Friday, May 02, 2014

2-May-14: A special place

The next few days are an especially tumultuous time in Israel. Life throughout the country will come to a solemn halt as we usher in Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, on Sunday night. The day that follows will be marked by intense remembrances at ceremonies throughout the country and via radio and television, recalling thousands of lives of service personnel and ordinary citizens lost in the almost seven decades of Israel's revival as a free nation and its ongoing struggle to defend itself against determined enemies.

And then Monday night - a complete change of mood as the sadness of retrospection gives way to the joy of celebrating Israel's 66th birthday, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Independence Day.

The Australian Jewish News invited Arnold Roth to write a contribution to its Independence Day supplement. They asked to know about our hopes and expectations in making aliyah. How has the
reality of Israeli life been for us in light of the events and changes of the past 25+ years. Here's one not-so-small measure of how great those changes have been: Israel's population in 1989 when we celebrated our first Independence Day was 4.6 million. It stands this year at 8.2 million.

Here's a version of what the AJN published in this week's edition.

Dependence and independence
Arnold Roth

This month, my family and I celebrate the 25th anniversary of our first Israel Independence Day as olim, immigrants who went up to the Land.

Most of us tend to think of ourselves as unchanging over time, the same old me inside, while the world around us evolves. The reality of course is that with the passage of years, the person we are, the life we live, changes. Beyond the physical aspects, we adapt to the circumstances of our lives.

In preparing to respond to the AJN’s invitation to write for the Yom Ha’atzma’ut supplement, I looked back at letters to and from Australia during our first year in Jerusalem. Some of the issues I encountered in that 1989 correspondence surprised the 2014 edition of who I am.
Independence Day 1989 on our terrace

Many Australian olim will know that when Israeli-born Israelis hear where we came from, much of the time this elicits a clichéd response: why did you leave there? Why would anyone leave?

But we, as a young family, four children under the age of 10 when we moved from Caulfield to Jerusalem, knew why we were leaving and where we were going. We had only the vaguest of senses about what to actually expect, but life can be like that even when you remain rooted in the town of your birth.

Frimet, my wife, no longer remembers this (she says) but on the very first date we had in New York City where I pursued post-graduate studies, she asked me how I felt about making aliyah. Turns out it was a powerful issue in her life as well as in mine. Our outlooks were closely aligned on this and on many of the other key issues we have faced. Each of us felt, and still feels, that living a life illuminated by the peoplehood, the religion, the ethical values, the collective history of being Jewish was best done in the Jewish people’s historical home. Being able to make the decision to do this was a privilege available to us. Not to take the opportunity when it was offered and accessible was unthinkable.

With all the momentous changes we experienced and saw, it bears mentioning that in 1988 when we arrived, the swamps had been drained. Tel Aviv had a working airport with incoming and outgoing flights to almost everywhere. Electricity and phone services were obtainable for the asking. Toilet paper and baby nappies were nearly as good as in other countries, and you could read the daily news in English if you wanted.

None of this means the process of adjusting to a very different environment was simple. But the challenges came with major compensations.

My letters to family remind me of how pleased we were with the adjustments our children made to the school system and to the language. Getting them a good Jewish education where both Torah and Jewishness received solid attention was at the top of our wish list. Once we completed the not-so-smooth process of finding schools and enrolling them, the initial indicators were promising, and in the course of the next two decades the promise was by and large fulfilled.

The children found friends quickly, and so did we. They of course became completely and quickly fluent in the language that surrounded them at school, in the streets and on the buses. Less predictable was their connection with their native language and their ability and desire to keep reading and writing in it. Here, we made a principled decision right at the beginning that paid real dividends: the children had to speak English at home, with us and with each other. And we would keep them supplied with English-language books and magazines. In the Israel of 2014, as much as if not more than twenty-five years ago, a mastery of English is a key component to succeeding in the workplace and in academia.

Our oldest son, a primary school student at Melbourne’s Yavneh College before we brought him to Israel, and blessed with curiosity and a nimble mind, went directly into grade 6 in a notoriously demanding Religious Zionist school in Jerusalem. Barely three months into the experience, his class teacher phoned and asked to meet with us. It’s a discussion that remains vivid for me: your son, a lovely boy, needs to find a different school and we want to help you in that search, nothing personal. The teacher himself, it turned out, was in his first year – both at the school and in teaching and our son was evidently the first student he had encountered who was new to the Hebrew language. We were alarmed by the paternalizing tone and the presumption that a child barely into his first semester in a system very different from the one in which he had been raised ought to be shown the door if, as it seemed to the educator, his language skills were not up to scratch.

