Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trauma's Legacy: Thoughts on Israel Independence Day

I took some time yesterday to go to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem not far from my house. Yesterday marked the official state holiday, Yom Ha'zicharon or Memorial Day, instituted by the Knesset in 1948 followed by Yom Ha'tzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, commemorating the establishment of the State. The days have been called Israel's 'new High Holidays' - which is true in as much that they have become the days central to Jewish identity in the modern Jewish state. In the Israeli imagination, it's from the depths of despair to triumph - so Memorial day is followed by Independence day.

I have hesitations about the story implied in these two days, and especially their proximity to one another. But I took my daughter, Avital, to Mount Herzl anyway as a way of acknowledging - ha'karat ha'tov - the service and sacrifice on behalf of the State of Israel, and the people of Israel. It was moving and strange in that uniquely Israeli way - chaotic and public, at the same time intimate and dignified. Bottles of water piled in huge boxes offered by eager high school students. More young people in blue jackets behind tables with piles of flowers, some standing closer to the entrances, looking as if they wanted to hawk their wares, but freely dispensing flowers to the thousands piling in to the cemetery. Avital took a bunch - we would find, I told her, an unvisited grave upon which to place the flowers. We looked; but we didn't find one.

On Yom Ha'tzma'ut, Israelis gather for a family barbeque or mangal. As my friend Allen Hoffman, the novelist, told me yesterday, the question of whether one says Hallel - psalms of praise recited on Jewish holidays - on Independence Day is secondary: what is important, he quipped, is the mangal. In each of the tiers of the cemetery which my daughter and I visited, we found families gathered. Among them, the religious border policeman in his late sixties, in full uniform, who had brought tiny collapsable chairs, and his children and grandchildren - it looked like they had been there for decades. And in the middle of the family circle - the scene was repeated again and again -instead of the mangal, a gravestone, stoking not coals, but what seemed like an ancient grief. There were those whose loss was fresh, but the overall impression - a true one -was of a nation that has been grieving for a long time.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguishes between moods and emotions - the former he writes are 'homogenous and singular,' while the latter are complicated, consisting of many different elements. The poet, T.S. Eliot writes in a similar vein, understands that 'implicit in the expression of every experience are other kinds of experience which are possible.' So Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that the Jew should pursue a complex life of emotion and not the singularity and satisfaction offered by the mood - the quick and reactive response which ends up as 'degrading.' The Torah cultivates emotions and not moods. When experiencing the plenty of G-d's benificence, the Jew in his pilgrimmage to Jerusalem is commanded in Deuteronomy to remember the poor. Amdist his own wealth and pleasures, he remembers the other - consciousness of plenty is balanced by the knowledge of poverty and need. When experiencing the mourning of the loss of God's presence in the Temple - the chorban beit ha'mikdash - on the ninth of Av, the Jew does not say penitential prayers of supplication, for the day is a mo'ed, a holiday, to also anticipate the coming of the mashiach, the messiah. Holidays on the Jewish liturgical calendar incorporate the opposite of the dominant emotion of the day: experience of abundance brings about acknowledgment of need; the absence of the divine presence is accompanied by hope for the fullness of divine presence at the end of days.

In America, Memorial Day marks the beginning of the beach season in May; or if you are religiously observant, the day where in some shuls you get to wear your white straw hat - with Independence Day following later on the Fourth of July. The sense of collective loss and national triumph is muted both by the passage of years, as well as the interval between the two holidays. One might have thought that in Israel the proximity of the holidays would lead to a heightened consciousness that even in national victory - I won't say salvation - the memory of suffering and vulnerability would be present, that the consecutive holidays would nurture a sensibility informed by emotions and not moods. But the two days - each representing a singularity of one mood despair on Memorial Day to the triumph of Independence Day - may preclude the sensitivity to complexity cultivated by Jewish holidays.

Trauma can have different effects - it can lead to the fostering of moods, or the cultivation of the complexity of emotions. 'Remember you were a slave in Egypt' is the Torah's instruction to transform the trauma of slavery into a more refined consciousness - one which includes self-knowledge and knowledge of the other. Trauma, the Torah tells us, cannot be ignored. Addressed, trauma can lead to an acknowledged vulnerability refined into a receptivity. But trauma can have another effect - the sense of a suffering and self-righteousness that justifies conquest and triumphalism. In this different kind of acknowledgment of trauma, my suffering justifies my triumph. My trauma and suffering become the license for a self-protection that turns into arrogance, redressing my pain as a way of asserting an (impossible) invulnerability. The stories that I tell - narratives of what the Torah calls cochi v'etzem yadi, of 'my strength and my power' - are asserted with an unambivalent certainty. I am not referring to politics, certainly not geo-politics, but to something more important - the constitution of the Israeli, or Jewish, soul.

What, I thought as we left the cemetery, if the placing together of the holidays - in a story of national and nationalist victory - does not lead to receptivity, but to an arrogant and self-justifying triumphalism? What if in our pursuit of the nationalism of other nations, in our pursuit of being Israelis first and not Jews, we lose the awareness of the stranger - in ourselves and others - which marks us off as a people? What if overtaken by feelings and taken by the mood of nationalist triumph, we fail to refine trauma into sensitivity, and allow all of those generations of suffering - and the pain felt at Mount Herzl - to be squandered?