Reminiscing: Israel at 70
I celebrated my 12th birthday one week before the birth of the State of Israel. I was about to begin lessons for my bar mitzvah with the cantor of our local synagogue, which neither my parents nor I had ever attended. In our family, I implicitly understood, my bar mitzvah (following four years of Hebrew school when I would have much preferred to be playing ball with my friends) would be my exit from Judaism. My parents, children of immigrants from Romania and Russia, wanted only to be recognized as loyal Americans.
My first awareness of Israel came in June 1967. My daughter had been born a month earlier and I was spending more time at home than usual to reassure my two-year-old son that he had not been displaced in my love. On June 7, while the children were napping, I turned on the television to find a baseball game to watch. Instead, I saw scenes of jubilant celebration in Jerusalem after Israeli soldiers reached the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, where no Jews had lived or prayed for nineteen years.
But real life quickly intruded. Now there were two children to care for, not an easy task. There were classes to prepare for my Brandeis students, whose verbal precociousness — especially in my course on freedom of speech — was a constant challenge. Once the Six Day War ended, Israel vanished from my agenda.
Five years later, by chance, I encountered a former colleague who had just returned from two weeks in Israel. He went with a group of “disaffected Jewish academics” chosen by the American Jewish Committee to combat the rising wave of anti-Israel propaganda and hatred that was infesting academic institutions. As my friend recounted his experiences I became convinced I was a perfect candidate. So did the selection committee.
In December 1972 I visited Israel for the first time. I was riveted by what I saw (and felt), especially in the Old City of Jerusalem and the restored Jewish Quarter of Hebron. I knew that I must return, soon, to experience life in the Jewish State. I applied for and received a Fulbright teaching fellowship at Tel Aviv University, an easy commute from our Jerusalem apartment in the beautiful Rehavia neighborhood.
Rafi, one of my seminar students, had been the Kol Yisrael newscaster who accompanied Israeli soldiers to the Kotel on that wondrous June day in 1967, broadcasting to the nation the excitement of what he saw and felt. My colleague Haggai, who attended the seminar meetings, met with me afterward and shared his experiences as a Haganah fighter during the War of Independence and then leader at Kibbutz Revivim before becoming a historian. That year, as I taught Israeli students about the United States, Rafi and Haggai taught me about Israel.
It was a magical year of exploration and self-discovery, especially in the cavernous space adjacent to the Kotel.
On chilly damp winter days I often sat for hours, mesmerized by the men who would form a minyan for prayer. One afternoon I heard a riveting voice that reverberated amid the stone enclosure. It instantly returned me to my boyhood home in Forest Hills where every Friday evening I would hear Cantor Gorsky reciting Shabbat prayers through our shared apartment wall. Memories of Jewish distance instantly converged with the experience of Jewish intimacy.
I could not stay away from Israel, but short visits were not enough. In a new marriage, with our two-year-old daughter, we returned for a year in Jerusalem. That spring I received an offer from the Hebrew University to join its faculty. It would be the turning point of my life — but it could not be. I would not leave my elderly, ailing parents nor my older children. I must remain a diaspora Jew. But by then Israel was deeply embedded, focusing my life, scholarship, and writing.
Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence inspires joy and celebration. I feel blessed, even from afar, to experience the miracle of Jewish national restoration in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem once again — as during the reign of King David — as its capital.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016.