Thursday, April 19, 2012
Yom Ha-atzma'ut 5772
The best Yom Ha-atzma’ut of my life was in 1984. We were living in Jerusalem that year, because I had the great good fortune to have been awarded a post-doctoral fellowship for a year’s worth of research and study at the Hebrew University. (This was before I came to my senses and remembered that I had become a rabbi in the first place to serve actual Jewish people in the congregational setting, not to lecture to mostly non-Jewish undergraduates in university classrooms.) My oldest son, Max, had been born a week earlier. Even that is a bit of a story—no one plans for a child to be born on Yom Ha-shoah, obviously, but that was nonetheless when Max ended up entering the world. At first, Joan and I were both a bit dismayed, confused by the weirdness of the greatest day of our lives to date falling precisely on the Jewish people’s national day of remembrance for the k’doshim who perished during the Holocaust. But once we calmed down, we saw things differently.
My whole life, I think it is fair to say, had to that point been one long, complicated response to the Shoah. In many ways, it still is. (The same could be said, probably, for most of us. But we do differ in how we embrace that thought, or even if we allow ourselves to embrace it in terms of actual life choices and not merely worldview.) For me personally, even despite having spent a lifetime in the congregational rabbinate, I believe that the most profound way in which I have personally responded to the Shoah was to marry and then to become the father of Jewish children, thus seeing to it as best I could that the Jewish people would rise from the ashes, if not quite phoenix-like than at least in terms of me personally doing what I could to create a viable future generation of engaged, committed Jewish young people. And so, at least eventually, Joan and I concluded that perhaps giving birth to a firstborn child on Yom Ha-shoah—and in the thriving capital city of an independent Jewish state, no less—was not something to be regretted or stoically accepted, but rather something to be embraced, to be considered richly meaningful and deeply satisfying. And so was Max born on Yom Ha-shoah in 1984, forty-one years almost to the day after the Jews of Warsaw—and my father’s people came originally from a shtetl just outside Warsaw—rose up in their futile, yet incredibly noble, effort to die not as victims but as heroes. Could any of those people fighting the Germans in Warsaw have imagined my little baby being born in the thriving capital of a Jewish state possessed of its own powerful army just four decades later? I doubt it! But I, blessed (as are we all) with hindsight, could see them…and I could also see my baby, my little Yerushalmi, coming into the world precisely on a day that once Jewish children only died.
Boys born on Yom Ha-shoah, like all Jewish healthy boys, have their brit milah eight days later. Yom Ha-shoah falls on the twenty-seventh of Nisan. Normally, Yom Ha-atzma’ut is eight days after Yom Ha-shoah, but the dates are altered slightly from year to year to avoid interference with Shabbat observance. And so it came to pass in 1984 that eight days after the day of Max’s birth was not Yom Ha-atzma’ut at all, but Yom Ha-zikaron, the Memorial Day devoted to remembering both the members of the Israel Defense Forces who died in the service of their country and also those who died before statehood was proclaimed in the effort to create a Jewish state in the land of Israel. It’s a somber day in Israel, one that is marked with memorial ceremonies, with some national minutes of silence, and with a general sense of somber gratitude to those who paid the ultimate price so that the State might come into being, then endure. And Yom Ha-zikaron is always followed immediately by Yom Ha-atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, which commemorates specifically the day on the Jewish calendar, the fifth of Iyar, on which statehood was proclaimed in 1948. Max’s whole first week was fraught with symbolism! His bris, held in the gorgeous home of friends of ours on Tel Chai Street in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, was held in the late afternoon on Yom Ha-zikaron.
It was a warm day. My mother-in-law and I made the trek to Machane Yehudah earlier in the day to buy fruit and cakes and other treats to serve to our guests. The brit milah itself was fine. (By that I mean that the mohel was fine and our guests were fine. The sandek, Joan’s great-uncle Mordechai, was fine too. As first-time parents, Joan and I were slightly in shock.) But the best part was still to come: evening fell, the sky was suddenly filled with fireworks, our baby was fast asleep, and the entire nation began to celebrate…not precisely Max’s entry into the covenant, but its own birthday, the birthday of the State of Israel. Now that was a Yom Ha-atzma’ut to remember!
Since then, no Yom Ha-atzma’ut has come or gone without bringing me back to those days in Jerusalem. As you all know, I harbor no ambivalence at all about my Zionism or about my unyielding support for the State of Israel. I’ve just finished reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book, Jerusalem: A Biography, which I heartily recommend to you all. It is a long read, but a fascinating one…and one that will bring to your attention all sorts of details about Jewish history and about the history specifically of the Jewish community in Jerusalem that you will probably not have known. (Many of them, I too did not know.) It is a rich book, a powerful book…but its power for me personally lay not in the accuracy of its detail (which is impressive in its own right), but in the backdrop it provided for my family’s great Yom Ha-atzma’ut in 1984.
Obviously, I had known that there have been Jews living in Jerusalem since biblical times. But the almost unimaginable tenacity that has made permanent the bond between a people and its holiest city is what Montefiore brings to the fore in his book, which also describes in detail the background of the Arab sense of Jerusalem being one of Islam’s holy cities and also the history of Christian Jerusalem and its relationship to world Christendom. I came away from reading the book deeply imbued with a sense that our family’s minuscule role in the history of the city—Joan and I are, after all, the parents of one single Jewish Yerushalmi among millions and were the hosts of one single brit milah among the brisses of millennia—has a context that makes it not only meaningful, but profoundly so.
Yom Ha-zikaron falls next week on Wednesday. Yom Ha-atzma’ut in on Thursday. We in the diaspora have chosen to live on the sidelines, yet we should not allow that thought to justify a sense of disengagement from either event. Therefore, I recommend two simple, highly doable ways of commemorating both days. On Yom Ha-zikaron, I suggest that you consider lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of all those who gave their lives so that Israel might live. And on Yom Ha-atzma’ut, I suggest you consider coming to shul and there reciting the version of the Al Ha-nissim prayer we add to the Amidah on that day only, the one that acknowledges the victory of newly-born Israel over its mighty enemies as a miracle for which Jews everywhere should be grateful. It isn’t much. No one will know that you light a candle or, other than everyone else who shows up, that you came to shul. I can promise you they’ll be having way more fun in Israel! But both acts would be something rather than nothing…and pausing on Yom Ha-zikaron to remember those who gave their lives so that Israel might live and then again on Yom Ha-atzma’ut to thank God that we were all privileged to see the a thriving, self-reliant Jewish state in the land of Israel in our own day—that doesn’t sound like such an inappropriate way to nod to two days that only appear at first blush to be more about Israelis than about American Jews such as ourselves.