A record of folk songs by Theodore Bikel did the trick.
My American youth wouldn’t particularly have “predicted” that I would make aliyah (move to Israel) as an adult.
True, there were certain factors that could conduce in that direction. My parents were refugees from the Nazis, having fled Vienna as teenagers with their families in the fall of 1938. They conveyed that Jewish identity was important; we stayed home for the solemn holidays, did special things for the joyous ones. Bringing customs of another religion into the home — as some American Jews were already doing back then for Christmas — would have been out of the question.
But, on the other hand, both of my parents were from very secular backgrounds, and Jewish culture in our lives was meager compared to the immediacy and richness of American culture. I didn’t know that Friday night and Saturday were the Jewish Sabbath. I did gain a deep-seated sense that Jewish identity was important; but I was less clear on why it was important — knowing little about the Jewish people’s history, religion, literature, and so on.
A notable exception, an irruption of rich Jewishness into my predominantly American life, occurred when I was — I believe — six. It came in the form of a birthday present my father bought for my mother: the record Folk Songs of Israel by Theodore Bikel.
Bikel — the actor-singer still going strong at 88 — spent part of his youth in prestate Israel (his family also having fled Vienna), enough to pick up sabra Hebrew and the often feisty, high-spirited Hebrew songs of the era. As for me, the album — and not only the songs, but some fusion of the songs and the picture on the cover — had a huge impact.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I was stunned. I’d heard some Yiddish, but little or no Hebrew; I knew only vaguely about the state of Israel (it was 1960, and it was only a little older than me). My predominant image of Jews came from my own family, my aunts’ families, and my immigrant grandparents in New York City speaking German and heavily accented English — people who were basically urban, part of a minority, and whose Jewishness seemed largely a matter of guilt, anti-Semitism, and vague moral imperatives.
But what I heard on Folk Songs of Israel — I would request to listen to it by myself on the hi-fi in the living room, along with other beloved works like Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Bach’s Italian Concerto — struck me as entirely different.
These Jews not only had their own highly distinctive, very non-European language; they seemed also to have a brash, in-your-face élan, the songs conveying an unmistakable tang of joie de vivre. And what images they put in my head… dancers whirling around a campfire; idyllic glens with flutes piping; rugged pioneers trekking through austere deserts.
For these Jews, of course, not only had their own language, their own bouncy exuberance; they also had a land.
I could see it — I thought — on the album’s cover, and not only in the form of an agricultural field with trees in the distance, but also of a smiling, buoyant woman striding through the field. A woman with a funny cap, long braids, khaki shorts, and a hoe slung over her shoulder. I would later find out that she was actually an American model, the agricultural field situated in Long Island!
But no matter; the picture was sufficient for the moment. Although, even by then — 1960 — there were no longer many women laboring with hearty diligence in the new nation’s fields, the picture spoke to me on another level, touching into life one of the deepest of Jewish archetypes: the Land of Israel.
It was this land — and this was an accurate perception — that provided the fertile soul from which such music gushed.
I DON’T EXAGGERATE the impact of “the album” on my making aliyah. Powerful push factors arose when I was in my twenties. It wasn’t so much the Arab war on Israel; it was the way the world powers — including U.S. administrations — treated the young Jewish state. They shoved it around on the diplomatic stage, blamed it for its own predicament, castigated it relentlessly it for building “settlements” on land it had won in a defensive war of survival. I was still naïve enough to be shocked that this was happening so soon after the Holocaust.
But Folk Songs of Israel laid the basis in my life for Israel as a pull factor — a place that beckoned, a place of song, of fields infused with legend, a new life with a beguiling new language and people. It was when I was 28 that this potent brew of indignation at the non-Jewish political world and attraction to the Jewish homeland, one might say, overflowed, and I found myself on my way to Zion.
Today, a resident of Israel for 28 years, I still look back fondly at that moment I first heard “the record.” While I would be more ginger now about applying sweeping descriptors to the variegated Israeli people and culture, I’m still struck by how much the songs revealed to me, what intuitions they instilled at the age of six. Life here has its ups and downs (perhaps more extreme in both cases) like anywhere else; but I’m more in love than ever with the vibrancy of the reborn Jewish polity. I can’t think of any greater cause than being part of it and contributing to it.
I like to think of how its long arm reached out and found me on a distant continent.
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