26 May 2008

26 May 2008

Man, did I ever need a break. School may be great, but my brain was fried. A trip back to the States in time for Passover was just what I needed to refuel. It was indeed great to be back, to be with family and friends; take advantage of cheaper prices on a variety of goods; take in a few museums for free; and more. Even the very rare earthquake that hit Ohio as I was visiting for Passover didn’t faze me (mainly because it occurred around 05.50 during a vicious bout of jet lag). Other things reminded me how much my base of comparisons for things has changed: lack of security on the subway and buses; how the dollar seems more like play money; driving rain storms; supermarkets that seem to stretch on for miles; and much more.

I came back in time for the buildup to the quintessential Israeli experience: the 48 consecutive hours that comprise Memorial and Independence Day. After just reciting during the Seder about being taken from “sadness to joy,” we prepared to jump from one emotional high to another. The country was in a wash of blue and white, with an infinite number of sales and specials marking the 60th birthday of the State of Israel. Food packages went “nostalgic,” using the same typefaces and designs that were used decades ago.
I spent the evening of Memorial Day in the courtyard of the Museum of Underground Prisoners, a former British jail in Jerusalem. Close to a thousand students crowded into the courtyard illuminated by spotlights and torches, with cold wind whipping in and out of the space. There, facing a small stage with musicians and a small screen showing a set of PowerPoint slides, we engaged in a time-honored tradition: communal karaoke. Call it whatever you want – a kumsitz or shira betzibur (“singing in a community”) – the emotions of the Jewish people always translate well into poetry and sound even better when sung in a communal setting. Add to this a historically rich and relevant location, and the shivers traveling through me were not just a result from the whipping winds.
The next day I took off for Tel Aviv for Independence Day. I watched on TV the official ceremony marking the end of Memorial Day and the start of Independence Day, a space separated by the seconds it takes for the Israeli flag to return to full-mast atop Mount Herzl (the national military cemetery), and otherwise full of nationalist kitsch that I especially enjoy. Fireworks and a massive street party in South Tel Aviv carried the festivities into the wee hours of the night.
The next morning, it was time to hit the beach for the air & sea military parade. Tens of thousands of people crowded onto the beach, promenade and esplanades to watch a show which was as much about showing pride in our strength, as it was a reminder of our vulnerability. The regatta of navy ships was followed by an even longer line of civilian sailboats and other luxury craft. It was great to see fighter jets and helicopters performing feats like refueling in mid-air and upside-down loops; yet I ended up focusing on the lone pilot pair of pilots manning each plane, wondering how many unnamed missions they’ve yet to participate in and how their identities will largely remain secret to the rest of us. In that moment of existential solitude, I snapped back into the surroundings of a beautiful beach day with friends.

A week or so later, I had the privilege of attending Facing Tomorrow, the Presidential Conference led by President Shimon Peres. While I am almost always in the mood for a big conference, complete with self-aggrandizing plenaries and open bars, this one epitomized that classic Yiddish word “schmaltz.”
There were great moments to be sure, with Mikhail Gorbachev addressing the crowd in person, along with major political and business leaders in the world. But the budget spent on decorating the convention center in Jerusalem, the plenary events, and buffet meals were way over the top. To add to the schmaltz was the tribute Israel paid to the USA, and more specifically, to President Bush. The event lasted several hours, replete with musical interludes, speeches, and so many standing ovations that even the college students in the crowd got a touch of rheumatoid arthritis in the hips. Considering all the political scandals that are happening here as I type, on top of the not-always-intimate relations between the two countries, the event got the point of being embarrassing.
The crowd went berserk when Bush entered the hall and eventually spoke. Few Bush supporters seem to remember that Israelis did the same for President Clinton, an equally obscene gesture of support. I’d like to think that Israelis are used to facing such complex and serious issues on a daily basis that when it comes to something as equally complex as Israel-USA relations, they’ve had enough and prefer a black-or-white reading of the situation: if the US President says he supports Israel, Dayyenu, never mind all the nuances. There’s a great article that sums up Israel’s idolization of the US with all its flaws (not the least of which we Jews aren’t supposed to practice idolatry): http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/1,7340,L-3546353,00.html

The words “friendship” and “relationship” were thrown around as freely as possible when discussing Israel-USA relations. Israel acts and then looks admiringly towards its big brother the USA in a variety of issues, expecting universal support; the US acts in the region and expects Israel to universally support, even if it’s against its own interests. This blunt description sounds more like the relation with an enabler than one between friends or significant others. On this 60th birthday of the Jewish State, when we continue to face existential threats, including a deterioration of the original communal values that helped create this country, let’s expect more from ourselves and our leaders than the status quo and enabling one another to the point of absurdity. Let's ask the hard questions and act with some degree of self-respect.

Throwing out everyone's pairs of Crocs would also be a good start.