YOM HA’ATZMAUT FEATURE
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — To celebrate Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, children around the world in Hebrew, day and Sunday schools will be getting out the glue sticks, markers and paper, or opening a graphics program to study the makeup of the Israeli flag.
As best they can, they will carefully draw the two blue stripes, and trace the two overlapping triangles, one up, one down, making a Star of David. During this exercise in flag making, the teacher will recount Israel’s War of Independence, technological achievements and future promise.
Young imaginations will wander — as would ours.
Where is the flag of Israel in our own imaginations? Front and center? Somewhere in the corner with our other conflicted allegiances? Folded and neatly put in a drawer with other childhood Jewish keepsakes?
This year, open the drawer, run the memories up the flagpole and see in the galut what to salute.
One of the earliest versions of the flag that eventually would become the flag of Israel was made for the first international Zionist Congress in 1897. The design, whose twin stripes were based on a tallit, was not the first flag proposed.
Theodor Herzl first proposed a more universal design: a white field with seven golden stars, each representing an hour of the Zionist goal of a seven-hour work day.
Like the Israeli flag itself whose blue stripes can vary in hue, many of us already march under our own Jewish flags; denominationally tailored, complete with varying political and gender-based stripes, and fields reflecting our areas of experience and knowledge.
At Sinai, it’s said we each heard the words of God in our own different way. Today, is it possible that we each see the flag of Israel differently?
For Yom Ha’Atzmaut, as an act of re-envisionment, why not revisit our famous flag? For a minute, I am asking you to take on a new career: Become a vexillographer, a flag maker. Make your own Jewish flag.
You don’t need any sewing skills. You do need, however, to be able to stitch together a symbol that people will want to fly. A flag should be representative and not confused with other designs; a thing of simple beauty, distilling graphically the hopes and history of millions.
Remember, a flag needs to look as good hanging in the corner of a temple social hall as it does flying over a tank in battle.
Let’s begin with the stripes. They are related to the stripes on the tallit. Are two enough? Americans are used to more. Originally there were 12 tribes. Let’s add a stripe for each.
Wait, 12 stripes might create an optical illusion — very Agam-ish. But should a flag be an illusion?
Curiously enough, stripes play a role in the Torah. Joseph’s so-called “coat of many colors” may have been a coat of many stripes. Actually, according to the JPS translation of the Genesis text, it was an “ornamented tunic.”
Commentators suggest that the tunic was composed of “strips of wool,” which sounds very much like stripes. Colored or not, wide or thin, it was those stripes that focused the jealously and rage of Joseph’s brothers.
Perhaps then, the fewer flag stripes the better — just the two, thank you. Based on our tradition of prayer, you can see it at as one stripe with a repetition.
What colors will fly on your flag? To help you choose, our tradition presents a palette full of choices. The current blue stripes are derived from the thread of blue, the techelet, the Torah specifies to be part of the tzitzit.
In Exodus, materials are gathered from b’nei Yisrael to build the Tabernacle, among them “blue, purple and crimson yarns.” Thousands of years later, a quick look online shows Torah mantles available in these same colors.
Staying in this color scheme, what about a flag with purple stripes? Torah scholars have long played with the similarities between the Hebrew phrase “am segol,” “the chosen people,” and the similar sounding, “am segola,” the “purple people,” a color associated with royalty.
Most Jews today, I suspect, associate more with the inclusiveness of blue sky and sea than with the royal purple. Blue becomes us.
Besides, the flag of Dominica already seems to have called it first with a purple parrot.
As to the flag’s central symbol, we now have a Magen David, the Shield of David, the six-pointed star. Our premiere Jewish symbol, it was not always so. Up until the middle ages it was rarely seen – the menorah was the Jewish symbol. Then a couple hundred years ago, things changed and the star rose in popularity.
Herzl used the star in his original flag design because it was Jewish without religious connotation. Today it sends out all sorts of notes — religious, secular, Zionist.
Jewish children learn to draw the Star of David as “their” symbol, knowing from an early age how it differs from that other star — the one with five points that you draw without lifting pencil from paper.
What other Jewish symbol could replace it? A pomegranate? A dove? A book? Mount Sinai? Jerusalem in gold? A green line? A blue line? A wall of stone? The mind sees each and turns it away as bucolic, prosaic or likely to set off an intifada.
Once we were forced to wear the Star of David as a yellow badge. Now with a hint of defiance, we fly it in blue as a national Jewish symbol.
So far we have two blue stripes and a six-pointed star — floating in space. We still need a field to draw everything together. Can I interest you in something Mediterranean? Sun washed? Warm?
The universally known command from Genesis provides the flag with a white, sunlit field: “Ya’yahe or,’ “let there be light.”
Now take symbol, stripes and field and put your flag together. Fly it on a sunny day. It’s you — your Jewishness flying up there, your dependence and independence, waving at you.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.)