It has never really struck me as odd when people have responded to the fact that I identify as being Jewish with the question, “Have you been to Israel?”, as though the creation and existence of a Jewish state is insuperable from being Jewish elsewhere. In my own upbringing, the notion of “all roads lead to Rome” has been mostly true in the way I’ve assumed I’d end up in the land so contested and riddled with issues that I only observe from a distance, at one stage or another. What it means to be Jewish is far from settled or even distinct in my mind — but what it means to be a Jew in Israel, on a temporary or permanent basis, has always made me curious about a community to which I am, by virtue of my lineage, perenially welcome. A few weeks ago, I made the decision to go on a sponsored trip to answer some questions. It was a naive goal, at best.
I’ve only ever met one Jew who vehemently refused to live in Israel, but her story was distinct. She’d grown up and eventually run away from her ultra-Orthodox family, and disconnected from all but immediate and open-minded family members. She described everything from the structure to the management and attitude of Israeli governments and Orthodox communities as unfathomably corrupt and destructive; her narrative fed very much into my own distrust of religious extremes and systems organized around the words of ancient scriptures. Otherwise, Israel has been a type of “center of gravity” for the rest of my Jewish friends and family, who have described it as a place you just have to see. As one of my college roommates put it to me, “I can’t explain it; it’s just a feeling when you’re there.” That hype and tangibility is something I have heard about repeatedly before, during and after my Israel trip-but it is not something I can genuinely say I experienced, or feelings I will relay to those who ask me what to expect of their own trip.
When I would tell people in Israel it was my first time in the country, they would congratulate me. Of course, that bypassed the question of whether I was welcome — as a Jew, that was a given — and went straight to the rhetoric of arrival, as though I’d reached a long-awaited destination. The first time I laughed, as their warmth affirmed the years of discussions that forecasted this trip. By the end, I became more confused about what I was being congratulated on; for agreeing to partake on a subsidized trip? For my applying my Western knowledge of history and conflict to populations and cities that are living in the now, and not the antiquity and academia? For interacting with people and communities with which, in a genetic sense, I share my Judaism, but in a practical sense I share very little? I don’t keep Kosher or Shabbat; I don’t pray or practice Judaism; I don’t even accept the idea of god as a deity or the texts as relevant, beyond the way it has shaped the laws and communities of those before me and around me. I find religion hard to stomach; culture incredibly valuable. The longer I was in Israel, the harder it became to separate the two.
I began to wonder if my Judaism had contingencies I was not previously aware of. The term for Jews who choose to move to Israel and acquire citizenship is “making aliyah,” aliyah meaning “ascension.” Everything in the Israeli attitude and rhetoric embodied the varied connotations of that word. Our first night in Jerusalem we went to a bar to celebrate our arrival, and the waiter, upon learning we were from the US, lit up and instinctively asked us if we’d made aliyah. In his eyes we did ascend for that moment of uncertainty, to whatever the dream or purpose or definition of Israel and Judaism was in his mind — something affirmed when that enthusiasm dwindled and his body language deflated once we told him we were just visiting. The problem with this notion of ascension is that anything other than Israel is implied as inferior: not living there means you haven’t “reached” your destination, and that everything is not as meaningful as it could be; leaving, similarly, or making a conscious choice not to be there, is some what of a “fall from grace.” For Orthodox Jews, those associations of aliyah are partially assumed; but for the secular camp, with which I have identified very comfortably for some time, that notion hurt me. If I chose not to draw my Judaism from geographical aspirations centered around god’s presence, was I less secularly Jewish? Did not connecting with the Western Wall or wanting to attend a Shabbat service whilst in Israel mean I wasn’t quite as Jewish as I could be? Questions and responses about my Judaism made me feel I needed a disclaimer. Something that could elegantly relay my secularism, lack of desire or intention to move to Israel, and my version of being “Jewish” as culturally real, without necessarily being the culture found in the “most” Jewish of places, if the bible is the point of reference.
I failed miserably at articulating all that because I myself can’t readily explain the Judaism I hold and revere as part of my culture and identity. That failure didn’t make me feel like a bad Jew, per se, but it did make me feel like less of a Jew, as though I had less claim on being Jewish than those around me who could readily find solace in Jewish communities or texts or traditions. Being a different degree of Jewish wasn’t ever put to us as inferior, but it didn’t need to be. Some of the amazing scholars who led the lectures we had gone to Israel to attend went to great lengths to emphasize that it wasn’t about all Jews being in Israel together or strict maternal delineations of Judaism — it was about communicating, understanding, supporting and challenging one another. It was — and is — about continued discourse about Judaism going forward; about Israel in the Middle East in 2015, and how Israel can continue to exist, how Palestine can exist, and how those two needn’t be mutually exclusive or mutually-assured destruction. About the values shaping Israel and Jews, in antiquity and modernity — but it was here they lost me. The differences between the realities and laws of ancient texts and the ways and values of modern society became remarkably less clear as my trip continued, as these texts became extensive points of reference. That need of these academics to continually reference these texts, as though they could offer any sort of answer to problems whose mere outlines the authors could not have imagined, made my modernistic interpretation of Judaism seem stupid, and any connection to these valuable questions and pursuits seem dead.
