By Saul Golubcow.
I was a very young child when I fell in love with Israel. Like the lover in Song of Songs, I thought it as “all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.” Now, in reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s book, I have fallen in love with Israel all over again as an adult who understands that “spots” are inevitable and can be part of the wholeness of the beloved.
Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (available in our library) tells the stories of seven soldiers. Part of the 55th paratrooper brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, on June 6, 1967, they helped capture the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem including the Western Wall and Temple Mount. Their personal stories from 1967 to 2004 become Halevi’s historiography for examining the factors that inform the challenges, paradoxes, and successes of Israel’s last 50 years.
When the Six-Day war broke out, I listened first in fear of Israel’s annihilation and then in triumph when the news of victory arrived. I saw the now iconic picture of the Israeli troops looking with awe at the Wall, and I believed in the end of wars for Israel. I may have known of the losses, but I skimmed over that news, joyful of the end result.
Jerusalem of Iron
Halevi taught me that while Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” was sung throughout Israel and by Jews across the world, as the battle raged, Meier Ariel, the songwriter who is one of the seven Halevi follows, jots “Jerusalem of Iron” depicting the blood, pain, and sorrow of war. As the seven return home, Halevi shares with us the unraveling and re-knitting of their psyches. My admiration for the Six-Day War victory partly frays yet also re-knits.
Halevi’s depiction of the Yom Kippur War is a traumatic encapsulation of Israel’s history. With different personalities and sharp differences among them, religious and secular, the paratroopers mobilize themselves as a cohesive, self-sacrificing force to stop the Egyptians in the Sinai and the Syrians on the Golan. I took in those pages as if I were viewing the lives of one’s children who had developed into complex young adults. Viewing their everyday strivings may have caused worry, but now, with life hanging in the balance, sheer agony ensues. The war ended, and with the “children” for the most part safe, I experienced a relief that formed an even more intense level of bonding with Israel.
Separate Stories Merge
Each of the personal narratives in Like Dreamers could be told as a separate story. One soldier was a founder of Peace Now but ultimately comes to doubt that the Palestinians are willing peace partners; another is a secular songwriter (Ariel) who seeks a Jewish God and the joyfulness of traditional songs and liturgy. Still another is a tough-minded spokesperson for the settlers’ movement who holds secret talks with Palestinians to exchange ideas for peace. But the seven come together to create a dramatic history that challenges the readers to go beneath a possible surface understanding of Israel and confront the fullness of their relationship with the land much as the paratroopers do in questioning themselves and each other. Those of us outside of Israel who have lived through its history have often taken a “side” and persevere with a point of view. Like Dreamers challenges that comfort level.
The epitaph on Ariel’s tombstone comes from one of his songs, “I stepped out to breathe some wind.” The line is a word play on the Hebrew word ruach meaning both “wind” and “spirit.” In the end, Halevi’s book makes us breathe in the totality of Israel’s ruach as we take in the depth and breadth of the nation. We too, then, are dreamers sharing in the Zionist vision for a more perfect Jewish state. There may not be one culmination point for this hope, but as Halevi’s book allows us a fuller understanding of each other as fellow questers, we establish a stronger connection to and love of Israel.
Like Dreamers won top prize in the 2013 National Jewish Book awards.
Editor’s note: The full version of this review appeared in Washington Jewish Week online at http://washingtonjewishweek.com/10248/challenging-the-comfort-of-our-relationship-with-israel/arts/arts_features/books/