Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tales of a Wandering Jew: The Jewish state, abnormal as ever

In my travels across Asia, from Far to Middle East, I encountered Jewish communities in various stages of development. Some such as the one in Saigon, are just beginning to build the foundations. Others such as those in Beijing and Shanghai are rapidly growing in numbers and communal development.

And others, such as Cochin and Cairo, are in the twilight of their days, working to ensure that their cultural heritage will continue after their communities are no more.

These issues are only relevant where Jews are the minority. What of the only place where we form the majority? Where does this community stand? What are its people up to, and how are they getting on? What tales can be told of the Jewish community of Israel? Describing the Jewish State is a whole 'nother proposition.

I returned to Israel after four years; for almost three of those, I was honored with the privilege of speaking and writing on her behalf; promoting her wonders, her achievements and her diversity; ardently defending her during her travails.

As always, some things had changed, but most remained exactly the same; my two weeks traveling Israel from top to bottom showed me that life in the Jewish state was as abnormal as ever.

In my wanderings through Israel, I always found people who defied my expectations. One person I met on a beach in Tel Aviv, Nathan, was involved in the settler movement and had just returned from protesting against the army at Homesh in Samaria. Fascinating fellow, 'cause he sure didn't look like a Kahane-quoting settler supporter. He was wearing preppy Western clothes and no kippa. Interestingly, his views on the security services are similar to those of an uber-leftist guy I met on the bus in Jerusalem, who was involved in the International Solidarity Movement.

This guy was wearing a kippa and looked like a yeshiva student, and mentioned he was going to "the territories." Then he said he was in ISM and was going to a far different part of the territories than I expected. So the settler supporter is in Abercrombie & Fitch, while the super pro-Palestinian Jew sports a kippa. Only in Israel.

I arrived just in time for Pessah, and was reminded of just how special it is to be in the Jewish state for this holiday. It began with the bus driver who wished all his passengers, with all his heart, a happy Pessah.

It continued with the foods that can only be found here, such as the kosher-for-pessah burgers at McDonalds, the spongy-laffa wrapped shwarmas in Kikar Dizengoff, and the matza-wrapped deep-fried hot dogs at the kiosks. Meanwhile, the supermarkets had cordoned off the hametz aisles behind plastic wrap, as if there was some kind of pornography sitting on the shelves.
The Israel I returned to is far more bustling than during my previous visit. Four years ago, Israel was still grappling with the daily insecurities of the second intifada; today the security situation seems much more under control, the center of Jerusalem was more packed with life. Perhaps this is due to what feels like a stronger security presence.

Tourism also seems to be on the rise, with far more foreign faces wandering through the Old City, and far more people floating in the Dead Sea. And the Israeli girls were far more beautiful than I remembered. Cheers to the Foreign Ministry and Israel21c for promoting Israel through its bevy of beauties in Maxim magazine, truly a good way to show off Israel's best assets.
While security seems to have improved, the aftershocks of the Second Lebanon War are palpable. In Haifa and the Galilee, I saw places where the katyushas had rained down, and I heard in the voices of residents resignation that a new war was just around the corner. I found general pessimism toward the current government and its ability to handle the problems that Israel faces.

Israelis have an attitude I could perhaps best characterize as "optimistic fatalism," a sense that somehow things may be much worse in the future, so I better enjoy today. Israel remains as confidant yet unsure of itself as ever.

At times, I found Israelis so focused on the present that they seemed to lack a real sense of how far we have come as a people. As Winston Churchill said, "The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see."

This sentiment was echoed at the new Herzl Museum on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, whose moving presentation showed how far the Jewish people have come in little more than a century, going from stateless wanderers to be being free in our historic homeland. The dynamism of the Jewish community of Israel, and the renaissance of Jewish life that is found only in a country that we can call our own, is a tale of wonder to this wandering Jew.

Paul Rockower served as the press officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the US Southwest in Houston from 2003 to 2006.
Read about all my misadventures on my blog at http://levantine18.blogspot.com, see the pictures from my misadventures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18, and read my "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series at http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

jameslmartin1 said...

Really enjoyed your story. I'd grow a full beard or place a "THUMBNAIL" of your picture :-)