The Jewish people have many comfort foods:matzo ball soup, corned beef on rye --or on the Israeli side of things: hummus, falafel, shwarma, tea with nana (mint) leaves.These foods make us feel warm and sustained, and they fairly ooze with nostalgia. To a degree, they are part of our Jewish make-up.But in Israel there is something far more crucial to hold on to than the gifts of the earth, and that is the earth itself.
Israel is a country that - by itself - produces all of the same feelings as our classic Jewish comfort foods. How does it do that?When one looks at the Western Wall, how does one not feel the weight of the Temple's majesty? When dipping your toe in the Kinneret - the sea of Galilee - can you ignore the miraculous fact that the same reservoir sustained our people so many centuries ago? How can you climb Masada and not feel the presence of the Roman army, whose troops emerged victorious -- but whose people are no more?
Israel produces a national nostalgia for us every time we visit, and when we are present there, even as visitors, we are compelled to live out the key moments in our history that have allowed us to remain intact as a people.Israel asks us to remember that, as Jews, we are part of a story much larger than ourselves; that we and our ancestors have all contributed to the miracle of this united historical journey that has culminated - and continues on - even in the present moment.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Israeli people are very nostalgic by nature. Delighting in storytelling, they all seem to possess a remarkable knowledge of their country's modern and ancient history, taking great pride in their identity as modern day Israelis. One of the most treasured of these storytellers' voices is that of the folk singer Naomi Shemer.
Born on Kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret, a community her parents helped to found on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, Shemer is most famous for her love song to Jersulaem -Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, written during the Six Day War of 1967. Yerushalayim Shel Zahav is a poem for the cherished soul of Jerusalem, which speaks of the scent of pine trees carried on the mountain air, and the western wall as the heart of the city. Shemer had special cause to be nostalgic as she was longing for the smells, the sights and the touch of a city from which she was temporarily barred.
Her words are still magical even to us forty-four years later, as Jews who know a free Jerusalem -- where one may visit the wall three times a day for prayer, and wander the city's narrow passages freely.We sing to Jerusalem whether we stand in its gates, or face it in prayer from many miles away, because our hearts our intertwined with that of the holy city. As the psalmist wrote: "Jerusalem is a city which is knit together."So it is with the entire country of Israel, not just as a spiritual homeland, but as a physical place to which our hearts are inextricably linked.
For Naomi Shemer, the place of yearning was a eucalyptus grove on the grounds of her native kibbutz.In 1963, Shemer wrote a wonderful song called Chorshat H'Eukaliptus-The Eucalyptus Grove- which recalls with special fondness the spot where one hundred eucalyptus trees grew, where boats docked in the water, and where, on a hill, her father once built a house for her mother.This was one of three songs she requested to be sung at her own funeral , which took place seven years ago.This past December, as part of our Temple Sholom Israel Mission, we had the honor of visiting Shemer's grave -- which is located in that same eucalyptus grove she wrote about sixty-eight years ago.At the time, I did not realize the significance of the place in which we stood, and how it inspired the greatest songwriter of modern Israel. Looking back on the memory of that simple grove and the placid waters on which it rested, I am even more moved by her lyrics:
"When Mother came here, beautiful and young, Father built her a house on the hill. The years flew by, half a century passed away, and meanwhile, her curls have turned to grey. But on the banks of the Jordan, it's as though not a thing had changed: there is the same silence, the same scenery, the eucalyptus grove, the bridge, the boat and the salty smell upon the water."
Shemer's words are a reminder of why Israel holds such a unique place in our hearts. Our lives are fleeting, and leave us too little time; but our relationship with the land: its history, heritage and holy places -- is an everlasting gift.