Unless you go to a place, there is no way to really know what it’s like. Before going somewhere, we form pictures in our heads of what we perceive it to be like, based on what we learn, hear, or see around us. For example, I couldn’t understand, when I first moved to Japan, why Japanese homes didn’t look like the old bamboo huts in a Miyazaki anime film. Equally surprised was my Japanese friend, Masataka, when he learned that I, as an American, didn’t own a gun.
Nowhere is this truer than in Israel. Many who haven’t been there believe it’s unsafe. Those who go there, however, quickly learn that in fact, it’s like most other countries: there are safe and unsafe areas, and as a smart traveler, you avoid going to the latter. It’s also unusually difficult in the Diaspora to find news about Israel that is not unapologetically biased or even factual—on either side. The world seems to perceive Israel as a strong, occupying country, forced to fight daily against a civilian population. Yet Israel sees itself as a small nation surrounded by larger enemies, fighting for their lives.
For me, Israel is like a second home. I have family there it has a special place in my heart.
There is a false, yet common narrative that the Jews came to Israel in 1948 and took the land from Palestinians. In fact, in recent history, Jews have been returning to Israel since the 19th century, and so have the Palestinians. Both peoples have legitimate claims to the land historically and religiously, not one more than the other. I believe that it’s only until both sides recognize this—and the fact that both are there to stay—that there can be peace.
For 3,519-5,778 years (according to different interpretations), the Jewish people have been nomadic. Even though the Jews have been around so long, it wasn’t until 70 years ago that they had their own country for the first time. Today, Israel is a safe haven for Jews anywhere in the world under the threat of anti-Semitism.
No time has this been more vital to our existence as after the Holocaust. How could it have been that the darkest time in our history preceded the first time we had a home? Jews are survivalists, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel. You see it in the way they belt out lyrics to songs at local bars and cafes, they way they engross themselves in the news every day, the way they relish their falafel, tahini, and hummus (pronounced “hoomoos”). Israel is a celebration of life.
Israelis stick together. It’s a small country and you form friendships in the army, compulsory for men and women. In the US, individualism is valued; in Israel, it’s more about your contribution to the State. In the US, I’ve declared what I identify with, as if that’s who I am. Yet retracing my family’s past has reminded me that my ancestors, religion, country: they’re all a part of me too, whether I identify with (or like) them or not.
I suppose everyone can learn from Israelis. In her last years with Alzheimer’s, my grandmother would light up when she was spoken to in Yiddish, the language her parents used in Poland. But she’d always tell me one thing in English, nearly every time I visited her: remember to enjoy life. We all get wrapped up in our own problems from time to time but don’t let that become you. Belt out the lyrics of your favorite song. Relish the food that you eat. Don’t let negativity, stress, or exhaustion take over. Enjoy the moment. Or start by reminding yourself that you still can.
April 28, 2015
When the Knicks had Patrick Ewing and Johnny Starks