Amid kvetching, rejoicing, reminder of miracle of life


AS EVERYBODY knows, my Jews are among the planet's most contentious, kvetchy, opinionated and boisterous of all human beings. Get any two of us in a room, and automatically you have 16 different opinions because God forbid a single emotion should ever go unexpressed.

So naturally, as we watch the state of Israel reach its 50th birthday in front of the whole world, we're torn between love and self-consciousness and pride and some pretty accusatory glances in our family mirror.

Even from safe America, we think we know what gives in the Middle East, and therefore have the right to vent like any citizen, even if it's only citizenship of the heart.

Thus we watch all the televised pageantry of recent days, all the dancing near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, all the prayers of hope and thanksgiving -- and notice all the reports of mixed emotions, not only among American Jews wondering if peace will ever arrive, but among Israelis who, never mind trying to work things out with their Arab neighbors, are still trying to work things out among themselves.

It's how we conduct civics in any democracy -- full blast, all the time -- and how Israel works things out even as it marks a half-century on the edge of one cliff or another.

The Orthodox don't want men and women praying side by side? So, in your face, the Reform and Conservative Jews gather men and women together at the Western Wall. The left wing opposes new housing in Arab-dominated eastern Jerusalem? So, in your face, the right wing plans to lay the very cornerstone of new housing there.

So what did we expect, nothing but milk and honey? From the people of the Old Testament, whom Thomas Cahill describes in his new book, "The Gifts of the Jews," as "this oddball tribe, this raggle-taggle band, this race of wanderers -- who are the progenitors of the Western world"?

So what did we expect from these descendants of religious genocide, of whom former Israeli President Chaim Weizmann once wryly observed, "The world is divided into two groups of nations -- those that want to expel the Jews, and those that do not want to receive them."

From this, a tiny pocket of desert was set aside, and the state of Israel was born, and so began 50 years of conflict and achievement and endless high emotion.

Last week, on the eve of Israel's anniversary, I sat with my friend Leo Bretholz and the distinguished British historian, Martin Gilbert, at the Bibelot bookstore on Reisterstown Road.

Bretholz is a Holocaust survivor. Gilbert is the author of 50 books. He was Winston Churchill's official biographer, and he's written a couple of volumes on the Nazi Holocaust, one of which includes a small account of Bretholz's wartime escapes. Also, Gilbert has a remarkable new book, "Israel," which brought him here, and coincidentally gave him a chance to catch up with Bretholz.

"Look at this," Leo said.

He held out a photograph, just arrived in the mail from Israel. In the winter of Nazi oppression, while Leo was outrunning the Germans, he lost his mother and his sisters, and uncountable cousins and uncles and aunts to the death camps.

But one relative, his mother's brother Jacob, made it to Israel while there was still time. And here, in this new photograph, Leo showed Gilbert the results more than a half-century later of one saved life -- a picture of 25 or 30 beaming, healthy human beings, a few generations of family descendants given life because one man was able to get away.

"Imagine this, 6 million times," Leo said.

Gilbert nodded and remembered a Holocaust survivor calling him a few years back and asking him to his home. It was a raw English night.

"You want me to come now?" Gilbert asked.

"Yes, now," the man said.

When Gilbert arrived, the man offered a toast to life. A baby had been born, and a simple mathematical milestone noted. In his family, the man said, there were now more children born since the war than relatives lost to the Nazi camps.

The world should recall that Israel was born in the ashes of such arithmetic, and the desperate desire for security. In 50 years, have they created a blameless utopia? Of course not. As Elie Wiesel wrote years ago, in "The Accident," "Saints are those who die before the end of the story."

So we examine Israel and notice it's no land of saints, and we criticize because it's what we do as a contentious, boisterous, opinionated, kvetchy people -- but, also, not quite in passing, we take note of the enormous odds overcome, and the great miracle of a people dispersed around the globe for 2,000 years, who returned home and took up their ancient language, and their faith -- and found new life only moments after near-annihilation while much of the world seemed utterly indifferent.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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