“Whatever your determination or will power, it is foolish to try to change the nature of things. Things work the way they do because that is the way of things.”
Miyamoto Musashi translated by Stephen F. Kaufman

The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings

Who By Fire – Leonard Cohen, Israel … and I

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I’ve been distantly aware that Leonard Cohen visited Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and sang for soldiers in the desert. So I went into this podcast episode about this event with a sense of curiosity. The story is told with care and subtlety and I look forward to reading the book.

My curiosity was fulfilled … and then some. I found myself immersed in a wholesome telling of a story of the world I was born into. I was 9 months old when my father suddenly disappeared for 6 months into this war. I know nothing of this world. I do not have childhood memories. Yet this is the world that shaped me.

After listening to it I spoke to my parents and they corroborated the story. I learned, for the first time, that this is why some years later (when I was 8) we moved to the USA. I did not know that my parents (mostly my mother) were trying to escape the anxiety of living in Israel. I learned that for my father, the anxiety of how to provide for his family in a new and unknown place & culture was greater than the anxiety of being physically in war. I also learned that they chose to move back to Israel because they felt the USA was less safe for their three young children than living in the persistent anxiety (and physical danger!) that comes from living in a place like Israel.

Listening to this evoked deep and wide reflections. How did this contribute to the gross and subtle difficulties I’ve had breathing most of my life? How did this contribute to my deeply rooted and persistent feeling of insecurity? Did I dream of being an astronaut because that would have put the greatest possible distance between myself and all this? Having failed to become an astronaut, was retreating to a Romanian village a feasible resolution to the problem? Though I lived near physical violence I was never subjected to it directly … and if this is how I feel, how do people who directly experienced violence feel? If this is how I feel having grown up on the powerful side of the conflict – what is being shaped right now by the historically inevitable violence Israel inflicts on Palestinians? Witnessing this perpetuating cycle sometimes brings me to tears and sometimes to a deep and peaceful stillness.

This also meets me as I am witnessing the war in Ukraine. I have noticed how I feel different in my surroundings. Having been born into war and lived most of my life in an embattled country I am predisposed and accustomed to the mental presence of war. When I look around me I realize that most people are not. I am also experiencing a sharper and embodied understanding of and respect for the embattled nature (and violence) of the state of Israel. I observe (from a safe distance) how Ukrainian refugees are facing uncertainty about if and how they will be received in whatever country they arrive – will they be let in? And I then realize with shocking clarity that there is only one group of refugees that are guaranteed shelter by law (an unfair law that excludes anyone else, including Palestinians who lived on lands that Jews currently call Israel) – Ukrainian Jews are, by law, guaranteed a safe haven in Israel … within its perennial anxiety and violence.

And though it is difficult for me to imagine living in Israel, I have also felt in my bones how this pertains to me. Though I do not feel personally threatened here in Romania (living 75km from the city from which my grandparents were taken to concentration camps during WWII) I have felt (on 2 or 3 occasions) how thin the veil of society is and how little it takes for it to tear and for anti-semitism to manifest. And I feel that both the society that physically surrounds me and societies all around the planet are heading into treacherous times that will likely introduce more than a little stress and tearing. And I wonder: how much of this feeling is rooted in being born into the war Leonard Cohen walked into?

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