|If Israel is still young as it reaches its 60th birthday—an anniversary that calls for a look back—I am at the human stage of the same milestone, which means looking back is more of an everyday reflex.
Scanning the decades of memory, my mind stops on one brief stretch that stands for much of what Israel means to me. It begins with a flight to Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991. I kept hearing a sweet but melancholy tune from the plane’s speaker system, one that seemed to reflect the mood of every passenger; someone said it was by Kenny G. On the ground in Jerusalem, during one alert of an Iraqi missile attack, I sat in a sealed room with old friends as we put on gas masks; the look on their faces, more disappointment than fear, was like seeing them naked, and I felt overwhelming sadness. But one of the motives for that trip was knowing I would feel better in Israel than I would viewing the war from afar, that community trumps anxiety. One day I went to a hotel housing newly arrived Russian immigrants. When I asked a group how they felt coming in the midst of a war, they looked at me as if I was nuts. They would take Israel, scuds and all, over what they left behind.
Three months later I was back in Israel, in the midst of another big story. Watching what looked like a scene from the Bible, I stood on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport as thousands of Ethiopian Jews arrived. Would our ancestors, I wondered, view the arrival on jumbo jets as less miraculous than the parted waters of the Red Sea? I half expected celestial music to pour from the sky.
For almost 2,000 years, a bad day for Jews was often followed by expulsion or massacre. In modern Israel, a bad day is usually followed by a good one—and even when you have a rough day, consider where you are. Later that same year I heard that Kenny G tune again and asked if someone could identify it. It was called “Going Home.”