view from central park

On her 70th birthday, celebrating Israel from afar


Not too far off, I hope to live the words of hashiveini v’ashuva el ha-aretz ha-tova, a phrase from Naomi Shemer’s song, “Al Kol Eleh,” that I think of often. “Bring me back, that I may return to the good land.” This has layers of meaning for many of us, whether our return to the Land is primarily physical, spiritual or emotional.

The Kululam choir, which orchestrates special songs in special places, gifted Israel with a breathtaking rendition of “Al Kol Eleh” for Israel’s 70th birthday gift. Anyone can join the Kululam choir, even on a one-time basis for a specific gig. For Israel’s 70th, 12,000 Israelis showed up and joined, including President Reuven Rivlin. Scarf-clad wrinkled women, young soldiers holding their little girls, teenagers, Ethiopians, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, young and old, came together to sing Naomi Shemer’s iconic “Al Kol Eleh.” Like so many of her songs, in Hebrew it reads like a lyrical prayer.

What a 70th birthday gift to the country!

When you think of 70 years you think of a human lifetime, “of the bitter and the sweet.” An innocent childhood, the angst of teen years, the discovery of young adulthood, the nesting years of parenting, of work and anchoring family, the nachat of grandparenting, the weariness of old age. In Ethics of the Fathers, when the stages of life are named decade by decade, 70 is described the time of ripe old age, preceded by ages for understanding and counsel. Indeed, the Sanhedrin, the council of sages who played a key role in the rehabilitation of the Jewish people after the Bar Kochba revolt, numbered 70.

Of course, life doesn’t go in such clean sequences for all. One can be ravaged by old age at less than 70 and today 70 years can seems young. Yet, 70 is symbolic of the length of a life, of a generation. A milestone.

In the Talmudic legend of Choni Ha-Meagel, the Jewish Rip Van Winkle of sorts, it was for 70 years that he fell into slumber in a field of planted seeds before he awoke to groves of grown trees and the dialogue he then has with grandchild, who benefits from the fruit on the trees planted decades earlier.

Where was the Jewish world just 70 years ago? It was on the brink of collapse and utter devastation. It was a different place than the one we know today.

Israel has two memorial days in quick succession: the price we paid for not having Israel (Holocaust Day), and the price we paid for having an Israel (Memorial Day).

For me personally, Israel is not only a homeland, it was my actual home, the place that raised me. As laureate Leah Goldberg says, “eretz ahavati,” my longing and love for my land. Yet, in a different poem, “Oren,” Goldberg concludes with two lines whose duality resonates in my life as well: “With you I have been planted twice, With you I have blossomed trees, And my roots lie upon two separate horizons.”

Developing in formative years in two places, Israel and Colorado, among the sea and the snow, there’s a duality. An abiding love for two places that have been called home, a sense of a double planting. Still, Israel eclipses all, not only because it came first in my life, not only because it became the compass of my life, not only because there’s no other place that makes me tick like Israel, that brings me close to the noblest, holiest of people, peddlers and prayers, in Israel.

Simply, because I am a Jew.

For thousands of bitter years of exile from Israel we were a persecuted pursued minority. To have the dignity of a sovereign state, a return to our homeland, is a miracle that my great-grandparents, who were murdered in Auschwitz just for being Jews, could have only dreamed of.

The seeds were scattered 70 years ago, and of course it was long before that too. Today the crop yields beautiful fruits.

But as in every garden, things are not perfect.

There are beautiful flowers to be seen, luscious fruits to be picked (we pray, not be-terem et, before their time), fragrant blooms to be had, and the shading of trees to protect. Like every garden, it needs constant vigilance, weeding, nourishing, watering, pruning and refining. A sterile manicured garden it is not, and ought not to be.

Israel is a real place.

But when it’s a 70th birthday celebration, although the reality is always both “bitter and sweet” — replete with both “sting and honey” — and while Israel is still a place where we must in one hand hold an olive branch while in the other, a sword, now is the time to see the honey for what it is and appreciate all the sweet.

Now is the time to gather and collect the bouquets and pause and pray in joy for all the good in our collective Jewish homeland’s life and people, while staying the course in commitment to repairing and refining our homeland of Israel to which we stand indebted.

Despite our endless overtures, efforts and sacrifices, we are not yet living out the prophecy of “each person lying under their fig and grape arbors” in neighborly harmony.

Much work is still needed within too: our discourse, our understanding of the many different communities (the 70 faces, so to speak) that stitch together into our diverse fabric that is our one people of Am Yisrael.

True, 70 years is symbolic of a lifetime. But just one lifetime. Yet, in one lifetime one person can change the world.

So here’s to many more endless lifetimes for the State of Israel that has already made us all so immensely proud on a Jewish and human level. Israel has already changed the world for the good.

As on any birthday, with celebration comes a deeper appreciation of how fragile life can be, to which Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh” gives voice. It is the perfect anthem for Israel’s 70th, second only to Psalms, of course.

For All These … Al Kol Eleh

For the honey and the bee sting

For the bitter and the sweet

For our precious baby daughter

Grant a blessing of protection, dear G-d, please

For the blazing fire

For the crystal clear water

For those returning home from travels afar

For all these — Over all these 

Grant a blessing of protection, dear G-d, please

For the honey

For the bee sting

For the bitter

For the sweet

Please do not uproot what’s been planted

Do not forget our hopes and dreams

Lead me home

And I shall return

To this (wonderful) good land

Shield, dear G-d, this house of mine

This garden and these walls

From sorrow, grief, and sudden fear

And from wars

Protect the little I have

The light,

The fruit not yet ripened

Picked before it’s time

For all these

For these

Grant a blessing, dear G-d, please

For the honey and the bee sting

For the bitter and the sweet

Please do not uproot what’s been planted

Do not forget our hopes and dreams

Lead me home,

And I shall return,

To this good good land.

A tree rustles in the wind

A star falls from afar

And in the darkness

I wish upon the star

Please watch over them all for me

My cherished ones

Bless the quiet

the cries

and this very song.

The flag with the Star of David is already waving high in the spring air. Let it keep waving in the wind with immense joy for another 70 incredibly wonderful years!

Thank you Israel. Thank you Am Yisrael. Thank you G-d. And Happy Birthday!!

Copyright Intermountain Jewish News