Published in The Times of Israel; Originally delivered at the Sinai Indaba conference in March 2018 in South Africa.
Looking at the array of outstanding individuals who were asked to speak on the topic of optimism tonight, I’m a little intimidated – I’m not an expert in Kabballah, I’m not a Life Coach.
But there is one aspect of who I am that makes me uniquely equipped to tackle the topic of optimism – I am Israeli.
After all, think of all the Israelis that you know. Aren’t they the most upbeat people you ever met? Maybe yes, maybe no. Israelis are brash. Prickly, for sure. Do they embody their national symbol – the Sabra – a prickly pear with a tough exterior but a soft and gooey inside. Oh, they do.
Israelis and Positivity. After all, what are the 2 words you are most likely to hear from an Israeli?
Yehiye Beseder! Everything will be ok!
There is no circumstance where you will not hear that phrase. In the most terrible of times, in the worst of situations – yihehye beseder. So yes, Israelis and positivity naturally go together!
Now, a couple of years ago, I was faced with a challenge.
We are blessed with five children and my eldest daughter, who was just 2 years old when we made Aliyah to Israel from the UK, was turning Bat Mitzvah. Now I – as the proud father – needed to make a speech.
Can there be any prouder moment for a father of young children than his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah? To see a life that my wife and I brought into the world — take a step forward as a Jewish adult?
But I was vexed. What words of blessing and encouragement could I give her? And what positive message could I leave her you with as we look around at the imperfect world which she is stepping forward into?
There’s a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which a sailor returns from a long journey and accosts someone who is going to a wedding. The Mariner won’t let the guest go – it’s like he grabs him by the collar and won’t let him go until he has said everything he wants to say.
That’s kind of how I felt as my daughter made this step in her life. As our first child, she is the one who made me an Abba and so as she became Bat Mitzvah, I wanted to share with her everything I have learnt and feel. So I wrote her a letter and set down some of my thoughts in the hope that — like the wedding guest in the poem — she would emerge wiser once we’re done.
I found the words that I hoped would inspire her and give her a positive outlook for her future.
We cannot ignore the challenges, I told her. In my lifetime, the world has become a darker place. When I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, I fully imagined our best days were ahead us. As technology grew apace, as things got easier, faster and better, it seemed the only way was up.
But as rapid change has brought people together in some ways, in others it has torn us apart. And as a people, many Jews feel more fragile, and threatened than ever. But still, my positivity about our future and our destiny remains undimmed.
I was lucky. My wife and I were raised to be proud to be Jewish and to be proud of Israel. We were lucky to have access to a vibrant Jewish community, to a warm Jewish life and to a proud Jewish education. Yes, we saw flashes of anti-Semitism here and there, but I was brought up to wear my kippa proudly, whether it was near the synagogue or at a football game. Israel was cherished in our lives. We celebrated when Israel succeeded and felt the pain when Israel was attacked. A Shabbat-keeping family, we left the radio on in a room upstairs on Shabbat during the Gulf War to be kept updated if, God forbid, Scud missiles from Iraq where landing on Israeli homes. We were proud to be British, but forever held dear our unbreakable link to our ancestral home.
I told my daughter – When you were two-and-a-half, we made a choice. A choice for us, but also a choice for you. We left our happy and comfortable life in the UK and made Aliyah to Israel. An Israel that in addition to being thousands of years old, is still only several decades young. An Israel built with the sweat of the pioneers and sustained and defended by brave soldiers. Soon after arriving, my daughter celebrated her birthday at her nursery school, singing songs in Hebrew. On Independence Day, she walked proudly in the street with a Star of David crown. Her daily life is guided by the ancient Jewish calendar, the streets we walk on are named for Jewish heroes and events, and the language we speak is the language of our ancient ancestors. How lucky she is — how lucky we — are.
In a decade of life in Israel, however, my daughter has known wars, kidnappings, rocket attacks, stabbings and violent acts of terror. As a parent, I wish I could shield her from all of this but it permeates our life — physically and psychologically. Before anything else, any dad just wants to protect their kids. But life is insecure.
