August 29, 2004

There are moments in the life of a nation where you revel in its particularity. Special midday news coverage on Israel’s Channel 1 generally sends shudders up and down my spine. When Channel 1 interrupts its regularly scheduled programming and trots out breathless reporters to give on-the-spot coverage, it is usually a sign of disaster – of a bus blown to bits, of torn bodies on the road, of Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) volunteers picking up human tissue.

That is why it was so refreshing watching Channel 1’s “special” coverage of Gal Fridman’s gold medal windsurfing race last week. Imagine, special full-throttle midday coverage of a sporting event – just like in a “normal” country.

Well, actually not. It’s hard to believe a “normal” country would follow with such anticipation, emotion, and expectation the exploits of a native son in – let’s face it – a rather obscure sport.

I’m a sports fan, and a dedicated one. I’m also a huge fan of the Olympics. I can name the host city of every summer Olympics since 1936. I can hum the theme music that accompanies (or at least it used to) Olympic television coverage in the States.

I know from Kip Keino and Frank Shorter, from Bruce Jenner and Dick Fosbury. I have logged hundreds of Olympic viewing hours in my life.

Yet I have never before seen a windsurfing contest. I have no clue what the rules are, how many marks must be circled, or how the whole thing works. Up until Wednesday, mistral sounded to me like what happens in court when a lawyer messes up.

Yet there I was, in the middle of a work day, glued to Channel 1’s special coverage, counting along with the announcer how many windsurfers separated Fridman from his Brazilian rival, and praying for good wind.

Fridman’s victory, I must admit, left me choked up. It left me feeling the same way I felt when Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon circled high above the country and, in a live hook-up with the prime minister, said, “I think that the people of Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole, are a wonderful people.”

The feeling watching Fridman win is different than the regular jingoist pride citizens of other countries feel when their athletes are victorious. It is laced with something that is peculiarly Jewish, peculiarly Israeli.

The wires will predictably write that Fridman brought joy to Israel at a time where there is little to cheer about. But that’s not it, there is something deeper, more symbolic, at play in our joy over Fridman.

At a time when Jews in France are afraid to walk out their doors displaying any sign of their Jewishness, when the Foreign Ministry tells Israelis going abroad not to wear T-shirts with Hebrew writing, there was something deeply moving about watching Fridman proudly wrap himself in an Israeli flag.

What crossed my mind while watching the race – in between cursing the Brazilian – was how this achievement speaks volumes about this country’s vast reserves of resiliency.

Thirty-two years after the Munich massacre, the Israeli flag was raised at the Olympics in victory, not lowered to half mast in mourning.

Four years after the current war that has sapped so much time, energy, and treasure, the country retains trappings of normality – and nothing is more normal than sporting events, and a preoccupation with them – and that itself is a partial victory.

Yet “normal” countries would not respond to Fridman’s victory as we have, “normal” countries would not look for the deeper symbolism and meaning of a sailing victory.

Indeed, when Fridman won, and when judoka Arik Ze’evi won his bronze medal last week, I reveled in the very abnormality of the Israeli response to these achievements.

And therein I found more beauty. As much fun as it was to watch Fridman and Ze’evi, it was equally fun to watch the country’s reaction to their victory, for here is where you spy the charm in this country’s personality.

The charm is there in the way the television reporters interviewed Fridman’s mother and father, brother, and sister, freckled nephew, and even Aunt Shoshi. It was there in the way the defense minister, not only the president and prime minister, felt a need to issue a congratulatory message to Fridman, and Chabad sent a Book of Psalms to his parents’ house before the race for good measure.

This charm is there in the way the Israeli fans “took over” the arena where Ze’evi competed and cheered and chanted as if it were Yad Eliahu, and in the way Ze’evi, so pleased with himself, thrust his forehead into the lips of the man who presented him with his medal for a congratulatory kiss.

The spontaneity, the brashness, the freshness, the unadorned, genuine, unsophisticated, typically Israeli nature of it all. There are moments in the life of a nation where you revel in its particularity.

Now is one of those moment.

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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