Birthright Israel as an Rx to ‘Israel Exhaustion’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-09

 

Although life in Israel is, overall, delightfully safe and calm these days, these are sobering times for the pro-Israel community abroad. Israel-bashing is all the rage in the Arab world, in European salons and at the UN. It is also becoming an increasingly popular pastime on campuses and even among some “progressive” American Jews, who confess to “Israel exhaustion.”

Smart analysts like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, point to structural and ideological shifts that explain why so many more young Jews throw up their hands in exhaustion rather than raising their voices in unison not just to defend Israel, but to celebrate Israel.

“The issue isn’t Israel, or utopia,” Gordis recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “It’s America, and the ‘I’ at the core of American sensibilities.” Challenging the community for “basically doing nothing” Gordis concluded: “Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help. Can you name even one? Neither can I.”

Although I have never played poker with my friend and role model Rabbi Gordis, I will see him, and raise him, on his analysis. Not only do too many North American Jewish enterprises fail to counter American individualism, careerism and materialism – too much North American Jewish life fosters individualism, careerism and materialism. We need think-tanks analyzing this problem, educational, communal and religious institutions countering the problem, and the entire community embarking on a twelve-step program to end our collective addiction to the modern paganism of selfishness, individuation, acquisitiveness, hyper-ambition and greed.

Yet we must do this subtly, moderately, because North American individualism, careerism and materialism are also keys to North American Jewish liberty, creativity and vitality. To get the right balance, to find the right mix, we must blend in Jewish values, spirituality, textual learning, an appreciation of history, Zionist passion, a love of Israel, the power of community and the sheer fun of living Jewish, loving Jewish, doing Jewish.

Fortunately, the day school movement in North America has flagship schools, including Akiva School in Montreal and Gann Academy in Boston, that are succeeding with this North American Jewish recipe.  Moreover, modern Jewry and the pro-Israel community have an ace in the hole: Taglit-Birthright Israel, the single most successful Jewish communal innovation of the last decade (probably longer, but it is only ten years old). Birthright Israel exhilaration counters the Israel exhaustion of the blame-Israel-firsters, the my, my, my, now, now, now individuation of the all-American me-firsters, and the “whatever” alienation of the too-cool-to-be-Jewish, Jewish hipsters.

Birthright Israel’s free ten-day trips to Israel invite Jewish students to press the reset button on their Jewish experiences, their Israel connection, their Zionist identities, their personal worldviews and individual paths. Birthright participants engage Israel through sites and delights, not through politics and problems. They learn to appreciate the power of community, Jewish and otherwise, because – in the spirit of the Minyan, Jewish communal prayer – they get a free ticket to join 40 others on this journey, not simply to backpack across Israel alone. And they are welcomed not hectored to continue, to pursue their own Jewish journeys. The “no strings attached” promise of birthright – meaning no demands for payback, financial or ideological – reflects  the program’s educational openness, integrity and effectiveness – contrary to caricatures from the left for being too heavyhanded and from the right for being too namby-pamby.

The Birthright trinity of land, history and people leavened with friendship, a family feeling, 24/7 intensity, and fun exposes Jewish students, on the cusp of adulthood, to an Israel they never read about in the newspapers and, I regret to say, often a quality of Jewish life they never experienced back home. The timing is perfect. Students 18 to 26 are making the life-decisions about career, quality of life, and love that will shape who they are for the coming decades. Moreover, the tone is just right. Clearly, birthright has a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist perspective. But smart educators know that today’s youth cannot be bullied or guilt-tripped into believing or belonging. Despite all the troubles, slanders and terrorism of the decade, 220,000 Jewish students have participated, with the overwhelming majority thrilled, and many returning to their communities ready to be the passionate Jews – and Jewish leaders – of tomorrow.

And yet, in a reflection of stunning, unconscionable, communal myopia, not every student who applies can go on Birthright. The Jerusalem Post reports that this winter alone, “more than 13,000 young, mostly unaffiliated Jews from around the world were turned away” due to lack of funding, and that “80% of wait-listed birthright applicants never reapply.” Here a program with a proven track-record responds to the great communal challenge of our time by inspiring young Jews, yet somehow not enough individual Jews and communal institutions have decided to fund it yet.

My parents report that among their “golden age” peers, grandparents are always saying how “wonderful” Birthright is. I wonder, do any of them decide therefore to take some responsibility and send another deserving youngster – or 40 on a bus – or 100 from a community – as thanks? People love to ask Birthright’s founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt “how can I ever repay you?” Bronfman and Steinhardt probably are too polite to answer: “by donating generously to send others.”

