Maybe it is because we are in the rhythm of the Jewish holiday cycle, Purim has just passed and we are now in the run off to Passover, the grandaddy-of-them-all of Jewish holidays as far as I am concerned, particularly if you can get past the idea of having to give up bread for 8 days. Like some sort of tidal clock, my head is full of Seder details. I always do the Seder in our family, partially because the Dutch version (or at least the one I attended at my mil's) of the Seder doesn't seem to have the pageantry and grandeur that I love. Not that I am saying that the Seder I grew up with was by-the-book, but Passover definitely was something out of the ordinary in our house and my husband's family do not enjoy breaking with their routines very much to embrace the essence of Passover (although secretly I do see them enjoying themselves a little bit during the Seder).
So, anyhow, every year I try to channel my mother and grandmother and try to outdo myself in preparing a festive holiday for whomever is around our table. Our Jewish holiday tables are always an interesting hodge-podge of people. While growing up our Seder table consisted of the same people every year, but ours is always a sort of grab-bag on who might be there. Sometimes it is just us and my inlaws and sometimes we have 15 people around the table, so it is always a surprise, some years my brother in law and his family or my sister in law and her family come from Israel, somtimes not. This year we are looking at my inlaws, probably one of their friends, a third cousin of mine who is studying in Amsterdam and a friend of mine from work. So probably for the next two weeks at least I will be playing meal choices in my head (well my main courses do not change, only my vegetables, salads and other side dishes) and I will again curse myself for not being able to make a good sweet potato recipe (and I don't mean those Thanksgiving varieties with marshmallows, gummy bears and chocolate chips in a strudel) but a good basic roasted sweet potato, for some reason I cannot perfect this (standing rib roast, yes, cheese souflle, yes, sweet potato, no).
Passover is followed in short order by Israel's memorial day (Yom ha Zicharon) and Israel's Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut). Together I call these the holiday trifecta and they always put me in a wistful mood. I like this time of year, because it recalls stories of Jewish heroism, yet doesn't forget the struggles and ordeals of the past. The Jewish memory is long and it is very much part of Jewish life to take the bitter with the sweet. That's what I love about a lot Jewish holidays, they are largely filled with both. That's why we eat bitter herbs at Passover, but then eat also sweet charoses, right? I'm generalizing I know, so please don't beat me with your haggadahs, or hurl a matzoh ball my way.
Anyway as usual I am getting off point. What was the point? Oh yeah, preparing for Passover. Anyway, all these thoughts about table settings, what to prepare, etc. always gets me thinking a lot about Israel, which was my home for 5+ years. I loved the seders I spent in Israel, largely just because of the sheer variety of experiences I had which were on the one hand so different from mine, but yet had some common threads to my Western Pennsylvania Passovers from home. I've spent Passover on kibbutz, with a Sephardic family (where they actually ritually slaughtered a sheep) and with my neighbors, who had seder for about 40 people using two apartment sized kitchens, where the singing and festivities lasted until 3 AM. Good memories all.
So I have been thinking a lot the last few days about the time I spent living in Israel (I think what I am really doing is avoiding doing my pre-Passover cleaning). I must say that those 5 years were in many ways the most adventurous, fulfilling and satisfying years of my life. I found my independence in Israel, I struggled there in the beginning but found my way all on my own. I learned a new language. I made wonderful friends and everything I accomplished there was due to no one but me. Everything I cherish now (Leo and Maya) come from that one decision to leave everything that was familiar to me and everyone who represented security to me to go to a place which had always been in my mind, thanks to my Zionist father and grandparents, my magna-cum-Jewish youth group background, complete with Zionist summer camps, a lighthouse, a place that represented the pinnacle of struggle, freedom and heroism.
My 5 years there made me face the real Israel, which was not quite the Israel of my dreams inspired by summer camp singalongs, eating hamentaschen and going to Shabbat Services, but nonetheless, still special, magnificient and beautiful in their own right. Amos Oz says it much better than I. The following is a quote from the very end of one of his books, which I only truly understood after I re-read this book for about the 10th time after I had been living in Israel a few years. This ias the Israel I came to know, and love just the same (or maybe even more) than my idyllic Zionist fantasy.
