Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taking Stock in Hamas

If Hamas were a publically traded company, there's little doubt that they would be rated a stock to buy. As it appears Israel may be about to strike a deal with Hamas to release nearly 1000 terrorists and others in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and held hostage for three and a half years by Hamas in Gaza, it’s a safe bet that upon concluding this deal, Hamas’ stock will go up. Especially on the Arab street. Hamas’ ability to kidnap and hold Shalit hostage all these years gives them added prowess in the eyes of the Arab world for holding Israel at bay. Exchanging Shalit for as many as 1000 Arab terrorists will be perceived as a big victory for Hamas. In business terms, it’s like launching a new product that replaces that of the nearest competition, or the conclusion of a hostile takeover. Yes, if Hamas were a publically traded company, now would be a good time to buy. But a careful analyst, while issuing a recommendation to “buy Hamas” now because of the impending deal, and a resulting increase of Hamas’ value, would be remiss not to consider other factors that might change the “buy” recommendation to a to a “sell”, almost as quickly as many of the terrorists who are expelled from the region find their way back to Gaza through the porous border with Egypt, through the network of tunnels to which Egypt and the world turn a blind eye. One of the reasons Hamas’ stock is likely to dive as fast as it rises is an ongoing conflict with Egypt. While Egypt facilitates the smuggling of weapons, drugs, prostitutes and terrorists through the tunnels if only in not preventing it, Egypt has been embarrassed by Hamas too many times and consequences are likely to arise. Egypt has been trying to serve as the broker to strike a deal to release Shalit but Hamas has embarrassed Egypt by seeking to work through German mediators. Egypt has also been trying to strike a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah since the violent Hamas insurrection that saw Fatah and the ruling Palestinian Authority expelled from power in Gaza, and the establishment of a mini Hamas terror state in Gaza under its total hegemony. Hamas’ agreeing to, and then retracting from, reconciliation with Fatah was a personal slight to Egyptian President Mubarak, diminishing Mubarak’s own stock in the Arab world, challenging his strength, influence and even legitimacy. As a result, Egypt announced its plan recently to build a 30-40 meter deep underground metal wall along the Gaza border to block and prevent smuggling in the tunnels which, until now, they have let happen with virtual impunity if not active support. The political struggle between Egypt and Hamas aside, were smuggling like this to be stopped or significantly diminished, access to many items that have been smuggled will decrease, their prices will increase, and Hamas’ stock on the street will fall. While Hamas’ stock may well go up as a result of its ability to strike a deal that sees the release of as many as 1000 terrorists and others, a good analyst will not discount the fact that a year ago this week, Hamas instigated a battle that saw Gaza attacked and an equal number of Gazans killed as a result. If half of the human tragedy that Hamas (and Goldstone) claimed took place actually did take place, while there may be cause for celebration in the release of the terrorists on Gaza’s streets, nobody can ignore that the suffering that Gazans have endured is a direct result and consequence of Hamas’ religious extremism, ideological intransigence, and their unrelenting attacks on Israel whose very existence they still give no legitimacy. With nothing changing on the extremism, intransigence or physical attacks, a good analyst will know it’s just a matter of time before there is another battle that could see 1000 or more Gazans killed, again. This too will diminish Hamas’ stock on the Arab street. There is a great conflict in Israel over this deal with Hamas. There is near universal support for and solidarity with the Shalit family and desire to bring Gilad Shalit home. He is one of us and could be any of our sons. But there is equal division, and are lots of questions, about at what price to do this. How should the relatives of someone murdered by these (soon-to-be-released) terrorists feel that their murderer is going free? How should any of us feel in making such a deal? It gives us pause to go out for coffee, ride a city bus, or spend a holiday with family in a hotel, knowing that the terrorists responsible for some of the worst terror attacks in places just like this are running free, plotting to do it again. There is concern that in making such a deal we are legitimizing Hamas’ tactics and rewarding terrorism. The world chastises Israel for fighting Hamas which is part of the reason that Israel does so without completing the battle and crushing them entirely. Yet the very completion of the deal at hand may be the inevitable act that necessitates Israel to fight Hamas yet again. Of course, Hamas is not a publically traded stock but a criminal Jihadist terrorist organization. In business there are any number of factors that cause a company’s stock to rise and fall. Some we can project and predict. Others surprise even the best analysts and planners, and can only be responded to. If Hamas were a publically traded company and I were a business analyst, I would project is that a deal to release Gilad Shalit for some 1000 terrorists and others may increase Hamas’ short term value and may bring Gilad Shalit home to sleep peacefully in his own bed at last. But, I’d issue a call to sell shares in Hamas as fast as Shalit gets home, because his return will give no reason for Israelis, or Palestinians, reason to sleep peacefully for very long.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