Centuries of persecution have taught us that no one will defend us but ourselves. Nothing — not even living independently — will give us complete security and history has taught us that it never will. With this said, the best response to those who would terrorize us is to live out our lives freely, because it is our freedom that our enemies most fear. I will never forgive the terrorists who made us leap from our beds and run to the bomb shelters on Shabbat morning, but I know that us keeping Shabbat the way we want to and living our life proudly in Israel is the ultimate rebuke to the terrorists.
I told her that we often refer to the generation that lived through the Second World War as “the Greatest Generation”; true enough, particularly to those who fought an evil that would have readily seen our people destroyed from this earth and did so much to realize that goal.
But – I said to her – yours could be the greatest generation too. It certainly has the greatest potential. Think of this — no generation before this one ever had so much access to information, to education. No generation was part of a world that, despite being ever bigger, feels ever smaller. And in no generation have individuals had as much personal influence at their fingertips as this one.
I mentioned that things can often look bleak. But in addition to your youthful enthusiasm and dynamic character, I told my daughter – there is much in our story and our presence in this often challenging world that should inspire you going forward.
First of all, think how lucky you are — we are — to be born in this generation.
Has there ever been a more amazing time to be a Jew? Israel of course plays the most critical role here — it is the heartbeat of Jewish life the world over. Many Jews lived for thousands of years being denied access to their homeland but never detached themselves from it. How could they? Our liturgy, our prayer, our hopes, our rituals are infused with mentions of our land. Even when forced into exile, Jews knew that Israel was built into their DNA. And to those, like many of our family, who live outside the land, Israel is still the touchstone of Jewish existence and the very reason that Jewish life is so vibrant today around the world.
And, I said to my daughter: Has there ever been a more amazing time to be a Jewish woman? At her Bat Mitzvah, she paid tribute to some of the biblical female heroes, but in this generation there are so many positive female role models for you to be inspired by. You live in a country where there is no glass ceiling. Israel has had a female Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Justice Minister, Governor of the Bank of Israel and Speaker of the Knesset. Females serve alongside their male counterparts in the Israel Defense Forces. Whatever you choose to do in life, I told her, you should feel like you can achieve your dreams with nothing to hold you back.
To be Jewish is to be criticized. To be Jewish is to be maligned. To be Jewish is to be envied. To be Jewish is to be persecuted. But know this: none of these things has anything to do with us; it has everything to do with the people doing the criticizing, maligning, envying and persecuting. And we never have allowed — and we never will allow — ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Our destiny is ours alone to shape.
The same goes with Israel. There is no shortage of criticism, much of it defamatory, about the Jewish State. There is no other country in the family of nations singled out – and singled out unfairly – as Israel is. But just as Jews must never be defined by their enemies — neither must Israel. We are not what they say we are, and we must guide ourselves by our own laws and moral code. This is what has sustained us for thousands of years: our faith is that it will continue to sustain us for thousands more. You’ll hear demonization of our country, I said to her, but know also that we have friends and allies the world over and that someone is watching over us.
And I concluded by reminding my daughter that she was about to be the first member of our family in generations to celebrate her coming of age in Israel.
Her Bat Mitzvah took place in Jerusalem, King David’s capital and once again the capital of an independent Jewish country.
She has never known anything else and neither have I. But I can only imagine what our ancestors, exiled to Eastern Europe, would have thought at this tantalizing reality: her becoming the first in our family to come of age in our own country.
From UNESCO to the Palestinians – Some wish to deny our history; they may be deluding themselves but they won’t fool us. In the week of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah alone, archeologists found King Hezekiah’s royal seal near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is 2,700 years old, one of many finds demonstrating the ancient and continual Jewish links to this land.
How privileged we are that my daughter was able to say the blessing of renewal — Shechechiyanu — as she became Bat Mitzvah in our historic capital, another link in an unending chain.
