"I shall put my breath into you and you shall live again and I will set you upon your own soil." -- Ezekiel
"Jews are nuts." -- Mel Brooks
Growing up in the New York City borough of Queens was relatively low-impact for me, though my upbringing was punctuated by frequent peripatetic episodes. The picture I like to paint is that of a lower middle class Jewish Tom Joad and his affable faux-Okie family hopscotching all over the place in search of affordable rent. If some wiseass were telling the story, he might refer to it as "The Grapes of Roth" (it happens that a wiseass is, so refer to it in this way he does).
The neighborhoods we lived in were comfortably urban, the residents comprising a medley of ethnicities all coexisting under that unspoken contract which exists between disparate tribes living in New York, a phenomenon which has distinguished that city from all others for many years, the potentially volatile diversity somehow rarely if ever combusting despite the friction of rubbing shoulders as people pass each other on their way to their respective homes or homes away from homes.
In one of the neighborhoods I lived in there was a classic corner candy store, one that had a long formica counter flanked by revolving red-topped stools; behind the counter was perched a sea-green malted mixer, a bleacher stacked with Neccos, Chuckles, B-B Bats and Yoo-Hoos, a large tarnished griddle upon which hamburger patties and home fries hissed and popped, and the whole space seemingly lit in sepia. A small but sturdy couple in their 50's owned the luncheonette. They greeted patrons with low-key efficiency yet were always accommodating and soft-spoken.
And as the husband handed me back change for a packet of Sugar Babies (my fave) bought with my scrupulously saved-up allowance, I remember glimpsing a tattoo on his forearm. And being eight years old at the time, the extended forearm was at my eye-level and I could clearly see the numbers that comprised the tattoo, slightly faded but still legible among the soft, light hairs and pale sprinkling of freckles.
And a moment later, thinking nothing of the odd decoration, I exited the luncheonette triumphantly clutching the breached bag of Sugar Babies, the bell of the closing door jingling behind me.
In those days, my Jewishness was neither a big nor small deal. It was just another aspect of myself that I didn't have to apply any effort to enforce.
I was never really religious beyond having a reflexive belief in the C.B. DeMille "Ten Commandments" basso profundo version of The Almighty. But any awareness of a Jew's distinguishing characteristics came in more sensuous forms: the matzoh-ball soup and kasha varnishkas my grandmother made virtually every weekend; the endearments and comical remonstrations uttered animatedly in Yiddish by my uncles and aunts; the semi-regular gatherings of extended family members for dinner and spirited conversations which would inevitably escalate in volume and intensity. Topics ranged from the state of some cousin's diabetes to rumored marital infidelities (in which the cheater could have at least chosen someone better looking to cheat with) to fevered and intellectually complex political debates.
Sometimes when there was a lull in the evening's festivities, the kids were allowed to sit among the assembled adults at the foot of a record player and listen to comedy records with a decidedly Jewish flavor: Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2000 Year Old Man album being a favorite, guaranteed to swap the high-volume political arguments with high-volume hysterics. And the kids observed as the elders laughed uproariously at the record's joyously precise schtick, a celebration of the humor inherent in the mannerisms and quirks of modern Jewish culture. Even at my early age, I sensed that Jews could be both intensely serious and comfortably self-mocking, a combination which was somehow evolved, sophisticated, even humble.
In my teens I became aware of other aspects of Jewish life as I saw the orthodox Hasidim walking with their families to synagogue on Saturday mornings, clad in their alien black garb, their young sons sporting close-cropped hair flanked by swaying ringlets. And I began to question my connection to these particular people who also called themselves Jews, but who approached their identity with infinitely more effort and gravitas than I ever had, incredulous that we had anything in common at all.
My education of the events in Europe covering the period of 1933 to 1945 came in my 7th grade history class. The subject of Jewish persecution was a fairly common one among family and friends, usually referred to in a humorous context or obliquely referenced in one of the aforementioned family debates, its existence placed squarely in the dark ages where such virulence thrived, a phenomenon of the distant past -- a notion that my own antisemitism-free upbringing surely confirmed.
Until my class history concluded with a showing of the film "Night and Fog".
To actually see the things we had up till then only read or heard of wrenched our understanding of recent Jewish history out of the comfortably abstract and into the terrifyingly real. And the terrible images were of people who looked incredibly familiar to me: they were the oddly costumed Hasidim who walked with their families on Saturdays. They were the grandparents who made soup and kasha for me. They were the cousins who laughed and argued in my living room. They were the quiet husband and wife who sold me candy.
Armed with this new and sobering knowledge, I developed a solidarity with my Jewish identity which had not been present before. But it was combined with what was perhaps an unconscious refusal to connect the unchallenged, carefree Jewishness I had grown up with and the grave, imperiled Jewishness with which I had just become ineluctably identified, and I was now left with a feeling that was at once anxious and remote. A feeling that was to stay with me for many years.
In Israel, much of the terrain outside her cities is rocky and sere, antediluvian rubble baking in the sun, crisp brush clinging to crags in stone walls. It reminds me of what the old American West must have been to pioneers and homesteaders -- a pressurizing environment ruthlessly demanding of anything and anyone that tried to survive its rigors. The difference is that Israel was not a frontier of choice but of necessity, the only option for a people tired of ceaseless wandering.
It is my first time here, traveling as one among a group of artists and entertainment industry folks, attempting to learn through experience rather than through anecdote, and get a taste for ourselves of the place which has been, for the entirety of my 50 years of skipping gormlessly through life, the source of controversy and hope.
