There is much still swirling around my head as I process the ups and downs of my most recent journey to Israel earlier this month. What lingers about at the moment is a very special happening during the first week of the trip as I transitioned yet again from flabby civilian to IDF volunteer. I’ll explain.
On this particular morning in early May, I joined with a group of volunteers from around the world – Australia and New Zealand; Israel, France, Germany, Holland, Russia and Poland; the U.S. and Canada – shuffling about on an asphalt parade ground on a massive IDF base near Tel Aviv.
We were all volunteers for Sar-El, an organization that places people on IDF installations in Israel to help out as needed. Mostly the work is cosmically menial; but it’s work that needs to be done and it releases “real” soldiers to handle more important tasks.
Each morning after rolling out of our bunks in our oh-so spartan quarters, getting cleaned up and dressing in uniforms – yes, we wear IDF-issue outfits; how cool is that – dining on a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt and all the tomatoes and cucumbers we can scarf down in 30 minutes, we join with a company of young solders for morning flag raising.
On this day, our madrichot – that would be Tamara and Eleanor, our guides and commanders – decide to take the morning ritual to a new level. We’ll not just heft the iconic blue and white banner of the Jewish state into the sky over the army base, but also sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
Hatikvah manages to be both uplifting and melancholy, an anthem that poetically speaks of hope and the Jewish soul, all wrapped up in a musical score of aching beauty. For most Jews, certainly those of us raised on the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, the melody rests lightly in our hearts and souls, easily recalled whenever the first mournful notes are played.
The problem is that the words are in Hebrew, a remarkably difficult language to learn – especially for foreign volunteers who are often older than Israel itself. It’s one thing to say hello, shalom, in Hebrew; it’s a bit more rigorous to recall and recite the sophisticated lyrics of the anthem.
So while a few brave and bilingual volunteers begin singing, the rest of us stumble about, humming the tune and sounding off whenever the word Hatikvah is mentioned. Meanwhile, the company of regular soldiers nearby, young men and women drafted into the IDF and serving out their time as laborers, stare at us in bemused silence, trying to figure out why we’re singing their national anthem.
But like the country itself, there’s something contagious and endearing about Hatikvah, both the words and the melody. The silliness of the effort gradually morphed slowly into a grand effort, the mournful tune giving way to the stirring anthem that has sustained and unified the Jewish people for decades now.
Even some of the young troops are caught up in the moment as together we share the words of the poet Tali Herz Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
I can’t help but think that on this day, if only in a very small way, I’m part of the ancient promise, first whispered to Abraham; a vision that is no longer simply a hope, but today a reality.