May 14 was Israeli Independence Day. Well, not exactly. The parties and parades were celebrated three weeks ago, synchronized with the Hebrew date of 5 Iyar. [The Jewish calendar makes each circuit of the moon into a month. Since that circuit takes 29.5 days, twelve lunar months are 354 days. This creates an eleven-day discrepancy with the solar year of 365 days. To solve this, Jews add an extra month, a thirteenth, seven times every nineteen years. So the Hebrew anniversary of any event is never more than three weeks from the standard one.]
This fact alone, that a modern nation celebrates its holidays using its ancient dating scheme in place for 3300 years, underscores the miracle of Israel’s existence. Even its secular citizens, who number around thirty%, agree to accentuate the traditional calendar. This figure, incidentally, is an approximation, as polling has proven very difficult in this area. For the most part, demographers assume about twenty% fully observant and thirty percent identifying as non-religious. The other half of the population covers a broad spectrum of traditionalism, with virtually infinite variations.
Also quite amazing is the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. This is made especially astounding by the fact that Jews in Israel during the Second Temple period no longer spoke Hebrew on a regular basis. Having lived in Babylon and other states in the region during the seventy-year hiatus between Temples, they became accustomed to conversing and writing in Aramaic. This is why the Book of Ezra chronicling the return to the land to build the Second Temple is in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Thus, Hebrew made a comeback as a national language after 2400 years of disuse. Historian Paul Johnson describes this as the single most astonishing aspect of the founding of modern Israel.
More than just a language to negotiate or flirt in, the comeback of Hebrew has featured beautiful, evocative poetry and some nicely cadenced songwriting that stands its own in any global competition. Incidentally, the music of today’s Israel is a fascinating subject in its own right. The last sixty years have seen the creation of two parallel genres, popular and religious. Both have great tonality, can be by turns energetic and poignant, and are very much of their own time.
These cultural phenomena are indicators for a vibrant, forward-looking democratic society with strong roots in the past. Here is something that really gives you an insight. On June 24 the Israel Baseball League will be inaugurated. There are six teams, three of them managed by Jewish former major-leaguers: Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Bloomberg. They will play a 45-game schedule, seven innings to a game. Players, mostly Jewish, are coming from all over the world, with ten percent homegrown in Israel. Here is the kicker: evening games will begin at 6:13 p.m. in honor of the Jewish tradition that the Bible includes 613 commandments (although only 271 apply without a standing Temple).
With this kind of balance between time gone by and days to come, Israel will assuredly enjoy continued success. Besides its very own hardy stock of native citizens, it continues to import Jews — and some very inspired Christians — from other points on the globe. Last year’s Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Robert Aumann of Jerusalem, dedicated his award to his high school math teacher from sixty years ago at Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph in the East Side (since moved to Staten Island) of New York City. (He didn’t mention that my Dad was his classmate and fellow member of the Match Club.) One of my children was born in Israel in 1991, with a surgeon from Spain, an anesthesiologist from France and a head nurse from Russia.
Another startling aspect of visiting Israel is the essential nonexistence of violent crime. Women can walk down any street in the Jewish areas of the country at any hour of the day or night with no more serious consequences than wolf whistles and catcalls. Every cab driver who picks up an attractive woman will make a move on her, and that can get annoying, but use of force is never a concern. Some female friends of mine came to visit and wound up staying because they found the newfound freedom of movement so liberating.
We have managed to cover a range of quality-of-life issues, deliberately avoiding the real nitty-gritty of the country’s academic, scientific, technological and military achievements. Those are better known and can be researched elsewhere. Today we look at Israel at age 59 and see a place that has a heart… and a strong pulse. May it live forever.