This week is the anniversary (yartzeit) of the death of my grandfather. He was born in Poland to Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, and made aliyah in 1931. He and my grandmother were married and she arrived in Israel in 1933 where my father was born 4 years later. Luck, and passionate Zionism, had it that my grandfather’s arrival was eased by the earlier arrival of some of his siblings. By shortly after Israel declared statehood, he lived in Israel with three sisters and a brother who had either made it to Israel before the Holocaust, or in the case of one brother, survived the war and arrived afterward with his surviving son. Most families of Polish Jews were not as lucky as the Feldstein siblings who survived and were reunited all in close proximity to one another. A variety of circumstances transpired that my father and his mother left Israel in order to reunite with her two brothers and sister who survived the War and had settled in New York. In 1963, my grandfather died. He is buried in the beautiful old Haifa cemetery. According to Ashkenazi Jewish custom, since I was born after he died, I am named for him. While my father returned to Israel immediately after his father died, he lost touch with his uncles and aunts and cousins. I knew the names of uncles and aunts, but had no real way of finding them. During my junior year in college I studied in Israel and visited Haifa often. When I’d visit, I’d go to the cemetery to look after my grandfather’s grave. But other than imagining what my grandfather was like, a man whose name I carried but who I never knew, I had an ulterior motive. I’d leave notes on the grave, wrapped in plastic, weighed down under the rocks that were the sign that I visited, with the hope that a sibling, niece or nephew or old friend might find it and I’d reunite with my family that I didn’t know. I don’t know if they were ever found, but I never received any indication that they were. During my first visit to Israel, and the only time that I’d be in Israel together with my father, he brought us to visit his old neighborhood and his school. He found an elderly former neighbor who recognized him immediately after 30 plus years, and found an electronic shop owned by his best childhood friend, Ben Zion, across the street from where my father grew up (and next to where my grandmother once had a clothing shop of her own). We found that Ben Zion lived just two buildings down on the same street in which they grew up and where they played together as children. While it was meaningful and interesting to see where my father spent his early years, and I really enjoyed being taken in by Ben Zion and his family as if I were family, I always wondered about the biological family my father left behind. I wondered how he dealt with going to the US with his mother to reunite with her siblings who survived the Holocaust, and what it was like in an age prior to the internet and easy phone access to leave a parent so many miles away, just as his parents had done leaving their families in Poland, never knowing when, or if, they’d see each other again. Many years later, after my own father had died, I still had an unquenchable desire to find my Israeli relatives. Every time I’d meet a Feldstein I had to play genealogist to see if maybe we were related and if I could track that person’s family to find my own. Once, on vacation in Israel, I took a Haifa phone book and called all the Feldsteins, but had no luck considering that there was only one surviving male relative and all the sisters took on their husbands’ names. Ten years ago, I stumbled upon a Jewish genealogy web site and tried to look up all possible configurations of names and locations to find living relatives. http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org brought me to a page on which a woman also named Feldstein was looking for relatives from the same town from which my grandfather came. Her phone number was a Haifa area number. I could not contain my excitement. I woke up early the next day, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and called her. In my broken Hebrew, I was able to discern that her husband was indeed my father’s first cousin. As I would learn later, Shlomo arrived in Israel after the War with his father, Jacob, and lived with my father and his parents until they got settled on their own. After searching most of two decades, I had found my family. Fortunately, my mother had planned a family trip to Israel that December and thirteen American Feldsteins had a family reunion with nearly 100 other Israeli descendants of Yosef and Yaffa Feldstein, finally meeting our Israeli family for the first time. After moving to Israel with my own family in 2004, I was able to get to know my relatives here somewhat. We were moved that some of my father’s cousins (and their children) joined us at the celebrations of our daughters’ bat mitzvahs, we have shared in their celebrations, and have had other occasions to visit and get to know one another, some more than others. What’s so interesting is that one cousin after the next are really fine people. While none are religiously observant, they are proud Jews and Israelis. They run the political spectrum from right to left. I have enjoyed getting to know them as people, but also have been grateful for their ability – and willingness – to piece together my own family history by sharing parts of their past, and memories of my father and his parents. This past summer we were invited to the 80th birthday of my father’s oldest cousin, David. We had met the cousins before but had not seen some since 1999. Just before the party, I found a photo of my grandfather along with several others and shared it with David. As I suspected, this was my grandfather and his siblings all in Poland, including each of the brothers and sisters who made aliyah, and a brother, Ephraim, who was murdered during the Holocaust. Sharing the photo at the party brought back memories to the cousins, and brought me closer to them. As I sat with them, I couldn’t help think that my father really would have loved to have been there. It would have made him happy to sit with his cousins and reminisce even though he left Israel as a young man and did not see them again. My father would have been proud to see that everyone grew up and came out OK, that they had raised beautiful families of their own. It was sad that he couldn’t have been there with us, but I was happy, and fortunate, that I had the privilege myself. My grandfather was the first of his siblings (in Israel) to die, and my father was the first among his cousins. These are not milestones about which to be especially proud, but that’s the reality. Now, ten years after reuniting with my family and 46 years after my grandfather’s death, I hope that circumstances will enable my nuclear family and all generations of my extended family to get to know one another and share many happy occasions together. We are very different people with very different perspectives, but we are all family and descendants of those who left Poland to build a better life for themselves in Israel. By thriving in Israel, we honor their memory and truly play a direct and active role in realizing the goals and dreams that they had for themselves, and for us. We fulfill the dreams of my grandfather, who never knew his grandchildren or great grandchildren, but who came to Israel so we’d have the privilege of being here as well. As I observe the yartzeit of the man for whom I am named, wondering about his life, I know that if he were around still he’d be very proud of our coming full circle, not just living here but in our reuniting with my father’s cousins with a common bond and a common destiny, as well as our common DNA.

An 'Al Het' Too Little Too Late

To the Editor, Jimmy Carter's sudden crocodile apology to the Jewish community is about as sincere as the probability of his reversing the flow of the Chattahoochee River. While it might be a stretch to doubt that Carter may truly wish for peace in the Middle East, his calculating “apology” is hard to accept given three decades of his cozying up to Arab terrorists and their collaborators, his faulting Israel for every problem in the Middle East, and blaming the Israeli victims of Arab terrorism. After three decades of strong arming and pointing a finger at Israel at every opportunity, Carter's word is about as good as the United States' credit rating during his presidency. Demonstrable actions are needed to back up his words, not copying liturgy from Judaism's most solemn Day of Repentance. Judaism requires meaningful actions to accompany repentance, not just the insincere utterance of scripted words. This is the standard by which Carter's sudden “apology” should be measured and judged, maybe in another 30 years. Jonathan Feldstein No1abba@gmail.com Jerusalem, Israel

Friday, November 20, 2009

Who Will Take Care of My Fruit Trees?

Recently, I started looking for a new gardener, someone to cut my small lawn and maintain the flowers and shrubs we have, but mostly someone who will care for the six beautiful fruit trees and grape vine that we have in our yard. Before moving to Israel I had a small garden, growing tomatoes and herbs mostly. But in Israel there is something unique about planting trees in general, and fruit trees in particular. These are a point of great pride and pleasure to be able to harvest and enjoy fruits that are grown in the land of Israel. As I was looking for a gardener, among the several referrals, I got one from someone whose yard is particularly beautiful whose gardener is in miluiim (military reserves) until the end of the month. This made me wonder that if I hired him, there could be extended periods during which nobody would take care of my garden, and mostly the fruit trees, for a full month. This also made me realize that we have been immune to military service and the need to do reserve duty in my own family; but it won’t be that long before this changes. Most immediately, a good friend and former neighbor who is like an older daughter, Rachel, made aliyah recently. She is getting married next month. We’re all excited for the wedding and that it will be in Jerusalem, meaning one less simcha among dear friends that we’ll miss in the old country. We look forward to dancing and celebrating with her and her soon to be husband, Moshe. Rachel will be initiated very early into a side aliyah that we don’t know because her husband is called to miluiim regularly. For a newlywed, much less a new immigrant, this can and will be trying and stressful. We also have good friends and new neighbors who are native Israelis and also leave their families periodically for 2-4 weeks at a time to do their required miluiim, and their sons, and sometimes daughters, who do mandatory military service for two to three years and sometimes more. We can see that this disrupts the family, that kids need their fathers, and siblings miss their big brothers and sisters. But as stressful and out of sorts as this may be, for people who were born here, or long time veterans, it is the normal pace of life. That does not make it any less stressful I am sure, but the stress is probably different because it is expected. It’s what they know. When we moved to Israel, I was too old to serve in the army, so we’ll never have the inconvenience of me being out of the house like that. But eventually my children will. My daughters will grow up, get married and raise families knowing that it’s the norm that for a month or so every year their husbands will be called into the army for miluiim, and with the awareness that at any point that they could be called into actual battle. My sons will grow up, get married and from time to time leave their families as they are called into miluiim. This will be their norm. It will be stressful and inconvenient at best. But it will be their norm. Another incident that made this hit home was that my 5th grade son’s teacher was called up into miluiim recently, just for a week. But this took place toward the beginning of the school year, just as my son was bonding with this teacher, and learning himself how best to learn with and from this teacher. Not that the substitute teacher was bad by any stretch, but it upsets the pace of life, the continuity of living. But here it’s the norm. We put a lot of trust and faith in the teachers who spend most of our kids’ waking days with them, that they will teach them, set a positive example, help mold them, and enable them to blossom and flourish. Of course it’s much more important that the teachers have a positive impact on the kids than the gardener who takes care of our lawns, shrubs and fruit trees. Yet, the fruit trees, especially in Israel, are vastly important. And the fruit tree is an appropriate metaphor for our children. I have six fruit trees, and I have six children. Children and fruit trees both need constant attention, nourishment, care and a guiding hand. If left alone without these, a tree will deteriorate and die. Entrusting a gardener to maintain these is very important. How much more so this is the case with a teacher. And even more so with a parent. Parents teach their kids many things by example, however in moving to Israel at the age and stage of life that I did, military service was not required. One might even say that the army didn’t want me, leading me to the relief, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, that “I wouldn’t want to be a member of an army that would have me as a member”, anyway. But my kids will only know of the imposition and hardships of military service from their friends, future spouses and others who have gone through this. Of course there is, and should be, pride in serving to defend our country, our home, as much as there is a hope that one day we won’t have to do so. Military service and miluiim are not something that’s part of our life now, but will be part of my fruit, as they grow up and yield their own fruit. Whether relating to a gardener, teacher or future spouse, I can’t help wondering that when military service and miluiim comes to my kids’ lives, who will take care of my fruit trees?

