Blue and white dominate Israel this week. The country is in high gear for Yom Ha’atazmaut – the 61st Annual Day of Independence. Israeli flags flap everywhere – roadsides, billboards, balconies, rooftops. In the paper goods section of Ace Hardware today a saleswoman shrugs in reply to a customer ‘we are totally out of all white and all blue paper plates, paper cups, napkins and tablecloths’. But they do still sell flags – in every shape imaginable, including cocktail umbrellas and queen size sheets. For 10 shekels you get a plastic flag that attaches easily to the car. My mother bought one last Friday, raised it high and drove off, with fresh chicken soup, to visit her sister who lives in one of Jerusalem’s Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. When she came back out to her parked car thirty minutes later– the flag was gone. Only the plastic handle was left dangling. She was furious as she told us about it over Shabbat dinner. ‘It had to be some kid or yeshiva boy, anti Zionist, ungrateful and rude; As though they don’t benefit from national health insurance and basic plumbing!’
But my mother, a devout Zionist, is definitely among those celebrating Israel. She came here from England in the 50’s, eager to be part of this growing country’s evolution. Not one to give in to hooligans she gets another flag up on the car first thing on Sunday.
Today, just one day before the holiday begins, I borrowed the car for a run of errands, rolling the driver’s window all the way down, and cranking up the volume on the best selections of heart wrenching classic Israeli songs in pre-memorial-day-mode on the radio. These songs, perhaps more than anything else, mold the mood of these national holidays. I got onto one of the highways, singing along with the familiar ballad, tears in my eyes, when this strange loud rattle starts behind my left ear, and my first thought is that a tire burst. But it was the flag, made in china, flapping in Jerusalem, screaming ‘I LOVE ISRAEL’ at 80 KPH.
But do I? Do I “love” Israel? The land of Israel? The State of Israel? The people of Israel? Do I love being identified with this noisy, public, unabashedly Israeli flag?? When was the last time I’ve waved a flag, of any kind? (The Salute to Israel parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, circa 1983: I open the parade, dressed in white, carrying a giant Israeli flag. I march for hours, right behind the police horses, careful not to step in their shit, and remembering to always smile and look proud and dignified, representing Israel).
I’m not a flag waver. Just not into it, never really was – Israeli, American, Rainbow - maybe I’m too ambivalent about everything, too suspicious of sweeping affiliations and collective symbols. Maybe I am an actual product of the post modernist global reality. I was born in Israel (on Yom Ha’atzmaut), raised in Israel, served in the army, use an Israeli Passport, an Israeli cellphone, pay Israeli taxes, have lots of criticism, but overall care a lot about Israel and consider it my home, even though I’ve spent the past decade in NYC – so what was it that felt so strange to be driving a car with a big, public, flag? I stopped at a red light, surrounded by ‘my people’, all busy with their lives, buying flags, and selling portable grills, and singing on the radio, and crossing the streets, and I looked in the rearview mirror and asked myself: Do I love Israel?
My smartass reflection in the mirror replied, looking me straight in the eye – ‘what is love’?
Back home I turn to Leviticus for the answer. In this week’s Torah episode, I recalled, ‘love’ makes a big appearance – as a verb, a recommendation, and perhaps even as a law. Does the verse that will one day be known as ‘The Golden Rule” have anything to say about national affinity?
The weekly Torah episode is called Kedoshim, meaning ‘Sacred’ (it will be read this coming Sabbath along with the previous episode, Achrei Mot) and it contains a long and somewhat random list of social, civic and religious instructions. In verse 18 of Chapter 19, love is introduced:
“Do not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against your people; love your fellow as yourself; I am God.”
The verse in its entirety is fascinating, but it’s the middle bit that caught the world’s attention. As “Eat, Pray, and Love” roughly puts it: First figure out how to love yourself – then you will be able to love the other, and vice versa, and so on. No wonder this little paradoxical law became the winner of the Judeo-Christian ‘what’s the most important human law’ competition. It says it all.
Self love is something I struggle with. There are elements about myself - aspects, decisions, behaviors - that I am proud of and are loveable. Then there are others – lesser known, lesser shown, shadows, habits, thought patterns that make me uncomfortable and eager for change. Do I love myself? On a good day. Do I love my country? Same answer. Is it ok to be loving AND ambivalent at the same time? Is it ok to say ‘maybe’ and hold off for a bit on waving the flag?
‘Love’ in Hebrew is ‘ve’ahavta’ – the same word used elsewhere in the Bible and throughout liturgy when describing the ideal relationship with the Divine. The usage of the same word in both contexts seems to suggest that there are important connections between the ways we humans could relate to each other and the ways in which we should relate to that which unites us – God, soul, mystery. But love of self or God or neighbor or lover is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ demand. It is one word used to describe too many relationships and maybe it isn’t the best word to suit all of them.
One could translate ‘ve’ahavta’ as ‘care’ or ‘honor’. It will be easier for me to say that ‘yes, I care for Israel’, and ‘of course, I honor my people’s courage’. But love, when it comes to one’s country just doesn’t feel right to me. Not this year anyway. This is not where my country and I are in our relationship. She at 61 and I at 40 – we’ve done a lot together already and will hopefully keep working at it. Love, after all, is a perpetual ‘work in process’. And what is love after all? My love is not for an abstract notion called ‘country’. It is, as the Torah reminds me, about love for people – the people that make this place what it is. Those who are living here, and those who gave up their lives, and all of us who make this place into what it is – a lovable, complicated, challenging reality called home.
For 24 hours, starting with a siren last night at 8pm, and until 8pm this evening, the flags in Israel are at half mast. The civic rituals of grief call for a flag partially raised, conscious of the loss. At 8pm tonight, as the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen will awkwardly become the Day of Independence, the flags will be raised all the way up. The music will shift from somber to festive, the grills will grill, and the fireworks will sparkle in the sky.
“Flags are the shrouds of history” wrote Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s loved poet, in a special poem dedicated to the Day of Independence. He goes on to describe the fireworks that remind me of “the colorful moans of the Jewish people.”
And I will celebrate tonight with friends, and we will quietly mark the transition from grief to joy, and metaphorically raise our flags, hold hands with each other – Jews and Arabs, Israelis and foreigners, committed to living together and loving each other’s differences as well as that which unites us, and honoring our shared destiny, and, hopefully, blow out 62 candles on this big birthday cake and make the wish for peace, and optimism, one love at a time.