I still recall the day, some 40 years ago, when my mother told me that she remembered vividly the moment that she’d heard that FDR had died. I was stunned. She’d been so young. How could she possibly remember it at all, much less so clearly?
Gradually, I came to understand that there is a certain kind of moment when something so important transpires that, even years later, we remember not only what happened, but where we were, who spoke, how we felt. Each of us has a different list. Mine includes Anwar Sadat’s arrival in Tel Aviv, and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The Challenger explosion. Ariel Sharon’s stroke. Many more.
Two weeks ago, there was another. I woke up in a San Diego hotel and turned on the TV to see if anything dramatic had changed in Egypt. The news was still the same. Protests were continuing. Tahrir Square was filled to capacity, peacefully defiant. But Hosni Mubarak seemed not to get it and was still hanging on.
With nothing happening, I took advantage of the Southern California weather and went for a run. An hour later, when I was back and dressed, I nonchalantly turned on the TV once again.
Mubarak was gone; an era had ended.
Stunned, I sat on the couch, and watched the celebrating crowd, people cheering and waving Egyptian flags, men holding their young children aloft, in their arms or on their shoulders. And I remember now my surprise when I realized what I was feeling. It wasn’t shock, for we all suspected this was coming. It wasn’t joy, for the road ahead would be a long one, and this wasn’t exactly great for Israel. But it wasn’t dread, either. It was envy.
It wasn’t what I’d expected to feel, but that was what it was. I was jealous of those thousands of cheering, running, weeping, flag-waving people, envious that they still took freedom seriously. It made no difference that their freedom pales in comparison to what we have. Or that they might end up not being any freer than they’d been under Mubarak.
What struck me at that moment was that we, too, had once celebrated new beginnings.
We’d been the ones huddled around old wooden radios on November 29, 1947. We were once the ones who’d danced in the streets of Tel Aviv. We were the ones, as Amos Oz describes in his extraordinary autobiography, whose fathers got into bed with us that night, and told us of the horrors of growing up weak and insecure in Europe, and promised us that those days would now forever be banished. Yes, there were days when we didn’t take our own freedom for granted.
But now, we fret. We worry. We disagree and fight. We wonder if this experiment will survive. Some Jews even wonder if it was a good idea in the first place. A lot has changed since November 1947, since our Tahrir Square, and I was jealous of those celebrating Egyptians for what we’d lost, and what they’d just discovered.
JUST A few days later, one of the founders of our synagogue passed away in Jerusalem. One of the few remaining of the group of survivors who’d created the shul some 60 years earlier, we knew him as Siggy, a quiet, wise and dignified man, whom I met on the way to shul most mornings. Lately, as we’d walk up Rehov Shimshon in the morning, he’d take the slight hill ever more slowly. Occasionally, I’d slow down and walk with him, but he always said the same thing: “Don’t wait for me – you’ll be late.” I don’t know how long I’ll remember those early morning walks up Rehov Shimshon and our brief exchanges. But I’ll always remember what Siggy said to me one morning, in the midst of the intifada, as we were about to recite Yizkor.
It was a time in Jerusalem when life was sad, and often frightening. We hadn’t lived here that long, and it didn’t take much to wonder, at fleeting moments, what in the world we’d done to our children, taking them from a quiet, tree-lined street in Los Angeles to a city in which buses and restaurants blew up on what seemed to be a daily basis. It was a time when it wasn’t that hard to feel sorry for yourself for living here – angry at times, despondent at others.
That holiday morning, as I made my way out of shul for Yizkor (since my immediate family is all still living), Siggy, who sat not far from the door, grabbed my arm just as I was about to step outside.
“You’re going out for Yizkor?” he asked me. When I nodded, somewhat perplexed, he continued. “When we first got here, after the war, there wasn’t a single person who could go out for Yizkor.
Not a single one.” And then, he said, “Ba’u od milhamot venaflu od banim.”
“More wars followed, and more boys fell. So for more years, no one could go out for Yizkor.”
He stopped for a moment, and I saw that his lips were trembling, ever so slightly. He pointed to the courtyard right outside our shul. “Ve’achshav, tistakel – kulam bahutz.” “And now, look!” he pressed me. “Everyone’s outside.” “Hamedina hazot nes.” “This country is a miracle.”
I have no idea why Siggy chose to speak to me that morning, some 10 years ago. But I do know it was one of those moments worth remembering for a lifetime. When the downward spiral here seems unstoppable, when hope seems in short supply, I think of the perspective that he had, that I never will.
And I hope I can forever take to heart what he taught me: Why be envious of what’s happening across the border? After all, he was right – the genuine miracle in this region is the place we still call home.