...Not the land of our forefathers glory and not days of yore but simply the State of Israel.....Not "the land of the hart (sic)" and not "the divine city reunited" as the cliches would have it but simply the State of Israel. Not the "Maccabeans reborn" that Herzl talked of, but a warm hearted, hot-tempered Mediterranean people that is gradually learning through great suffering and in a tumult of sound and fury, to find release both from the bloodcurdling nightmares of the past and from delusions of grandeur, both ancient and modern; gradually learning to cling to what it has managed to build here over the course of one hundred difficult years, despite the "sand and the enemies", as the man from Ashdod put it. Gradually learning to hold on by its fingernails to what there is. Are we gradually learning, or perhaps not? But we should learn. And what is, at best, is the city of Ashdod. A pretty city and to my mind a good one, this Ashdod. And she is all that we have that is our own. Even in culture and in literature: Ashdod. All those who secretly long for the charms of Paris or Vienna, for the Jewish shtetl or for heavenly Jerusalem: do not cut loose from those longings-for what are we without our longings?-but let's remember that Ashdod is what there is. And she is not quite the grandiose fulfillment of the vision of the Prophets and of the dream of generations; not quite a world premiere, but simply a city on a human scale. If only we try to look her with a calm eye, we will surely not be shamed or disappointed.
-Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain as better underastasnding of Israel and the Israeli psyche.
Many friends and relatives ask me my views on the Middle East, mostly because I have the experience of living in Israel and they want to have more of an intimate view than what they read in Time Magazine. Honestly, since I left Israel 8 years ago, I make it a habit not to follow things too closely anymore. Mostly because a lot of what I read or see pisses me off because, whichever way it leans (both pro and anti Israel) cannot truly capture the multi-layered, extremely complex nature of the situation. Also I think because reading stuff on Israel always inevitably leads me to look for subliminal anti-semitic messages in everything and I don't enjoy that kind of paranoia (particularly because I am suceptible to it). Particularly in Europe where Pro-Palestinian sentiment runs much higher than in the US and where Israel is seen largely as an occupier, a violator of human rights. Thias view is diametrically opposed to the mainstream American view which is quite the opposite. Most Americans are pro-Israel, Israel is seen as the only democracy in an otherwise autocratic Arab world which subjugates its people and whose most fervent and fanatical believers are an enemy. One example to illustrate my avoidance/paranoia. My office which has no collective political opinion on the conflict, has a cafeteria in the basement. The window blinds which have been chosen by my office are the kind which are sort of a sliding door type of blind which have maps of various cities and countries on them. One of the maps is of Europe and the Middle East, and the map which has been illustrated on this panel is one which is from shows Jerusalem as part of Palestine and not Israel. Now do I think my office was trying to make some sweeping statement with this? Not at all. They (or their interior designers) picked out window coverings which would be appropriate for this room). Were the people who made these blinds anti-semites, did they purposely choose this map of Israel? I don't know for sure, but I can tell you this. That map and that thought has occupied me while I am eating lunch more times than I would like to admit. See? Easy, therefore I try to avoid reading too much, or reading too much into things because it is a spiral or maybe a merry-go-round, anyway, it is ride I don't wish to go on.
I don't think my years living in Israel fundamentally changed my point of view on the Middle East conflict but it did open my eyes to a greater understanding of the complexities of the situation. Although traditionally left-winged (in a Labor-Meretz kind of way) All sides have legitimate claims to the land which can be argued to kingdom come. Religious claims to Jerusalem at least become more difficult I think for the Muslim world to claim (even though they are claimed and I am not even going to go there with my opinion on that as many other people out there in cyberspace have cornered this market and argue more effectively on both sides better than I). Now, I admit that while fundamentally my opinion as to what the solution is to this conflict never really changes, although depending on the happenings of the moment I can lean more to the left or slightly more to the right (particularly at times when Israel is being vilified in the press for defending itself from attack). By slightly, I mean slightly, I will never be a fan of Bibi Netanyahu or Arik Sharon, however, I do recognise that Israel has the right to defend itself and to ensure its security and I do feel that if they did not take the preventive or even reactive measures that they do, Israel would be the recipient of many more catastrophic attacks from its neighbors. It is only because Israel is pre-emptive that the peace with Egypt and Jordan holds. I truly believe that.
So, what do I believe? It comes down to three basic principles for me:
1. I believe in a two state solution. The Palestinians should have their own state and the chance to fulfil their own destiny (although I am not comfortable at all with Hamas being at the head of that State). I am also okay with abandoning the settlements on the West Bank, although I understand how painful it is to do that, but to bring this about, it is an absolute necessary step. It was necessary to bring about the peace with Egypt and is necessary to bring peace with the Palestinians.
2. Israel has to live in true peace and security from its neighbors.
3. Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel, and I would be okay with dividing Jerusalem and giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the capital of their state (although I truly believe their reasons for this are political and not religious), provided that the Palestinians, and other Arab states respect and recognize Israel's right to exist and stop funding terrorist organisations that promote the destruction of Israel.
Do I think these three principles will ever come to pass? I don't know. My thoughts on the matter is that there are special moments in time in which peace has a chance to flourish, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. One of these moments in time brought about the Camp David Accords. Another moment in time culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Who's to say when that next moment will be and what will become of it?