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No Man Is an Island: Saying Goodbye to My Grandfather

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When I got the call from my mother, I was racing to my next meeting having just left Union Square and being scheduled for a prompt start on the Upper East Side, trying to somehow avoid the particularly lousy New York weather. In the hastiness to answer the phone while not being entirely drenched I managed to get both things wrong. Cursing, I managed to be neither dignified nor dry, but did get her on my return call.

"Oh hi darling," she said softly "Suba has just died."

No matter how long one knows the inevitable is near, it is always a strange moment when the news finally arrives in its absolute, unequivocal form. At the age of 97, he had deteriorated recently and was very uncomfortable. His quality of life had been severely limited.

"I am sorry mum," I told her. "Are you ok?"

"Yes. Yeah I am."

"It was definitely time," I ventured, aware of how cliche and banal these words seemed and how uncomfortable they made me, highlighting our general incapacity to honor the profound in the world with words of equal stature. Or perhaps it was merely my inability. "Absolutely," she responded resolutely. "Absolutely."

That was Thursday evening in Israel and due to Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), the funeral was not to be until Sunday. After some intense juggling I managed to organize things sufficiently to get to Tel Aviv in time to take the three and a half hour drive up to Sde Nehemya, the kibbutz in the Upper Galilee where my grandfather, Mordechai, had arrived some 70 years earlier in April 1940, with his wife Chaya, as committed Zionists from Holland, ready to build their idea of the promised land in a marshy, unwelcoming place.

Mordechai (whose original name was Max) had been orphaned as a child and looked after by some distant relatives. At the age of 17 he stumbled across a family note revealing that the family that was looking after him was doing it primarily for financial reasons -- and coming face-to-face with such knowledge he left immediately. Somewhat heart broken, he embarked on the journey of a lifetime in the midst of the most tumultuous history humanity has experienced.

Mordechai, or Suba, the Israeli word for grandfather, as I affectionately always knew him, went on to study law in Amesterdam where he met my grandmother, or Safta, Chaya (formerly Lenny pronounced Lay-nee). She, with her acute mind and strong personality, achieved her Doctorate in the classics and spoke eight languages to his paltry seven. The two were advised to leave Amsterdam as soon as possible as things were getting extremely bad in Europe and to avoid having their honeymoon and go directly to Palestine. Upon their arrival, they were informed it was safe to leave their personal belongings unattended, as "after all, this is to be the Jewish Homeland," whereupon they were all promptly stolen. Somewhat shaken yet undeterred they headed north, with the limited "training' they had had in Holland, aiming to transform urbanite intellectuals in to tough farm hands ready for the challenges of their new lives.

From giving birth to my mother while suffering from Malaria -- and being taken to the Scottish hospital in Tiberias, the closest town which was some 60 kilometers away -- to spending long days in the fields with no irrigation and intolerable daytime heat and bitter winter evenings, nothing could have prepared them sufficiently. Spurned on by their ideological zeal, which was elevated and corroborated by the horrific events in Europe they had just departed (and some of their family and friends had succumbed to) they toiled in the fields and with four other couples -- the sum total of their community at that time. They constructed shacks and modest dwellings with the dream of creating a place where intellectuals and farmers and idealists and artists could live in the spirit of somewhat Socialist-inspired collective communities. "You give as much as you can and you take what you need," being the defining sentiment. Washing in the Jordan River and sleeping under the stars they toiled to make their new world.

From a young age I was infatuated, as a London boy, with the kibbutz life. Our visits were long anticipated, with endless letter writing -- letters took three weeks one-way (and the occasional excited weekend telephone call with us huddled around the phone and shouting and repeating and laughing with Suba and Safta, knowing they were standing in the sole phone booth by the communal dining room).

While it would seem that one would learn little in such short trips anywhere, the Summer and sometimes Spring time we spent at the kibbutz where my intelligent and humorous grandparents left an indelible mark on me. So too did the experience of the collective schooling and the way kibbutznik kids dealt with outsiders -- an early lesson in sharpening my insight in to how identity and belonging was shaped there. My grandfather was the chief accountant of the kibbutz for over fifty years, proudly shaping the numeric representations of the day to day life and blood of the kibbutz, the plastic factory, the farming output and all of the income and expenditure.

He did it with passion and yet quietly and professionally and with great humor, as he did with all of his life. He was no warrior. In fact he was turned down for any kind of military endeavors during the fight against the British as he was deemed too physically weak (which my father used to endlessly tease him for, as my dad, being almost diametrically opposite to Suba, had been a paratrooper and commando, a Brit in the Six Day War). Although Suba's sense of humor and absolute commitment to seeing the lighter side of life ensured that in any situation he could draw on the sense of comedy within life.

