April is the cruelest month, but not for the reasons T.S. Eliot may have had in mind. It is cruel because it is a month of orgies, and not one of them has anything to do with sex.
It begins with the orgy of spring cleaning, inspired by the ritual cleaning required before Passover but now dissociated from it. This is followed by an orgy of shopping, cooking, and eating. Passover is gift-giving time, as well as a festival of feasts with vast numbers of guests. It is a celebration of freedom, except for the women enslaved in the kitchen.
No sooner has Passover passed than we begin the orgy of mourning. In the background is the nearly month-long period of mourning, commemorating persecutions almost two millennia ago, during which Orthodox men do not shave. Holocaust-related programs on TV and articles in the newspapers begin the day after Passover and continue for the entire week leading up to Holocaust Day. Don’t get me wrong. It is only by the grace of God, the help of British Quakers, and the assistance of an American cousin who provided an affidavit for my parents and older brother that I am alive today. My father lost his entire family, with the exception of three nephews who came to Palestine as young Zionists in the early 1930s. But our leaders feed on the Holocaust, using it for political ends that turn this period of national mourning into a perverted orgy.
And no sooner has Holocaust Day passed in Israel than we continue the orgy of mourning, this time for our fallen soldiers. My family did its patriotic duty: My first cousin Shlomo Avni was a fighter pilot who was shot down in 1967. My first cousin Nuel Bar-Ziv’s son Levi was a pilot who was shot down in 1973 and whose body was not recovered until long after. My first cousin Naomi Miller’s son Avi was a paratrooper who was killed in Lebanon in 1982. And my second cousin Naftali Kraus’s son Ziv died while on active duty. We are no different from many families in Israel. But what meaning do we as a nation derive from these deaths? Shall we just go on increasing the military budget at the expense of health, education, and welfare, or shall we strive harder for peace?
And finally, we come to the ultimate orgy on Independence Day, the festival of the mangal (barbecue in Turkish). We celebrate our independence by bending slavishly over grills, flapping bits of cardboard to fan the flames until our arms are weary, and eating ourselves to oblivion.
These are thy festivals, O Israel.
AND YET, A RAY OF HOPE
Last night, on the eve of Independence Day, while torches were being lit on Mt. Herzl, I attended the annual alternative torch-lighting ceremony, held in front of the Prime Minister’s Office.
True, the speeches were too long and the crowd, no more than 300 people, was restless, but each of the speakers represented a group of brave, dedicated people who strive for social justice.
Some are struggling to keep individuals, both Jews and Arabs, from being evicted from their homes. Some are teachers who oppose the education minister’s new initiative of bringing youngsters to Hebron to find their “Jewish roots.” The teachers have no objection to their students’ visiting places like the Machpela Cave, where tradition says our revered Matriarchs and Patriarchs are buried. But they want their students to see the Palestinian parts of Hebron too, to understand what life is like under occupation and curfew.
These groups, each one a David struggling against a Goliath of obtuseness and inhumanity, are the still-living soul of Israel.
Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.