I generally use the Jewish holidays to share ideas and insights on Judaism and philanthropy. But this holiday of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, feels different for me, because my older son is celebrating it there, in a trip to Israel with his school. I never cease to feel gratitude for the undeserved privilege we have of being the first generation in 2,000 years to live with a Jewish sovereign state. I feel also the responsibility that this entails. As my son travels there, I wanted to share with you my words to him.
My dear son,
You are going to Israel for the first time. Well, it’s not really the first time; you were there with me as a baby, but that was before your toddler memory hit the reset button. So, this is the first time you’ll remember and I wanted to write to you to tell you what this means to me, and to our entire family. Why I’m so moved by this trip of yours, and why grandma’s voice breaks when she talks to you about it.
Remember that I once talked you about a writer called Shay Agnon? He was the first Hebrew writer to win the Nobel Prize. He had an amazing story about the inhabitants of a shtetl in Poland that in the midst of the pogroms find a magic cave that can take them straight to the Land of Israel. The people in that shtetl could have never believed that now, that magic cave exists in the form of a skyway at Newark Airport, and that the secret passage is an aluminum cylinder with wings and a Star of David on its tail.
I know you are going to be having fun with your friends, but I hope you can stop for a second and feel how privileged you are that you can do what for two thousand years was a wild fantasy or the deluded visions of prophets: be delivered to the Land on the wings of eagles. I hope you can think, even for a moment, about how lucky we are to be living now; I hope you can spare a moment to feel gratitude to those who made it possible. You are going to be in Tel Aviv for Yom Hazikaron, the day that Israel remembers its fallen. I hope that when the siren sounds, you stop, too, and say a deep and heartfelt thank you to those who made possible the magic that you are experiencing. I know that notion is not alien to you—at your Bar Mitzvah, you decided to donate your gift money to help IDF soldiers cope with trauma and you said, “They protected us, now we have to take care of them.” But now you can see the miracle they’ve achieved for you. I hope you think, too, of the hundreds of generations that could never do what you’re doing. You are now all of them; you carry them in your blood and in the collective memory of your people. Your being there is what they fought for, what they yearned for and prayed for.
You and I were born when Israel already existed. We never knew a time when the Jews had no country of their own. Grandma knows. She was eight years old when Israel was created and she can tell you of Jews in Buenos Aires, many of them fresh from the concentration camps, feeling incredibly proud, dancing the hora on Corrientes Street, to the bewildered look of the gentiles. I hope you can feel part of that pride and joy when the fireworks mark the beginning of Yom Haatzmaut, because Israel is an ongoing miracle, a permanent source of gratitude and pride. While doing your homework, you once asked me the meaning of the word “utopia”. I told you that it was like a dream that is never realized. Israel, however, is the only utopia that was ever realized.
I’ve told you many times of how important Israel has been for me, how in the dark years of the Argentinian military government Israel was a refuge both physical and spiritual. How I dreamt of being there and how, when I was your age, I thought that Israel was a model country that could do no wrong.
You know I don’t believe that anymore. You see me getting upset when I read the news and you hear me referring to this or that politician with words that, if you said them, would get you grounded. (What can you do? Life is unfair like that.) But discovering that Israel is not perfect didn’t make me love her less. It made me committed to make her better, to ensuring that the dream of generations doesn’t convert into a nightmare, to fight for the ideal while recognizing the beauty of the real.
Our family has lived in different countries and we love them all. We wear the jerseys of the Argentinian soccer team; we struggle to find authentic baguettes; we cheer for the Montreal Canadians; and we suffer and rejoice every day with our fellow Americans, with whom we share our fate and our future. But there’s something unique about that small sliver of land at the East end of the Mediterranean Sea—something that we can’t rinse off, something that connects us to an unbroken chain of memories and hopes.
My beloved son, I hope you enjoy every moment. I hope that you walk Mount Tabor with the armies of Deborah and Barak; that you climb the desert rock with the defenders of Masada; that you march on King David’s steps in Jerusalem; that you walk the fields that were once barren until “halutzim” made them green; that in Be’er Sheva you feel the promise made to Abraham and that in Tiberias you feel the spirit of the authors of the Mishna. I hope you feel the privilege that even Moses didn’t have: to see and walk the Land in which our people began its momentous and unique journey through history. I hope you feel there the presence of all them, of 3,500 years of history, of millions of dreams and billions of prayers.
I know it’s a lot to carry. And probably what I’m asking you won’t make you “cool” with your friends or popular with the girls. But it’s important. You are going to Israel for the first time, hopefully the first of many. And I hope this trip makes you love that beautiful, difficult, and complex country. I hope it connects with the most amazing adventure that the Jewish People ever had: the construction of a sovereign, democratic, and enlightened nation in the land of our ancestors. I hope that this trip starts you on a journey of self-discovery, of realizing that, as the pioneers used to say, by building that land we build ourselves. I hope you realize that Israel is a beginning that doesn’t end.
And, of course, I hope you write every night!
Hag Atzmaut Sameach!