Friday, June 29, 2012

Ties that Bind Us to Israel: Music and Stories from the Heart

For many of us in the Jewish Diaspora, our relationship with Israel is a complex one. We feel a kinship the contemporary Jewish state, even though we don’t live there, and in some cases, never will. We also feel a commitment to its safety and survival, that could be best described for many of us as a mitzvah or an historic obligation to protect the Jewish homeland. The Shoah’s indelible mark has helped to reinforce this sense of commitment.

Ulpan students - by Masa Israel
It is a testament to that sense of loyalty that North American parents send their kids to Israel each summer. During the mid to late 20th century when Israel was still building its commercial infrastructure, Jewish families sent their children to work on kibbutzim in exchange for room, board and a few months of Hebrew lessons.  North American Jews bought Israeli bonds to contribute to its economy. They donated money to Jewish charities that supported immigration to Israel.

Parents instilled the Yiddish concept of mitzveh to teach their children that it was a good deed to help the fledgling Jewish nation, while reinforcing the Hebrew concept that it was a mitzvah – a Jewish commandment – to stand in support of Jewish heritage. For the teen that travelled to Israel, that trip was an unforgettable rite of passage. For Israel, it was the umbilical cord that assured its connection with the Diaspora and continued support from future generations. 

These days we still send our kids to Israel and we still contribute to its economy. But we have found other ways as well to stay in touch with our cultural birthplace, methods that suggest that for today’s generation, it isn’t just obligation or mitzvah that motivates our identity. It’s something more personal and intrinsic to how we see ourselves as Jews here in the Diaspora.

Marina Maximilian Blumin, Yom Ha'atzmaut in Vancouver*

At Yom Ha’atzmaut we fill theatres to hear Israeli singers tell us about their homeland. Performers like the Israeli singer Marina Maximilian Blumin, who paid a visit to Vancouver, Canada on April 25 and has performed across North America, provide us with an up close understanding of what it is like to live on the Jewish frontier, to experience its diversity, and to appreciate musical trends that are not always heard through western media.
 Marina Maximilian Blumin singing "Confession"*

Their music transports us from our common understanding of what it is to be a Jew in a society where we are a minority, to the singular experience of living without that distinction.

We attend forums on Israeli political topics and we vocalize our support for Israel in the way we vote, the candidates we elect and the initiatives we inspire. But we also show our support by bolstering less known celebrities, particularly those who help Israel’s first responders.

Singers like Ritasue Charlestein, who has been recognized in Israel for her support of injured service members, have until recently, remain largely unknown in the Diaspora. A member of the Israel Medical Corps who provides support to veterans and active soldiers through songs and acts of compassion, she provides North American Jews with an unusual and much needed glimpse into the challenges, tragedies and triumphs that Israeli soldiers often face on the front line. Her performances have been modest to this point, but continue to gain attention in Jewish communities across the U.S. and Canada.

Ritasue Charlestein with Adam

North American Jews may not use Hebrew in our day-to-day interactions, and some of us may feel self conscious about attending a religious service that is completely in Hebrew, but we don’t have a problem packing a theatre for a night of Israeli music. We wouldn’t think twice about listening to the moving accounts of a first-hand witness interspersed with the Hebrew language and Israeli music.

Marina Maximilian Blumin*
We listen to Ritasue and Marina not just to understand our cultural roots, but because in many ways, we feel a kinship with what they sing and represent. We want to be that compassionate singer transporting the wounded from their pain. We can believe for that moment that we’re the one inspiring change, who transforms distant observers to passionate, compassionate supporters of Israel. We listen to Ritasue Charlestein’s story of the soldier’s victory over certain death, and we feel as if we are the ones singing and appealing for his unexpected recovery.

We watch Marina Maximilian Blumin create her artistry on stage, and find solace and reassurance in its beauty and uplifting power. Israel’s success is confirmed for us each time we find ourselves swept away by the words and songs of its contemporary journey.

For North American Jews, the connection with Israel is much more than an obligation, a mitzvah, or an act of observance.  It serves as an affirmation that our lives as Jews, however secular, or however religious in observance, are what define our humanity.  

Israeli Dancers*

Thanks to Jennifer Houghton and the Jewish Federation of Vancouver for use of the above images.

Appreciation is also extended to Ritasue Charlestein for the opportunity to attend her presentation.

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