Birthright began as an act of guerilla philanthropy – as Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt rushed ahead, before all the proper committees met, before all the Jewish communal protocols were followed – and they succeeded. This act of guerilla philanthropy should now be rewarded – when the crunch is on – with a massive display of grassroots giving. People should give what they can, raise more from others, and demand that their Federations increase support. And no one who reads this essay can ever say, “no one ever asked me to help” – I just did.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He just became the voluntary Chairman of the Taglit-Birthright International Education Committee.

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An open letter in response to J-street’s

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-09

Dear Jeremy Ben-Ami,

Allow me to respond to your open letter to Ambassador Michael Oren with an open letter of my own.

I share your worry “that the connection to Israel for a large number of Jewish Americans has become strained over time.” I love your statement to the Ambassador, and presumably to the entire pro-Israel community, that “what J-Street shares in common with you far outweighs that on which we disagree.” As someone trying to figure out how to sing a new song of Zion for the next generation of Jews and as someone who champions “big-tent” Zionism, like there was during the movement’s early days, it sounds like you’re singing my song.

Alas, when I examine what you advocate and what you ignore, when I read your statements, surf your website and look at your conference program, I am troubled. For starters, I do not see the use of the word “Zionism” anywhere. I wonder if that is tactical or ideological.

I wonder if you would display on your website the following statement:

Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds…. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.”

Those are the words of then-Senator Barack Obama, spoken on June 4, 2008, the day after he clinched the nomination.

Or what about this:

My starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Obama again. If President Obama is not afraid to affirm Zionist ideals, why do you seem to be?

Note on your website the comment that:

The Palestinian people are likely to continue to nurture an anger that leads some to armed struggle as long as there is no mutually accepted resolution to the underlying political conflict.”

True, Palestinian anger must be acknowledged. But why do I hear nothing about the other phenomenon that must be acknowledged, Israeli anguish? Why do I hear nothing from you about the 850,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands, decades of Arab rejectionism, Palestinian anti-Semitism, the fact that withdrawal under Oslo and after the Gaza disengagement has only fed more violence, or the pain of Israelis whose blood has been spilled over the years? Why have I not heard a J-Street statement as passionate as this one:

The first job of any nation-state is to protect its citizens…. If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

That, too, was said by President Obama, during his visit to Sderot in July, 2008. Without the assurance that Israel’s pain is felt, without understanding that Israel faces a series of untenable choices when defending its people against terrorists who hide among civilians, without noticing that Oslo and Disengagement triggered more violence, the “peace of the brave” we all seek is reduced to a delusion – or an anti-Israel mugging.

I understand your desire to be evenhanded, and believe there is room in the pro-Israel and Zionist movements for voices such as yours. I hope that from your “J-Street” address you can see the Golden Path to a solution. My fear, though, is that you can only see Israeli sins and not Palestinian crimes; that your mythical address prevents you from seeing the facts on the ground we see in Israel, on campus, in the UN and elsewhere. I would love to see progressive voices lead the fight against the ugly campaign to de-legitimize Israel. We need civil rights activists who fought against apartheid to repudiate the libel falsely comparing the Israeli-Palestinian nationalist conflict to South African whites’ ugly racist oppression. We need people with impeccable progressive credentials willing to confront the Arab dictatorships, condemn Muslim homophobia, racism, and sexism, and to denounce terrorism.

Instead, I see a conference program more comfortable with finger-pointing at Israel. Why not call your “Messaging ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace'” session “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace and Anti-Delegitimization,” acknowledging how much the rejection of Israel harms the peace process (just as most Israelis learned in the 1990s that denying Palestinian nationalism is counter-productive)? Will “Israel on Campus,” address the dilemmas so many students face: Attacks on Israel are so extreme, they fear any constructive criticism of Israel they utter will be used as fodder to continue demonizing their homeland – and all too often, their people?

And I would be more comfortable with the Americans for Peace Now session “West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace,” if anything in the conference program acknowledged the “Obstacles on the Road to Peace” constituted by the Hamas charter, terrorism, demagoguery in mosques, rabble-rousing on the Temple Mount, harassment of Palestinian moderates, refusal to acknowledge Jewish rights to the land, Arab anti-Semitism, etc.

