A simple request from my wife, Sara, before Shabbat. “Would you pick some figs off the tree in our yard for Shabbat?”
This was the first time that our tree in the yard of our home in Efrat had borne fruit.
Sara had planted seven fruit trees on that auspicious day in September, 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Yassir Arafat signed their lethal “declaration of principles” against violence and for mutual recognition – a pact approved a week later by the Israeli Parliament and rejected on October 6th by the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO’s rejection went largely unreported by the media which, by and large, preferred not to report any bad news about the Oslo process. That was the ultimate cease-fire. Israel would cease and the PLO would fire.
Sara’s decision to plant the trees was a statement of optimism that we would be here when the trees would bear fruit, and that they would live longer than the ephemeral compact between Rabin and Arafat.
And so it came to be. On Rosh Hodesh Elul, we will sit with our family in our garden for Shabbat dinner, fulfilling the prophecies of old, that foresaw a time when we would all sit in peace under our fig trees and appreciate the peace of mind that the land of Israel can at times provide.
Rosh Hodesh Elul is a special day for me. It is the day that I came to Israel 36 years ago, which coincided with my Gregorian calender birthday of twenty.
The decision to come to Israel was not easy. I loved the life in America, especially in Madison, where I was going to school.
Yet on one crucial day in May that year I made a life decision.
It happened at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, watching the CBS Evening News.
Walter Cronkite’s lead story said it all.
The PLO had “succeeded” in attacking a school bus near Avivim, in northern Israel, and took “credit” for killing a dozen Israeli school children.
It was then and there that the decision was made. There was a land that I could live in and fight for.
I called and confirmed my ticket to Israel. My non-Jewish friends knew that I would not come back to Madison. My Jewish friends could not understand. As my native Croatian friend said to me that day in the UW Student Union, “You are acting as if these were your kids that they killed today in Israel.” And he was right. That was how I saw it.
That is how I still see it, 36 years later.
We sit down at our Shabbat table after traveling through northern Israel. Tiberias, Tzfat and Nahariya. What we saw was lingering fear in people’s faces, after the first war since 1948 claimed casualties in Israel’s cities.
We will now finish our figs and wine and special challah bread for Shabbat, each of our family members will head in different directions.
Sara will resume her work with the Koby Mandel Foundation which provides self-help groups for people whose loved ones have been killed by terrorism. She has entered another 159 names on the registrar of people to help: the number of those killed this summer.
Noam, 24, will move to Sderot to go to business school, where he will also work with the media. Rivka, 23, will continue her studies in Special Education at Orot College in El Khana in Samaria, and resume her work as a clown therapist with so many people who now suffer post-traumatic stress from this summer’s horror. Elchanon, 20, will return to his army base, with the full expectation that he will fight in Lebanon in the next round. Leora, 18, will begin her National Service Volunteer work as a school teacher’s aide in a secular school in Tel Aviv. Meira, almost 12, enters seventh grade and awaits her Bat Mitzvah with friends and family in the Fall, and Ruchama, 6, looks forward to entering first grade.
These are our fig leaves from the vine in the land of Israel, whom we savor on the first day of Elul, also known as the month of repentance. If there was anything that came out of this summer’s conflict in Israel, it was the reaffirmation of the determination of the people of Israel to stand up to an enemy whose purpose was so clearly stated: to kill Jews wherever they are. To paraphrase what we say at the Passover Seder, “When they are oppressed, they become stronger.”
This summer, all of the people of Israel stood together on the battlefield with common resolve to fight to destroy that enemy. Kibbutz farmers, university students, people who were expelled from their homes in Gaza and Northern Samaria last year by Prime Minister Sharon, the new fighting unit for traditional Orthodox Jews – a band of Jewish brothers with one shared goal: to sit under their fig trees on Shabbat and on the first day of the Jewish month, with a defeated enemy on the borders of Israel. Totally defeated.