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.
Last month, 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 chair of the New York Stock Exchange, a lifelong member of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, and president of the Elberon Bathing Club in Long Branch. He had been to Israel twice before, the last time in 1968.
As our plane flies over the Israeli coastline on a Wednesday afternoon, Robert is amazed at the urban Tel Aviv sprawl the rest of us have come to take for granted. He remembers a far less developed landscape, dominated by sand dunes rather than skyscrapers.
That evening in Jerusalem, we walk through the Mamilla pedestrian mall from the foot of King David Street to the Jaffa Gate. The old and new cities — two separate universes for decades — are now intrinsically linked by a succession of stores, art galleries, and cafes.
The next morning’s morning service at the Western Wall is simultaneously moving and more than a bit chaotic. The plaza is filled with different family groups, each calling a 13-year-old to the Torah for the first time. Ashkenazi and Sephardi melodies vie with one another to create a mostly atonal yet authentic blend. As Avi, the bar mitzva, is wrapped in his tallit, there are tears in his grandfather’s eyes. Marty Vegh’s journey, from a displaced persons camp in Germany to Staten Island and now to Jerusalem, epitomizes the globalization of the Jewish people in the aftermath of World War II. Robert receives the first aliya. He is now part of an historical chain — and an infinite tapestry.
A few hours later, we are welcomed at the Israel Museum by its director, James Snyder. Robert’s uncle and aunt, Joseph and Sylvia Slifka, donated some of the museum’s major works, including pieces by Miro, Jean Arp, and Max Ernst. We could just as easily be in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan or the Centre George Pompidou in Paris. Until, that is, we walk a few steps further and find 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 are then shown a collection of works created in Jerusalem at the Bezalel School between 1906 and 1929 that Robert’s cousin, Alan Slifka, who died earlier this year, had given 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 rooted in Middle Eastern folk styles and infused with an elusive Jewish spark. We are 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, kibbutzim, and an army, but inventing a new Israeli — as opposed to simply Jewish — culture.
On the Friday morning at Yad Vashem I watch Robert absorb the testimonies of both the dead and the survivors. Warsaw Ghetto cobblestones. A model of the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ghosts of murdered Jewish children haunt the galleries and, henceforth, our subconscious. Perhaps every world leader, every UN diplomat, every journalist who covers the Middle East should walk through Yad Vashem to grasp why Ahmadinejad, Hamas, and Hizbullah 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.
We return to the Western Wall where Rabbi Jay Marcus, a Staten Island rabbi who settled in Israel a few years ago, guides 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 proceed underground for more than 1,500 feet, feeling stones that stand silent witness to a Jewish presence here centuries before the birth of the prophet Muhammad.
Of course Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews. But the city is central only to Judaism. It is far too often forgotten that under 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, now two years old. In the meantime, as our plane lifts into the sky several hours after the end of Shabbat, I am grateful to Robert for enabling me to remember that both Israel and Jerusalem must be experienced, not just visited, to be absorbed and understood.