“Are you an American Jew, or a Jewish American?” The teacher’s question, posed to Marty Friedman 33 years ago on a teen trip to Israel, totally threw him. He could not answer.
But ultimately, it was one of two “gifts” he received during the tour, he told a crowd at the Osher Marin JCC on May 11. “I was a good processor [of information], not a good thinker,” he realized.
Friedman, president of the Brandeis Marin board of directors and past board president of the Marin JCC, was one of seven speakers at “70 Years: Telling Our Israel Stories.” The event, modeled after “The Moth” radio show and podcast and attended by over 100 people, capped an evening of Shabbat services and dinner at the San Rafael campus of the JCC, Congregation Rodef Sholom and Brandeis Marin day school. Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar also joined the community celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut.
Storytellers were selected in advance and each had five minutes for their spiel. Organizers were looking to present “as broad a perspective as possible” on Israel, said Heidi Sanders, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Peoplehood.
Rodef Sholom Rabbi Lara Regev nostalgically recalled the summer of 2009, when she and her husband moved to Israel for their first year of rabbinical school. They lived in Rehavia, a “peaceful” Jerusalem neighborhood “lush with greenery,” and would walk to Hebrew Union College for study and prayer.
Their pleasant daily route took them by the prime minister’s residence — and for a while the tent where the family of captured soldier Gilad Shalit gathered for prayer and protest as they held vigil for his return. (Hamas held Shalit for five years until his 2011 release in a prisoner exchange.) Regev and her husband would fall silent as they passed that tent.
But at the end of the day, she said, “our conversation would turn to joy” as they looked forward to tomorrow.
Eric Lachter struck a lighter chord as he spoke of the year he spent in Israel with his wife and two teenage daughters. With his job just ended and severance pay in the bank, they rented out their Mill Valley home and moved into a small apartment. Lachter especially relished the time he got to spend with his brother in Israel.
“You go through life feeling like you have to go to school and you have to work and life sucks,” the Kol Shofar congregant said, “but my year in Israel was the craziest and best thing that I ever did.”
Itzik Laron, a wine industry broker who teaches yoga at the JCC, had the audience in stitches as he recounted how he snagged a Chabadnik by the Kotel to orchestrate his non-Hebrew-speaking son’s bar mitzvah. Ditto for his tale about taking his non-Jewish, Cuban son-in-law to the Wall for blessings.
Laron grew up in Israel and served in the army before moving to the U.S. in the early ’70s. He said his parents — one East European, the other Middle Eastern — represented the melting pot that would populate the Jewish state. The family had little money but did not feel needy. “If you’re talking about poverty, it’s poverty,” he said. “But we never knew anything else.”
Aviva Shane, a Rodef Sholom member who was born and raised in Tel Aviv, lived in a two-room apartment where the three kids slept on the balcony. Her grandfather worked the land in Hadera and her parents “were poor. They were Zionists. They led hard lives,” she said.
But life was not dire. Shane evoked laughter when she shared that carp lived in the bathtub until they became gefilte fish, and how she dumped food she didn’t like off her plate when her mom wasn’t looking.
Many years later in Marin, her husband spilled the beans, telling her mother, “Do you know that Aviva threw out all the food to the cats?”
Her mom was furious “and my husband was gloating,” the now white-haired grandma said with a smile.
Berkeley High School junior Noah Ball-Burak spoke highly of Ultimate Peace camp in Israel, where he was a leader in training last summer. He spent nearly 24/7 with a group of 14 young teens, 10 of them Jewish and four Arab Palestinians. Using Frisbee as the common denominator, the camp promotes five core values: friendship, mutual respect, integrity, fun and nonviolence. Ball-Burak will return to the camp this summer.
Brandeis Marin teacher Merav Alterman, whose parents made aliyah from Afghanistan in 1949, spoke reverently of visiting her homeland with her husband, tween-age daughter and her daughter’s friend. “I was curious to see their reaction to Israel,” she said.
For Alterman, the highlight came when they were driving in the Jerusalem hills and the girls asked her to stop the car. “The light,” they said. “The light is so different.”
Alterman knew this to be true. “I was in awe.”
Children inspired her second brief story, as well. She was accompanying a group of students during a bad flu season when many of them got sick. But one evening, when they were heading for the Kotel, all at once they could hear church bells ringing, prayers from the mosque and Hebrew prayers from Shabbat services, as a flock of doves flew overhead. “The kids were mesmerized,” she said. “You could feel the holiness of that moment.”
As for Friedman’s student trip, he still looks back on the experience as life-changing. The journey achieved its purpose, he said: “To wake us up. To change the paradigm of how to learn … Israel was a place of experiential learning.”
Those tough questions, Friedman said, were the trip’s first gift. And the second? That’s how, at 16, he met his future wife.