This article was originally published in the April 2005 issue of Moment.
Some 20 years ago, Judith Viorst’s bestseller ‘Necessary Losses’ seemed to me wise but, in part, remote, written about times to come still hidden below the horizon. Since then, my parents have died and none of numerous relatives in my hometown of New York City is sail alive. I have given up being a full-time editor and become a contributing editor. My husband and I have had a few yellow-light health issues—none, so far, interfering with travel, keeping up with the 11 grandchildren or the pleasantness of planning future events.
I’m in the run-up to 70. That’s caught my attention, more with amazement than fear or dismay. I kind of like my older self. Age brings willingness to say things that go crosswise to common wisdom. I’m still hastening hard for new ideas, but not very ready to believe that my take on human nature and history and faith is misguided.
Today we are packing up the belongings in our house in Maryland, where we have lived for more than 25 years, so as to spend more of the year in Jerusalem. I am oddly dispassionate about the sale, quite free of nostalgia. Maybe that’s because since we returned to the United States in 1977 after four years in Jerusalem, I have felt like a temporary resident here. Although my visa classification in Israel was toshav zmanit—literally “temporary resident”—I felt rooted there. The parched sensuous hills, the fragrance of wild spices, the disorderly kindness of people, the past forcing its way into the present—these became mine. Devoid of Zionist or traditional upbringing, I found in Israel an opportunity to participate—even if only by living there—in the future of the Jewish enterprise.
I anticipate living more of the year with light pouring through tall stone-framed windows looking out on red tile roofs and cascades of bougainvillea. Without regrets, I prepare to sell our home in Chevy Chase as we search for the best arrangement to continue to spend months in the States. Being American isn’t something I’m leaving behind and, in many ways, the United States will be my measure of Israel’s progress toward a more productive, energetic future.
Nonetheless, this move makes me think about the loss-gain ledger of my life so far. I recall, mostly with sweet pleasure, when the six of us were together in this house we will soon leave: Daniel delivering newspapers early enough to please insomniacs; building our red and yellow burlap sukkah with cinderblock post holders from Jewish Catalog directions; our boys racing to beat the competition shoveling snow-filled driveways; Benjy taking over our kitchen for his kosher catering business. Here the four boys lived until they packed their duffles preparing to make Israel their home, where Saul met Wendy and married her before they, too, made aliyah. Here it was that an early morning knock at the door by the Israeli defense attache brought the shattering news of Alex’s death in battle as an IDF officer. And it was in this house that the sobra grandchildren came to experience the Metro and museums on the Mall and family roots near mountain lakes in the Adirondacks.
Centering our life in Israel is a choice. Seeing friends and family in the United States less is a reluctant outcome, especially knowing that in the years ahead it shall become harder for us and for them to travel 6,000 miles to be together. Working from a base in Israel is a choice. Becoming older, more brittle and more preoccupied with health maintenance is an inevitability, not a choice. So, of course, is dying.
Overlying my loss/gain ledger is an awareness of living in a world on the brink of change—a world in which neither ominous nor hopeful outcomes are inevitable. This world demands courage and determination to protect what we value, offering hope and support to those trapped by tyrannical leaders and speaking truth to people blinded by illusions. The Middle East is the testing ground for whether tyranny can be rolled back and freedom expanded. Israel is the imperfect but, nonetheless, sole practitioner of liberty in the region. Israel will be a ready recipient of freedom’s benefits if autocracies crumble as their people demand better lives. President Bush’s words in his second inaugural address speak no less for Israel than they do for the United States: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment…and that is the force of human freedom… The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
To live in Israel is to be a bit player on a stage whose drama unfolds even as the script is being written. Today, the nation is riven by Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally evacuate all Jews this summer from their homes in the Gaza Strip. Even a bit player Israeli citizen like me can participate in the wrenching national debate about how to inch toward peace with security. That opportunity joins all my others in the gain column on my ledger.