Singing in Israel’s Ears Till She Opens Her Eyes

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 07, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.
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Love, as we all know, is a many-splendored thing. Whatever that means. Actually, “many-splendored” calls to mind “irritable bowel syndrome,” one of those terms you make up as a catch-all for something you can’t explain. And love is difficult if not impossible to explain or even define, as witness the range between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” and John Barrymore’s “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”

Most good love stories — and all great love stories — are complex. Which brings me to American Jews and the celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary. Once, the love — for it was that, for sure — of America’s Jews for Israel was born of longing, of guilt, of pride, of dreams. Singing of Jerusalem, we asked, “Were you real, or have we only dreamt a dream?”

Over the years, the longing receded, replaced by the reality of the new state, replaced by swelling pride: the drained swamps, the blooming deserts, the resettled refugees and then in 1967 the lightning victory in the Six-Day War and in 1976 the daring rescue in Entebbe. Pride became love’s nest.

Flash all the way forward, and today much energy and many dollars are invested in “branding” Israel, in calling attention to its scientific and technological achievements, its splendid beaches, its dazzling soldiers, its GDP growth, all in an effort to craft a scrim to hide the chronic conflict, the corruption, the tapering of the dream. To prop up the love.

And who today can deny that the love of America Jews for Israel requires some propping up? The empirical data confirm it, and private conversations confirm it: What was once organic, intuitive, is now increasingly in need of props, even some days of life support.

Suddenly, Israel’s most ardent lovers discover that they are encouraged (or feel themselves required) to act as Israel’s most whiney apologists, moving from boast to rationalization; others, less ardent, simply move to estrangement, if not all the way to alienation.

The causes are multiple. The generational shift from those for whom Israel’s creation was epiphanic to those for whom Israel’s existence is a matter of (often troubling) fact; Israel’s own revisionist historians, who tell a very different story of the early years, shifting the focus of the story from a dogged battle for survival against the odds to a story of ethnic cleansing; the siege and slaughter at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and the later ascension of the acknowledged chief villain of that calamity to head of Israel’s government; growing doubts that Israel is serious in its pursuit of peace.

Add to this list your own disappointments, and then ask whether Shakespeare was perhaps right: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” By that tough standard, maybe it was never love, just adolescent infatuation, born of naive idealization, the milk long since curdled, the honey lumpy. The love just a crush, too many alterations, now therefore cast aside, abandoned.

I prefer to think the love was true love, and that in its expression we have neglected the much-quoted wisdom of Rabbi Julius Gordon: “Love is not blind — it sees more, not less. But because it sees more, it is willing to see less.”

Enter Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of New York City’s Upper West Side, in this respect, as in so many others, a national treasure. Around America, Israel’s 60th birthday earlier this year was marked by Israel fairs, by art shows, by concerts, by lectures and symposia intended to rebut the criticism of Israel’s enemies and the hesitations of Israel’s friends — which is to say that around the country, the 60th was marked by evasion, avoidance, denial. Ladies and gentlemen, check your critical faculties at the door; here we’ve come to celebrate, no alloys welcome.

At B’nai Jeshurun, the 60th played quite differently. Yes, there were “delicious Israeli foods, dancing and more,” and a guest DJ to sustain the enthusiasm. All that began at 9 p.m.; it was preceded, at 6:45, by facilitated “intimate gatherings” in members’ homes where people gathered to discuss “A Complex Love Story — Our Relationship With Israel.” The title alone reflects the difference between the congregation’s approach and the more standard approach. B’nai Jeshurun acknowledges a complexity, while most others seek to simplify; the congregation makes room for the questions, the doubts, the hesitations, all within the context of love, where others hold pep-rallies and seek to train a new generation of cheerleaders.

I am looking at the “facilitator guide” prepared for the “gatherings.” It includes, among other items, challenging poems by Yehuda Amichai and equally challenging song lyrics by Ehud Manor. Amichai: “He who loves Jerusalem by the tourist book or the prayer book is like the one who loved a woman by a manual of sex positions.” Manor: “I won’t be silent because my country has changed its face; I won’t give up reminding her, I will sing in her ears until she opens her eyes… I have no other country.”

What makes this guide distinctive is that it relates to those who use it as adults. It encourages its readers “to see more,” in order to enable them “to see less,” thereby loving Israel both wisely and well.

So, Browning, counting the ways:

I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!

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