Independence Day, Revisited

The problem was Bialystok, or at least "Bialystok"--to an eight year old, the mythical city of commerce, Catholic shrines, Polish Jew-hatred, and Yiddishkeit, from which the free-thinking Shaicovitch family made its way to Montreal in the 1920s, or "efteh de vor," as my Auntie Malka never tired of explaining. Their city was cut off from Russia, and the Trylling textile factory--owned by the forbearers of the Columbia University critic Lionel Trilling, and where my grandfather was a manager ("de vas going to take 'em fa a partneh")--hit hard times. Then, suddenly, my grandfather died, still in his forties, leaving his wife and seven children destitute. And so the family made its way, in tranches, to Montreal and its textile factories: commerce, Catholic shrines, Quebecois-Jew hatred, and Yiddishkeit.

And the solution was Israel, or "Israel"--to an eight-year-old with a father who had come to Montreal a fourteen-year-old Shomer Hatzair Zionist cadre--one already speaking rudimentary Hebrew, one who had grown fat on Bialies, become good at Talmud Torah, and lonely in family conflicts--an unlikely, periodic object of longing. And the more or less exclusive vehicle for longing was song, especially two albums by the Oranim Zabar group, which my father had brought home before he left it for good (and iTunes has just restored to my life).

I can still remember the LPs nested on the brown felt turntable, in the damp basement, the needle slowly descending into its groove. The sounds of the invitation "to the dances" sprang to life--"chemdati el hamecholot boi!" (click and listen)--filling the room, and my eyes filled with the bright light of the desert, a little like the brightness of the Forum when the Canadiens skated onto the ice. Here, on the way to the Negev, there were no fatsos. Girls wore shorts, you passed the coffee pot (click and listen)around the campfire, cradled a rifle, and marched south to Eilat (click and listen), not like Bedouin, but like a modern adventurer, between the blue of the sky and grit of the soil, where "the seat of tomorrow's miracles" beckoned. The important holy text was the "Song of Songs," (especially here, click and listen) where love met bodies, hardened in ways I could only dimly imagine, and compared to ancient doves, pines, and wild beasts. Men exclaimed "Ho!," for no particular reason.

Tonight, Independence Day celebrations begin. Everywhere in the country there are paeans to Jerusalem, or to the previously benighted Jewish people, but neither the city nor the people come up in these songs, except as negative space, implying poignancy. What seemed holy was the frontier and spices and Hebrew seductions. That seemed enough.