Erev Yom Ha’Atzmaut, 2012: As I return from a visit to my elderly mother in the northern part of Jerusalem, the bus winds its way through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The stone buildings along the route are colorless shades of sand and grey, some new, some old and blackened with age. Men and women rush through busy streets, expressions of pain and joy, helpless and hopeful looks defining their faces.
The bus steers past young women, their cell phones dangling like earrings, walking and talking, ears pressed to their shoulders as they simultaneously push baby carriages. Shopping districts bustle with activity; wares for sale hang on racks or are folded and stacked underneath coverings spread out bazaar style.
It is a day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and no matter where my eyes roam there is not a flag in sight; only large placards of warnings and mourning in oversized bold black letters admonishing unacceptable behavior, or listing recent tragic losses in local communities.
The bus turns up Yechezkel Street, across Malchei Yisroel and up Strauss, and still not a single flag. At last, it stops on the corner of Rechov Hanevi’im, Prophets Street, where a long blue and white banner is suspended from top to bottom at the entrance to Bikur Cholim Hospital, (now part of Shaare Zedek).
I have fond memories of Jerusalem’s Bikur Cholim; some fifty years ago my eldest daughter was born in the hospital. It wasn’t erev Yom Ha’Atzmaut, it was pre-Yom Kippur. The delivery room stood in the center of the main first floor corridor partitioned with a wall about two and a half meters high, completely open at the top and reaching high to the century-old arched ceiling. Women in the delivery room could be heard shrieking “Imahleh, Imahleh,” before the piercing scream heralding new life.
A woman in the bed opposite me was scheduled for surgery, yet when two nurses came to wheel her out, her husband stood there as a lion, roaring. “No operation until I do kapparot with a live chicken.”
Am I dreaming or is this for real? I pinched myself to be sure I was awake. The young nurses argued; they refused to allow the man his kapparot service until an authoritative nurse appeared, her soft white hair rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck. She listened to her subordinates defend their resistance to the chickens, and then she listened to the husband who refused to allow surgery to commence erev Yom Kippur without his wife performing the ritually accepted kapparot practice of his community.
“Okay, you have two minutes to do your thing with the chicken, and then we move,” she ordered firmly, with Solomon-like wisdom. The hospital passageway was teeming with chickens-in-waiting. He grabbed a chicken and recited the text, rotating the live chicken over his wife’s head, and when he ended, the white haired nurse immediately joined the younger nurses and wheeled the patient out of the room.
The bus I’m on lurches back into motion, rolling down the hill past the hospital that fades from view. Flags wave along the route through the city center and beyond.
The nation’s flag is a statement, a reminder of where my sympathies lie, and why. I admit I didn’t always feel this way. As a new immigrant in 1960 from an Orthodox home and neighborhood in Brooklyn, I had never heard of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, an odd combination of a day off, a holiday without any religious connection or restrictions, a Purim-like day without compulsory megillah reading or seudah.
It took a few years to mature, to understand that thousands had given their lives to enable us to return to our homeland, a miracle for a people that has grown from a straggly band of immigrants to an independent Jewish nation to be reckoned with. Just as we are grateful for every live delivery of a child, so too I am filled with gratitude for the birth of this state.
Still, about half of Jerusalem’s citizens are disdainful. For many of them, the flag and the state, like a dysfunctional relative, is a touchy subject – one they prefer to deny or closet. For others, the state and its symbols are illegitimate, a state born in sin, worthy of flagellation. National celebration is ignored; any link to thanking the Almighty is ridiculed.
Is Jerusalem a city of separate peoples divided by a flag? Alternatively, perhaps we are still twelve tribes, pitching banners that define our camps as in days of old. My thoughts race as the bus rapidly turns corners past streets that bear names like Halamed Heh, Kovshei Katamon, Mivtza Kadesh, and Rachel Imeinu, names that evoke connection to historical events leading up to the state, alongside our ancient heritage.
The bus stops at my encampment. I enter my illusory tent, remove a folded flat packet from a shelf, and step out to a flower-filled balcony. Confident that my mother shares my elation, and my father’s face would beam, I string the crispy new flag across the porch railing.
Images flash through my mind of ancient tribes, Reuven and Yehuda in Machaneh Yisrael, the biblical camp of which we read, “each man by his banner according to his father’s household.” Essential values that express individual perception require time to contemplate, to accept. Yet, like a precious mix of blue and white, I sense that spirit of being a part of millions of Jews connected to the State of Israel, rejoicing on its birthday.
Happy Birthday, Israel!