To be a Free People in our Land

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

I love Hatikvah, our national anthem.

When I was a small boy in Somerset West, my Hebrew was not very good. I could read from the siddur (in my case the Shiloh edition, which still lies in the drawer at home on my kibbutz, together with our supply of shabbat candles and kippot) but I understood not a word.

But back to the Hatikvah of my youth: because of the level of my Hebrew, I sang Hatikvah in a mixture of Hebrew and gibberish, and many years passed before I actually understood the Hebrew and corrected the gibberish. And when I did…. I felt even more connected, partly because by then Zionism and a love for Israel was not only what I had imbibed in the Menorah Hall between the Purim Shpiel, table tennis and badminton, but it was also what I had taken on for myself as part of my own developing teenage Jewish identity (helped along by Habonim and particularly by the most wonderful of madrichim, Jeffrey Peires, who opened my eyes to the whole idea of a Jewish movement of National Liberation).

There was — and is — one line which has a special place in my heart:

To be a Free People in our Land

On the surface it’s totally clear; it’s about Freedom and Land. But what fascinated me then and what still fascinates me, is the question of what it means to be a ‘Free People’.

It resonated for me and, I believe, for Jews all over the Diaspora, which possibly meant it was something we did not have when we did not have our Land, this Freedom; or that we experienced a lack of it when we live/d elsewhere; or that we imagined a different state of being that would indicate the experience of freedom we felt was lacking in some way from our experience of this world.

Our dreams were answered; the State of Israel came into being 73 years ago after a bitterly contested War of Independence, so on one level this question became moot. We have an independent country, a parliament, a defense force, coinage, a jail system, courts.

But, how do we know when we are free? What does freedom actually mean? How do we know when we have it — not when we lack it, but when we actually have it?

I think back to the earliest times I sang that line of Hatikvah, not knowing, of course what it meant, but there is nothing for 20-20 vision like hindsight. There we were, Sedley, Herzl, Sharon, Theo, Barry, Richard, Robert, Barbara, Colin, JJ and many others, in the Menorah Hall on the appropriately named Church Street (don’t try and find it today as it is no longer there. It suffered a fate similar to the Shul and was absorbed into the new reality of Somerset West as most of us moved away to Cape Town, Sydney, London, Atlanta, Perth and even Israel).

In the same space where we had our Shabbat morning Kiddush (with kichel, herring and other foods I only learned to eat years later); where we played table tennis and badminton (gentle, Jewish sports, even though some of our number excelled in ‘their’ sports too, rugby, soccer and cricket); where there were occasional fetes for Bnoth Zion, and where we displayed our Purim costumes once a year. Jewish Space. For me in Somerset West that was Jewish Space. Inside the Menorah Hall. Inside the Somerset West Shul, sitting in the back row with the above-mentioned (boys of course).

And when did we sing this line? Well, on Yom Ha’atzmaut of course, and then when Habonim arrived in Somerset West, at the end of every meeting (any Youth Movement still do that?).

So, those were the time and space components connected to Hatikvah and of course to my favourite line from the anthem:

To be a Free People in our Land

Fast forward. I am far away from the Menorah Hall, on my home Kibbutz, Tzora, in Israel where I have lived for 5 years longer than the time it took us to get from Egypt back to our homeland – remember all that wandering in the desert with one or two great distractions along the way, a burning bush or two and of course those wonderful moments at Sinai? — you must remember it as we were all there, or so we are told. So, both time-wise and space-wise very different settings for the continuation of my own personal Jewish story.

How different? Well consider this experience from Tisha B’Av just a few weeks ago.

I returned to the theater for the first time since the onset of Covid-19. Consider the evening; it was the end of Tisha B’Av. A day we Jews remember as the day of the destruction of both our Temples, by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the Romans under Titus in 70 CE. A day which became the quintessential day of Jewish mourning. A fact not lost on our enemies over the centuries who helped add to the list of tragedies connected to this date. The last day Jews were permitted to be in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella as practicing Jews before their expulsion in 1492, was Tisha B’Av; the day the transports began from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka was Tisha B’Av 1942.

Tisha B’Av was coming to an end and the Khan theater ensemble were not using their home space at the Khan Theater, they were using the “Hansen House”, former home of the Jerusalem’s hospital for lepers which was initially a project of a German Protestant Church and therefore in Jerusalem, a city holy to them as well (there is a wonderful inscription over the front entrance: ‘Jesus Hilfe’, or in Shakespeare’s tongue, ‘Jesus Saves’ — a reminder that not only we find Jerusalem to be of great significance).

So, here I am, going to a theatrical performance in Jerusalem in the former Leper Hospital, taken over by the new Israeli State. The Arab residents of the hospital are about to move to the leprosy hospital in the village of Silwan near the Dung Gate in Jordan, and the Jewish patients remain. Even though it is earmarked to be the new campus of the Hebrew University (remember Mount Scopus, site of the original campus, is now an island of Israeli territory within Jordan and not appropriate for a university campus) this never happens. With a small number of lepers, and only temporary, the hospital continues, but much longer than originally intended.

And the play itself? A story within a story within a story. The plot: the actors play the inmates and staff of the leper hospital, who, we are told, are putting on a play for us. And what play are they performing? A play by Y. L. Peretz the Polish-Jewish writer who wrote at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in Hebrew and Yiddish. And the play they have chosen!!
Can there be a more appropriate choice in 2021 than In the Time of Plague?

Think of it: actors playing lepers, putting on a play relevant to their situation during the great Corona pandemic that we are living through right now.

And the audience was wonderful. They got every inside Jewish joke. Every flippant remark about the Anti-Semites brought up memories. Every insider joke about rabbis raised a laugh. Every time they mentioned having to quarantine, we thought about family and friends far away, that we have not been able to see for the longest time.

And we remembered stories from Krakow, from standing outside the Synagogue of the Remah and hearing about the way to break a plague. How? Oh you weren’t with us outside the Synagogue of the Remah from the 16th Century which survived the Nazi occupation, and you did not hear the story of marrying off orphans to break a plague? But, perhaps you were with us in the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, where we tell a similar story.

Time: Tisha B’Av and a Time of Plague and a pandemic.

Place: Jerusalem, and a hospital for lepers and a sign, ‘Jesus Saves’.

Memories: Of the weddings of orphans and of the Remah Synagogue in Krakow and of the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv AND of a time before Corona when I could guide and teach and remembering ever so clearly, WHY I CAME HERE. IT IS ALL SO PUBLIC. Not behind closed doors in the Menorah Hall on Church Street

And it comes to me; one of the meanings of being a Free People is the ability to express oneself culturally in the most profound way. When we have the ability to control space, use our own understandings of what the difference is between time which is sacred and that which is ordinary and use idioms/metaphors/language which open the floodgates of both personal and collective memories.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied English Literature and Psychology at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the United States. He currently works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story), including in South Africa. He’s married to Orly who is an Educational Psychologist working with vulnerable populations in Israel. They have three children — Elad, a paediatrician at Hadassah Hospital, Maya, a teacher and a doctoral student at Hebrew University, and Daphne who works in digital marketing in Tel Aviv. He has five grandchildren (so far) and is, since 1987, a member of Kibbutz Tzora which is also home to all the grandchildren.

• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.

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