Israel at 70 is a cranky, adolescent country, one that is still growing, stretching, lurching along.
Israel at 70 is a cranky, adolescent country, one that is still growing, stretching, lurching along.

Israel is brilliant, troubled — and in dire need of a shared destiny

I was in Jerusalem recently. When in the Holy City, my favorite way to expand into Shabbat consciousness is to wend my way through the Israel Museum’s prehistoric, stone and bronze-age regional relics, and to study the artifacts of early Judaism’s tribe, temple and text. I leave feeling as if I’ve been davennen all morning — amazed, refreshed and inspired.

This last visit, fully saturated after four glorious hours, I decided to walk back to the hotel. I consulted Google Maps and chose the shortest route offered. The map’s iconic blue dots led me through a beautiful park, up a normally congested boulevard that Shabbat had stilled. The dots pointed me up a steep flight of stairs between two large buildings. Halfway up the 125 steps I passed an Orthodox man and his small son. I didn’t think much of it, other than feeling a bit self-conscious about using my phone.

Alone at the top of the stairs, I found myself in the courtyard of a huge apartment complex. I checked the route, which led me through a deserted underground parking structure. I watched the blue dots darken, assuring me that I was on the right path. I emerged onto a street, followed the directions and waded into the middle of a frum neighborhood. On the blocked-off streets were women wearing wigs or an occasional urban turban, men sporting black hats, boychiks running everywhere, tzitziot flying, black coats and white shirts whizzing past my blue jeans, flannel shirt, sneakers, gray flatcap and messenger bag. Google Maps did not account for religious differences.

Israel at 70 is a cranky, adolescent country

Jerusalem’s streets run helter-skelter. To keep my bearings, I had to constantly peek at my cellphone. Opposite me in one narrow alley came a frock-coated Hasid walking briskly, his thumbs jammed in his ears, his palms creating blinders around his eyes. The minute I saw him, I put my head down, peered at the screen hidden between my palms and continued, leg over leg, to make my way home. We were profoundly aware of each other, and yet purposely avoided each other’s gaze. Really? On Shabbat in Jerusalem? Is that the best we can do?

Brilliant, loaded with attitude, frustrating, troubled — Israel at 70 is a cranky, adolescent country, one that is still growing, stretching, lurching along. I hear the same basic message from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular leaders: The main problem in Israel is that people from different camps and cultures are detached from each other, and until there is a feeling of a shared destiny, everyone is stuck. Clearly my Hasidic brother and I, our heads down, blinders on, were living proof of that.

Torah generously invites humanity to a weekly rest from judgment and strife, and instead to marvel at what is, was and has yet to be. The practice of turning from mundane, material concerns like pain, anxiety, fear and frustration is extremely difficult — it takes time, dedication and faith. Museums and Scripture preserve our stories, and sifting through them one finds threads of hope: art, engineering, medicine, love the stranger, don’t bear a grudge, pursue justice.

That said, every light casts shadows. Each advance comes with pitfalls and failures. How many of us will heal our wounds by the time we are 70? If we are lucky, we pass a bit of wisdom along to the next generation, and they to the next. In the meantime, may we have the courage to raise our eyes, see each other with compassion and keep moving forward.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Maggid Jhos Singer
Maggid Jhos Singer

Maggid Jhos Singer is the co-spiritual leader with his wife, Julie Batz, of Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley.