years, began.

The Gordis family has had to wonder whether they served their children well by bringing them from the safety of Los Angeles to the tense land of Israel. The tone of these e-mails changed as the family began to struggle with what Gordis and many Israelis are now going through. The e-mails became a kind of self-therapy, in which he examined relentlessly why they had come, why they were staying and what it means to live in Israel during this difficult time.

Gordis, like most American armchair Zionists, came with a clear idea of what should be done to resolve the hostilities that had gone on for so long. But the longer he stayed, the less his preconceived notions made sense. And now, like most Israelis, he simply does not know what, if anything, will work. The country is simply exhausted, worn out by day after day of devastating news. No one has the energy to dream of peace anymore. A little bit of quiet is enough of a goal for most people now.

The matsav forces him and every Israeli to examine their commitment and to ask themselves why they say in this land. But Gordis, and many of the people he works and lives with, find an answer, an answer deep enough to enable them to explain to themselves why they stay. Gordis comes to the conclusion that if he were to leave, he would be betraying all the generations that yearned for this moment in history and he would be giving up the claim that he has always affirmed: that Judaism is a way of life that seeks to sanctify the street, the economy, the culture and the world — and not just the synagogue. He and his family are not going to walk away from the millennial Jewish dream, even if it becomes unpleasant — or even dangerous — to live it. Because life, this matsav has taught him, is not about pleasure or comfort or even safety. Life is about purpose, choice and meaning.

Normalcy is not the goal, writes Gordis near the end of his book when he is trying to explain why his family is staying. Sure, he writes, we will pay a lot to achieve normalcy with our neighbors if we have to, no doubt about that. The goal is long lines at the car wash before Pesach, alarm guys dressed up in costume for Purim, hundreds of people packed into synagogues in every neighborhood on the Shabbat before Pesach to hear the annual pre-Pesach sermon and secular magazines that quote the prophets when they want to criticize the mayor or the army. The goal, quite simply, is Jewish life, like it can’t exist anywhere else.

I don’t know many books that describe the neverending strain of the matsav as well as this book does. And yet, surprisingly enough, in the end this is not a depressing book, but an uplifting one, because it explains not only what the people of Israel are going through, but why.

I remember some official in Arafat’s coterie was interviewed by the media sometime ago and said: "We Arabs are going to win because we value life less than the Israelis do." You read this book and you see that the man had it wrong. The Jews are ultimately going to win, and they will win precisely because they value life more than others do. This is what gives them a reason to stay, and a reason to fight, if fight they must.