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Going 55, Approaching 60

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Message Uzi Silber

The hourly drive to my suburban cubicle is a time free of child terrorism and spousal instructions, an interlude wholly devoted to silent reflection. It's an unmatched window of opportunity for a road warrior like me to dwell on personal flaws and a history of dubious decisions, paths not taken and life's professional compromises.

It's a fine time to meditate masochistically upon the insignificant nature of an utterly unrewarding and meaningless khaki-pants-and-polo-shirt office park job. On the other hand paying the mortgage and private school tuition for two kids could be seen as a rewarding accomplishment in its own right, and that according to the author Viktor Frankl, meaning is found in every single moment of living.

On the other hand, one might argue that meaningfulness is overrated. But it isn't.

Decrepit Bronx scenes speed past, softened by the nostalgic Israeli tunes wafting through my car speakers. With Israeli Independence Day approaching my Ecclesiastian outlook grows evermore bleak.

Post-Zionist hipsters would recoil and supremely devout Haredis would hiss at such sentiments, but it's hard not to feel ever tinier when comparing my own meager accomplishments with the works of the famous and anonymous who, to quote Nathan Alterman's lyrics, were the silver platter upon which was delivered the Jewish State.

My foot brakes as a state trooper by the highway shoulder comes into view. I recall strolling with my family along the leafy boulevards of Tel Aviv last summer, taking note of all the street signs, emblazoned with the names of the heroes of the Zionist enterprise who revivified a nation in suspended animation for 2,000 years. Doers all, inspired by a purpose far greater than themselves.

My thoughts then turn to the countless unsung others who didn't merit a street name, but also did plenty to make Independence Day possible.

Take my uncle Avraham Uzielly who fought in the Jewish brigades and then alongside Moshe Dayan in Jerusalem 60 years ago. Or my aunt Tova who partook in many dangerous missions as a young member of the Irgun, and who later served in air force intelligence. She now happens to reside in the holy city of Teaneck, New Jersey.

And even those who merely managed to survive the travails of the pre-state days -- they deserve an honorable mention at the very least. My grandfather arrived in Eretz Israel during the third Aliyah of the early 20s, was soon erecting homes throughout a nascent Tel Aviv, then sold wine and furniture on Herzl St, and during more challenging times, even watermelons. Once, three Hagganah fighters hid in my grandfather's store to evade British police. Years later, he would take some time out to build homes for Hasidim in another holy city, Borough Park.

As the singer Arik Einstein might say, many families like mine, with one foot here, another there, have similar stories.

Long forgotten Israeli pop stars serenade me as my minivan rolls through the winding parkways of Westchester County. When I was seven, my grandparents took me to a younger, larger, roomier and socialist Israel -- with one black & white TV channel showing Kojak reruns on primetime, and two radio stations. To this day, I see the Ayalon Freeway but think of the paved-over Wadi Musrara.

Four years in Israel hardwired my internal clock to the rhythm of the hourly radio news bulletins and the nightly musical score trumpeting the Mabat news program wafting out of every balcony of the Borokhov neighborhood in Givataim. I was transfixed by the annual spectacle of millions of people stopping as one, to stand at attention for two unforgettable minutes on each of the memorial days -- one for Holocaust victims, the other for fallen soldiers.

It was automatic to plug into the collective national consciousness, in which every single person felt the pain, joy, outrage, and horror experienced by any other citizen from Metula to Sharm El Sheikh (fleetingly known as Ophira).

Actually, it was almost impossible for an impressionable new arrival to avoid being instantly enmeshed in this national consciousness. A series of momentous events erupted in rapid-fire sequence within days of passing through customs: Palestinian Arab terrorists hijacked a Sabena airliner. Japanese Red Brigades massacred dozens of tourists at Lod Airport days later. Then the athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics in September.

The afterglow of the joyous 25th Independence Day at Ramat Gan's Maimonedes Square drowned in October's earthquake. The shattering calamity of Yom Kippur has been seared into my being, and remains as vivid in my mind as if it happened last week: the roar of army jeeps piercing Kol Nidrei night, rushing, screeching, and stopping by our building to take young men to destinations unknown; the terrifying air raid siren at two o'clock the following afternoon, the hours spent in bomb shelters, the night a Syrian missile landed in the sea opposite Tel Aviv.

Eyal and Hanan, two brothers lived next door and did much of the gardening in front of our building. Eyal was killed in Sinai early in the war, Hanan was never found. Their mother's lush black hair was transformed overnight into a radiant gray. She would leap to her death a year later.

I returned in 1975 to a broke, broken and dangerous New York, irredeemably transformed by the land I left behind. On visits east during the years and decades that followed I came to feel like a ghost frozen, afloat in what is now a thirty three year old bubble, tunes from seventies-vintage Israeli Song Festivals playing in my ears through an endless loop.

There was once an Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Levi, known commonly as 'Moishe and a half'. I'm not a Moishe, but I am a half: half Israeli, half traditional, half kosher, half in the past, half Tel Aviv, half Manhattan.

The suburban sounds of nature soothe my soul as I walk from my minivan through the silent parking lot, to the squat aquarium housing my nondescript cubicle. The mortgage is paid, as is tuition.

It's true what Viktor Frankl says: we can't take for granted our job, health, friends, family and life. Nevertheless, there has to be more to life than business casual and cubicles. So, rather than engage in self-pity this fifth day of Hebrew month of Iyar, I ask myself what exactly I intend to do to ensure that this magnificent sixty year-old makes it to 120 -- and beyond.

It is my search for purpose. And meaning.

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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.
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