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April 19, 2018 1:52 pm

New Jews With an Old Song — Israel at 70

avatar by Chaim Steinmetz

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The mega-Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 18, 2018. Credit: Hadas Parush / Flash90.

Only in Israel could there be an organization like Koolulam, which organizes large sing-alongs with people from every ideology and religious background. It describes itself as a “social-musical initiative aimed at bringing together people from all corners of the diverse, multi-cultural Israeli society. Our idea is to stop everything for a few hours and just sing — together.”

Only in Israel could hundreds of people come to sing together, precisely because they know that they are different from each other, yet at the same time, very much the same. And by singing together, they bring about inspiration and unity.

For Yom HaShoah, Koolulam produced an unique sing-along. Partnering with Beit Avi Chai and Zikaron BaSalon, a group of 600 Holocaust survivors and their families sang Ofra Hazah’s hit song “Chai,” which has the following chorus:

חי, חי, חי
כן, אני עוד חי
זה השיר שסבא
שר אתמול לאבא
והיום אני

אני עוד חי, חי, חי
עם ישראל חי 

Alive, alive, alive — Yes, I’m still alive!
This is the song which grandfather
Sang yesterday to father
And today I [sing]
I’m still alive, alive, alive
The people of Israel live

The video of this sing-along was highlighted in Jewish media across the world. But the media accounts left out a significant point: “Chai” was originally composed in response to the Holocaust. It was written by Ehud Manor, the famed Israeli composer, when he heard that the Eurovision contest was going to be in Munich, Germany, in 1983.

He wanted to tell the German nation that we, the Jewish people, were still alive. When the song was performed, the back up singers all wore yellow, the color of the hated yellow star. Manor recounts how he was emotionally overwhelmed when the singers sang the words “Am Yisrael Chai” on the German stage.

However, this song forces us to wrestle with a mystery: How is is it that “Am Yisrael chai”? How did the weaklings of exile find their way to redemption after 1,900 years?

What happened 70 years ago was unparalleled; a wandering people rebuilt their state after 1,900 years in exile, and a people that had sustained a Holocaust found the strength and courage to defeat powerful adversaries with far larger armies.

How could this happen?

This question was actually posed well before the State of Israel was established, by the founders of the Zionist movement. They wondered how the Jew of exile would ever manage to build an independent state. To this, they offered two answers: a “New Jew,” and an old song.

The New Jew answer is actually an old one. According the medieval thinkers Avraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides, the generation that left Egypt was not capable of going to Israel — because their character was weak; only their children, raised in the desolation of the desert, would be courageous enough to conquer Israel. The Jews needed to wait for a new generation of Jews before entering the land of Israel.

Early Zionist thinkers also saw the need for a “New Jew.” Max Nordau in a letter in 1903, said that his motto was: “We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles.” He explained that “the fear of constant persecution.. turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face            of their executioners. But now … let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

For some, New Jew theory was an attack on established religious and communal norms; and it was seen this way by many in the Orthodox community. Remarkably enough, this theory was adopted by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook. 

In a highly controversial passage, Kook wrote that exercise for the sake of making one stronger to build the land of Israel was so holy, that “when young people engage in sport to strengthen the power and spirit for the sake of the might of the entire nation, that holy service raises God’s Presence higher and higher, equal to (reciting) the songs and praises that Dovid, King of Israel, expressed in the book of Psalms.” To Rav Kook, a secular soldier’s pushups are equal to a pious man’s prayers.

But many felt that the heart and soul of Zionism came from an “old song,” a dogged refusal by Jews to ever forget the land of Israel. In 1902, the founding manifesto of the Mizrachi movement declared that “We have always been united by that ancient hope, by the promise which lies at the very roots of our religion, namely, that only out of Zion will the Lord bring redemption to the people of Israel.”

In Psalm 137, the Jews, upon reaching the Babylonian exile, vow never to forget Jerusalem:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

While these words are familiar, their context is forgotten. This chapter comes right after 16 straight chapters of Psalms recited in the Temple. The worry in exile is that the songs of the Temple will be reduced to nostalgia, sentimental tokens of a forgotten past. Psalm 137 proclaims clearly, from the first moments of exile, that the Temple Psalms are not going to be a relic of the past, but a blueprint for the future. Jews vowed they would eventually leave exile and return to Jerusalem and once again sing these songs. “

“If I forget you O Jerusalem” is “the song which grandfather sang yesterday to father,” the song which declared that Israel is not just part of the Jewish past, but also the Jewish future.

This old song, composed on the river banks of Babylon, gave us hope throughout exile. Eliezer Ayalon (Lazar Hirschenfeis) was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in Treblinka. He came to Israel in 1945, and fought in the War of Independence (as did thousands of other survivors).

In an interview in 2008, Ayalon recalled: “The love of this country that was imbued in me by my parents from early childhood made me decide that I am going to Eretz Yisrael.” He concluded by saying that “here I am right now, I have two married children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world.”

Such is the power of an old song.

In the end, both answers were correct. The miracle that occurred 70 years ago was the product of New Jews singing an old song. It took the courage and daring of a new generation combined with the hopes of 2,000 years to bring us back to our homeland. And that spirit still lives, 70 years later.

One story which exemplifies this spirit has been recounted by Danny Gordis. In 2004, The Pelech School dedicated a Sefer Torah. This Torah had been brought to Israel by a group of 12th grade students who went on a heritage trip to Poland in 1990. (It was restored by another class, 14 years later).

The students had gone to the Krakow market, and noticed someone selling “Jew Dolls” — crude caricatures of Hasidic Jews studying from a book. They took a closer look at the “books” the dolls were holding, and realized that they had been cut out of a Sefer Torah. So they asked the seller where these parchment fragments came from, and he explained that his uncle had gotten the Torah scroll from a synagogue in Luminova.

Immediately, they began negotiations to buy what remained of the Torah, and the girls pooled their pocket money to buy the damaged Torah scroll. But then they had a dilemma: what should they do with it? It was illegal to take the Torah out of Communist Poland; it was considered to be the property of the state. Gordis explains what happened next:

They talked it over, and after a while … [and] decided to smuggle the Torah out of Poland and to bring it home to Jerusalem.

At the airport, however, each of them was required to put all their bags onto the x-ray machine. The first girl in the line, when she was told to put her bags on the belt, passed the Torah to the next girl in line. When that girl was told to do the same thing, she surreptitiously passed it to the girl behind her. And so forth. For the next few minutes, the Torah silently made its way back the line, until it seemed that they were not going to get it out.

And then, the belt broke. The machine just quit. The Polish authorities, too concerned with fixing the belt to inspect all the bags being brought through, just ushered the remaining girls by and the Torah made it out.

The belt broke! And the Torah was carried by these courageous teenage girls back to Israel. Gordis then wonders how the girls knew to do this:

How did they know that this Torah simply had to come home? Why, in a world in which last year’s news is ancient history, did they know that the story of the Jews of Leminova, whoever they were, is their story, too?

How did they know? The answer is: because they are new Jews, but singing an old song. That is why these girls smuggled the Torah from Leminova to Israel; and that is why their parents and grandparents smuggled and struggled their way into Israel as well. Even 1,900 years after being exiled, successive generations have continued to sing the songs of their grandfathers and grandmothers. They might live in a new world, with new technologies and perspectives — and thankfully they have a toughness that perhaps was lacking in previous generations; but inside their heart, echoes the words of an old song: Am Yisrael Chai!!

Happy 70th, Israel!

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