Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-21-12

Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the water’s buoyancy was liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed.  My Jerusalem half-marathon run had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone, meaning the hip socket. One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.

My physiotherapist — like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious, generous-minded and far-seeing of our species — recommended I try swimming. Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem Pool, with its fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn’t formal, repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my injury.

This summer, during a three week family vacation in the Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming. Whenever I plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial sterility, with its clear chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor, versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles floating around as you swim.

Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in twenty years of summer visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young — my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics not running, jumping, or swimming.

It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up injured.  I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?

Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My fifteen-year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my twelve-year-old and ten-year-old kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.

I started strong.  My rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl, created a soothing, symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart started pounding faster. The shore was looking mighty far away.

With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature emerges.

Recovery from trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as reimagining.” Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their lifestories.

This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of “Resilience studies” introduced in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds – personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic — reflects what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.”  This is not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new circumstances. Resilience, ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,” being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles, to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions, to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to apologize or forgive.

This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son arrived. We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.

Returning back, I flew, er, swam briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water, fully cured, with no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not Hollywood. Still, I return from vacation strengthened,  refreshed, recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized yet, if you do it right, very real rupture, repentance, reimagining, and rebirth. And I look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals. Happy Elul.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

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A Zionist advocacy timetable for the next five weeks

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

We can turn the UN’s “Palestine Season” into another empty victory for the Palestinians. We should stop dreading this fall

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-23-11

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem.

The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, and the Fall of the UN.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations Photo by: REUTERS/Chip East

As Palestinians prepare to try bypassing negotiations and dodging compromise by unilaterally declaring independence this September, Zionist activists and educators are prepping too. If the General Assembly votes, Israel will lose, as the UN’s anti-Israel bias will continue feeding Palestinian extremism. But just as the UN’s 1975 declaration that Zionism is Racism backfired, harming the world body more than it hurt the Jewish state, we who support Israel’s survival and seek a genuine peace can win this September. By using the calendar wisely, and remembering what we are for not just what we are against, we can turn the UN’s Palestine Season into another empty victory for the Palestinians, trumping the votes of dictators and their dupes with the outrage of freedom-loving people, along with renewed appreciation for Israel among Jews and non-Jews.

We should stop dreading this fall. The calendar is our friend.  For each of the five weeks starting with Sunday August 28, Zionist activists and educators should pick a theme or two – conceptualizing the conversation about Israel as a double helix linking education and advocacy, the purely positive and the necessarily defensive, the aspirational with the historical.  We should affirm Zionism’s continuing relevance and power for Jews today, along with Israel’s continuing search for peace.  The advocacy piece should link Palestinians’ destructive – and self-destructive – hatred of Israel with the Durban debacle, 9/11-style terrorism, al Qaeda anti-Americanism, and the UN’s corruption– all on full display this coming September.

I would love just to celebrate Israel, welcoming college freshmen and others to the Zionist conversation solely with affirmations about Jewish nationhood’s idealistic potential and payoffs. Unfortunately, the real world demands a more muscular and political approach. If we do not advocate for Israel passionately, our enemies – and they are enemies – will fill that void with subtle distortions and new big lies. Of course, if we only advocate for Israel without delighting in it too, we accept the Palestinian paradigm, which makes everything about Israel be about them, framing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people, and humanity.

The first week, August 28th to September 3, we should Affirm Zionism – and Fight the Racism Lie. For too long, too many pro-Israel activists have avoided calling themselves “Zionist,” unconsciously internalizing the systematic, Arab-fueled campaign to delegitimize Jewish nationalism and the Jewish homeland. On campus, in synagogues, on Facebook, and beyond, we should reintroduce the term, championing Identity Zionism by understanding Zionism as modern Jewry’s great peoplehood project.   Zionism acknowledges that Judaism is not just a religion, but has a national peoplehood component now expressed through our traditional homeland Israel. Simultaneously, with August 31 through September 8 marking ten years since the Durban fiasco, when an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001 degenerated into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic hatefest, we should explain that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. Calling Zionism racism or comparing Israel to the discredited South African apartheid regime is the Big Red Lie, a falsehood the Soviet Union peddled. Now, it has become the Big Red-Green Lie, uniting too many on the left blindly, inconsistently, with Islamists.

September 4 through 10, we should build up to 9/11’s tenth anniversary by emphasizing Shared Values and Common Pain in an Age of Terrorism.  We should remember the victims, telling the stories of the many Israelis and Westerners murdered ruthlessly for political reasons in the last decade. We also should think about what unites Israel and the United States as sister democracies, focusing on the values that Islamists and dictators abhor, as well as the resulting security vulnerabilities evildoers exploit.

The next week should begin by concentrating on the United States. September 11 is sacred to Americans. That day we should commemorate that tragedy. The rest of the week can explore the ugly nexus between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Americanism, which became so clear on September 12. The world was shocked by the footage showing Palestinians in Gaza distributing candies to celebrate the Twin Towers’ fall, one of the few places where 9/11 triggered open celebrations.  Osama bin Laden, sensing that his mass murders were broadly unpopular, tried popularizing his anti-Americanism by converting suddenly to anti-Zionism. Before 9/11, al Qaeda rarely mentioned Israel. Subsequently Osama, like his dictator friends in Iran and elsewhere, integrated his hatred for America and Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel as a thriving liberal democracy.

September 18 through 24, the focus should be on the United Nations, with the General Assembly opening on September 13, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planning to speak on the twentieth and the Durban III review of the original anti-racism conference beginning September 21. Hosting a Durban review conference in New York City, ten days after 9/11, when the ugliness at Durban also helped bridge anti-Zionism with anti-Americanism, juxtaposes the UN’s call for Palestinian independence with the UN’s anti-Semitic and anti-peace bias.  The pro-peace Zionist left should be heard here, challenging the Palestinians to negotiate rather than posture while criticizing the UN and the Palestinians for undermining the search for peace by trying to delegitimize Israel rather than seeking a two-state solution. Since 1975, it has been impossible to write a history of the movement to delegitimize Israel without discussing the UN but all too easy to write about attempts at Middle East peacemaking without mentioning the UN.”

Finally, we should end September by making September 29 and September 30 a Zionist Rosh Hashanah. Nations, like people, make mistakes – and can seek redemption. Just as true love of family involves accepting imperfections, we have to take Israel off probation, pushing it to improve where necessary while celebrating this exciting experiment in national redemption and Western democracy called Israel, which embodies noble democratic and Jewish values, enriching our lives as Jews and as lovers of freedom.