Friday, November 13, 2009

To PC or not to PC

I stayed up late in Israel on Monday to watch the memorial ceremony at Fort Hood and was struck both by the loss, and the crime that was committed. The memorial was truly poignant and my heart goes out to the families of the victims, and for a full and speedy recovery of those who were injured.

I was also struck by the fact that while in some news outlets and media reports (perhaps more so as facts are discovered), the majority have not focused on the reality that the perpetrator of this crime was motivated by Islamic extremism and hatred. There’s no need to suggest that this makes all Moslems bad. That’s not accurate and not fair. But there’s also no need to bury this out of a sense of hyper political correctness. That’s also not accurate or fair because, especially in the case of such fanaticism, people deserve to know the facts and to be aware of challenges that may confront them, be it at a shopping mall, sky scraper, at an airport or even within the security of a US military base.

Does hyper political correctness breed or foster terrorism? No. Terrorists foster terrorism and any other excuses are simple folly. However, if we can’t call an Islamic terrorist a terrorist, are we blinding ourselves from the probability that not only will it happen again, but that it will catch us off guard, and possibly enter a military base or other area which we never imagined would be within the terrorists reach. Of course, nobody ever imagined that Islamic terrorists would ever take down the World Trade Center, murdering 3000. Except the terrorists.

It seems that in an effort by the Obama administration to reach out and establish dialogue with the Moslem world, the US has had to dumb down certain realities relating to Islamic terror. The Administration does not use Islamic and terrorist in the same sentence, even when it’s as plain as day and incontrovertible. Too much of the news media is quick to follow suit. The Administration seems to go out of its way to stick its' head in the sand to avoid risking the ire of Moslems around the world, putting our collective head in the sand along with theirs by making the average person simply not aware of the realities and challenges that these terrorists pose. How, in a representative democracy, do we hold our elected leaders accountable for doing their job, or not, if they’re hiding the truth to begin with.

In the early aftermath of the reporting of the terrorist attack at Fort Hood, I was watching Geraldo Rivera as part of a panel discussing this. Geraldo is not known to be the most conservative of thinkers to put it mildly. It was telling that when the issue of addressing this as an Islamic terrorist attack and the potential need to give extra scrutiny to Moslems within the US military, even Geraldo hesitated. His inclination is that it’s wrong, but faced with the facts, his hesitation was significant. I appreciate that many people feel that politically such scrutiny, maybe even (hated) profiling, would be an affront to their democratic sensibilities. I love that we can have that debate in a free and open society, even though I fall on the side of those who would limit personal freedom for the greater good and public safety. But equally telling is that when a man like Geraldo whose own social and political leanings are to the left hesitates to give what might otherwise be a knee-jerk reaction, you know that there’s something wrong with this picture.

When President Obama, and the majority of the news media, cannot bring themselves to connect the fact that the perpetrator espoused violent and hateful fundamentalist Islamic ideologies, and that the murder was an Islamic terrorist attack against Americans on US soil, the best one can say is that it is misleading. The President can allude to this by calling it a “tragedy” and saying “no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts, no just and loving God looks upon them with favor,” but by not calling it what it is, but not expecting Moslems who find this an affront as well to look deeper inside their own communities to out those who would seek to harm others and the interests of the United States, is as much of an outrage as it is to call the murders at Fort Hood merely a “tragedy.” It’s tragic when a young person dies needlessly in a car accident or by some other natural disaster. It’s tragic when a child is left without his parents. But Fort Hood is much more. The same way the President said that “no words can fill the void that has been left,” so too the wrong words can cause this to happen again.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the memorial for the victims of the Fort Hood terrorist attack took place on the same day as the execution of another murderer, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway Sniper. Some have attributed his murder spree as an attempt to set up a terrorist training base in Canada. Who knows? But we deserve the right to know, and not have the religious origin of this, or any other crime, clouded by the opiate of political correctness.

Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So to terrorism by any other name would be as foul. But first let’s call a rose a rose, a spade a spade, and an Islamic terrorist an Islamic terrorist, and stop with the modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s other timeless question, ”to PC or not to PC, that is the question.”

Let us hold elected leaders and news media accountable for lies of omission, and let them call a terrorist a terrorist without worrying how it will play in Cairo, Riyadh or Tehran. After all, if we can’t stop Islamic terrorists from trying to kill us, I’d at least like to know who it is taking aim so I can be careful.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I am not a Fish

