When I was 14 years old, living in Manhattan, I hung up the photo of the paratroopers at the Wall on my own wall, over my bed. I was religious, Zionist, homesick for Israel, and who knows, they were handsome and I was just beginning to come out.
111 Roses: Counting graves, candles, wrinkles and wishes: Birthdays All Around.
Tonight, May 5, marks the 21st night of counting the Omer on our journey to revelation, and it is also the 66th birthday of Israel, and my 45th birthday – Hebrew date.
I’m spending this day at a conference in San Diego – where Chino de Mayo is more the public flavor – but in my heart I’m back in Jerusalem, and my iPhone playlist plays today’s selection of Israeli radio – familiar shuffle of sad and quiet and heart-tug songs that mark the complicated mix that is Israel’s memory of all who died for this birthday to still happen. Today the graves of fallen citizen and soldiers are counted, and tonight we count the years of the living. Somehow, the Omer count – the very act and art of counting – fits right in.
I pause right now to count all blessings: every wrinkle, battle scar.
My birth, I’m told, was the aftermath of battle. In 1967, Joan, my British born mother, had been living in Israel for just over a decade, married to a Polish born Holocaust survivor, mothering my three older siblings, far away from her parents and siblings back in London. The weeks preceding the Six Day War are recalled by historians as filled with dread for the young country. My mother remembers the dread vividly. Some friends and neighbors fled Israel for their safety. Just days before the war began she too received an urgent package from her parents – with airline tickets for her and her children. My father, working for the Ministry of Defense was away on national duty. A stubborn and deeply religious Zionist, she refused to leave. In the wake of the surprising war, as Israel and the world digested the victory, the newly charted borders and the messianic zeal that permeated Jewish life in Israel and abroad, my mother experienced not only a private victory but what she described as a ‘personal revelation of Divine will’.
And she wanted another child to celebrate this victory with new life, a vindication of her path.
On the eve of Israel’s Day of Independence, two years later, at the age of 40, she birthed me into the world. I was named Amichai – My People Live.
My birthday celebrations still take place alongside this national holiday. The round chocolate cake, two-tiered, features one tier for the State of Israel – and one for me, both covered with whipped cream, strawberries and tiny Israeli flags. 45 years later, my mother still bakes the same cake, sending me photos via email, celebrating her victory, my life, our family saga in the context of this larger legacy of survival and hope.
At 45, I have so much to thank for, and I mark this day with simple rituals of joy and gratitude. It gets more complex for many of us wanting to celebrate Israel – grateful for the miracle, proud of the achievements, worried about the ‘situation’ and wondering about what’s yet to come. And yet – AND YET – it’s a day to count blessings, to focus on what is, while hoping and wishing for an easier and kinder future – and committing to be part of what it takes to make it better.
It’s a complicated story and a complicated birthday. What I find is helping to untangle the confusing narratives and tensions is more information about how we got here, what the deeper stories are about. The current struggles among American Jews about how to handle Israel stem mostly from ignorance and from the choice to focus on just one side of the story, oblivious to all the other authentic attitudes and paths that led us here. To understand, with compassion, is to make every single story count. More efforts to learn and to know and to understand all sides will offer a more nuanced and honest conversation – and celebration of what is, and what is not yet, and what is yet to come.
Here’s one recommendation. I’ve been reading a page turner called ‘Like Dreamers’, written by my teacher and friend Yossi Klein Halevy. Yossi tells the stories of the paratroopers who became known as the ‘Liberators of the Western Wall’ – some of them became the founders of the Settlement movement and some became the leaders of the counter movement for peace. Through their stories he tells the story of a people, a country, a journey that is breathtaking, heartbreaking, and fills me with hope. Here is one paragraph, to accompany us on the journey to Shavuot – 29 nights away:
“The predawn streets of West Jerusalem filled with pilgrims. it was the holiday of Shavuot, Pentecost, celebrating revelation. the war had ended five days earlier, and all of Jewish Jerusalem seemed to be moving east. Many too had come from around the country, to be part of the first holiday at the Wall since its liberation – and the first mass pilgrimage of Jews to the area of the Temple Mount since Tiberius burned the Temple 1,900 years earlier. There were women wheeling baby carriages and grandmothers in kerchiefs and kibbutz nicks in floppy hats and Orthodox men in prayer shawls and Hasidic fur hats and black fedoras and berets and knitted kip pot. It was impossible, but here they were, sovereign again in Jerusalem, just as Jews had always prayed for and believed would happen. Strangers smiled at each other: We are the one who made it to the end of the story…
From behind the shutters of Arab houses, eyes silently followed the procession.”
We are the ones who are privileged to live today and tell this story. May we carry this responsibility with pride, compassion and truth, counting our blessings and blowing out candles with the wish for the best that’s yet to come.
To my mother – today and with Mother’s Day coming up – 45 roses of deep gratitude and love. And to my motherland – another 66. 111 roses, one big bouquet of life.