That Jews are living, let alone thriving, in Israel is no small miracle. We only have to look a few miles around the circumference of the Jewish State to know this. Our pain and empathy for Christians currently being persecuted in the Middle East is compounded by our endless grief at the fate that ensued for most Jews who lived in countries neighboring Israel but were cruelly dispossessed of their belongings and expelled. But thankfully, crucially and finally, these Jews — at least — had a place to go: Israel.
There may be times when the odds will seem too great, but remember: through millennia, we’ve seen it all before and feel confident that when up against the toughest of adversity, this too shall pass.
My advice to you?
Be a unifier: So many in our own community focus on wedge issues, aspects of Judaism they don’t like or policies of Israel they think are misguided. That’s their right. We must always question, reflect and debate. It’s part of our Jewish DNA. It’s all the more intense when it comes to Israel, and again, that’s okay. Some people seem to be driven by dividing people and others want to define the identity of future generations by what divides us. Gravitate towards ideas and people that unite us and you’ll be making the right choice.
Be open to the world: I love that you are open to people regardless of where they come from and who they are. I love that you are learning Arabic and I believe that Israel is a model for diverse populations that can coexist while being true to their own identity and respecting the identity of their country. Quiet coexistence happens in Israel every day. It’ll never make the news, but we see it all the time. In the hospital in which your siblings were born, they slept peacefully in the Tinokiya — the baby room — Jewish and Muslim nurses cared for babies named Moshe and Mohammed, Marim and Miriam. In the Jewish State, all are born equal. We can be proud of that.
Be stubborn: No, not about everything but there is a place for being stubborn. You know that in the Torah, God calls us a “stiff necked people”. Being stubborn is not always a bad thing. Being stubborn about our maintaining our identity, our traditions and our rights is one of the reasons why we as a people are still here.
Be a teacher: The Jewish people are all about education. Our greatest leader was not given a title for his leadership abilities but is referred to as “Moses, our Teacher”. Teachers are prized above all in Judaism. Our ability to learn is infinite; so should our ability be to teach.
Always remember: We retain a collective memory of our own history, we remember the events that formed us as a people. We don’t forget those who fell so that we may live. We don’t forget those who persecuted us so that it may not happen again. You are part of the Sharsheret HaDorot — the link of generations, as from our foremothers Sarah to Rebecca and onwards — and the bond with generations past will allow you to be the bond for future ones.
That was my message to my daughter and I hope it has resonance to you too.
I mentioned at the beginning that I think that Israelis are uniquely optimistic and resilient, addressed in the book I co-wrote with psychologist Dr. Naomi Baum, ISResilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World. Together, we went up and down the country to interview fascinating Israelis and hear about their lives and learn positive messages from them.
Some of our interviewees include Sherri Mandell, who lost her son Koby Mandell to a brutal terror attack and Natan Scharansky who, unjustly, spent years imprisoned in the Gulag. We interviewed the inventor of the Israeli “ReWalk” system that allows paraplegics to walk again and we spoke to Avigdor Kahalani, a tank commander who was fired on in the Six Day War, receiving 60% burns all over his body – yet he famously returned to fight for his country and win the battle of the Valley of Tears in 1973.
One of the people we interviewed is my friend Noam Gershony. Noam was a lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force and was piloting his helicopter during the 2006 Second Lebanon War when it began crashing. Now, you don’t fall 6,000 feet from an Apache helicopter and live to tell the tale. But not only did Noam live, but despite having extensive injuries: he had broken both arms and both legs, his pelvis, vertebrae, his jaw, his left elbow and left shoulder – Noam went on to train in wheelchair tennis and just 6 years after his horrific accident – Noam Gershony went on to become Israel’s first Paralympic Gold medalist at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
I asked Noam to define what underpins his resilience and positive mental attitude, and he told me that while events are beyond our control, people can control and influence their perspective and outlook. He said to me: “My advice is: on a daily basis – find the thing that will remind you how good your life is. Turn everything that happens to you into a positive.”
Even when dealt a bad hand, twist the circumstances to convince yourself to focus on the positives.
And given our history, our present, and looking to the future – we have every reason to be positive. And that’s also the message that I told to my daughter.