There are many challenges along the road to making aliyah and successful absorption in Israel. I realize that as challenging as things may be, we have it much easier than the waves of olim who preceded us, whether in the first and second aliyah, my grandparents arrival in the 1930s, waves of Jews from Arab lands in the 40s and 50s, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews more recently, etc. Among the many challenges is language: Learning Hebrew. Acquiring Hebrew is the product of formally studying in an ulpan, but also interaction with other Israelis and learning from them and their Hebrew in real time. But because Israel is a country of immigrants from many countries all over the world, grammar, slang and accents are not uniform, so to the ears of a relatively new immigrant, one never really knows if the real Hebrew used on the streets is what all Israelis use, or just that of another oleh who does not know any better than another. Another challenge is that sometimes it’s very easy and comfortable not to have to learn Hebrew, and one can speak his or her native language, in my case English, and get along just fine. Recently, I heard a story of a neighbor’s grandmother who lived, and died, here for decades, but still never spoke Hebrew. But that does make those moments when one has to speak in Hebrew all the more challenging, especially when your grandchildren are not raised to speak your native (or most comfortable) language. I was reminded recently of an experience that took place when I dropped my youngest son off at gan (Kindergarten) for the first time. He's the youngest of our six children and our only native Israeli. We only speak English in the house so he was in for a culture shock as well as the trauma of being left alone for the first time. I said to the head of the gan (a veteran immigrant herself from Tunisia) as I left, "B'hatzlacha." (Good luck). She replied, "Al tidag." (Don’t worry.) My verb conjugation was very off and I replied, "Ani lo dag." (I am not a fish.), when what I meant was “Ani lo do’eg” (I am not worried). I think she understood, I hope. As my youngest son experiences Israel as a native Israeli and grows up and is educated in Hebrew like my other children are, and to which they have adapted so well, I hope that my own Hebrew will improve and that I won’t make these mistakes again, or at least not as much. I have resigned to the fact that this might not happen, and I will always be an immigrant, like my grandparents and great grandparents before them. Even my father was an immigrant. It’s hard. But since I come from a long line of immigrants, and since they all made it, so will I. I am not worried, ani lo do’eg. But if I remain an illiterate, I just hope that my kids laugh with us, and not at us. Whether I tell someone I am not a fish or, as my wife once said in giving directions to the house, turn right at “the ceiling with the trees.” But either way, I’ll get by. I hope that my grandchildren will understand me and that my children’s future spouses will not think I am a total moron if I smile and nod a lot in place of more substantial verbal communication. I am not worried, ani lo do’eg. And, in case you were wondering, I am also not a fish.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

School's Back. Dialogue Safely.

At the end of the last academic year, I had a unique opportunity to meet with students completing a year on various academic, religious and volunteer programs in Israel. I was asked to talk with them about Jewish life on campus in the US, albeit that it had been more than 20 years since I had been a student leader on my own campus. I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to offer, and mindful that while it doesn't feel as if it’s been so long, or that I am not as young as I feel (or as the students are), I am now old enough to be their parent. Many of the students were finishing a “gap year” as part of the Jewish Agency’s MASA program (http://www.masaisrael.org/masa/english) and were interested in all kinds of information on the verge of entering their first year of college. Some students were completing a junior year abroad and looking forward to returning to complete their senior year. As a Jewish student leader at Emory University in the mid 1980s, I was involved in a wide array of advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, pro-Israel activities, student lobbies in Washington and no shortage of cultural and social events. For my assignment to meet with the students this year, I was briefed about the current status of Jewish life on campus, availability of kosher food, who to contact at Hillel, etc. What surprised me the most is that while nearly across the board all the students wanted to be involved with Jewish and pro Israel activities on campus, similarly most of the incoming students were concerned about the level of anti Israel and anti Semitic activities on campus. In my own day, as I expanded my activities beyond Emory and entered the national sphere of Jewish student activities, I became aware of a phenomenon that existed on other campuses, but not on mine. Jewish students were harassed, pro-Israel events were protested, and hateful anti Israel and anti Semitic activities were common. I made a determination to preempt, and possibly prevent, these activities from infecting Emory and, as president of Hillel, established a formal dialogue with the Moslem Student Association. In truth, our formal dialogue between organizations never took root, but it was a meaningful and interesting accomplishment to hold several sessions relating to common and divergent religious practices and beliefs of Moslems and Jews, while agreeing to avoid topics that might create division. Through the course of these interactions, I became friendly with the MSA president, Ahmed, a Sunni medical student from Syria. We let our guards down and discussed politics, religion and “the Arab Israel conflict.” I don't know that we changed one another's views, but we did open one another's minds. One of the most memorable instances was when Ahmed asked me to take him to a lecture off campus by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Afterward, Ahmed said he respected Kahane and that if he were Jewish, he'd be like Kahane. Regrettably, over the years hateful anti Israel activism began to seep into and infect the Emory campus. Experiences of one of the students with whom I met this year sounded like stories I had heard from other campuses some two decades earlier. This past year Emory became one of the campuses to sink to hosting an “Israel Apartheid Week” which served to make Israel a punching bag for all of the ills of the Arab world in general, and Palestinians in specific, while not considering their own culpability in decades of war, terror, and hostility. Further, these ignorant expressions of hate and anti Semitism not only discredit Israel at every turn, but often deny Israel’s very legitimacy. Of course, while Emory did not have the long tradition of such hate fests and intimidation of Jewish students as other campuses have, Emory does have a special “asset” making the campus riper for sewing such activities in Jimmy Carter. Carter’s presidency in exile found a home at Emory shortly before I arrived. He has used this as a pulpit from which to espouse his own anti Israel bent, and share no shortage of his animosity toward, and lies about, Israel and its leaders. He has also taken academic integrity to a new low with allegations of plagiarism and a gross lack of balance or perspective in anything related to Israel and the Middle East. In meeting with the new Emory bound students, I was upset to hear that this was a prime concern of theirs. College is a time for opening one’s mind and learning. To enter college afraid that one’s inclination for supporting Israel and wanting to be involved with Israeli and Jewish activities on campus might somehow adversely impact their experience, or make them targets for hate speech, or worse, was a rude awakening. They asked my opinion about what to do, talking about my dialogue experience, interested in doing so as well. A current student spoke of a recent attempt to create such a dialogue that broke down with intolerable anti-Israel rhetoric. After all, it takes two to dialogue and if one party is only interested in shouting down the other and pointing a finger, then what’s the point. I digested their worries and assessed their questions. My answer to them was unconventional but one which, the more I consider, the more I think it’s on target. Certainly there will always be Arabs and Moslems willing to dialogue, but if the majority (or vocal minority) prevent that then I saw no point in trying to engage them. Dialogue is to create understanding, but if the other side does not want to understand, then it’s fruitless. My suggestion was to interact with people who may be more ideologically and religiously compatible. Dialogue does not need to mean suddenly loving one another and agreeing on everything, but opening one’s mind, listening, and understanding. An exchange of views, not a hate filled monologue. So my suggestion is that rather on focusing efforts to dialogue with Moslems or Arabs on campus, the students should reach out to Christians, with whom Jews share common western values and a Biblical foundation. It’s peculiar that many American Jews would run to have a dialogue with Moslems or Arabs, with whom we can have a perfectly good and meaningful interaction, but with whom we have many differences and a mindset that we are not likely to change much less effect, yet be loathe to interact with believing Christians. For Israel supporters, this is a much more logical venue, as one can understand the commonalities and differences in traditions and beliefs without having to dance around topics that might trigger a hate filled diatribe where a pro-Israel student may feel personally attacked, or threatened. Jews and Christians have many differences indeed, but a college setting is the best environment in which to learn about others. Arguably, that’s what a college experience should be. Some may be concerned about an ulterior motive, or feel threatened that some Christians are more knowledgeable than many Jews about their own faith and, in many cases, about Judaism as well. But this ought not be a reason to run away from such a dialogue but, rather, to use this educational setting to embrace it, as well as build a stronger foundation in one’s own Jewish identity as well as the framework for pro-Israel activities.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Signature

It’s still incredible to me that the pace of life in Israel revolves so much around Jewish life and holidays. Perhaps since I did not grow up with it and have only been living here for five years it takes getting used to, but I hope it will always be special and something that neither I nor my kids take for granted.