A push and a pull from Jewish identity to Jewish living, in all its multifaceted forms. On the plane ride to Israel, I felt a pull to the community I was entering. The flight attendants had the familiar flare of Israeli women I have grown up with: warm and helpful, but clear about any kind of dissatisfaction. They don’t do the American enthusiasm that, in honesty, I myself cannot stand: not everything was “awesome” or “great”, and they wouldn’t do whatever you ask of them for fear of being labelled unhelpful if that’s not what they could offer or wanted to do at that point in time. But at the same time, there was a push — a very strong one at that — away from the shows of orthodoxy on the flight. I woke up from my half-sleep with the quintessential sore neck from trying to sleep in economy, dazed and drowsy, to several men wrapped in praying accompaniments standing and rocking as they completed one of three daily prayers. I watched as the same flight attendants that made me feel so cozy in their presence casually walked around these praying men, clearly unfazed and very used to these practices. I cannot imagine a reality where that’s ok or normal for me, where the functions of religion are valued higher than the practices of businesses, organizations and all class of secular institutions. On the flight back, a woman was re-seated because she couldn’t sit next to two Orthodox men — again, a normal occurrence, yet one that made me deeply uncomfortable. In no part of my conscience is subjugation of that sort an act of “tolerance,” as opposed to religious prioritizing.
I came to Israel adamant of Israel’s virtue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; of the distinctness and relevance of my cultural Judaism; open-minded to be proven wrong and to learning more. I entered with a quote from “A Beautiful Mind” circling in my heading, in which one of the character comments to the other’s confidence in their belief that, “Certainty is a luxury of those on the sidelines”; I entered highly aware that I was another American Jew who didn’t really understand the situation on the ground.
I don’t know who I left as.
After speaking and meeting with several figureheads in the conflict, from members of the Palestinian authority to negotiators who represented Israel at International summits, from ex-convicts turned peace fighters to a Rabbi I can describe as only a Zionist on serious steroids, I wondered if I was even a person on the sidelines at all. Without an emotional connection to Israel, I wasn’t personally vested in the outcome, only in Israel’s continued right to exist for those Jews who do identify with it, and by default for Jews as a whole. But even that was stretched, as I found myself less able to understand why people would live in Jerusalem and feel the need to pray at the wall multiple times a day, or dedicate their entire lives to god and prayer. We would drive past rooms of men studying texts they had probably read 30 times before, and I wondered what would happen if that same commitment was guided towards medical research; towards community work; hell, even to some kind of actual work that would help the economy and their family (instead of the government welfare support). I was, and am, so far from understanding the real value of the land itself that the continued existence of Israel turned into a question of sovereignty and continuity: Israel does exist, it does support its citizens, and it is a source of national identity, pride and value for six million people. That alone is invaluable, and doesn’t need a holy mountain to strengthen its claim.
I came to Israel Jewish, but I left a little wary of using that word. Those lectures were amongst the first times I ever had real exposure to the scriptures; I never went to Jewish school or took Jewish studies, and I certainly never felt the need to read volumes and volumes of religious works in order to tune my moral compass. I didn’t read the texts and feel like I understood Judaism and its values better; I read them and felt disjointed about what the texts were saying, how I was raised, and the aspirations I as an individual have. When I cause someone pain, I feel guilt and remorse because through my own pain and suffering, I can empathize with that discomfort. I feel, first and foremost, that I have wronged that person, closely followed with an intense feeling of betraying myself, in being the best version of myself I can be. I could not see what these texts were adding, beyond a mild comprehension of the values with which religious communities view Judaism and the conflict. But these never felt exclusively “Jewish”, and reading Deuteronomy, for example, made me limit my thought processes around complicated issues instead of expand them to new perspectives. It very much reminded me of a metaphor a Rabbi’s wife told me many years ago about religiousness being akin to a rope to god: that the more religious you were, the closer to god and his wisdom and knowledge you were. At twelve, that story intrigued me. Now, that perspective very much disturbs me — when god’s wisdom is used as claim on lands, places, traditions and definitions of me.
Israel, a Jewish state, a country in which the Grandfather I never met is buried, to which so many of my friends are so emotionally vested in — confused me, and pushed me far more than all the cultural significance of Judaism pulled me. Discussions that centered around whether or not Judaism was even conveyable in other than Hebrew; around what being in Israel and at the wall and living in disputed territories meant as a Jew — they ultimately ostracized me from being able to comfortably say “I’m Jewish”, because none of those things define it for me.
I’d like to finish this with a wise reflection, but I have none. Of course I’m still Jewish, and notwithstanding all these thoughts, I do still feel a need to go back to Israel later on. But first I have more questions to ponder on, and a lot of certainty to unload.