The late Rabbi Judah Miller of Rochester, N.Y. said it best: Even when your sister does something that drives you crazy, she’s still your sister and you love her no matter what. You’d never dream of turning your back on her. Israel, Rabbi Miller pointed out more than a decade ago, is nothing less than our sister. We may criticize. But we don’t turn our back. Still, when your spouse wasn’t raised to identify with, to love, this sister — this thin strip of hotly contested real estate stuck between the sands of Jordan and the waters of the Mediterranean — it can be lonely, for both of you.
When Jeff and I married in 1973, Israel was hardly at the top of our priority list. Since we had met in college, our attention had been focused on another thin strip of hotly contested real estate: Vietnam. But with the passing of years, the collecting of children and mortgages, swingsets and grown-up lives, the strains of “Hatikvah” (the Israeli national anthem) assumed more prominence for me than “We Shall Overcome,” and Israel’s struggle to survive began to feel more like my own. I felt personally tied to this land where my ancestors are buried, a land populated by distant cousins I’d never met. And I began to dream in earnest of going.
My husband, alas, experienced no such epiphany, no such dream. When the subject would turn to Israel, he’d consider whatever crisis was going on over there at the time — Intifada, suicide bombs, scuds — with the same cool objectivity as he would if it were happening in Finland. Like most Americans, Jeff couldn’t help but view Israel’s fight for survival through strictly American eyes. Comfortably secure, these are eyes that have never seen enemies across the border. (Just try to conjure up marauding Canadian Mounties plotting our destruction.)
Unless you’re Jewish, that is. Then, even if you can’t relate to the experience of being under siege by neighbors, you know that this tiny far-away country is somehow your home.
How then to convey this to your spouse who has no such bond? For whom this sister is but a distant in-law? This is far from easy, believe me. After a while, I stopped hoping for some spark of Israel passion to begin to match my own. Clearly none was forthcoming and, in my love for Israel, I felt, more than anything else, profoundly alone.
But what I didn’t know at the time was that, for Jeff, the bond was destined to arrive from an unexpected source: our children.
Our two oldest first experienced Israel on summer teen trips. As our fingers traced their wanderings on our atlas — Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada — we learned our way around. And just last summer, when our oldest returned to spend two months working in a lab at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, through the miracle of e-mail and crackling long-distance lines, he brought Israel home to us. Then, when our middle child flew over for a visit, she and her brother experienced this land together as their homeland away from home.
Now our baby, at 15, is making plans to travel to Israel and the Ukraine this winter on a social-action trip for high schoolers. Once again, our child shall lead us. Once again, our future will encounter our past on the ancient stones of a Jerusalem street.
So, when will we go? Alas, we have no immediate plans. But I have in no way given up. Through our children, we now both have a family tie to this land.
These days, when I dream of seeing Israel for the first time, I have no difficulty identifying the figure standing next to me. It’s someone very familiar. It is none other than my husband.