Monday night Seymour Zeises and I called our friend Naomi Levine, who was celebrating her 90th birthday. It was Yom Ha'Atzmaut and we were in Jerusalem on a UJA mission. Naomi was in her apartment in New York, working. Which is what you'd expect from Naomi on her 90th birthday. Not only should we all be so lucky; we should all be so brilliant, committed, determined and successful. And tough and funny and charming. Never, in all the years that I've known Naomi, have I not learned something. Her wisdom grows with time.
This morning President Shimon Peres came to address our UJA mission. He was brilliant, charming, resilient and funny, too. One person commented about how in the last few years he's really turned up the "Yoda Effect." I guess that means his wisdom is deep and cute and iconic--all at the same time.
One marvels at having lived to reflect upon the past century of Jewish life. And for Peres, born in Poland, the great-great grandson of the great Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who as a child also had an audience with the Chofetz Chaim, another great sage of the late 19th century who lived well into his nineties. Clearly, knowledge extends life.
This is a Jewish value: wisdom extends life.
On Yom Ha'Zikaron I went for a run late in the day. From downtown to Jerusalem, out along the old Jerusalem-Jaffa rail road, out to Beit Safafa. On the return leg, as I passed by the memorial site of a suicide bombing, covered with wreaths and yahrzeit candles remembering the dead, I recited the Kaddish as I ran by. The memories of souls I never knew but by sheer force of familiarity--I've passed that site dozens of times--I knew they hovered there, physically absent, spiritually present, an ephemeral testimony to Jewish strength and resilience.
And I imagined--with the street aptly, hauntingly named Emek Refaim (Valley of Ghosts) paralleling the track, the hundreds of lives taken in suicide bombings during the terrible years of the Second Intifada coming back each year on Memorial Day to stand guard over the promise that their lives were not lost in vain.
I heard so many stories this past week about "that time" of suicide bombings, a time which, increasingly, is coming to represent a time that Israelis will never return to. The will and determination that I see--even among those jaded by the death of a peace process, rightward turns of Israeli governments and increased radicalization among Palestinians--this will and determination is pushing the new reality we now see.
And it's best understood by the wisdom refracted through Peres' life--an optimism that in balance life is getting better; that democracy is "on the march" as he said; that the world is opening up and equalizing; and that in Israel in particular, the achievements of a small nation with precious few resources and surrounded by hostile powers has accomplished more than anyone ever could have imagined. When you're 90 and you look back over that horizon of having lived your life, so fully, created a state and fought in every war and then, late in your career, seen your comrade assassinated before your eyes, your nation almost fall apart and then, revive with strength, unbridled creativity and innovation? Well, you've earned the right to say what you think.
So Peres implored optimism. To hope. To have faith in Jewish civilization's eternal teachings to do good, to bring justice and freedom to those who seek it. And, as he put it so humorously, to never be satisfied with enough. This is the drive to continue the march. "What can I say? To be dissatisfied is so...Jewish." It rang true.
As our day unfolded, we met a general in an elite intelligence unit of the IDF who spoke about fighting enemies with the mind while understanding that the conventional wisdom past generations was always in need of refinement and adaptation. This was the Jewish way. We met a young man who is determined to win the Google contest to put the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, leading a scrappy R & D effort that insists on non-profit status, raising space-age proportion dollars in order to inspire a new generation of Israelis to study math and science--if only to open new vistas of discovery and possibility. Even at Citibank's center for innovation in North Tel Aviv, one was struck by the positively optimistic sense that while the turmoil and recklessness of a comatose peace process languished on the burning hills of Canaan, a determined center was without question forging ahead.
A well-crafted talk in the evening by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro left our group with the sense that the White House and the Prime Minister's office had made great strides in restoring order and friendship to an alliance; and Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid and the current great white hope of Israeli electoral politics (shining, charismatic and handsome but let's face it folks--with no legislative achievements yet to hang a hat upon) wowed us with his words of democracy, the middle class and pluralistic Judaism.
Forgotten perhaps was Dalia Rabin, the late Prime Minister's daughter, who built from the blood and radical injustice of her father's immoral assassination the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which was yet another structure of stone and glass to rise from the destruction of the Second Intifada.
All day long we kept hearing about "start-up nation" but never did those words pass from the lips of Dalia Rabin. Rather, she spoke of her father's vision, his quiet strength, and his fatal belief that we Jews are obligated, as a measure of the strength of our character, to seek justice and peace.
Some gain wisdom with age; others gain wisdom through suffering too much before their time. In a land which has produced more than its share of justice and wisdom and blood and violence for the whole world, here's to our hope that justice and wisdom will prevail.