We walk among the most famous religious sites in history, dine in local restaurants, visit an Ethiopian absorption center where we are embraced by a joyful group of exuberant 5 year olds, speak with Knesset and Palestinian Authority officials, enjoy the hospitality of a kibbutz for people with special needs, we go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum (where in a moment of overwhelming pain, I resorted to gallows humor turning to a companion and said "I want to go home"), visit a hospital that treats all Israeli children regardless of religious affiliation, feel the crippling anxiety of a mother and her 12 year old son living in Sderot -- a town just over the border of Gaza -- as she describes the post traumatic stress permeating the town as it withstands regular assaults from Qassam and Katyusha rockets, yet still brimming with determination to live on that land which is so fiercely connected to the Jewish psyche. For it is the concept of Home which is at the core of Israel.
And it seems each Israeli I meet, whether Arab or Jew, carries the country within their very being -- they are Israel.
It's a shock encountering people so immediately invested in their nation's existence, who take nothing for granted.
It makes me think that America's direct connection to its history has become more and more subsumed by materialism; patriotism is inextricably tied to consumerism. The corporate demonization of education, of unions, of community service has done serious damage to American identity, severing it from its heart, its history and its soul.
Israel's embrace of those things is a way to ensure its survival, and that survival is inextricably woven into its identity. Its passion for life is its national purpose.
Recently, the popular narrative has switched from Israel as heroic underdog rising phoenix-like from the ashes of The Shoah to one of oppressive occupier (however briefly the former scenario enjoyed any popularity).
And there is truth to the reality of innocents lost and lives crushed in fire and rockets launched from Israel into Palestinian territories; there is legitimacy to the grief of Palestinian mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters for their children torn from their arms, torn from the Earth by Death.
But the horrific truth extends to both sides of the conflict and is a deep scar upon the psyches of both peoples. And despite the current context-free account, accusations of apartheid and imperialism levied at Israel are inherently fallacious because both concepts are fundamentally repellant to the Israeli character and to the justification for the establishment of Israel as a nation. Only with the troublingly convenient excision of the Jewish people's long history as the object of persecution and genocide does the narrative of Israel as imperialist bully appear at all accurate. Similarly, in the West, the characterization of the Arab world is also in need of massive rehabilitation, after generations of belittling depictions of turbaned terrorists and gilded sheiks, belying that culture's manifold contributions to the world.
The real narrative, though, is indisputable. And for both peoples, the danger is from outright denial of their history leading, inevitably, to the soft anti-semitism of complacency which now permeates the West's views of both Israel and Palestine. It's always been way too convenient to hate these people, hatred being the laziest of human impulses.
Being of secular persuasion myself, I have never given much credence to the biblical assertion of the Jews literally being "the chosen people". Clearly, given their history, the question would have to be "Chosen for what?". The Old Testament speaks of Jews having a covenant with God, that they are His most treasured people and that such status would indeed inspire resentment if not outright hatred from all of His other creations.
Like the mother's child in Sdarot, Israel is under constant pressure, its youth and size along with the never-too-often-stressed fact of its being literally surrounded on all sides by countries seeking its destruction is the reason for its militancy and the conscious absenting of context is what reinforces the current woefully inaccurate chronicle.
Yet the child in Sdarot still plays, still dreams, still hopes. And that child is Israel, struggling to survive while simultaneously embracing life.
Jews have perhaps always expected too much of the world, expected too much of people in general, assumed that they valued life, history and intelligence as much as they did. Maybe they were considered to be "apart" because, at least in this regard, they actually are. Not "chosen" as in "superior" or as inheritors of the kingdom of God but because they are representatives of all other peoples similarly defined by pain and forced to rise above it -- and made to suffer further because of that. Ultimately, it just might be that the Jews have to fulfill their clear evolutionary imperative and also rise above their tragic but fully justified militancy. Their vast contributions in the forms of wisdom, education, technology, commerce and art dignify and elevate a world whose history has mostly been defined by a writhing and violent ignorance; enlightenment comprises but a fraction of the human story.
And now I'm back in Los Angeles, learning hard lessons, coping with a changing economic landscape like everyone else, trying to be a good person, trying to parent well, remembering, aging and generally feeling my mortality. And even in this city where Jews have lived and thrived for generations there is a drive among them to stave off the returning tides of ignorance about Israel. For me, the simple, easygoing Jewishness of my childhood has been replaced by that same drive. I have few of the reminders from my youth to buoy me, to lull me into a sense of security: my aunts and uncles have died, the weekly gatherings have ceased, the couple in Queens who survived the concentration camps have long sold their candy store and finally departed this world triumphant over the forces which threatened to destroy them in their own desperately aware childhood.
And my brief moment in Israel has put me in touch with a pride that, here in America, had waned for me. I go about my days like so many, hearing and seeing things that too often are at odds with my sense of what should be, hearing people who would be our leaders urging us to fear rather than to understand, preaching division, debasing our patriotic instincts by attaching them to profiteering ones. The tactile impact of being in Israel, in trying to understand the forces around her which perpetually threaten has sharpened my awareness of the forces in America which, from within, threaten as well.
I at least know now what the problem for me is: I've drifted away from my day to day connection to democracy, my instincts and curiosity having become anesthetized by a pervasive and persuasive media, commercialism having all but supplanted my compassion. I want to go home.
If there is only one reason Israel and the Jews need to exist it is because of what they teach the world: how to survive in the face of recurrent threats. Or, to put it simply, to live.
And that's all we've ever needed to learn.
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