Thinking back on it now, I realize this was a learning moment for us. We knew the teacher was right about our son’s language gaps, and totally wrong about the chances of him overcoming the hurdles and adjusting. We pushed back, insisting that we and he would do what it took to improve his Hebrew skills, and while it was good to know help was available if we wanted to find him a new school, we were perfectly happy to leave him where he was. That son has gone on to develop a fine academic career in medieval Jewish history and Halachic thought. The teacher remained at the elementary school, and my wife and I have continued to hone our push-back skills.

Still in our first year but a few months later, we piled everyone into the family car and visited a museum located on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Engrossed in what we saw, neither my wife nor I noticed when the older of our two daughters, then just 4, slipped away. Our search was anxious and worrying, then urgent, and then seriously, traumatically stressful: she was nowhere to be found and the campus seemed huge. Then someone told us she had been spotted by a guard at one of the gates who was looking after her and waiting for us to walk over. The relief we both felt as we hugged and kissed her was enormous. Recalling it now is unspeakably painful because just a few years later, by then an accomplished and delightful fifteen year-old, she was murdered in a Hamas terror attack on a pizza shop in the centre of Jerusalem.

Anyone who knows anything about life in Israel is aware of how two of the most intense days in the public calendar follow one after the other, stitching together two utterly different experiences that drag an entire population from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with barely a moment in between. If there is another place on earth apart from Israel that tries to do this, I don’t know of it.

For two minutes, the life of an entire busy country comes
to a standstill: Israel's Memorial Day [Image Source: Haaretz]
Unless you have spent those two days, Memorial Day and Independence Day (Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzma’ut), in Israel, you might not be aware of the central role television plays in both.

While many Israelis – many more than you might think – visit cemeteries and memorials, and attend local and central memorial services, even more of them allow television to bring the message of the day into their homes. Throughout the somber day of remembering lives lost in the struggle to establish and then preserve a Jewish state, some of the most moving video programmes of the entire year are shown, round the clock. Even the programming broadcast by the made-in-Israel cable stations reflects that thoughtful, heavy mood.

Then the sun sets, marking the end of that day’s remembrances, and it all changes completely, giving way to fireworks, lively music, campfires and parties; boisterous, noisy celebration. Then the following day – the smell of burnt meat as an entire country, gathered in family groups and broader social settings, embraces the tradition of the mangal, known outside Israel as barbecue.

Before lunch, during those Yom Ha’atzma’ut morning hours, a vast part of the Israeli population tunes their televisions to the Independence Day final round of the International Bible Quiz. It’s astonishing really: a modern, technology-obsessed country, living with day-to-day threats to its borders and its buses, taking time out to watch questions about Biblical verses and personalities being fielded by eager competitors from all over the world.

For years, it was incomprehensible to me that a community of millions of people could shift gear in this way: engrossed in tragedy on a human scale, family by family, victim by victim, and then – in a heartbeat – embracing collective happiness and achievement, sharing joy, celebrating life and survival and attainment.

A year ago, my family and I found ourselves at the focus of this national schizophrenia. The central ceremony that sets the tone for Memorial Day begins simultaneously in two places: the Kotel, and the plaza of the Knesset, the parliament building in Jerusalem. Both events go to air on virtually all the television and radio channels. So the audience is huge, an entire nation watching and listening.

Family members at Yom Hazikaron memorial event in the Knesset plaza,
a year ago - April 2013
In April 2013, we were seated in the front row of the ceremony site at the Knesset as a handful of extremely moving video clips and performances honored the lives of a selection of young Israelis who died Al Kiddush Hashem, in Sanctification of the Name.

The video that told, briefly, the story of our daughter Malki’s beautiful life and of the good workdone in her name on behalf of children with special needs was seen by millions. [It’s online here.]

By now, we have come to learn how well that sharp cross-over from mourning to celebrating reflects the essence of Jewish history and Jewish life. It’s a lesson I wish we had never had to learn. But having come to understand that process – and what it says about our people – a little better now, I am proud that we possess a response that is relevant to both the tragic and the transcendent.

As a people, we know there are moments when our thoughts are sharply focused on the individual, and others when we celebrate being together. Israel, not a paradise but certainly a special place, embodies this. 

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