I stopped going to to Hebrew school in the fifth grade. I was tired of being tormented by the kids in the my class, who were, for lack of a better term, jerks. In retrospect, most fifth graders are jerks, but I seemed to lack the emotional stamina to deal with these in particular, and thereby reclaimed my Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons.
I suppose it’s ironic that I ‘m now in the field of Jewish communal service, but I still consider skipping those early years and the ensuing ones (I never went back) as a benefit now. The result is that I had to fill in those gaps myself, as much as one can, and that I never had the “privilege” of knowing Israel in a pure, safe, storybook way like so many folks I know.
Part of it has to do with the fact that I was raised, as I’ve mentioned before, in a “working class” household-my mother was a single parent and the only one bringing in an income, although my grandmother also lived with us from the time I was nine. We lived close to an affluent suburb, which had more Jews than I would encounter until I went to college. Belonging to a synagogue was (and is) expensive, and my mother was self conscious about that fact, and since we couldn’t afford it, we seldom went.
My consciousness of Israel remained minimal until November of 1995, when I was sixteen. It was a Saturday, I was doing homework in my normal spot at the kitchen table. The television was on in the background, and I remember slowly becoming aware of the news. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot. I didn’t understand the implications of that, just that my mother would be upset about it and I wanted to keep it from her. I couldn’t, of course, and this was just one in a long line of things I wouldn’t be able to protect her from.
I could have gone to Israel in 1999. I was a junior in college. My mother had been dead for a year. It would have been the first time I’d been out of the country, the first time any of the women who had lived in my house had been out of the country. Two days before our flight was to leave, I became incapacitated by anxiety. I suddenly didn’t care about having an adventure, or about my dream to travel, I just wanted to stay in my house, safe, with my grandmother, for the whole winter.
I finally made it to Israel in 2003. I was 23 and living in Oberlin, Ohio. I drove my ancient, blue Toyota station wagon to Massachusetts and parked it in a friend’s driveway. Then I took a train to New York City. I was convinced I wouldn’t be coming back, not because I thought I would make aliyah immediately, but because I’d developed a thorough, irrational fear of flying and thought our plane would crash.
That trip lasted three weeks. At the end of it, it actually felt physically wrong to leave, and that was so uncomfortable and so unexpected that I sat in my seat on the still grounded plane and sobbed. The woman beside me asked, “Is it your first time?” When I nodded yes, she replied, “It’s very emotional. B’ezrat Hashem, you’ll be back.”
I’ve been back several times since then, for varying amounts of time, and Israel has made its way under my skin in ways that continue to amaze me. I’ll find myself typing “Israel” when I’m trying to type “idea.” I miss certain cafes and the neighbourhoods I have memorized. There are books I will never again be able to open without first sniffing the pages to see if they smell like the beach in Tel Aviv or a room in Jerusalem where I once spent the summer.
Like everything is and should be, it’s more complicated than love and intense nostalgia. From one of my favorite spots in Jerusalem, I can see the Old and New Cities, but also the Separation Barrier. I spent one Shavuot at the Kotel, trying desperately to recognize myself among the throngs of Orthodox Jews , until a friend found me and took me to the egalitarian minyan under Robinson’s Arch, hidden because of fear of backlash from the ultra Orthodox.
Israel follows me home, of my own accord and without it. Next week, I’ll speak on a panel at the JStreet conference about anti Semitism in the Israel conversation. I’ll feel torn, of course, about how I think we should deal with the politics of it, but the truth is that if I didn’t struggle, if there weren’t this fight, I’d be worried. I’m angry and disappointed with Israel in its current state, in the way young Jews have been taught about her, in the way it continues to perpetuate a dangerous status quo in regards to religion, queer people, women, Israeli Arabs, and the Palestinians.
Israel is a place that exposes my wounds, the ones rooted in family and Jewish community and in my constant religious questioning, but it is also a place that has healed me, that has shown me that I can do and be more than I ever believed was possible, as a Jew and otherwise. For that, I’m stronger, I’m grateful, and I’ll stay close, in the most complicated, relentless, uncomfortable, loving way; the only one I know.