For the past few weeks, people have greeted one another in the spirit of the holiday seasons with wishes for a Shana Tova (a happy new year) and a gmar chatima tova (Literally: A good final sealing, idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good.) This is common throughout Israeli society, even among entirely non-observant people, and through every element of society. I was struck recently when listening to a particular secular oriented radio program and the hosts were wishing that to one another and to their call in guests.

In Hebrew, chatima also means signature. That got me thinking about signatures in general and about how the greeting is especially appropriate before Yom Kippur, not just as a greeting and good wishes, but as a charge and commitment.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, a place central to early American history, I learned many stories of the American Revolutionary War era. One was the story of John Hancock. Hancock was the first to sign the American Declaration of Independence. He did so in big, bold and even flamboyant letters so as to make a statement despite that the British viewed this and other similar actions of the colonies as criminal. Hancock and others were wanted criminals. But he didn’t care and used this opportunity not just to ratify the Declaration of Independence, but to make a statement in doing so.

Some 200 years later, having “borrowed” Hancock’s name and legacy as the name of a financial services company, a clever ad campaign suggested that the company had the integrity of its namesake. Similarly, the name “John Hancock” had become synonymous with one’s signature.

The season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one where we are to account for our sins and wrongs both between man and God, and one another, to sincerely commit not to do them again. We wish one another and ourselves to be inscribed, and sealed, in the Book of Life. But to do so requires action and commitment. Not just hollow words and following of a ritual prayer.

So too, when we sign our signature, it means that we are putting our name behind what we write. Whether the name on a check (made all the more relevant in a post-Madoff era) to vouch that the money is there (and perhaps that it’s been earned legally), on a letter or memo to a colleague or business associate giving our word and commitment to them, or on something as rudimentary as a note to school saying that your child can’t play sports because s/he does not feel well.

In short, our signature is our guarantee. We don’t literally sign a contract with God that we promise to do better, but we do that in effect through our words, thoughts, and actions. The opposite side of the coin beseeching God that we be inscribed is our “signature” that we commit to uphold our end.

Having the sincerity and humility to account for one’s shortcomings is not an easy thing in and of itself. Recognizing and understanding them is a process, especially when one has the challenge of turning over every figurative rock to reflect on such transgressions, even, or particularly those that were not intended. Apologizing and making amends for these is equally as hard, but it’s essential. Only then can we truly be forgiven, and only then can we really be accountable to make a commitment that we won’t do it again. Short of that is insincere, and though we may utter the words and beat our chest, it’s not complete.

Albeit impersonal but no less sincere, I realize that some of my writing in the past year has upset, offended or disappointed some readers. I value and appreciate the feedback (positive and negative), and truly try to internalize the constructive criticism, even when I do something as simple as butcher the grammar. So if I have hurt, offended or disappointed you at all in my past writings, please know I am truly sorry. Sometimes what I want to say and how I say it are not 100% in sync, and even when they are, there’s room for errors. But I will, and do, strive to continue to present my thoughts and insight in a way that is honest and accurate, and most definitely not offensive, unless speaking about Jimmy Carter. Sorry, I am still only human.

May we each go into the Day of Atonement with the humility and sincerity to account for the wrongs for which we are responsible, and make every effort to be sure that as we ask God to SEAL us in the Book of Life, that our word is as good as our signature. The legend is said of John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence, he said, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”

Indeed. Let our “signature” this Yom Kippur be big enough for The King to read, and read into it the sincerity in every curve of every letter.

May you and your family be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.


Monday, September 21, 2009

A Good Six Minutes

Over lunch on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I reflected with my family about, among other things, omens and hopes for the coming year. One daughter noted that taking a nap that afternoon could lead to a “sleepy” year. Perhaps, but I had a four year old who was exhausted from being out late the night before and I was bound to get him to lie down and sleep, even if it meant I had to lie down with him and fall asleep myself. The selfless things we do for our kids! My four year old fell into a deep sleep, and I was sleeping next to him a little less deeply, when I heard my older son run in the house and yell for a towel. It seems that when he was outside playing soccer (no doubt an omen for a playful, or sporting, year), the skies opened and he got drenched. When I woke up, I looked out the window and saw the puddle that accumulated at the bottom of our block, a strange site for September. In Israel, there are distinct seasons and rain usually does not begin so early. On the Jewish calendar, we begin to pray for rain only at the end of Sukkot, another three weeks off. After successive very dry years and a severe drought in effect, to the extent that our main sources of fresh water are at the lowest point in most of the last century, we need the rain desperately and I suspect that come the end of Sukkot, mine will not be the only one whose prayers are particularly fervent and sincere. Later that day, still somewhat incredulous that we had the rain that we did, I asked a neighbor if he was awake during the rain. He was. “How long did it rain?” I asked. “A good six minutes,” he replied. Of course, while it’s essential to have peace with our neighbors, the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan requires Israel to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan every year. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if there were not enough water to transfer. Would Israel be in violation of the peace treaty and would Jordan declare war? Regardless, the additional responsibility to furnish Jordan with this vast amount of water is especially taxing to Israel’s limited water supply. The second day of Rosh Hashanah arrived wet too. I walked outside in the morning and noticed it had been raining, but no puddle suggesting a downpour. On the way to shul, little drops of rain fell on and around me, not even a drizzle, but noticeable nonetheless. At one point, my four year old ran in to happily report that it was raining, drops visible on his button down shirt and face. At his age, some six months since the last rain is a significant portion of his life so he ran back outside happily to play in the drizzle. Later, in the middle of services, the skies opened and the rain was both visible out the window, and audible on the roof. It’s interesting to be in Israel and how the pace of life literally revolves around the seasons that are Biblically ordained. The rains come in their season, the almost invisible presence of dew in its’, sabbatical years when the land is to lie fallow, and the harvest of various crops in exact sync with the Biblical recounting of these as if they were mile markers on a highway, everything coming in its season. As we start the New Year 5770, our thoughts and prayers turn to things that are reflective and often very personal. But, in a very short time, the seasonal prayer for rain will be upon us. Israel will benefit from the rains directly, or suffer the consequences of another dry winter. The rains impact us directly. But Jews around the world will have the responsibility and authority no less to enter the rainy season with sincere prayers for abundant rain in the Land of Israel. Of course, friends in North America who had rain these past summer months more reminiscent of Noah’s Ark probably want nothing to do with this. Yet, here, all we could do was look on in envy, with a faint hope and an early prayer that we too would benefit from some of that precipitation, in its season, for a blessing and not a curse, for life and not for death, and for bounty and not for scarcity. As much as I wouldn’t mind that my nap on the first day of the New Year was a positive omen for my getting a good nap on most Shabbat afternoons, even more so, I’d be elated if the rains that we were teased with the first two days of the New Year were an omen of something more to come, rains that will fill our lakes and rivers, revive the Dead Sea, and restore underground aqueducts. Most silently hope that the rains will come at night, but if they fill our days, that’s just fine by me. A good six minutes is a good start.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Book of Life

I have looked at the High Holidays very differently the past few years. I have been wondering what has shaped this new outlook and keep coming back to one word: Death.

