Whenever Israel has a watershed anniversary, I’m a sucker for commemorative albums and coins. Like Israel, I was born in 1948. Our lives are intertwined.
Israel is my Rorschach. I see myself refracted in our shared growth and maturity. I believe that the existence of Israel makes possible the incredible blossoming of American Jewish culture. The existence of a tiny, faraway country with a Jewish name blooming in the desert upon ancient stones gives us the confidence to create the vibrant American Jewish world in which we are blessed to live. Israel gives us the courage to labor for justice — for ourselves and for others. Without Israel we would be afraid to find our voice and would not feel secure enough to raise it to advocate for others.
How many remember what it was like to be a Jew before there was an Israel? How many remember the sea change in self-image that Jews everywhere experienced after the Six-Day War?
I experienced that change firsthand. My first trip to Israel, as a college junior, landed me at Lod Airport on July 4, 1967. A soldier ran to greet us on the tarmac. Giddy with pride, he asked, “Did you see what we did?” “What are they saying about us in America?” Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the prophetic song about the yearning for Jerusalem, played on the radio every 15 minutes.
I remember the first Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall in an independent Jewish state in 2,000 years (a Western Wall with no mechitzah) and combing the newly annexed territories with guides as awestruck as we, one of whom was Yoni Netanyahu — the hero of Entebbe.
I remember afternoons in the Old City, drinking coffee with Arab residents, sensing no one could ever own Jerusalem, but that Jerusalem surely owned me.
I remember feeling blessed to be part of Jewish history.
History. It is easy to forget history in the United States, where we assume it stands still. I’ve just come back from Europe where history is not so easily forgotten. I visited Venice’s original ghetto, where people were crammed into such a small place that buildings with six rather than the usual four stories had 6-foot ceilings. Not many Jews live in Venice today.
In Claude Monet’s Giverny, there is the medieval Rue de Juifs — Jews Street, but no Jews. I visited Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House as well as Berlin’s Jewish Museum. These emblems of Jewish history’s ebb and flow recalled Israel’s Beit Hatfutzoth (Diaspora Museum), which traces the Jewish journey from burning Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to today, underscoring that we pass through time and space and should not make assumptions.
At a time when the permanence of pax Americana can no longer be taken for granted, what are the consequences of our assumption of the permanence of the United States as a haven for Jewish safety? The sense of Israel as the homeland for stateless Jews has vanished with the image of the hairy sabra with the rounded hat — carrying a hoe — now replaced by the sabra with a shaved head — carrying a cellphone. But Israel provides us an anchor in history that we didn’t have 60 years ago. Every Jewish psyche, consciously or not, is steadier because of that anchor.
We are 60. What have we learned in progressing from that exuberance on the tarmac at 19, to the more nuanced issues faced at 60?
I have learned the proximity of joy and loss and the ability to embrace paradox holding two seemingly contradictory facts or narratives as one — such as the back-to-back observances of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut.
I have learned to fight the corrosive effect of multiple losses on my character and to struggle not to have my vision sullied by assaults to my safe place in the world.
I have learned that finding peace is more important than being right, but that I can’t make peace with someone who doesn’t see me, nor they with me if I don’t see them.
So even when we list our accomplishments at age 60: mother, author, rabbi, psychotherapist … number of Intel chips produced, per-capita books published, patents held, technological and medical super-achievements — these are the questions I ask:
Have we loved enough?
Have we forgiven enough?
Have we learned the lessons of our losses enough?
Have we walked in the shoes of those we have judged?
Do the boundaries that we create keep us safe?
When I was ordained as a rabbi in May, “haRav” was added to my Hebrew name. Rav means “great,” referring to the amount of knowledge a rabbi is supposed to have. But all who study Judaism know that the body of Jewish knowledge is infinite, and Jewish learning is an unending process. So perhaps the most important thing one can learn is humility.
Humility is an opportunity not for despair but for hope. When we admit that there is much we don’t know, we remain open to the unknown. It is the anniversary of the miracle from the unknown that we celebrate when we celebrate a birthday.
Like birth, peace comes from a place we don’t yet know. Humility keeps us open, searching the unknown with curiosity and hope. HaTikvah.
Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001. She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.