I pray for Israel every day.
by Sam Zervitz
Born in 1940, eight years later I vaguely remember my parents celebrating the birth of the State of Israel in our Menlo Drive neighborhood in Baltimore. At five, I recall as well, the neighborhood celebrated the end-of-the-war and the death Hitler with perhaps equal enthusiasm.
I'm became somewhat dislocated youth, a committed and active Civil Rights supporter, even getting arrested for demonstrating on a weekly basis, preparing - this was in the late 1950's and early 1960's - to travel South for a voter registration drive.
Arrested after a dangerous police confrontation in what I now refer to as Lower Virginia, within days my father had contacted the Jewish Agency, and had me on an El Al flight to Israel, where, for the the next year or so, I experienced a true rite of passage: life on an ulpan working at kibbutz Beit Hashita with Israel all of fourteen-years-in-the-making as a nation.
A little while later, back in the US, married, finishing college, and my father sends my late wife, Sharon, and me to Israel on a belated honeymoon. Ties that bind. In our neighbor across the street on Blackstone Avenue in Baltimore, resides Sid, a true hero, and I'm just finding it out. I am told later a street in Jerusalem is named after him. In 1947, a wanderlust kind of guy, returning as a Merchant Marine a year or so later, Sid is approached, as he tells the story, by fledgling Mossad members who ask him to captain a boat, with Panamanian registry, out of Baltimore to Palestine. It actually followed another vessel, this one the boat Leon Uris used as his "Exodus" model. Only that one never got through. Sid picked up fifteen hundred refugees in Italy, broke the British blockade and landed them illegally in Palestine.
This after killing a British marine attempting to board.
Sid disguised himself as a refugee, or he would have been hung as a spy. Sid was arrested and spent six months in an Acre prison before returning home to become a crusty neighborhood curmudgeon and landlord. I relished the opportunity to hear his Israel stores. But the most unusual and memorable of all wasn't Sid's experience. It was a tale told by my late wife's family members about "Zaidi's Swamp". And somewhere in all of this, I fell into the job of editor of the local Jewish weekly publication, where I became consumed by news of Israel.
I discovered at this time how my wife's iconic grandfather, her Zaidi, Joseph Levin, at or around age eighty, after waiting his entire life for a State of Israel, when it happened, ran away to the Middle East, telling no one. When, sometime later, he returned home, he carried with him a deed to a piece of property he had, everyone assumed, been given him in a scam to separate him from his money. Then, long after he'd been gone, an aunt discovered the deed, and while it was swamp land when he bought it, it was now a condominium outside of Tel Aviv. My committed Zionist parents, while never attempting anything remotely resembling what Joseph Levin did, visited Israel no less than twenty times during their marriage of seventy-three years.
My singular legacy from all that that travel is a gorgeous Livni painting of Miriam at the Well they brought back. But on the Beit Hashita experience, it was idyllic, romantic, life-changing, stored away as the single most memorable experience of my life. I'd trade my forty- year-career in education in a heartbeat for one more day in that kibbutz olive factory, or among the olive trees, or taking our weekly hike to the magnificent Sachna, said then to be Israel's most beautiful spot, only a mile or so down the road. Or visiting nearby Beit Shean, reputed to be the oldest still on-going city in the world. About my art, I'm more a writer than I ever was a painter.
But I have hanging in my new home, however, along with the Livni painting of Miriam at the Well, an oil painting done from memory, in 1969, that my mother had in her home for years before she passed on, of the Dead Sea (enclosed here is a photo of it). I have to my credit as a writer, two screen plays, some five hundred published articles, and a novel published a year or so ago, "Haskala, that draws heavily on my Israel experiences. The cover, in fact, is a photo of me at twenty, in Jerusalem. Oh, I might mention here our family is related to King David through a gene pool connection to Sahbbti Cohen a sixteenth century rabbi and scholar who wrote The Lamentations, part of our prayer book, Selichoth, beginning: "Israel has no King and no Prince. " My grandfather, my mother's father I never knew, who passed away in 1933, was a scribe. His son, one of thirteen children, uncle, Aaron, had a gift that could only come from a scribe. He was a brilliant social satirist, compared often to Daumier. Aaron, although I didn't know him well-he was largely a family recluse-inspired me to try painting.
Then I remarried some years after my Sharon, my wife of forty-five years, passed on. And in this marriage to a fiercely religious woman with a daughter, not well, but beautiful, soulful and talented, I gained more inspiration from the manner in which this lovely and uncomplaining daughter lived. A week before she passed away this past September, she bought me a set of oil paints for a present. I have been painting with little knowledge of the craft, but with a conviction that daughter, Scharais, somehow is present and in a way, is the reason what I'm creating is the result of some devine spiritual intervention.
I pray for Israel every day. I follow the politics, lament the unjustified criticism, and share my wife's interpretation of the prophecies that predict Israel will continue to thrive and survive, despite it all.
And, if I am truly blessed, I would relish the opportunity to return to Beit Hashita for one more visit.