Going through daily prayers during Elul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, and preparing for Rosh Hashanah itself, and the Ten Days of Repentance until Yom Kippur, I am more mindful (perhaps than ever) of the tone of the prayer. We devote ourselves to God and to keeping His commandments, but more now than during the whole year we have to reflect on our shortcomings and strive to do better in the coming year. We beseech God to be inscribed for a year of health, prosperity, peace and life.

And in going through this process we are aware that as much as He is the final Judge, the outcome of that judgment is in our own hands. How we behave, how we observe God's commandments, and how we interact with others all factor into the sealing of our fate for the coming year.

The Holidays are supposed to be a time of great joy, as well as introspection and prayer. Far too many Israeli homes will have an empty seat at the table this year and that is a hard thing to face, in general, and especially for those who have experienced death and loss through terrorism and war. For those paying attention to the prayers, there must be many among them who say the words, but do so with the feeling of a bone in one's throat. They wonder as they mourn, praying for health, life, peace, an annulment of harsh judgments, how God could have taken their loved one, whether three years ago in the Second Lebanon War, or two decades ago during the (First) Lebanon War, or just last week. They weep over the many ways we see that death can happen: fire, water, thirst, hunger, etc. and wonder how God could have allowed that Katyusha to kill the way it did, or the terrorist to be on target at that very moment, the plane to crash.

Others I am sure cannot even utter the words for they are too painful.

Thirteen years ago I went through a similar conflict. My father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten months earlier. We were told that by being diagnosed so early, he stood a better chance to survive if the treatments were successful, even though the survival rate from pancreatic cancer was a fraction of a percent. But after successive hospitalizations and surgeries, all the doctors told us there was no hope. I watched him decline physically, and I was probably in denial even until the very end. He came home from his final hospitalization just before Rosh Hashanah 1996, and my mother had the good sense to call hospice to be sure that his final days were lived in comfort and with as much dignity as possible.

That year, each time my wife lit candles to usher in another yom tov when we would be detached from news and communication with the outside world, my physiology changed. I feared that my father would die and I would not know about it for a day or two after.

Sitting in shul was about all I could do. I felt it was dishonest to follow a ritual of prayer that asked to heal the sick, annul judgments against us and to be inscribed in the book of life. My father lay dying, he could have been dead for all I knew, and my head and heart were not in it at all. I am sure I was angry. My faith hit rock bottom, and my grief was profound.

We were blessed during that time with an interruption of the pain in the birth of our third daughter. She was a joy to behold, and to hold. I argued with my wife that we should adopt the Sephardi custom of naming for the living rather than the Ashkenazi custom that we name for those who have died. She won, and she was right. But even in the minutes after she was born, as the whole world was filled with joy and happiness at her arrival, I was overcome by sadness and grief that she and my father would never get to know each other.

My father did get to meet her and hold her twice. He was clearly in awe, and fell in love with her instantly as he had with his other two granddaughters before that. But I stared on in pain because it was just not fair that these two opposite sides of the life cycle should come together like this.

My grief, anger and fear increased as Yom Kippur ended and Sukkot began. I wondered in a very strange way WHAT I HAD DONE to deserve the punishment of my father's death. How could God punish me like this?

Even as he lay unconscious from the increased medication to ease his pain, I was in shock, and definitely partly in denial. My father died on the 27th of the Hebrew month Tishrei, days after Simchat Torah when we literally renew the cycle of reading the Torah. The Torah ends, and we begin reading it again from the start. Moshe dies after leading the Jewish people for 40 years, and then God creates life. There is no pause, no break in the reading from one week to the next as is done during the year. Many brighter than I have commented on this, but in its most simple form, this underscores that life itself is a cycle.

It has taken me the better part of these thirteen years to realize this, celebrating my daughter's 13th birthday as we approach my father's thirteenth Yahrzeit. Three years ago, my mother died somewhat suddenly. When she was alive, we had the occasion to speak about death more than a few times. My fear of death has gone, and the grief after my mother's death was very different. Maybe it's not having living parents any more that has enabled me to crystallize these thoughts. My mother's healthy approach to living, not simply the state of being alive but doing something meaningful and productive with that time, however little or long we are given, is an inspiration for me. I know that she, and my father as well, would not want their death to be the end of our living.

As much as the grief and sense of loss has never gone away following my father's death, and that it was renewed by my mother's death, I am older and wiser and know that rather than my being punished, I was given the privilege of wonderful parents and many blessings along my life so far. I am happily married, raising six extraordinary children, and live in a beautiful home in the heart of Israel. My work is meaningful and enjoyable. I have the ability to give tzedaka rather than be on the receiving end. I have health and many talents with which I can help others. I do hope that I will be able to live a long time to enjoy these blessings and impart to my children these and many other wisdoms that will enable them to live and celebrate life fully.

At my mother's funeral, I spoke about the saddest part of the Torah, for me at least. That's the death of Moshe. He was the leader, the teacher, the inspiration that God chose and who the Jewish people followed to begin life again as free people in our own land. His death must have been met with a level of grief that was simply unknown until then. That's how I felt at my mother's death, the end of a generation and passing of the torch to a new generation. It is scary, sad and challenging to realize that you no longer have parents to fall back upon for support, unconditional love, wisdom and advice. And how much more so it must have been for the Jewish people to realize the awesome task of going forward without their leader.

These past few years, I have read the ending of the Torah with a new perspective. In a few weeks we'll read of Moshe's death, but what is happening now, building up to that point, is he is preparing the people to go on without him. He's reminding them what he taught them before. He is training a new leader to follow in his place. And he is giving us inspiration and hope that as hard as things may get, everything will turn out alright.

It has taken thirteen years, but I realize that now. My father's death thirteen years ago, and my mother's death just over three years ago were the saddest days of my life. Days and events that have shaken the foundation, but ultimately reaffirmed that which I already know. That which they imparted in me. The grief and loss are still palpable, but I also understand now that life does go on, that everything will be OK, and that this is part of the cycle of life, albeit that I would have rather experienced as a much older person.

For those in Israel who mourn the victims of war and terror attacks, or anyone who lost a loved one in the past year, as hard as it is now, hopefully you will come to this point as well. For others with a parent or loved one in the same situation as I was in thirteen years ago, I hope this provides an element of perspective and comfort.

