Saturday, September 12, 2015

How (And Why) I Became A Zionist

As the Jewish community prepares to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I thought this would be a good time to tell a story that I've never told in its entirety before.
It's the story of how (and why) I became a Zionist.
For those of you who don't know, a Zionist is a person who supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel. Zionists not only believe that Jews should have their own nation but they also believe that the nation should be where it is now and has been since 1948 - in the land known as the State of Israel. So, today Zionists are ardent and vigilant defenders of Israel.
You may wonder: Why would you be a Zionist? You're a person of Italian heritage and you're Catholic, not Jewish.
Well, you don't have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.
And so, for what it's worth, here's my story:
I grew up in a row house about a block from Broadway (the main street) in Camden, New Jersey. Our section of town was called South Camden and it was comprised largely of Italian families surrounding the center of community life, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. 
South Camden was often called "Little South Philly" as it sat pretty much across the Delaware River (and very much in the shadow of) that other Italian-American mecca.
I was a city kid in a bustling industrial town where most families had one car (if they had a car at all) and families resided in small homes with two or three bedrooms and one bath. 
People walked to work, to stores and to the homes of their neighbors and I walked to school which was only a half-block from my house.
It was a close-knit community where people left their doors unlocked and sat out on the front step on summer nights to catch a breeze.
But when I was eleven-years-old, things changed.
Seeking a life away from the center of town, my parents had a new home built for us in East Camden, the most suburban part of the city. We moved into a modern, modified rancher on a corner lot measuring 60 X 100 feet. The house was spacious and modern in every sense of the word with an all-electric kitchen, baseboard heat, aluminum windows and sturdy masonry construction. And though we still had some Italian-American neighbors, we weren't technically in that kind of neighborhood anymore.
No, we'd moved to the predominantly Jewish section of town. At the same time, I switched from Catholic school back to public school. In the fifth grade, my new teacher was Mrs. Friedman and the last names of the students in my class sounded more like her name than my name.
My new school was just that -- nearly brand new and surrounded by trees. Sleek and bright, it was all on one floor with wide corridors and a built-in intercom system connecting all the rooms.
No doubt about it, this all happened to me at a very impressionable age. I was in transition -- what they call today a "tweenager" or a "preteen." 
You might be thinking that it was a culture shock.
But, here's the real shock -- it wasn't.
My new classmates were welcoming, curious and very accepting. 
They were talkative and funny. They liked to read, work on group projects, write stories, give book reports and visit the library. They made a big deal out of putting on shows and even at a relatively young age they had some sense of the emerging popular culture.
And suddenly, I found that I fit right in. My new friends liked all the things I liked. They were interested in all the things I was interested in.
What's more, they accepted me into their homes -- homes filled with books, copies of classic works of art and even some original art works. Their parents welcomed me and encouraged me. In fact, in many ways they inspired me as they were informed, aware and involved in the community. They nourished my interest in politics, art, culture and the theater. 
I soon learned that my friends were not always available to hang out after school. Often, they were at Hebrew school. During the high holy days of the Jewish year they were not in school at all. Without large numbers of students or teachers, the school was nearly empty. Eventually, the decision was made to close school altogether on those days.  
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was even more quiet than Good Friday in my new neighborhood. Save for those walking to and from synagogue, streets were mostly deserted and stores were closed. At Christmas, ours was one of the few houses decorated with bright lights. But looked forward to seeing an additional light turned on each night in the Chanukah menorahs that sat in the windows of our neighbors' homes.  
Of course, I quickly learned what a Bar Mitzvah was and soon attended a few. It seemed larger and more significant that our Catholic Confirmation but still, Bar Mitzvah had not yet achieved the lavish proportions that later came to be parodied in shows and movies. 
During the summer, my friends were often shuttled off to day camp and, later overnight camp. When the whole experience was spoofed via Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, we all had a good laugh.
The idea of giving back to the community was instilled in me during these formative years. Every spring my friends and I collected donations for the Betty Bacharach Home for disabled children near the Jersey shore. 
And yes, I learned all about the Holocaust, read The Diary of Anne Frank and even got to meet Holocaust survivors. Chilling! 
Through junior high (the term "middle school" had not yet gained wide usage) and high school I was immersed in the middle-class Jewish-American culture of the day. I discovered writers like Bruce Jay Friedman, artists like Marc Chagall, musicians like Leonard Bernstein and comedians like Woody Allen and Mort Sahl. My friends and I read Leon Uris' huge historical novel, Exodus together. Later, we rushed out to see the movie. We all supported JFK for president. I felt the first Catholic president would be a huge breakthrough. They agreed, and doubtless figured "a Catholic president today, maybe a Jewish president tomorrow."
Now, you must remember that through this entire time Israel was about the same age we were. 
In fact, the State of Israel didn't even come into being until two years after I was born. This small, vibrant nation was still developing. It was n lively, exuberant time captured in many artistic forms including the 1961 Broadway musical, Milk and Honey whose title song proclaimed, of Israel:

This is the land of Milk and Honey
This is the land of sun and song and
This is the world of good and plenty
Humble and proud and young and strong and
This is the place where the hopes of the homeless
and the dreams of the lost combine
This is the land that heaven blessed and
This lovely land is mine

But we all knew -- always knew -- that Israel's very existence was tenuous.
Later to come were the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the United Nations' abominable 1975 proclamation equating Zionism with racism. That proclamation (much later, revoked) was a harbinger of things to come. When the proclamation was adopted I wore a button that said: "We are all Zionists."
This is what I grew up with.
These are the people who introduced me to a broader, more aware, more fulfilling world. These are the ones who showed me love, acceptance and understanding at a critical time in my life -- the ones who challenged me and listened and coaxed and cajoled and laughed and cried and shared life with me. These are the ones who taught me the meaning of words and phrases like L'chaim and Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom -- not to mention oy veh!
So, to me Jewishness and Israel are inseparable just as Catholicism and The Vatican are inseparable, just as Italianism and Italy and Rome are inseparable. It's intrinsic. It's all one.
I know a lot of things have changed, but how could one small democratic nation about the size of New Jersey with six million people comprise a threat to 1.7 billion Muslims in 19 surrounding countries? How?
Indeed, Israel's survival is a triumph of the human spirit -- a kind of modern-day miracle. And it should inspire all of us.
So, today, it pains me to encounter people who seem so cavalier, if not downright dismissive when it comes to the State of Israel. It hurts me when I have to wonder just how committed our present government is to Israel, its people and its leaders. 
I shudder to think where we may be headed when we seem to turn our backs on our most fervent ally and the only true democracy in the Mideast. 
But I know what I've seen and heard and felt and learned, which all urges me onward.
And as I enter this phase of my life, these early experiences envelop me and guide me more than ever before.
I know what's in my heart.
And now, even more than in those impressionable, formative years, I say boldly and proudly: I am a Zionist!

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