American Jews Without Israel, Israel Without U.S. Jews

It is the worst week of the worst month of the entire Jewish calendar, and my friend is dead.

For David Twersky, my long-lost older brother.


It is the worst week of the worst month of the entire Jewish calendar, and my friend is dead.

It is the month of Av, the anniversary of the gamut of calamity of the Jewish people. It is the birthday of the idea of Diaspora, and of the creativity and aching and poetry, the episodes of soaring and soul disease by which we have come to know it, here and gone, for 3,000 years.

My friend is dead, thousands of miles from where I last saw him happy. It was here in Jerusalem, this year. He was already ill beyond doctors' reach. But in the way of life at curtain, he rallied for one last visit to this place that he loved.

In his one lingering smile, there was every ounce of the seer in him, the shrink in him, the ringleader in him, the Jon Stewart, the Myron Cohen, the Perry White in him, the Toots Schor, the Allen Ginsberg, the inveterate political animal in him, the ballplayer in him, the rock star, the rebbe.

Half a lifetime ago, young and dumb in the fire of the years in which the future is of no consequence, my friend and I left the United States for an idea, a shared and, for all accounts, attainable, dream. By heritage and accidents of history, we, the offspring of revolutions past, had become the disciples of revolutions future.

He was my neighbor once, on what was in those days a working farm and a collective. One day years later, he then a magazine editor and I a novice reporter, he invited me to his office in the city, to tell me that he and his family would be moving back to the States. His phone rang a few minutes later. It was the Labor Party, telling him that he had a place on the list for the Knesset.

This is what, trying to be fair, trying not to be cruel, I could not tell him while he was still with us:

We needed you here. We need you now.

I believe absolutely that America's Jews needed you just as much. Certainly your family did, your children, your father. You chose well.

But we've needed you here for a long time.

I never met anyone who loved Israel more than you. I never met anyone who saw through Israelis like you did. You were built in the mold of the old guys, the realists who succeeded because they were under the mistaken impression that they were dreamers.
Maybe it's just as well you were spared some of today's Israel and its leaders, the pipe dreamers who fail because they are under the mistaken impression that they are realists.

This is what I want you to know. This place is a vastly better place for your having been here, for the lives you touched and the minds you opened.

When you left, I wanted to believe that our worlds, that of Israel and the American Jewish community, were halves of the same heart.

On this awful day, when it seems that most of what is between these two communities is sea water, I want to talk to you as if you were here.

Since you left, the country has gotten better at building walls than bridges. You knew how bridges worked. You knew how to build them.

You had the secret talent, the double-edged gift of the minority artist: the capacity to see the majority when the majority can't begin to clearly see itself. You saw Israel's curse for what it was.

After centuries of the 9th of Av, after temple demolitions and expulsion and incineration and oppression and rootlessness and dread, you met the generations of Jews who had at last been born a majority. And you met their native-born children, on their way to power. After centuries of acute Jewish sensitivity to the feelings, the hopes, the pain of minorities, too many of these sabra leaders, couldn't – and still can't - seem to fathom minorities at all.

Worse, it doesn't seem to bother them that they can't.

Not just the Palestinians are a mystery to them, nor just the Israeli Arabs, nor asylum seekers from Darfur, nor the very sabra children of foreign workers. This generation of sabra leaders, and some of their partners, whom you helped leave the Soviet Union, seem to have even lost the sense of what it means to be part of a Jewish minority.

Now the cabinet is marking the 9th of Av by discussing a conversion bill that many U.S. Jews find terrifying and repellent. You would have loved the interview that the bill's author David Rotem gave JTA, knowing he was speaking to American Jews. "It is only an Israeli matter," he said. "This law has got nothing to do with American Judaism or anyone in the Diaspora.

Once, long ago, weeding endless cotton fields, we bandied the concept of what American Jews and American Judaism would be like if there were no Israel, and what Israel would be like if there were no American Jews.

This week, incredulous at having to say goodbye to you, trying to imagine your burial in a cemetery overseas, I have a sense that I am beginning to find out.

We once took a walk past the cemetery on the kibbutz. I said that this was where I figured I would end up. You gave out with that throaty snarl of a laugh and nothing more. Maybe you knew that we both were bound for other lives, other places. Looking back, this much I know:

It matters, what you did here. You helped write Jewish history. You fought for a more human, more humanist Israel. You hoped against hope. It was not this Israel, this bulvahn, that you dreamed of. But you are still at the heart of what is good here.

Part of you never left this place where the terrible month of Av brings out the worst and the best in the people who make a difference.

You made a difference, my friend. Your life gave others life. The Talmudist in your veins, the prophet in your eyes, the poet in your lungs. We needed you. We need you now.