May we all be sealed in the Book of Life, and for those who are not, may their survivors have comfort and understanding, and the strength and courage to move on in living. Through living, we celebrate the memory of those who have left us physically, but who will never stop being part of us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lost in Translation

The Pope’s recent visit to Israel was scrutinized and commented upon from every angle possible. Some were critical of what he said. Others were critical of what he didn’t say. Some observed that his presence is not as great as that of his predecessor, John Paul II. Others said that his presence in Israel was enough in, and of, itself. Some flocked to the city. And many stayed away to avoid the traffic nightmares his visit and security created. In many ways, there was more Monday morning quarterbacking going on than after the Super Bowl. Every gesture he made was commented upon. Every word he uttered was scrutinized. Every word he did not utter (Nazi, murder, sorry, six million) was questioned. The Pope’s visit was full of religious, political, cultural and diplomatic symbolism, and real issues. The Pope is a frequent flyer but in no other country are his visits quite as scrutinized. It goes without saying that the mere presence of the leader of more than one billion Catholics in the Jewish state is bound to be significant. Jews and Catholics (indeed all Christianity) don’t have to look far back to times when anti-Semitism was at the very least common and Church sanctioned, if not encouraged. It’s only been 15 years since the Vatican actually recognized the State of Israel and established full relations. Having two successive Popes of Polish and German origin underscores that there is an inseparable connection between the Holocaust and the Church. Yet as they try to make amends for the past, the deep wounds are exacerbated by plans to beatify Holocaust era Pope Pius VI. I am neither a linguist nor an historian nor a theologian. And I don’t play one on TV. And while I tried to absorb all the observations being made, I had a hard time coming down on either side of what all the questions and scrutiny were ultimately about: Is the Pope, and his visit to Israel, good for the Jews? Yet some things seem patently obvious. Given the extremes to which people have gone to interpret the Pope’s visit, I have to go back to basics. First, it’s hard, and even unfathomable, to think that the Pope would come to Israel as anything but a gesture of good will. OK, so he sees the world, religion and politics differently than we do. It’s not as if we are one unified body on most issues, so it’s a moving target as to which segments of the Jewish or Israeli population from whom he really differs. Some of his actions and words may have come across poorly or not clearly enough. But is it really possible that he came here with the intent of showing overt disrespect for Israel and sugar coating a message for which he really didn’t care? I don’t think so. Perhaps the Vatican Foreign Ministry will go back to the drawing board and try to learn for the future, not just about what message they wish to convey, but how it will be conveyed, how it might be received, especially if the positive message he tried to convey on this visit was lost on those he visited. In five days in Israel alone, the Pope must have delivered more than a dozen formal speeches, attended many events and dialogues, and held mass in three or four different places. He had a busy schedule indeed. Each event was planned not just by the Israeli hosts, but by the Vatican as well. So, as many posited their own opinions, I wondered who wrote his speeches and what they intended to convey. Was there gross insensitivity or a huge cultural gap? Was there a consideration to use language that would convey to Israelis that he gets it, that we’re really on the same page, that the Church deplores anti Semitism, that the Church is sorry for its role in the Holocaust, that Holocaust denial is a sin? The Pope’s visit reminded me of a third grade school party. I don’t remember the occasion, but we sat in a circle and played the famous childhood game, telephone. One person started by whispering something to the child to his or her left, and so it went around in a circle to see if the original message remained intact. Our teacher, Mrs. Mathis, used this as her way to announce to the class that she was pregnant and would be leaving at the end of the year. It’s strange how such memories can come back after almost four decades in a seemingly unrelated context. Whoever wrote his speeches probably wrote them in Italian, Latin or maybe even German. Then they were translated to English. And after he delivered them, they were translated yet again into Hebrew. Was something lost in the translation? In his speech at Yad Vashem, among those most scrutinized, is it possible that the word used in the original copy (in whatever language it was written) that was translated as “killed” really meant something closer to “murdered?” Is it possible that some or all of the brouhaha that came about was nothing more than a misunderstanding, like a third grade game about which everyone can have a good laugh afterward without pointing fingers and getting angry? Maybe what the Pope MEANT to say was “Mrs. Mathis is having a baby.” But what we HEARD was “Mrs. Mathis is eating turkey with gravy.” And I hate gravy. How could the Pope be so insensitive? And why didn’t he apologize for, if nothing else, the horrible traffic?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Wood Mongers

For most of my adult life I remember that early sightings of Christmas decorations near my suburban NJ home were a sign that Thanksgiving was coming. In my childhood, the opposite was true - Thanksgiving was the official start of the Christmas (“Holiday”) season, ushering in sales and the beginning of public decorations. It never really fazed me one way or another, except to observe that the holiday had become that much more commercialized and seasonal sales were starting that much earlier. There are other things that herald the arrival of different seasons and holidays. I’ve been observing those signs here in Israel for the last five years. The first sign of rain in the fall ushers in the beginning of a rainy season that never quite seems to be rainy enough. After Purim, stores around the country begin covering shelves upon which to display the Pesach foods and, as the holiday gets closer, whole shelves and aisles are covered, closed, and barricaded to prevent the sale of chametz. And then there is the early seasonal sighting of one of the most unique Israeli traditions of kids going out to collect wood. Collect wood? What’s this about? What holiday or season involves collecting wood? Lag B’Omer of course. It’s a day of weddings and other smachot, haircuts… and bonfires. Admittedly, my experience is not vast on the subject, but the bottom line is that in just about every village, town, and city, fires are built that border on state sanctioned pyromania. From as early as Purim but definitely after Pesach, it’s common to see boys and girls as young as 5 and 6 out collecting any piece of wood that is not nailed down. The first one or two wood mongers go almost unnoticed yet warrant a chuckle for their early industriousness. Then the trickle becomes a swarm. Children collected pieces of wood bigger than they are is a common site. Sometimes they are single pieces. Sometimes pieces nailed to one another. Sometimes nails protruding. Unsafe is an understatement, but nobody seems to think twice about it. Sometimes a “borrowed” shopping cart is employed to transport the loot. Sometimes a scooter or skateboard. Sometimes, kids pile the wood up on top of another piece of wood, or a whole palate, and tie a rope to the bottom piece, dragging a mini construction site behind them, back to their hidden stash, only to be revealed in the days immediately preceding Lag B’Omer. On Lag B’Omer, on many blocks, or within any small patches of (relatively vacant) land, there can be several different bonfires going on. Children get together in groups to make their own fires. Sometimes kids take burning embers from one fire and make breakaway fires. Kids plan with friends for weeks about what they hope to do; staking out their land, gathering their collective wooden loot, and thinking nothing of building towers that are many times their size, ultimately burning well into the night, or even until the next day. Perhaps it’s the budding engineers among them who are the chief architects of the most interesting fires, where the “fuel” in the form of planks, boards and palates become part of the props and scaffolding in order to reach and sculpt the highest points of the pyre, ultimately to be burned along with the rest. My first year in Israel I made a mistake I’ll never make again. Before going out, I left the windows open in my house so that in the morning, the house smelled like there had been a fire in the house. Now, I keep the windows shut, and do my best to stay upwind. As children (and adults too) scour the country to collect just about any piece of wooden anything that will burn, it’s hard to imagine that there’s enough wood in the country for the vast amount of fires that people ignite and stoke all night. It’s hard to imagine that a year from now the abundance of wooden planks, old furniture, shipping palates, trees and branches, etc., will somehow be regenerated so that there’s enough wood to burn the night away, yet again. But every year, nobody seems to be disappointed. If only we could train our kids to pick up garbage, and bottles and cans that can be recycled, even once a year, with the same intensity, we’d do a lot to repair the damage to the earth that we do by burning these fires all night. A national recycling day. Who do I talk to?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Are We Thinking: Yom HaZikaron 2009

