Israel: A Concise History Of A Nation Reborn
One of the formative aspects of my early life was the fact that I was frequently a token. As early as being in kindergarten in Stratford, Connecticut, I was the only Jew in the room. I had to explain Hannukah to my classmates every year until we moved to New York when I was eight, and I was a token no longer. Well, I was a token again when I was 18 and traveled to Durham, North Carolina to be a Duke undergraduate. There were very few Jews at Duke in 1966 so once again I was often explaining myself and getting a little taste of antisemitism as well. Forget the fact that I was also a Yankee from New York.
But the question always bothered me as to how to explain all of this in an historical context. What does being a Jew really mean in America in 1953, 1966, and even today?
I have just finished reading a book that helps me explain myself, and, more importantly, will allow me to explain it all to others, especially non-Jews.
That book is Israel: A Concise History Of A Nation Reborn by the American-born Israeli writer Daniel Gordis who I had the privilege of meeting at Congregation Beth Israel earlier this year where he was a Scholar-in-Residence and a brilliant explainer of all things Israeli.
If you want to understand what is happening in Israel today and why what is happening is fracturing both the native Israeli community and the Jewish diaspora here in the United States, this is the book to read. In clear prose Gordis traces the entire history of the land of Israel starting with the Zionist movement of the late 1800s through the Balfour Declaration, the Arab Revolt, the UN partition, Israeli independence and the many subsequent and on-going wars to keep this tiny state the size of New Jersey free, but in conflict.
Why is this important?
As was pointed out in the book, there is only one country on Earth where the people who lived there 3000 years ago still reside, speak the same language, and follow the same religious tradition. That country is Israel. There must be something to the story.
What is so fascinating is that the rebirth of Israel was led by European Jews, mostly secular, and now is being led by Jews from everywhere else in the world with a large religious component to the leadership. Israel is a maze of contrasts as I hope I made clear during my blogs from the country a few weeks ago.
In Tel Aviv it’s all business and beaches on Saturday. In Jerusalem the weight of the centuries surrounds you and history is everywhere. It’s a ghost town on Saturday.
Twenty percent or more of the Israeli population is Arab and Arabs are prominent parts of the professional classes throughout the nation. Yet, the West Bank is a jigsaw puzzle of Arab and Jewish neighborhoods and areas (A, B, and C) with strict rules of who can go where. Yet it all has a historical basis and this book will let you in on all the secrets.
I have been to Israel five times. It’s never the same twice and this last time the change was most dramatic as the country is on the verge of splitting in two over whether it will remain a democracy with a judiciary in place to protect the rights of the minorities—Arab and Israeli. None of this happened in a vacuum. Each step came from the step before and Gordis outlines all of the steps right up to the present day.
Israel is steeped in religion, yet the quintessential start-up nation. It is secular. It is religious. It is the country where women first served in the army and is the country where thousands of men neither serve in the army nor have jobs at all, but study Torah all day.
It is a world of contrasts and yet a tiny place.
If you want a great guide to understanding it and to knowing what being Jewish is really all about, this book is a great first step.
I am quite sure I couldn’t have understood any of this when I was in kindergarten and so much of the story had not happened yet in the years after World War Two and the Holocaust. Gordis takes you through all of it and in the end you will know what happened and why. What’s next is anybody’s guess.
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