I hate to sound so unwelcoming. I believe there is no inherent contradiction between being progressive and being a Zionist, that Israel represents a remarkable attempt to establish liberal, democratic and Jewish values in the Middle East. We need a broad coalition of pro-Israel forces. But my sense is that Ambassador Oren senses what I sense. You find it easier to bash Israel than to criticize Israel’s adversaries. Maybe the burden is on you to establish some street cred by fighting the anti-Israel delegitimizers, the anti-Semitic anti-Zionists, who are affronts to what you so eloquently call “the values we bring to the table as Jews and as Americans.”

In friendship,

Gil

Cohen’s karma defeats boycotters

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-15-09


In late September, nearly 50,000 Israelis massed into the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear the Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen sing.

Not only did the sponsors add an additional 1,000 seats at the last minute, but many in the crowd seemed quite familiar with Cohen’s oeuvre – and not just Hallelujah.

But perhaps most impressive, Cohen’s magic worked in the Middle East. After the concert, as thousands streamed into the overflowing parking lots, as people pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I didn’t hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar….” Cohen’s karma proved contagious.

Tragically, most of our Palestinian neighbours weren’t exposed to Cohen’s charms. The simple fact that he was willing to play a concert in Tel Aviv made Cohen persona non grata in the Palestinian Authority. He had offered to play in Ramallah, too. But as part of the hysterical, misanthropic BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement targeting Israel, Palestinians spurned his offer. Undeterred, Cohen donated the $2 million the concert generated to a special foundation he established, whose major beneficiary is the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Cohen repeatedly praised this “holy, holy” group during his transfixing 3-1/4-hour-long concert, each time triggering sustained applause.

With the Palestinians’ ridiculous, impotent Cohen ban coming days after the failed attempt to ruin the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because it dared to celebrate Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, the pro-Palestinian movement seems to be reaching new lows. Palestinians and their fellow travellers are trying to treat Israel as a country with cooties – the schoolyard phrase captures just how immature and self-destructive this move is. As a result, even peace-loving Zen Buddhist monks like Cohen or the many left-leaning, pro-Palestinian Israelis in the Tel Aviv film community are deemed radioactive, because they dare to interact with the Jewish state.

This is a cultural intifadah, an all-out war, not against “the occupation” or the “Gaza operation,” but against Israel itself. Just as Palestinian suicide bombers undermined their own propaganda yelling about “the settlements” by attacking Tel Aviv and Haifa, treating all of Israel as a “settlement,” these boycott bullies find everything or anyone Israeli repulsive, no matter where they stand politically. This blacklist approach treats potential allies as enemies, dooming any chance for peace. It’s hard to be open to compromise and reconciliation when your existence is threatened, when the very essence of who you are seems to trigger disgust in others.

Fortunately, the most unlikely of celebrities demonstrated how to fight this hatred. After she joined in condemning TIFF, Jane Fonda had second thoughts. Responding to a letter against the boycott signed by Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and others, Fonda realized that this proposed boycott against the Jewish state would harm the peace process and was like the despicable Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.

People in the pro-Israel community take note: comparing the boycott to the blacklist was a masterstroke. It showed that the best way to fight these affronts is to master the insider language of the community in question and demonstrate – what is often true – that the attack on Israel is an attack on core liberal values, in this case, freedom of expression and association.

Joining Fonda in resisting the hate was Cohen. He showed that the good people of the world cannot be cowed. Cohen ended his concert by raising his hands solemnly, reaching back into his personal and communal tradition as a Kohen, a priest, and reciting the priestly benediction.

Wouldn’t it have been grand to have thousands of Israelis and Palestinians together absorbing that blessing, with its moving final lines, “May the Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”

Now, when you deprive yourself of these and other cultural opportunities, preferring to perpetuate hatred instead, we must ask, “Who is the loser?” – in both its meanings.

Noble hopes, Nobel prizes and an ignoble world

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-11-09

Nobel-Prize-award week was yet another split-screen week for Israel, emphasizing the gap between Israel’s noble achievements and its adversaries’ ignoble aims, as well as between Barack Obama’s worldwide popularity and his unpopularity in Israel. Israel must do more to ensure it is a country filled with people like Ada Yonath, who won Israel’s ninth Nobel prize, and the first Chemistry Nobel for a woman since 1964. But Israel must also bridge the growing gap between Barack Obama’s saintly status in Europe and the skepticism he generates in Zion.

Israelis giddily celebrated Yonath’s extraordinary achievement; further proof that this little country has disproportionate impact in bettering this world, in revolutionizing science. The headline of one Jerusalem Post article noting that nine Israelis had won the prize (counting two Sveriges Riksbank Prizes in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel), read: “Closer to a Nobel Minyan.” The piece echoed my (and so many others’) Jewish parents’ questions when we came home from school with a 97: “Where are the other three points?”

