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This week, flags are flapping in the wind, and It’s got me thinking.
Union Square Farmers Market in Downtown Manhattan was in full sunny spring bustle this week, buckets full of pink lilies, red geraniums, and, from the corner of my eye, a surprisingly familiar splash of color: Blue and white flags flying atop a large tent. A big sign announced “The Israeli Hi Tech Expo” – or something like that. I walked by and a pretty young woman in a tight black suit sniffed my curiosity and called out in thick Israeli accent ‘Shalom! Do you want to come into inside?’
Not really, I smiled, in Hebrew, I’m in a rush, and she smiled with surprise and in one swift move inserted a small Israeli flag into my jacket breast pocket, waved goodbye and moved on. It took me an entire block to register the fact that I was now a walking embassy – people staring at my chest with a wide range of expressions. I didn’t like this attention – rarely comfortable with public signs of affiliations, national, religious or more. Maybe I’m a product of centuries of Diaspora Jews blending in for safety. It could have something to do with growing up gay, closeted, trying to pass. Either way, flags are really not my thing. I took it out of my breast pocket and tucked in my backpack, but was unable to tuck away the question – why was I so uncomfortable walking around with a flag??
Two memories surfaced, about flags and ambivalence, and one more image that connected to the weekly Torah text, BaMidbar, where 12 flags wave wildly in the Sinai breeze.
1. 1983. Salute to Israel Parade, as the son of the Israeli Consul General I get to open the parade, marching down Fifth Avenue with a gigantic heavy Israeli flag. In front of me are three NYPD officers, trotting on horses. Years later I will pause to reflect upon the rich symbolism: Marching down fifth avenue, proud with flag, people cheering, stepping in horse shit all the way.
2. Fast forward 30 years. 2013. Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan and I’m here with my 3 children and one of their two moms: a proud LGBT family with strollers and sun screen. No flags. There’s plenty of rainbows already. Half way through the parade our son, then 3, finds a small Israel flag on the road, fallen from one of the Jewish floats, grabs it with delight and waves it high in the air. Really? I ask him? How about I get you a rainbow flag? You got the wrong parade, buddy… But stubborn little Zionist that he is, it’s blue n white all the way down the avenue, and he’s thankfully oblivious to the occasional boo (!) and quizzical looks.
It’s amazing that a simple piece of fabric can mean so much. The symbolic is attached to the practical. Flags are about identity, in simple but not so simple ways.
And maybe that’s why Moses puts such emphasis upon this tribal feature, instructing the 12 tribes to pitch their tents in strict formation, each tribe under its own unique family flag.
“The Israelites will put up their tents with each family under the flag that symbolizes its household.” (Num. 2:2)
There are fantastic traditions in Midrash about these flags – their colors and symbols, wolves and snakes and towers echoing a lesser known mysterious past.
I guess flags are useful to identification – eat here, be safe there, welcome home – belong with me. But somehow it still makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable and I’d much prefer to raise no flags at all.
Maybe just a white flag, up above, as if to say – I surrender; I belong to all and none, and patriotic pride or national identity aside – I pitch my tent with all you people, and ask to love and you to love me – just the simple way I am.
Flags, wrote Yehuda Amichai, are the shrouds of history. I take the flag I got from that young lady, hand it to my youngest child for play and pleasure, and head out to the airport, on my way to yet another home.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org