If only Itai and Ilana were here …

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The young newlywed soldiers from the StandWithUs Israeli Soldiers Tour (see page 3) appeared at Laurelmead Cooperative, in Providence, in April and were warmly received by the mostly elderly audience.

They told us how their families had made their way to the promised land. 

“My grandparents arrived on a donkey” from Iran, Itai said. 

He added, “There were terrible mass murders not only in Russian pogroms or German concentration camps, but among the neighbors surrounding our Holy Land.” 

His story centered on the clear difference between American warfare and IDF border skirmishes. 

“Your draftees are sent by plane or ship to far-off places. We protect our parents, who live a half-hour away. We carry our rifles on a hike to our mission, and then, after a battle, we go home to dinner served by mother.” (Itai is both Sephardi and Ashkenazi. His families came from east and west, like the population of the new nation.)  

Ilana spoke about the democratic conditions in the military. “We are all 18, but from differing backgrounds. Maybe Israeli-Arabs or Bedouins. We had an Ethiopian recruit, who was hiding portions of food. We found out he had nine siblings and no income. The whole troop contributed to his family. We bond in the army. We have one another’s backs.”

The ironic contrast between the age of the appreciative and attentive audience and the age of the couple just starting their lives – under often-difficult conditions – was deeply moving and inspiring. 

I teach a class at the Rhode Island School of Design, loosely titled “The Jewish Narrative,” through movies and literature, music and sculpture, and even with recipes for the springtime holidays and their symbols. We close with discussions of Israel, Zionism and the shapes of anti-Semitism, and we publish our projects through Brown RISD Hillel’s annual notebook, “Machberet,” which should be out soon. 

I used to put Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” on the syllabus as a required reading, but I have changed my course book list to instead include “Walking Israel,” by Martin Fletcher, the English television journalist married to a sabra. Fletcher took a fortnight-long stroll around the borders of the little nation surrounded by vast enemy territories. He interviewed a wide range of personalities and tells it like it is, but with loyalty and deep affection. 

I have an unusual student in this elective during this spring semester. Her grandmother is a Ukrainian who feared the Russians but welcomed the Germans. She absorbed the profound anti-Jewish prejudices of the region, but her daughter married an American Jew! My student signed up for the class to learn something that I tried, perhaps in vain, to convey. 

In a recent class, she announced, “All my friends are pro-Palestinian! What am I to think, to say?” 

I answered, “First of all, read the books!” 

Of course, I welcome questions, and even arguments, but this question demanded more than a rant from me, and I thought, if only Itai and Ilana were here, or if only my student had been with me at Laurelmead to listen to the power, passion, poetry and sense of purpose of this truly remarkable pair.

What can you take away from an afternoon lecture? Before we had to vacate the classroom, I think I said something like this: “There are facets and sides to most issues. But there is also a deep loyalty, your own commitment to your mother, your love of your home, the intensity of the chapter of your life and its needs. ... 

“In Jewish culture, there is such a tie to Jerusalem, to the figurative as well as literal meaning of Passover, with its drive and determination. ...” 

And then I ran out of time, found a hidden staircase and escaped back into my cluttered office of books, DVDs, mementos, regrets and hopes.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.