A moment of new beginnings ...
With wishes for a year of challenge and satisfaction, health and peace
The invitation was sent just a day prior to the event. Those who looked carefully would have noticed that the text was both right-and-left aligned, meaning that—in those days of typewriters—someone had painstakingly counted the number of spaces that would be required between each word to make the text as formal as possible.
Because this was as close to sacred as those secular Jews ever got.
And then, because there were obviously no copy machines back then, whoever typed it would have had to type it precisely that way again, and again.
The text was deceivingly simple. The 4th of Iyar 5708, it began, noting the date on the Jewish lunar calendar. And then it added, European style: 13.5.1948.
“Honorable Sir,” it continued, gender roles at that time quite different from today. “We are honored to send to you this invitation to the Meeting of the Declaration of Independence,” which will take place on Friday, the 5th of Iyar 5708 (14.5.1948) at four o’clock in the afternoon in the auditorium of the Museum (Rothschild Boulevard 16).”
The State of Israel was about to be created.
“We ask that you keep secret the content of this invitation and the time of the meeting of the Assembly.” The invitation then requested that invitees arrive at 3:30, half an hour before the proceedings were to begin. It noted at the bottom that “The invitation is personal,” meaning that it was not transferable, and noted, “Dress code: dark holiday clothing.”
“We ask that you keep secret the content of this invitation and the time of the meeting…” Why? Because the leadership of the yishuv, soon to be the leadership of Israel, was worried that if word got out, the meeting could be attacked, by ground or by air.
How effective were they at keeping the secret? The photograph above says it all. As the “secret” meeting unfolded, hundreds of people, having heard precisely what was transpiring in the museum of art, gathered outside.
They wanted to be present at the birth of their nation. The world they knew was about to be reborn.
I’ve loved this photograph ever since I first saw it many years ago. The fact that Israel’s always been the opposite of “color inside the lines”: after all, the supposedly secret meeting was widely known. It couldn’t have been smart or safe to be right outside the building then, if attack was a real concern; but to those people, it didn’t matter. How often does one get to witness the birth of a country?
I’ve been especially fascinated by that young girl in the very foreground, what with looks like a school “backpack” on her back. She was probably old enough then to have understood what was happening, but young enough that she might well be alive today. How I would love to find out who she is, to ask her to reflect on what she’s seen since then.
Rosh Hashannah is, the liturgy says, yom harat olam — the birthday of the world. A day of new beginnings. Of recognizing the power beyond us that animates this world. Of introspection. Of asking ourselves what we will give birth to this year, what fingerprints we are going to leave on the world.
There’s a huge difference between “Happy New Year” and shannah tovah. Shannah Tovah doesn’t mean “Happy New Year.” It means “a good year.” The Jewish tradition has no objection to happiness—but it’s far more interested in goodness.
A great deal has happened since those people outside the museum witnessed, and didn’t witness, what was happening inside. Some of it has been happy, some of it has not. Some fills us with pride, and some does not. It’s been a complicated, bumpy ride since that invitation went out, but that the state born that day has brought an overwhelming bounty of goodness to the Jewish people, which thrives here in ways it could thrive nowhere else, is beyond debate.
Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) is a day of celebration, well deserved. But it’s good to have days to contemplate beginnings in more sober settings. Beginnings of the world, yes; beginnings of the year, yes. And the beginnings of the rebirth of our people, no less.
The photograph above is a photo of people waiting word that they had been reborn, that Jewish history was about to be different, that a new era was dawning, that they, too, would be different.
Central to what we hope and pray for this week.
To all those who are marking it, wishes for a meaningful and powerful Rosh Hashannah, and to all, a year of good health, a healing world, joy and peace.
If you’re into photographs of the origins of the state, you might like to check out the National Photo Collection. The photograph above is from that collection.
And as I’ve mentioned before, nothing brings to life the history of those years immediately prior to 1948 and the first years after better than Toldot Yisrael. Since 2007, Toldot Yisrael has been interviewing the members of Israel’s 1948 generation in order to capture and preserve the epic story of Israel's founding before it is too late. So far, its team has interviewed more than 1,200 of Israel's founders and recorded over 4,000 hours of footage.
Visit the Toldot Yisrael website and watch some of the videos … the history of Israel’s formation will come alive as it never has before.
Due to the holiday of Rosh Hashannah on Tuesday and Wednesday, we will not be sending a podcast this week. Podcasts will resume next Tuesday, two days before Yom Kippur, with the second of our two installments with Matti Friedman. Matti discusses his new, not-yet-published book, which focuses on a concert that Leonard Cohen gave to Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War. As he does in our conversation, he uses that concert as a way of sharing profound observations about Israel, Leonard Cohen and the condition of the Jewish people.
The podcast, as always, will be accessible to subscribers.
Do you know a high school or college student who you wished knew Israel’s history? Or anyone, for that matter…
While not part of my podcast series, last summer I recorded a series of podcasts for Tribe Talk, covering the history of Israel in twenty-two brief episodes. They’re online, available here to all, thanks to the creators of Tribe Talk.
Our twitter feed is here; feel free to join there, too.