1 Kislev 5759

Planting trees in American Independence Park, Jerusalem.

(November 20, 1998) – Jerusalem

At 1 o’clock in the morning, I am still wide awake and wired. Thursday was JNF Day! My thoughts are racing. – By the way, I like Gold Star better than Maccabbee. Taste test complete, no blindfolds.

Since I had not met Cynthia before this morning, I didn’t know what she looked like. She found me first. “You must be Dan Markind’s friend. JNF fanny pack!”

Cynthia apologized that she could not give me a private tour, and hoped I wouldn’t mind joining an excursion that had been in the works for months. JNF (Jewish National Fund) was honoring Daniel D. Cantor and his family for their extraordinary contributions to JNF works. They had an extra spot in the van, if it would be all the same to me. Otherwise, she could show me around another day.

I had seen a sign outside the Sheraton welcoming the Cantors, but had no idea who they were. I figured they had money (otherwise, how do you get a sign outside the Sheraton with your name on it?). But my parents raised me not to be impressed by money; character mattered. I was prepared to have to tolerate spoiled rich people for the sake of my JNF Day.

Driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, conversation stayed pleasant, concentrating on small talk. They were not put off by a woman traveling alone. If anything, the Cantor crew seemed downright amused by it. By the time we reached JNF headquarters in Tel Aviv for a tour of the place with Dr. Arie Ben, JNF historian, we were chatting – not quite like old friends, but certainly not as strangers.

Our history lesson couldn’t begin until the air conditioning had been turned off, and a cockroach worthy of Texas disposed of. All with good humor and laughter.

The JNF history lesson fascinated me on so many levels, but most especially the very German-ness of it all. The thoroughness and attention to detail of people like Theodor Herzl and Max Bodenheimer, and their willingness to negotiate simultaneously with three separate legal entities to achieve their aims – where is that “outside the box” thinking in our day? Those early settlers and pioneers from Austria and Germany understood that they were not building for that day only, that their work had to withstand a lifetime of change.

They were not looking for a quick fix, for an immediate “treaty” or solution that would allow European Jews to live peacefully in Israel. Rather, they put together a nation brick by brick, paragraph by paragraph, agreement by agreement, here a little, there a little, never going for the whole hunk of cheese at one time. And they compromised and bargained and figured out what the various players wanted.

Arie didn’t whitewash the hard parts, the messy stuff. But it was that relentless negotiation that caught my eye. Long-term strategy, not an accord that will be reached in a single session. If you think about it, that’s good business sense.

From there, we went to American Independence Park for the unveiling of a Dan Cantor plaque. (He doubled his contribution on the spot, once Cynthia explained the camp programs.) Cynthia treated us to lunch under The Carob Tree, with a strolling violinist. Well, she didn’t stroll, but she was awfully good. Second chair of the Riga Philharmonic before making aliyah in 1996.

We planted trees, each person one. Due to the choice location next to The Carob Tree, I will always know which pine is mine. (Unless someone else planted the same pine two days later. Ha!)

On to the youth camp, with its log cabins and gorgeous views, then to Kennedy Memorial Park. Besides the plaque, JNF dedicated a pillar in honor of Cantor’s generosity. He said a few words, but the planned canned words turned into an emotional time for all of us. “Why do you honor me,” Dan Cantor asked Cynthia. “I am only giving back.”

“I was in my 30s,” he continued, “before my Rabbi told me I could ask God to give me things when I prayed. But then I looked at my life, and I realized I had more than I needed. Why did I need to ask God to give me more?” He stood looking out over the beautiful forest, put his arm around Erhla, and wept.

These tears were not for show. There were no television cameras or reporters there, just his family, Cynthia, and me. Nor was he ashamed of his tears, or embarrassed. It was a quiet moment, powerful in its simplicity.

We drove back to Jerusalem by a different route. Cynthia explained it’s one of the precautions they usually take – returning a different way, mixing up one’s paths.

In the evening, I sat with the Cantors in the Sheraton lobby, drinking wine and embraced by the laughter. What more could I ask for?

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