AIRMAIL - THE LONG ROAD TO THE PROMISED LAND:
To Plant a Tree
It was a hot summer in 1969, as hot as summers usually are in Israel. It was the year our eldest, our son Peter, would turn 13 and become a man, according to Jewish tradition. He would be Bar Mitzvah, one who carries out the commandments.
As I would be in Israel on assignment for the late Newark (NJ) Evening News, my wife Dalia and I decided it would the perfect occasion to take our children to the land from which their parents came to America. Israel would be more than a speck on the map for them. On arrival in Tel Aviv, where I grew up, I rented an apartment, and shortly thereafter Dalia, a fourth-generation sabra, native born, and the gang, Peter, Wally, not yet six, and our latest addition, Ronni, less than a year old, arrived.
For decades, Jewish people around the world have been contributing small change into blue and white boxes of the Jewish National Fund, to plant trees in the Holy Land. When Jews began returning to the land from which they had been driven by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, they discovered lots of swamps and sand. Trees became a means of rebuilding the country.
Participating in this project was one of our first undertakings. For a $2 fee, the Jewish National Fund provided a tree, transportation and a certificate to commemorate the event. Anxious to be on time, we arrived early and took our seats in the bus.
Then Wally said, "How am I going to plant a whole tree? I'm not even six years old!"
The skies were without a cloud, as they often are in Israel in the summer. The ride was smooth and pleasant as the breeze came through the windows. Apartment houses and private homes and later open fields passed us by. Then the landscape changed to hills, the hills of Judea. We were in Modiin, where Matityahu, the zealous head of the Hasmonean family, started the revolt against the ruling Greeks in 166 BCE. It was there that Judah the Maccabee, the most able of his five sons, waged a successful military campaign that proved the might of the few against the many. Thus we were left the legacy of the holiday of Hanukkah.
The bus came to a halt and we climbed out. All around us was desolation. This was the place we had come to turn green by paying two dollars apiece for an experience. At least, I hoped it would be an experience for our children. Then Wally and Peter chased a lizard they wanted to catch and take back to Tel Aviv and perhaps even to America. And they vowed to visit a donkey they had seen tied to a tree near the bus stop before we left.
In a long line of men, women and children, young and old,armed with movie and still cameras, we climbed a small hill. On top there were scores of holes dug in the ground. A JNF official handed a seedling of pine to each of us as our turn came. Each planter put the seedling into the hole, then threw some dirt on it and sprayed it with can of water handed by another JNF official.
Wally sighed with relief when he saw the seedlings. When the boys' turn came, I aimed my movie camera at them, as Peter planted his tree and watered it, then helped his brother do likewise. Both faces were serious, as the occasion demanded, although Wally looked as if he were making a mud pie as he pounded the soil back in place around the little tree.
A JNF official handed us a sheet with a printed prayer. We read it aloud.
Make deep these roots
And wide their crown,
That they may blossom forth with grace
Among all the roads of Israel
For beauty in thy face."
"I'd like to come back here 15 years from now, and see how our trees are doing," Peter said softly. Then the boys ran off to visit the donkey because they had never seen one in person before.