Exit Ramp: Israel’s Independence Day and me

Exit Ramp: Israel’s Independence Day and me

In 1973 I, for the very first time, celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut in the land of Israel. Until then I had joined the rest of the diaspora community in the annual commemorations from afar, but that was the first year that the thrill became personal. It was no longer remote. I was there. It was real.

I often think of that pivotal time in my life, especially in the afterglow of having celebrated Israel’s independence this past week. That first year, 44 years ago, my husband was asked to consult with the government of Israel on matters of pollution control. It was a one-year assignment in which he worked for the chief scientist’s office and taught at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

It was wildly impractical to drop everything and move to Israel. We had four young kids, a house, jobs, family, a dog. Of course, we did it. It changed our lives, and the lives of our children. We all became, then and in the subsequent years, more or less bi-national. Or one could say, no longer truly of one place or the other.

By the time Yom Ha’Atzmaut rolled around, we were settled on French Hill in Jerusalem, and the festive parade was right down the road from our Etzel Street apartment, on Derech Shechem. Twenty-five years was a big celebration in the life of a small young country, made even more momentous coming less than six years after the Six-Day War. Israel felt untouchable. Invincible. The parade was a vast show of power. Tanks and soldiers. Look where we came from and look where we are. From the depths of despair we have risen to the heights. World, here we are!

But not so fast. A few months later, on Yom Kippur, our holiest day, the country — and our family — was at war. We had only read about war or learned about it in school, and suddenly we found ourselves huddling in bomb shelters, dealing with the shortages in the markets, and feeling overwhelmingly impotent. 

Without military training my husband and I were limited in what we could do to advance the war effort. He became a driver, delivering troops and messages, when he really wanted to be in a tank or foxhole with the rest of our neighbors. The war was a challenge for everyone —  just how much we only learned years later. The cost was extraordinarily high: so many lives lost, so much promise unfulfilled. 

In our own extended family luck was with us. My brother-in-law, Ze’ev, who lived in Israel and was a veteran of multiple wars since his first in 1948, was fighting in the same war as his son, Ronnie. Neither knew where the other was, but, thank God, both returned. 

In the ensuing years, I have celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut with added fervor. I understand the price that the Jewish nation has paid to enjoy our festive holiday. This is the day that says, “We are still here and we grow stronger by the day. We yearn for peace but we will continue to build our country at the same time.” And grow and build we have.

Every year one sees the signs in Israel of the coming Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Spring arrives. The grass and flowers are at their most brilliant. Birds from around the world are migrating and making stops among us to refuel. We have had our memorial commemorations and we have shed tears of sorrow.

Now Yom Ha’Atzmaut. The flags begin to show up weeks before — on cars, windows, doors,  stores, and schools. Every conceivable place is adorned with the blue and white star — the shield of David, the symbol of the Jewish state. It is a time to celebrate, to rejoice, and to be thankful. Shehecheyanu.

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