“Do You Love Me? Do I What?” — “Fiddler on the Roof”
This poignant, comical exchange between Tevye and Golda in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was a canonical text in my childhood home. It spoke to the impossibility of speaking about love — and conveyed the mysterious mix of tenacity and tenderness required to sustain a relationship over many years. Its decidedly unromantic view of love was echoed by another quote on the bulletin board in my mother’s kitchen: “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.”
I was raised on the classic Zionist narrative, when that was simpler than it is now. But the truth is that my sense of _ahavat Yisrael_has never been about a neatly packaged Zionist ideology. It has been about the abiding sense that my personal story is deeply bound up with the story of Israel.
My mother was born in Haifa and, although she came to America when she was a young child, I always felt a quiet pride that my family was part of the story of pre-state Palestine. My grandmother was a nurse (the private nurse of Hebrew poet Haim Nachman Bialik, for a brief time), and my grandfather studied in the first graduating class of Haifa’s Technion Institute of Technology.
Shortly after I turned 13, the Yom Kippur War broke out. I pledged my entire bank account ($33.11) to support the Israeli war effort. It was the first time I remember the feeling of being needed by something much bigger than myself.
Three years later, I returned from summer camp humming an old Israeli folksong, “Shir Ha’emek.” My mother recognized it as a long forgotten lullaby her mother used to sing to her when she was a little girl. Learning this, I felt a powerful connection to something beyond myself — to the grandmother I never knew, and to the threads of Hebrew poetry and song that tied us together over vast distances of time and space.
At age 17, I spent eight months studying in Israel. I met Rabbi David Forman, z”l, who became an important mentor for many years. He modeled a deep and spacious sense of ahavat Yisrael — one that had room for both idealism and outrage, for devotion and disappointment. Early in the program, he took us on a tour of Jerusalem and showed us how inequities and injustices were built into the landscape of the city. I intuitively understood that he did this out of love for this place he had chosen to make his home — the same love he exuded when he sang his favorite Hebrew songs. I vividly remember a magical car ride with him from Haifa to Jerusalem. We sang for hours. It was then that I learned the melody to “V’Yehuda l’olam teshev”; “Yehuda will endure forever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation.”
What captured my imagination about Israel in my youth — and has claimed my heart ever since — was not the promise of redemption, but the drama of human connection and aspiration. I have always been drawn not to the perfection of heavenly Jerusalem, but to the vitality of earthly Jerusalem — to the messy over the messianic.
Recently, I traveled with a group of Jewish leaders (through Encounter to spend four days meeting with Palestinians in the West Bank. Much of what we witnessed was ugly and painful: the entrenchment of occupation after almost 50 years, the daily indignities, the elusiveness of any solution in sight.
I was afraid that the experience might shake my sense of ahavat Yisrael. It didn’t. I felt that the people I was with — both Jews and Palestinians — understood what it means to love and to long for a place, what it means to feel that one’s personal story is bound up with the story of one’s people. While the stories we heard were difficult and sometimes heartbreaking, I did not feel that they were intended to erase my own story.
Ahavat Yisrael is not about a loyalty oath to the State of Israel. History has taught us the danger of such oaths. Our love cannot be built on a brittle ideological branch that will break the minute it encounters the reality of a complex country that is both beautiful and burdened by trauma and pain. Our relationship must be more supple and subtle than that.
The word ahavah is related to the Hebrew root meaning “to give.” Another form of the same root means “a burden.” For me, this speaks to the essence of ahavat Yisrael. It is about the burdens and blessings of belonging, about the love that grows within us when we give, about linking our lives to something beyond ourselves. It is, after all, about what we’ve been through together.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld has been dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School for eleven years. She worked previously as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale, and Harvard universities, and she has been a faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel since 1993.