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Our oldest son thinks that because I’m an ardent Zionist, I can find no wrong with Israel. If you know me personally or have been following my FB posts, you realize that’s not the case. What has transpired over the past three months is exceptionally worrying, and as Israel gets ready to celebrate its 75th birthday, I ask myself what is the staying power that keeps me rooted to and rooting for this country that has been my home for over 45 years, but now may go off course? There is one answer that I can conclusively come up with, and that is “family” but not in the classic sense.
I always get looks of astonishment when I say that on my first trip to Israel I fell in love with the people, not the country. Yes, the scenery was beautiful and at times breathtaking. Yes, the biblical and historical sites were way beyond what I imagined. But it was the Israelis themselves who captured my heart, living up to every inch of their reputation. At one and the same time, fun-loving, enthusiastic, blunt, prickly, loud, caring, always-there-for-you, cut-to-the-chase men and women who lived life to the fullest. No poses. No political correctness. And I adored them. They were real and they instantly made me feel a part of them. I was no longer a member of a minority. I was in the bosom of my very extended family, and they drew me back summer after summer in different capacities for four consecutive years.
Notwithstanding our blood relatives living in Israel (and there are many), it is the pull of the country’s family feel that keeps my feet on its ground, with astonishing examples on the personal and public fronts.
The West Bank city of Jenin has long been a hotbed of terror. When one’s oldest son is stationed there, you’re far from sanguine. So, when he returns to his base after a Shabbat break, you bite your nails and feebly attempt to calm your nerves until he follows your request of calling to tell you he’s safely arrived. But if he doesn’t phone several hours after leaving home and you’re a nervous wreck, do you call his commanding officer? The one time that happened, I didn’t hesitate. What shocked me was the answer: “He didn’t call? He knows the rule is to phone home as soon as he arrives. You’ll hear from him in five minutes.” And yes, I did get a verbal lashing from my son for embarrassing him. His officer was a lot nicer. That’s family!
Three years later, it was his younger brother’s turn to serve. He ended up guarding a secret, sensitive instillation and wouldn’t be home for his birthday. I wanted him to celebrate for just a few minutes, even if he was on duty. What to do? This was not Jenin. Once again I had a soldier in the IDF, one of the world’s top armies, which meant intense discipline. It also meant that yes, I could call his commanding officer, ask him to buy a birthday cake and pay him back. But the surprise? The 2 a.m. phone call waking me up: “My officer told me to call you. Thank you Eema!” As this same son asked in another context: “Eema, do you know who the most powerful person in the IDF is?” When I replied the RamatKal – Army Chief of Staff – he laughed. “No Eema,” he replied. “It’s you, the Jewish mother.” Certainly not on the battlefield and in top-secret, closed-door meetings, but at varying times there’s something to that answer. Many Israeli mothers will agree.
During times of sorrow, it is the extended family feel that gets you through it all. From my personal experience of sitting shiva for my mother, and having my GP show up and gynecologist call because they saw the death notice in the paper, to the thousands of people who attend the funerals and shivas of lone soldiers and terror victims. It’s an astounding scene, only seen here.
Even the COVID lockdown couldn’t wipe out Israel’s “familiality.” The real Mah Nishtana of Passover 2020 was the simultaneous, nationwide singing of the Four Questions on balconies across the country. One people, one family.
So, on the country’s 75th birthday, I remain rooted to and rooting for my family. Turbulent times indeed, with a side of us feeling threatened internally and determined to safeguard our democratic values, and another side feeling justified and equally committed to defending its position. The differences of opinion are heard loudly, clearly, daily. We yell at each other, demonstrate, counter-demonstrate, but god forbid if and when the chips are down (e.g. foreign threat) I know that we’ll be there for each other. After all, that’s what “family” is for.