Simultaneously, headlines speculated about a third intifada; rather than collecting Nobel Prizes, Palestinians were collecting stones to hide in wheelbarrows on the Temple Mount and building up rage over imagined insults. The latest trigger was the visit of French Christian tourists whom demagogic Palestinians decided were Jewish militants. The Israeli authorities had banned Jewish groups to keep order, but that did not stop the rabble rousers, led by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, who cries: “if Zionism isn’t eliminated, there will not be peace.”

Fortunately, peace reigned throughout most of Jerusalem, as tens of thousands thronged the Old City for Succot festivities. But once again, it seemed we needed a corollary to Golda Meir’s cliché. Meir supposedly said: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Peace will also come when the Palestinians are more passionate about building their state and society than destroying ours.

More ominously for Israel, the morning President Barack Obama received his Nobel Prize, Ha’aretz warned: “US administration angered over Israeli incitement against Obama.” The Nobel Prize is a collective European thumbs-up for Obama – and yet another “flip of the bird” – as we used to say in Queens – to George W. Bush. In 2002, Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize reflected European disdain for Bush’s unilateral War on Terror.

Seven years later, the counter-reaction against Bush persists. “Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.”

The more the world deifies Obama, the harder it is for Israel to defy him. Obama, despite all the hype, is only human. Adulation is addictive. The more he is worshipped, the less open the world’s wunderkind will be to criticism from Israelis – or anyone else.

Yes, Obama won the prize prematurely. Even the pro-Obama New York Times called the award “a decidedly mixed blessing … a reminder of the gap between the ambitious promise of his words and his accomplishments.”

Yet give Obama his due. The hope his election unleashed worldwide was amazing. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Nobel Prize citation says. During this dark recession year, America’s single greatest export has been the hope Barack Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed, the discriminated against throughout the world. This achievement may be Nobel Prize-worthy.

Alas, even with Obama in office, the world remains menaced by ignoble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out whether Obama’s politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insurgents, Taliban fanatics, Afghani warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi Sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinea rapists and Hamas terrorists. Moreover, hope is like a balloon: if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting and elevating, but if overblown, it pops. Historically, rising expectations have preceded revolutions, both constructive and destructive.

The contrast between noble societies that invest in science and ignoble societies addicted to terror, between noble political cultures that produce hope-generators like Barack Obama and ignoble political cultures that produce mass killers, remains daunting. Obama’s fate as president will not be determined by any Norwegian committee; it will be determined by how he reconciles his lofty hopes with the world’s ugly realities.

In dealing with Obamania, Israel faces a conundrum. It is not easy to stand out, to defy the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom, especially in Europe, has been wrong before, and is wrongheaded now, trusting a UN that has degenerated into the “Third World Dictators’ Debating Society.” Without that ability to think outside the box, the Zionist revolution never would have reestablished the Jewish state, nor would Ada Yonath have ever realized how antibiotics bind to ribosomes.

Professor Yonath recalled this week that experts warned her: “You won’t make it, what you want to do others have tried and failed, so it won’t happen.” Fortunately, she persisted. Eventually, her inspiration and perspiration paid off. Israel has no choice but to persist scientifically, diplomatically, militarily. This ugly world witnesses miracles every day. Ada Yonath ultimately succeeded. A self-described “skinny guy with a funny name” became a 48-year-old American president and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Perhaps, with all the wisdom in this country, Israel can figure out how to make peace with Obama while achieving a true peace that is mutual, realistic, and brings out the best of all the peoples in the region.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Tikun Olam: Judaism and the Environment Hosted By Gil Troy

Tikun Olam – Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Partnership Online)

JewishAgencydotorg, October 11, 2009

Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This edition focuses on the Ramat Negev Nitzana “green” educational community, partnering with the Denver Jewish Community for Tikun Olam – Judaism and the environment.

Visit our blog for some quick environmental clicks
http://jewishpartner.wordpress.com/20…

http://www.jewishagency.org/jpol

Slichot, Leonard Cohen, the joy of Succot

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-8-09

With Israel best known for generating headlines about its troubles, its joys are too frequently overlooked. To be in Israel for “the hagim,” the High Holidays, including Sukkot, is a blessed, underreported privilege. From the shanah tovah greetings everywhere to the antacid commercials responding to bouts of holiday overeating, the holiday spirit is pervasive. But this is not simply the Jewish version of the Christmas season three months early. It is striking to an outsider how seriously so many Israelis take the Yamim Noraim, truly making them Days of Awe.