I admired and respected him so much. He did not lie or sugar coat reality. His honesty and integrity in discussing the trials and tribulations of the place he had come to call his home have also informed my understanding of the world and stay with me to this day. Suba was the first person to explain to me, for instance, how the Palestinians had been betrayed and sold a story, part fiction and part using force, that resulted in them being separated from their land in the fight against Britain and the 1948 War of Independence. To this day this travesty has not been resolved or rectified -- with glib and superficial "debates" and declarations in the media and political world seldom addressing the reality of the Law of Return and what that means for non Jews whose history is tied up and interwoven with the land known as Israel.

As I grew older, my love and respect for this humorous, skinny and generous of spirit Jewish man from Europe only increased. As I became more aware of history and autonomous politically, his consistent conviction that informed debate and his contempt for emotive screaming and ignorance were emblazoned on my mind.

Mordechai had a new chapter in his life after Safta sadly left us almost 25 years ago. He travelled widely and was still hitch hiking around Europe well in to his 80s. While on a visit to London when I was not even a teenager and trying to shock him with some of my punk rock records, he sat back and listened and started beating his hands and then we found ourselves pogo-ing in my bedroom to The Clash and The Exploited. Some years later when my mum was trying to be super serious with me explaining the "dangers of Marijuana" he chimed in saying that he wasn't particularly impressed with it when he'd tried it half a decade earlier!

Always alert, continually striving to learn and understand more, reading, attending lectures, concerts and galleries with a joie de vivre that I found exhilarating, Suba traversed the world of old Europe, where culture, science, reason and The Enlightenment were still not words that solicited scoffing and guffaws or accusations of racism and imperialism. He was also immersed in the creation of a kibbutz and of the State of Israel, born out of in many ways the experience of the denigration of The Enlightenment, with National Socialism and barbarism demonstrating just what could happen when politics fail and humanism is defeated. He was aware of the strange and sad irony of how Israel seemed to be on such friendly terms with Germany and yet was at loggerheads with Palestinians and talked of Arabs as though they were the Cossacks always ready to extinguish the Jews at a moments notice.

Sadly, late in his life, he looked around at the experiment he was involved with and particularly with the kibbutz and he was bitterly disappointed. In his estimation all that his generation had striven for, sacrificed for and contributed towards had evaporated. People seemed more interested in the latest televisions from America and materialist lifestyle while notions of communal living and morality and the pursuit of "the Good Life" were deemed naive by a younger, more intolerant generation. (The transition of the kibbutz has been controversial and left many wondering how such inequities can exist and those that contributed so much somehow have been left with so little, while others seem to have mysteriously benefitted tremendously with land, property and income). Perhaps his was the dilemma of all elders reflecting on the world around them. It was sad to see that what he viewed as his life achievement was in vain.

I took a somewhat different view -- that pursuing our dreams and fighting to make a difference in the world and passionately aiming to be agents of history and not simply its subjects where we actively remake society informed with ideas that have consequences is a noble and essential prerequisite for creating a better world. Reflecting upon his experience -- and how Jews were so entirely abandoned by the Left in Europe -- I recognized why many believed a Jewish homeland was the only solution. I also saw the dreadful irony in the mirroring of the Nazi notion that Jews and Gentiles were incompatible and could not live together. Living in New York of course, it is evident for anyone to see and experience how Jews, Muslims and Christians as well as Atheists can live cheek by jowl and in harmony. That is why I believe ultimately that to gain a true resolution to this historical issue we require a regional Federalism in this part of the world -- indeed everywhere -- that is not predicated on race, religion or nationality. (As Theodor Herzl recognized, Palestine was a land where Jews, Christians and Muslims had all lived together).

So perhaps Suba has ultimately left me with the most precious of gifts, optimism with humanity and our desire to improve the world and ourselves. Even in his most trying period, where he was physically uncomfortable and extremely weak, he was often joking and entertaining. As I write this in his tiny kibbutz bedroom, surrounded by his extensive book collection and posters of art from the world's great museums and clippings from The New Yorker I am looking at a hanging of jokes Suba has up on the wall. With such gems as "Beauty is only skin deep, ugly goes to the bone" and "A short cut is the longest distance between two points" it has me chuckling and remembering his good nature and dedication to his life, his family and friends, always with a nod to the jocular.

In the end, this Dutch orphan married the love of his life and had three fine daughters, with six grand children and nine great grand children. Thus, he came to epitomize the declaration by Jon Donne that "No man is an island." Reaching out through intelligence and art, humor and culture all of us, of what ever religion or region, cannot live isolated, separate and insular lives. He requested, unbeknown to me when I made my farewell speech at his grave quoting Jon Donne's simple yet essential call to action, those words be emblazoned upon his grave. We shall do that of course, Suba. It has me thinking of the rest of Donne's famous lines, that Hemingway borrowed, "Therefore, send not to know, for whom the bell tolls...it tolls for thee."

History is never over, what ever we think about our times of low horizons and limited ideas -- or the dread we have for the potential for our ambitious experiments to fail -- we are none of us islands and in order to truly progress we need to embrace that fully and go and make the world we want to live in and pass on. I owe a debt of gratitude to my Suba who continually inspired us while making us laugh and realized in the end, we are none of us islands.

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