Memorial Day conjures up memories of long weekends, the beginning of summer vacation, family gatherings and seasonal sales. Yet since moving to Israel I have developed an appreciation for what I think that the day was meant to be, especially through observances here that are part of the DNA of Israeli culture. For a day or two in advance, the public tone changes as the State and the people begin to prepare for formal commemoration of Yom HaZikaron. The country’s military cemeteries get a spring cleaning, themes of programs both on TV and radio focus on the nation’s wars and terrorist attacks, schools infuse their curriculum with lessons, memorials and ceremonies, often from a personal perspective of someone who has lost a loved one. Every year I enter the season with more or less the same mindset, and every year I am overwhelmed by the new observations, insight, and thoughts that come to mind. As the siren heralding the start of the observation was sounded Monday night at 8:00 PM, I was tucking in my youngest son. I interrupted my bed time ritual to point out the siren to my three and a half year old. He already learned in his gan that when you hear the siren you stand at attention “for the chayalim” (soldiers). What does this mean to him, I wondered? What is he thinking? After he went to sleep, I watched the State ceremony at the Western Wall on TV with my other kids. Virtually all stations broadcasting were showing either the State ceremony, stories about victims of war and terrorist attacks, or movies of a similar theme. Many other stations had no broadcast at all, only a photo of a memorial candle. Public entertainment is closed as religiously as it is on Yom Kippur. I sat next to my 10 year old son whose thin arms and legs are still that of a little boy, but who will one day, too soon, grow up and mature to resemble those whose lives we heard about on TV this night. He will fill out the uniform of a soldier of Israel with the body of a young man. Yet today as a child he understands that war and defending ourselves is a fact of life. It does not upset him. He is curious about the army and military things, but that’s probably age appropriate. Unlike me, growing up in New Jersey, he is growing up knowing that in several years he’ll be well on the way to being drafted and donning a green IDF uniform. When he watches the memorial, and sees stories of others who have been killed in defense of their country, what does he think? As for my daughters, one would think that they have it easier. The girls can choose to serve in the army or do national service. Even for those who might serve in the army, it’s unlikely that they’d be in combat or putting their own lives in harms’ way. But I couldn’t help but wonder if they are thinking they might marry a man who must put his life in danger. Is that even a factor or thought to them? Do my older children already talk among their friends about who will be the first to die defending the Land, as if it’s something to be expected, as if it’s normal? I know it’s done, but are my kids at that age yet? Are they thinking about this, or just about the tests in school next week and summer vacation? At the State Yom HaZikaron ceremony itself, the memorial flame was lit by a young woman whose husband died from “friendly fire” only in January. She’s barely had time to absorb her loss. Of course it makes no difference that he died due to an IDF mistake rather than at the hands of a terrorist, her husband is still gone. As she stood there, brave and stoic, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what she was thinking. Other than dignitaries and military leadership, the participants at the State ceremony were mostly family members of people killed at the hands of those who would still like to kill us, more of us. The glazed look on many of their faces suggested that their minds had wandered to the memory of their lost sons and daughters. How long has it been? Is their memory fading? Have they been able to move on in their lives? What are they thinking about? The Prime Minister and President spoke. Prime Minister Netanyahu no doubt remembers his brother, Yoni, who lead and fell during the 1976 Entebbe operation to free captive Jews hijacked to Uganda. Having served in an elite military unit himself, no doubt he knows others who served with him who are not here anymore. President Shimon Peres’ long history of public service, going back to before statehood, has given him the opportunity to know tens of thousands of people personally who were intricately involved in building our country. He can close his eyes and recall scores or hundreds of heroes whom he knew personally, victims of every war and battle since the Independence War. Even earlier. One must imagine that both these leaders stand humbly aware of the fact that their leadership today was in many ways built on the sacrifice of others, people they knew personally. Is two minutes of silence even enough for them to reflect on these losses? What could they possibly be thinking about the past, and how does this color their looking forward so that there are no more victims by this time a year from now? My wife wondered aloud whether we are a normal people. We live without regret or fear, just bewilderment at the hope of living in peace, and the parallel ability to fight and sacrifice for our homeland as needed. The dream of a Jewish state that became a reality 61 years ago was also supposed to make us just like the other nations, accepted by the other nations, living in peace. But we have not had a day of peace since then. Sadly, peace does not seem to be on the horizon. Traditionally, Yizkor (the memorial prayer for a dead relative) is recited on the last day of our festivals, in part, not to diminish the joy of celebrating the festivals to begin with. But in Israel, we mourn for those who have been killed defending the country the day before we celebrate our independence. It’s a stark contrast. It reminds us that the 22,570 who have been killed have given their lives so we can celebrate. While everyone would love to celebrate with only faint memories of those who have fallen in the distant past, the reality is that our need to defend ourselves and our country will probably not diminish for some time. Maybe never. And not that I want to have reasons to commemorate the day, but there is something to be said for a somber meaningful and reflective Memorial Day rather than one that is marked by running to the mall so as not to miss the sales, or a family barbecue with no recollection at all on the reason for the extra day off work to begin with. What are we thinking? We are raising our children to be proud Jews in the State and Land of Israel, to have meaning in their lives by building on our past and contributing to our future. We raise our children and live here ourselves, not shrinking from the threat that never seems to end, but mindful of it, and aware that sometimes when a loss is more personal, more relevant, it provides the elements to build a stronger foundation as an individual, as a Jew and as an Israeli. Yom HaZikaron is a milestone in all our lives and whatever perspective and mindset I enter it with, I always comes away thinking something different. In the year I made aliyah, Israel mourned 21,000 dead. This year that has increased to 22,570. It’s incomprehensible. It’s as if more than 800,000 Americans were to have been killed defending their country in the corresponding time. Only with the Civil War is the US able to count anything close to 800,000 victims, but that was also a war when all the victims, on both sides, were American. May we be privileged to commemorate Yom HaZikaron next year remembering only the 22,570, yet with the same sense of loss and grief, respect and gratitude, that gives us extra appreciation for everything we have, especially as we enter the festive celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut, our independence, as night falls on one day and dawns on the next.