Although I grew up in a very Jewish household, I was only connected to Israel's news, politics and fate through the work my father did as a Jewish newspaper journalist, associated with the AJPA, the Jewish Press and in the eighties, as the editor of the New York Jewish Week.
I knew the names, the events and the struggle, but it wasn't something I internalized or even believed I ever would. Israel was six thousand miles away, and I was a poor kid in a dysfunctional family on New York's Lower East Side, something of a common combination. The issue of Israel's fate wasn't very high on my list of priorities, and certainly far below my own immediate need for satisfying my personal aspirations and indulgences.
Opportunity knocked, though. It was 1988; I was 19 and headed to Israel for the first time. This wasn't a high minded trip to seek out Zion and the Holyland, but a decidedly personal trek, to be with the woman I would marry a year and a half later. My girlfriend's father had developed into an uncompromisingly hawkish Religious Zionist without really understanding what it truly meant to be a living, fighting and dying Israeli. Upon her graduation from high school he promptly dispatched his daughter to an Israeli yeshiva, essentially for ideological guidance, but actually, he did have another crucial reason: to keep his daughter away from me.
While he happily failed in the pursuit of the latter, it isn't as if he achieved wild success in the former. She cares for Israel, true, but she never developed that deeper sense of longing for the country that I would.
It had been four months since we had seen each other last, we talked as often as we could, usually beginning with her making a phony collect call, my rejecting it and calling back from my home phone. Unbeknownst to her, and largely due to fatherly connections, I got on an El Al flight, and I landed the day after Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The ecstatic expression on her face made my efforts worth it, yet it was soon to be chilled when we walked that night through Jerusalem and we saw the remnants of Syracuse University students who were to be on that ill fated flight. These student who were fortunate enough to choose to divert to Israel for a few days after their school trip to London, were broken and crying in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street at Zion Square.
The initial hints of connections to Abu Nidal, Islamic Jihad, Abdel Basset Ali and Muammar al-Gaddafi made it so clear that Israel was to be blamed as the catalyst for this mass murder. Suddenly, being a Jew and being a Zionist hit me hard – it wasn’t just a moniker, it was a cause worth fighting for and one that we would fight for a long time to come, both in perception and in actuality.
What happened in Israel for me was miraculous. For one, I took my love out of the yeshiva; she stayed with me at my stepmother’s flat at 1 Nissim Bachar in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot section, right across from the Pargod Jazz Club. We traveled the country, prayed at the Western Wall, climbed Masada, waded in the Dead Sea, saw ancient ruins, rusted armaments of previous wars, and we hung out at clubs and bars – not the Americanized ones, but real Sabra hangouts. She and I, along with friends, sat in hazy pubs, smoked Time cigarettes, drank Bira Maccabee, and debated Israel politics as if we knew something others did not, and spoke with the authority of decades of experience – which, of course, we had none. The true miracle here was that I fell in love with Israel; its breathtaking sunsets, its deep warmth, its glorious history and innumerable contributions to humankind, its troublesome narrative and its bizarre internal religious identity crisis and, mostly, its people. My people!