NEW YORK — Many of us who travel to Israel frequently risk becoming jaded. Obsessed by Realpolitik, the peace process, internecine and ultimately unproductive Jewish political polemics, philanthropic hype, or just plain business concerns, we lose sight of Israel’s true significance.
Two weeks ago, my friend Robert Fagenson asked me to accompany him on a four-day whirlwind trip to Jerusalem to participate in the Western Wall bar mitzva ceremony of his partner’s grandson. Robert is a prominent Wall Street executive, a former vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and a life-long member of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. He had been to Israel twice before, the last time in 1968.
As our plane flew over the Israeli coastline, Robert was amazed at the urban Tel Aviv sprawl the rest of us have come to take for granted. He remembered a far less developed landscape, predominated by sand dunes rather than skyscrapers and industrial complexes.
That evening in Jerusalem, we walked through the pedestrian Mamilla Mall, from the foot of King David Street to the Jaffa Gate. The old and new cities, two separate universes for decades, have become intrinsically linked by a succession of stores, art galleries and cafés that put the spotlight on the exigencies of daily life.
The next morning service at the Western Wall was simultaneously moving and more than a bit chaotic. The plaza was filled with different family groups each calling a 13-year-old to the Torah for the first time. Ashkenazi and Sephardic melodies vied with one another to create a mostly atonal yet authentic blend. As Avi, the bar mitzva, was wrapped in his talit, there were tears in his grandfather’s eyes. Marty Vegh’s journey, from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Staten Island, New York, and now to Jerusalem, epitomized the globalization of the Jewish people in the aftermath of World War II. Robert received the first aliya, linking him not so much to a historical chain than an infinite tapestry.
A few hours later, we were welcomed at the Israel Museum by its director, James Snyder, a Pittsburgh native. Robert’s uncle and aunt, Joseph and Sylvia Slifka, donated some of the museum’s major works, including a magnificent Miro and exquisite Jean Arp and Max Ernst sculptures. As we saw them in the midst of an impressive world-class collection of impressionist and contemporary art, we could just as easily have been in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan or the Centre George Pompidou in Paris. Until, that is, we walked a few steps further and found ourselves in synagogues that have been relocated from different countries in Europe, North Africa, and elsewhere. Somehow, they put the Pissarros, Monets and Chagalls in perspective.
We were then shown a collection of works of art and craft created in Jerusalem at the Bezalel School between 1906 and 1929 that Robert’s cousin, Alan Slifka, who died earlier this year, gave to the Israel Museum. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Boris Schatz, a Lithuanian born Jewish artist, undertook to implement in Palestine a new decorative craftsmanship, along the lines advocated by John Ruskin in England but rooted in Middle Eastern folk styles and infused with an often intangible, elusive Jewish spark. We were suddenly conscious of a time before the Holocaust, before the world went utterly mad, when the forging of a modern Jewish nation required not just Zionist ideology and political philosophy, not just building cities and kibbutzim in a hurry and training idealists to become soldiers, but the creation, indeed the invention, of a new Israeli, as opposed to simply Jewish, culture.
That Friday morning, we went to the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. I watched Robert absorb the testimonies of both the dead and the survivors. There were Warsaw Ghetto cobblestones, a model of the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, reflections and echoes of murdered Jewish children whose ghosts haunt the galleries and, henceforth, our subconscious. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly threatens the State of Israel with genocidal annihilation. Perhaps every world leader, every U.N. diplomat, every journalist who covers Middle East political developments should walk through the Yad Vashem museum so as to grasp why Ahmadinejad, Hamas and Hezbollah are little more than reincarnations of blind, implacable Nazi evil.
Emerging into the sun-lit Judean hills, we have a new appreciation of Israel’s critical role as a haven for any Jew threatened by persecution anywhere in the world.
From Yad Vashem, we returned to the Western Wall where Rabbi Jay Marcus, a Staten Island rabbi who settled in Israel a few years ago, guided us through the tunnels that have been excavated alongside what had been one of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount in Herodian times. We proceeded underground for more than 1,500 feet, all the while feeling stones that stand silent witness to a Jewish presence here centuries before the birth of Muhammad ibn Abdullah.
Of course, Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews. But the city is central only to Judaism. It is also far too often forgotten that during close to two decades of Jordanian rule, from 1948 until 1967, Jews were forbidden to set foot in the old city of Jerusalem and much of the Jewish Quarter was destroyed and desecrated. Today, Muslims, Christians and Jews worship here freely.
Sometime soon, I hope to see Jerusalem through the eyes of our twin grandchildren. But as our plane lifted into the sky several hours after the end of Shabbat, I was grateful to Robert for enabling me to remember that both Israel and Jerusalem must be experienced, not just visited, to be absorbed and understood.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, a distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)