On April 19, 2018, the State of Israel will turn 70. Israelis will stay home from work and fire up the barbecue. Some will party. Some will picnic. Some might even parade. But everyone in Israel will feel the holiday. Everywhere else in the Jewish world, adults will go to work and kids will go to school. It will feel like just another normal day – not the extraordinary moment in Jewish history it is – and that will be a shame.
Instead, every Jew should play hooky on April 19. Stay home. Eat ice cream for breakfast. Barbecue. Watch an Israeli movie, or Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot or Black Panther if you’re willing to contemplate what Wakanda teaches about promised lands and national pride. Read a Zionist text. Talk about your Jewish identities – and your Jewish ambitions. Make Israel’s 70th memorable.
Seventy years ago, Jews didn’t have to stretch to make it feel memorable – it just was. On May 14, 1948, when Israel became a state, my future father-in-law was in Tel Aviv. A few years ago, he remembered his euphoria that day, having escaped from Romania in 1944 amid World War II. “Look at me, look at me,” Marcel recalled saying, beaming, pulling the lapels on his sports jacket, “I’m alive!”
President Reuven Rivlin remembers everyone he knew as a kid massing in downtown Jerusalem to celebrate the UN’s vote to establish the state. Rivlin explains: “I was born into a generation for which hoisting the state flag was not something to be taken for granted – and it never will be. Even today, when I see the flag raised to the top of the mast, I choke on my tears, just like the nine-year-old boy I once was did.”
Jewish parents please note: if you play hooky this April 19, if you access the emotion your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents felt 70 years ago, you will give your kids the gift of a lifetime. Show that you appreciate this moment’s grandeur. Abandon your routine. Use the day to explain what Israel means to you, what your first memory of Israel was, what Zionism is. Teach your kids – especially your college-agers – to take whatever position they like on whatever borders Israel should have, but that no one should single out that one country, of all the countries in the world – our country – and question its right, our right, to exist.
This thought was inspired by two of the first Zionist salons I have hosted – part of my celebration of Israel’s 70th by triggering conversations about “Identity Zionism” – what Israel and Zionism mean to me, to us (with guidelines for running discussions at www.zionistideas.com).
In Virginia Beach on Monday, one salon was with young parents sitting around the table in the library at the local Jewish day school. One was with parents of teenagers and college students around a kitchen table in a private home. Both conversations analyzed America, modern parenting, Israel and the Zionist idea.
I offered a Zionist critique of American life, American Jewry and American Jewish parenting. We considered the crazy college rat race teens endure – which often results in mad dashes to therapists, pharmacists and drug pushers to escape the pressures, even once they make it to college. The New York Times recently reported that half of Yale undergraduates experience significant psychological distress at one point during their four years at what’s considered “The Happy Ivy.” Beyond the pressure and anxiety, modern American soul sickness has a deeper cause – upper-middle-class kids, especially, report a lack of purpose, a millennial search for meaning that’s particularly daunting because the traditional anchors have been cut away.
Turning toward American Judaism, shouting “Anatevka is over,” I asked how much of the Jewish identity they pass on is a stale, shticky shmear of gefilte fish and lox – and how much is a rich feast of transcendent rituals, enduring values, profound teachings. We read Herman Wouk’s warning that antisemites don’t threaten American Jewry. Instead, one day, Abramsons will become Adamsons – and disappear Jewishly. We read Anne Roiphe’s lament about her own parenting being too thin, too modern, too universal – too Upper West Side not enough Lower East Side – or Jerusalem. “Zionism rewards togetherness,” she exclaimed – in 1981.
We brainstormed about how to convey the excitement of Israel, the depth of the peoplehood connection, the profundity of Jewish thought, the miracle of the Zionist redemption. We talked about how to evolve from Political Zionism – emphasizing that the Jews are a people with rights like others to establish a nation-state on their homeland, to Identity Zionism, tapping this extraordinary experiment in old-new democratic Jewish living in the Middle East to give Jews in Virginia, and elsewhere, pride, meaning, rootedness, community.
We got practical, talking about teaching Israel at the seder to our kids – and adding to it by, for example, having everyone re-enact the Exodus by marching around the table after “Dayenu.” And we wondered how to make Israel’s 70th special – which inspired my grand Zionist hooky conspiracy.
Zionism in America has always been more about fighting assimilation than fighting antisemitism – creating a positive, lasting, peoplehood-based platform of meaning and belonging. Zionism started with people arguing passionately about ideas – then acting dramatically, heroically; the result was Israel. Let’s celebrate Israel by arguing passionately about the Zionist ideas – and acting boldly, creatively, Jewishly, memorably.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work and was just published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com.