Especially in Jerusalem, the engagement with repentance feels ubiquitous. In North America, the ten days of penitence frequently divide into three holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and seven scrambling-to-catch-up-at-work days. In Israel, many people carve out the time for spiritual reflection, following the journey from self-evaluation to redemption our ancestors mapped out for us.

Affirming the Zionist idea that returning to the land would make us whole as a people, the spirit is in the air; the spirituality has a geography to it too. School kids hum Adon HaSlichot, the Lord of Forgiveness, a multi-stanza piyyut, poem, as they scamper about. High school students have all-night tours in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market, culminating in pre-dawn “slichot” penitential prayers, as the magic of the night and the romance of the place enhance the prayers’ power. And for people of all ages, there are classes galore, in schools and synagogues, in community centers and private homes.

My twelve-year-old son, starting this year at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s High School, had one such all night marathon. It began at 11 o’clock with a class for parents, too. Surprisingly, impressively, my son’s teacher immediately engaged the bleary-eyed parents who showed up. The class began with a contemporary Ehud Manor-Matti Caspi song, “Slichot,” about the challenges of seeking forgiveness and the mutuality needed for it to work.

“I don’t know what to say, I didn’t want to hurt you,” the song begins, sounding like a typically sappy pop-cult lament. But, as the teacher’s literary, historical, and spiritual tour de force demonstrated, the song echoes the Talmud, the 12th century rabbi Maimonides, and Israel’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, S.Y. Agnon. Even more impressive than the teacher’s mastery of the sources was the sincerity of his engagement with the process, with these spurs for each individual to use this highly ritualized collective time to make personal, challenging adjustments.

The next night, my wife and I joined fifty thousand others at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen. The 75-year-old graduate of Montreal’s Herzliah High School fit right in with Israel’s addictive, characteristic, old-new mix. Cohen’s entrancing three and a half hour performance culminated with his invoking Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing.

Still, as moved as I was by Cohen’s wry, impish, sensitive provocative worldview, as fascinated as I was to see how he transformed his Jewish learning and his own spiritual wanderings into popular poetry for the masses, his message was jarring. “Who by Fire” updates the stirring Unetanah tokef prayer, a High Holiday highlight. Inspired by the terrifying “Who shall live, who shall die,” riff, Cohen asks, “who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate… who in mortal chains, who in power/ And who shall I say is calling?” A Jewish prayer affirming God’s power, and prescribing “repentance, prayer and righteousness” to “avert the severe decree” becomes a modern mirror of alienation and hedonism, tempered by a dash of social criticism. Unetaneh tokef, “We Shall Ascribe Holiness to this Day,” affirms order, virtue, and authority in the world; Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” ascribes randomness to this universe.

Nevertheless, Cohen’s karma proved contagious. After the concert, as thousands pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I did not hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar.” As we traveled back from Cohen’s world to the Jerusalem bubble – unsure which is real, which is right – we hit traffic jams at 1 a.m. – as hundreds thronged the streets, taking last-minute penitential tours of Machaneh Yehudah, Nachlaot, the Old City.

It all peaked with Yom Kippur, which concentrated the collective power of millions engaging with God, engaging with themselves, repenting, changing, fixing the world. The atmospherics outside again enhanced the piety, literacy, authenticity, intensity of the experiences inside the synagogue. Leaving the Kol Nidre prayers into the silence of a world without cars – in the center of the city – is amazing, as is the warm, communal feeling, as people promenade up and down normally hazardous streets like Emek Refaim. With the bicyclists and the pedestrians taking over the city, religious and secular mingle freely, easily, sharing the delight in the voluntary ban on driving in the Jewish people’s capital on the Jewish people’s holiest day.

The holiday season culminates now with Succot. The oft-neglected holiday in the Diaspora – with people desperate to return to work – is a national holiday here, with all schools closed. Succot blossom everywhere, lovely unexpected flowers jutting out of the urban concrete jungle. With camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, soap box car races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world – Succot truly becomes zman simchateinu, “the holiday of our joy.”

Few moderns can relate to our ancestors’ joy during the harvest. But as meaning-seeking creatures, with all of us on some path trying to understand what life is all about, Succot’s joy derives from its proximity to Yom Kippur. Having grappled with eternal questions, struggled to improve our souls, what better way to assert our humanity and our Jewishness than through celebration? And for those of us in Israel, how lucky we are to experience this all at the point of origin, our ancient homeland, and in sync with so many others. Such joy, such spiritual satisfaction may not make headlines, but it makes life worth living.