Just days after my family’s Christmas and New Years celebrations ended in California, and before I returned to Israel, I stopped at a drugstore to pick up a couple of travel-size products.
As I searched for Aisle 8, where small bottles of shampoo, hairspray, shower gel and other TSA-approved carry-on items are displayed, I noticed some rather urgent activity going on in Aisle 3, the greeting card section.
Christmas, New Year and Hanukkah cards were hurriedly being yanked off the racks, tossed into bins and carefully replaced by valentines of every shape, style and message. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle was a vast array of chocolates in heart-shaped boxes.
It was only the first week of January. But America’s Valentine’s Day merchandising machine was already in full swing.
As I stood in the checkout line, my mind wandered to Israel. I tried my best to recall what Valentine’s Day looks like there, but I simply couldn’t remember. And then it dawned on me that there was an explanation for that: If you want to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Jerusalem, you have to go looking for it.
There are a couple of reasons for this valentine void. For one thing, Hallmark holidays haven’t yet hijacked the Israeli market – not Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or birthdays. Not even Valentine’s Day.
For another, Valentine’s Day is a theoretically a Christian holiday – ostensibly celebrating the life and martyrdom of a soldier named Valentine who was reportedly executed by Claudius Caesar for a heroic act. The story is sketchy, to say the least. There seem to have been several heroes with the same name.
Meanwhile, even in America, it’s tricky to try to explain how a courageous saint’s burial date has become an occasion for roses-are-red rhymes (sometimes risqué ones at that), pre-wrapped jewelry items studded with red rhinestones, and bouquets of red roses tied, of course, with red ribbons. Not to mention a zillion cards addressed to friends, classmates, family members and sweethearts.
And as for Israel? Granted, the lingerie shop window on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem currently features a few dozen red paper hearts serving as a backdrop for a slinky red nightgown and some other lacy items. But I looked in vain elsewhere, on both sides of the busy street – which boasts at least 10 gift shops – for any other signs of Valentine’s Day.
Interestingly, one possible explanation is that there is a Jewish holiday that bears some resemblance to Valentine’s Day. It’s called Tu B’Av, and it takes place in the summertime.
Tu B’Av, the 15th Day of Av, is both an ancient and modern holiday. Originally a post-biblical day of joy, it served as a matchmaking day for unmarried women in the second Temple period (before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.). Tu B’Av was almost unnoticed in the Jewish calendar for many centuries, but it has been rejuvenated in recent decades, especially in the modern state of Israel. In its modern incarnation it is gradually becoming a Hebrew-Jewish Day of Love, slightly resembling Valentine’s Day in English-speaking countries.
In any case, young Jerusalem lovers really don’t need a holiday to revel in their passion. As in the west, they are free to flirt, walk hand-in-hand, embrace and kiss (except in very religious communities) every day of the year. The radio plays love songs 24/7, amorous films are everywhere and wedding celebrations never cease. Love is always in the air.
But there’s another kind of love in Israel that seems rather exceptional to me, and uniquely Israeli. It’s not a hearts-and-flowers expression, but rather a kind of communal, brotherly love that I’ve rarely witnessed elsewhere
For example, a story recently appeared in the Israeli news site Algemeiner that caught my eye.
Dozens of Israelis answered a Facebook appeal to help a 90-year-old woman living alone in poor conditions in the northern part of the country. Photos documented her squalid surroundings. The following are samples of responses from complete strangers:
“Willing to give her a brand-new feather quilt, warm slippers and clothing. And where can I bring bedding and a winter coat?”
“I can organize food – easily, since I live in her area – and sheets and I can donate a table, and because I have a car, anyone can contact me to deliver things to her.”
“Interested in buying her a new heater, and if she needs any other electrical appliance, I’d be happy to buy that, too. Is there a cell phone number I can call?”
“Send me a cell number, and I’ll take care of doing her shopping and bring her blankets or whatever else she needs.”
“I have a new heater to give her and a used stove, if she needs it. I can deliver the heater today.”
“Is there a bank account where one can transfer money to her?”
“When can I get to work?”
“Hey, I’d love to know how I can donate supplies and to come and help renovate her house.”
As one writer pointed out, “This is the beautiful side of Israeli society, which so often gets overlooked in the fray of politics and conflict.”
In another recent story, a “social experiment” – a kind of “do you love your neighbor?” exercise – resembled episodes on the old Candid Camera TV show. A man pretending to be blind was videotaped asking passersby to give him change for a 20-shekel note. Except what he was holding in his hand was a 100-shekel note.
According to the video, “Every single person he stopped on the street – including some who approached to ask if he needed help – pointed out that the bill he was holding was, in fact, a 100-shekel bill. One man even gave him an additional 20 shekels. Other passersby behaved in exactly the same way when the same experiment was conducted with a 200-shekel bill.”
I was sorry to read that when a similar experiment was performed in the U.S., “many Americans took advantage of the situation.”
For me, an especially poignant Israeli-style “valentine” took place a few weeks ago. A young man who works in real estate and is about the age of my 30-something sons was in touch with me by phone about a referral I’d given him.
In passing, I asked him if he knew where I could purchase a new printer for my computer and have it delivered to my home. He called me back with a couple of websites, but both were in Hebrew, and apart from the HP logo and the prices, I couldn’t figure out what was being offered.
We talked again, and he looked at the sites and provided me with prices, features and phones numbers. I tried phoning a nearby store, but reached a robotic phone tree; not only was it in Hebrew, it also kept disconnecting my call. I decided to go to the store in a taxi, but there was a downpour so I thought I’d better wait.
When the young man called me back to check yet again, I told him what I’d decided to do.
“No, don’t do that,” he said, and then paused momentarily. “Look, I’m going to go buy the printer and bring it to you right now.”
“No! You don’t need to do that – I can do it!”
“No, I insist. It no big deal.”
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
He appeared at my door (third floor, no elevator) an hour later, dripping with rainwater and carrying the printer. He had paid for it himself (of course I paid him back), installed it, called technical support to solve an ink cartridge issue – which took an hour – and didn’t leave until the job was done.
It’s true that there are many kinds of love, and the romantic version that inspires poems of the “roses are red, violets are blue” variety is a wonderful, exhilarating experience.
But the kind of love I’ve so often seen demonstrated in this war-torn nation is spontaneous, generous and guileless. I’m pretty sure it’s rooted in an eternal principle that believing Christians and Jews share. And it dates back to something very close to the Year One.
“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18).
Greeting cards, red hearts, boxes of chocolates and bouquets of roses are optional.