Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Night in October, 90 Years in the Making

Ever since one of the girls in my garin found a creative way to share her reasons for aliyah and army with the group (see here), I have been itching to match her example. My chance came the night of October 14 when my peers joined me in a conversation some ninety years in the making. Together we read excerpts from Leil HaEsrim, The Night of the Twentieth, a play by Yehoshua Sobol that provides a fascinating window into the origins of Zionism, depicting an October night in 1920 as a small group of young Zionist pioneers grapple with their values and insecurities.

The parallels between the play's Zionist pioneers and my garin are many, not the least that we are both are on the verge of actualizing our Zionist ambitions--be they enlisting in the army or settling the land--even as we both struggle to understand our actions and our personal and communal responsibilities. While I was sure my garin would appreciate the parallels, I also hoped the play would leave my peers with a keener understanding of my own journey towards aliyah and the army.

I have written in the past about the many ways in which Leil HaEsrim and Nesiya, the summer teen program that first introduced me to the script, influenced my decision to make aliyah and serve in the IDF. What I failed to stress in the past, however, is that the play's lasting influence on me is chiefly thanks to the group of friends whom I was with in 2002 on Nesiya. When we read Leil HaEsrim that summer, each of us voiced the lines of a distinct character, bringing to life young men and women with unique dreams and doubts of what the future held in store. The past seven years have begun to reveal the futures of my friends from the summer of 2002, showing me how they have grappled with the questions of responsibility and desire posed by the play. For nearly all of us these questions remain an open challenge. And for the friend we lost, his death only underlies the exigency of living a reflective yet committed life.

My garin's discussion of Leil HaEsrim was really extraordinary, easily one of the most illuminating and gratifying moments of Garin Tzabar. While most of my peers seemed to agree, the highlight was when Dalia, our garin coordinator (rakezet), voiced the same sentiment. An extra bonus came after the discussion, when my kibbutz mom and I spoke about a range of compelling issues for close to two hours. Below are three of the excerpts from Leil HaEsrim that prompted the most discussion tonight when my garin read the script.

We are hiding the truth from ourselves. I took a look today, I saw bare mountains as far as the eye can see. And we're stuck here on a mountain...Great things are happening in Europe, the world's been upended--and we are broken loose from the world drama. Yes, we've inserted ourselves in this empty little patch. This cut off corner of the world!

Akiva, a character from Leil HaEsrim, here voices an age old fear of American volunteers in the IDF: While we slave away in the army, often performing fairly mundane tasks, our peers are engaged in far more meaningful activities overseas. Alex Singer, the American IDF soldier killed in 1987, hit the same note when he wrote to his brother "I think all the time of your work on Capital Hill, work that is making a real difference, especially compared to my daily life in the army."

Akiva speaks in 1920, as Europe is host to the establishment of the Soviet Union and the League of Nations, and a cacophonous chorus of ideas that would result in Fascism and the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile he stands in the desolate hills of the Galilee, devoting his youth to what? Building a tower and stockade? Dredging a small swamp? What difference does any of this make in the big picture?

Today we look back with the benefit of hindsight and we realize that if not for Akiva's generation, in all likelihood a Jewish state would never have come to be. The sacrifice of the Third Aliyah was critical in realizing the Jewish people's quest for an independent community in the land of Israel. Nonetheless, there are few lone soldiers, few American volunteers in the IDF, who do not echo the doubts of Alex Singer on a daily basis. I probably relate to this more than most Garin Tzabar participants, most of whom are recent high school graduates. Six months ago I was a graduate student in Washington DC, attending classes on Embassy Row alongside classmates readying themselves for influential positions in the intelligence, diplomatic and financial sectors. Today many of those classmates have assumed positions in the CIA, State Department or Wall Street. When I made the decision to come to Israel I was very conscious of this sacrifice and to this day, have never had serious regrets. But doubt lingers.

Perhaps I can and do take heart from the words of a fellow garin member. During our discussion, he commented that what makes our sacrifice viable is that we are realizing a personal desire, manifesting in the most real way a value that is so important to us. The influential positions of our peers overseas may seem impressive but often their jobs, and their very lives, have fallen into a passive pattern, chasing jobs that society suggests will make them feel important but they may not truly feel connected with or truly believe in.

We'll be in danger tomorrow, maybe we'll die. And one day, Miriam, the group will tell your son: climb that mountain and stand guard there. Will you have the strength to go on living here in the group if he doesn't come back? Knowing that the group never really opened itself to him or you? That the people who sent your son to his death hid themselves from you? Or maybe we'll send him in the name of the Agricultural Department? What meaning will life have then?

Moshe, another character from Leil HaEsrim, makes a number of trenchant points here, including a basic message that it is critical to understand why we are here, what is it that motivates us--pioneers ninety years ago and today--to be prepared to sacrifice our lives? Perhaps the best response to this challenge came from a fellow garin member. During our discussion he suggested that our empowering ideology, our Zionism, and the often mundane tasks we will be tasked with in the army can be imagined as two dynamic poles. For most of us, these poles were once quite distant, a separation that leads to the sort of anxiety voiced by Moshe. But if we recognize that these poles are dynamic, and that as we come to better understand ourselves and Israel these poles can and will move closer, then our doubts can be assuaged. Garin Tzabar, my friend concluded, is so important for this very reason, in that it has helped him bring these two realities into greater agreement.

Can we cope with the individual? After all, what are we doing here?

While Leil HaEsrim is ostensibly about the doubts and dreams of the early Zionist pioneers, it is essentially a morality tale without a clear moral on the universal question of individual versus collective needs. The question is captured perfectly when Moshe challenges his group to come to terms with the individual before proceeding onward with their goal of settling the land. The message also came at the right time for my garin. Over the last week we have had several meetings to hash out the dilemma of individual versus collective needs. No doubt every group in Garin Tzabar faces a similar challenge, particularly in late October as the day of enlistment draws near.

Leil HaEsrim does not provide any definitive answers to this dilemma. Instead it demonstrate that the Zionist pioneers we often view as sacrosanct were in fact deeply conflicted individuals. Not too different from people like you and me. People who voiced deep doubts about their actions and yet ultimately pressed forward and acted despite their fears. Acted and created, a legacy that still rings true until today.

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