For most American expatriates, the recently passed Fourth of July evokes memories of late-night fireworks displays, pageants and parades, and orotund oratory celebrating American uniqueness.
But for me it will always conjure up my first Fourth of July in Israel. For Americans, 1976 was the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence; for Israelis, the day of the Entebbe miracle.
The only parallel I can recall to the sustained tension following the hijacking of the Air France airliner to Uganda was the weeks leading up to the 1967 Six Day War. Back then, a television was introduced for the first and last time to the sanctum of the Rosenblum family dining room so as not to miss a word of Abba Eban's glorious U.N. speeches.
Even then, however, there had of necessity been something vicarious about my teen-age identification with Israel. Now I was actually in Israel sharing the emotions, it seemed, of every person in the country.
A younger brother, learning at Aish HaTorah in the Old City, with fellow students beat a continuous path to the ongoing prayer vigils at the Kotel. Everybody was going to the Kotel – religious and non-religious.
In my Hebrew class, the incentive to learn had never seemed so great as we yearned to understand the every half-hour news updates. Teachers regaled us with stories of Idi Amin's behavior during his time in Israel, but we knew there was nothing funny about what he or the Palestinian and German hijackers might do.
Awakening on July 4, my first thoughts were of meeting my brothers for the bicentennial celebrations at Bloomfield Stadium. As I boarded the bus that morning, however, the bicentennial was quickly forgotten.
The radio was blaring, and everyone was simultaneously listening to the broadcast and talking to everybody else. It took a moment before I realized that the impossible had occurred: The Israel Defense Forces had somehow rescued the captives from an airfield guarded by hostile forces thousands of kilometers away. Even those of us raised on "Mission Impossible" had never contemplated an attempted rescue.
Complete strangers were embracing. For once Jewish unity seemed like a reality, not a fund-raiser's slogan. One thought kept recurring: We are all Jews. The obvious differences – language, skin color, personal and familial history – suddenly seemed unimportant.
How different, I thought, from my feelings on the New York City subway. There, I never once said, "We are all Americans; we have something in common." Instead I was guiltily aware of all that divided me from most fellow passengers. I was whiter, better educated, richer.
Amidst the warm buzz on the Egged bus, I wondered about the mysterious power of my Jewishness, the nature of my connection to these strangers.
As I wrestled with the puzzle of my closeness to my fellow passengers, it dawned on me that we were each the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors, every one of whom had chosen Judaism over every blandishment that the surrounding society could hold out – and despite every torture and affliction with which they and their children were constantly threatened.
I began to wonder about the power that made it possible for Jews, both great scholars and humble folk, over thousands of years, and in almost every place around the globe, to consistently make that choice. What belief gave them that strength?
So Entebbe became for me one of those crucial moments of awakening as a Jew.
Jubilation was the dominant mood. But even as the rams' horns sounded at the Kotel, there was the realization that four captives had been killed in the rescue, a fifth left behind at the mercy of Idi Amin. Most important, for me, was the loss of Yonatan Netanyahu.
Whether our common first name, closeness in age, or being educated in the same Ivy League schools, I couldn't stop thinking about him. His life – not just his death – struck as a rebuke to my own.
I wrote home complaining of the lack of opportunities in America "to do anything heroic or big." But even as I complained, I knew the real problem was myself and my tendency to "think of life as something that is going to start in the future and for which the present is only preparation."
Until then, I had merely accumulated entries on a resume in anticipation of as yet unidentified achievement that would somehow justify the pursuit of that resume.
Yonatan Netanyahu had lived differently – in the present. He had left the safety of Harvard Yard to join the IDF. With a future of seemingly unlimited potential, he had consistently volunteered for the most dangerous missions. I questioned, and still do, whether I would ever do anything to give meaning to my life in the way that Yonatan Netanyahu did that night 25 years ago.
While the first realization of the miracle of Entebbe will always rank as one of my life's happiest moments, today the memory is bittersweet. It calls in its wake the question: Will we Jews in the Land of Israel ever again experience the same feelings of unity?