Sunday, October 7, 2012

"What? You're Jewish?" - every friend I've ever had.

"I used to meet many Jews from America and Western Europe who told me that they had come to Israel to 'find' themselves as Jews. I always told them that Israel was probably the most confusing place in the world to do so. It is the place to lose yourself as a Jew, because if you don't know who you are before you arrive, you can get totally lost in the maze of options that present themselves as soon as you plant your feet on the land." - Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem

I came to Israel for many reasons, but one was to explore what being Jewish meant to me. In New York I found myself exploring the religion and my connection to it more than I ever had before. It happened very quickly, all of a sudden I had a Seder instead of Easter. I was rushing home from work on Friday to make shabbat services. I was going to the Jewish Enrichment Center for fun. For fun! I liked meeting and connecting with people who also felt a bit outside the normal mainstream. It was like being part of a secret club, exclusive and distrustful to the outside world, but trusting and all welcoming to an insider. It was empowering. From my short encounter with Jewish New York, the general feeling I got from the religion was yearning for Israel. I didn't think about the dichotomy about growing attached to this yearning, then actually being in Israel and not needing to yearn for it anymore. I've been here for two months now and it seems I've been practicing less of the religion than when I was in the States. But then I also feel that just by virtue of being here, I am more Jewish than I was in New York. It's the implicit Jewishness of the whole place. The streets are biblical names or famous Jewish heads of state. The food is all kosher, its the exception when its not. And one can't escape shabbat or the holidays. The look of the general population is also inherently jewish. But what use to separate Jews from the rest of the world are now unifying features of this country.

To come to this country is to begin to see the Jewish state not solely based on religion, but as a people of a specific land. This is a thought and idea I still can't seem to fully comprehend. Over the past couple of days I have found myself in heated debates with Israeli's about what constitutes the Jewish state of Israel. Through these debates I've been shocked to discover how deep my American beliefs are ingrained in my psyche. Issues of the Arab population, of Palestine, of African refugees, when the argument facing me is "They are not Jewish, they don't belong here," it's extremely difficult for me to swallow. But my counter arguments of live and let live fall on deaf ears, I even can't fully believe in my own side, but I just can't fully accept the other.

I'm proud of the USA and what it stands for, but I also know it's far from perfect. It's like when they teach in school about how Columbus discovered America. It's a story about vision, dogged determination, and entrepreneurship. Then you get older and realize, well he didn't really discover America, he was number two and it was the Caribbean. Then if you keep trying to open your mind and expand your horizons, you find that what once was a sweet and hopeful story is actually a nightmare of colonization and genocide. I thought I had grown out of my American naivete, now I feel myself clinging onto it like the pillow I've carried everywhere since my family almost left me at a ski resort in New Hampshire.

Before I left for Israel I tried filling myself with as much knowledge about the place as possible. I thought that if I prepared well enough I could come in and automatically participate in the debates and have meaningful insights and prodding thoughts. What I've realized so far is that I have a great command of the facts; 1948 - War, 1967 - War, 1973 - War, 1982 - War, 1988 - War, 2000 - War, 2006 - War. A challenge I was waiting for was to try and understand the Israeli psyche, with myself as a blank slate. Within two months I've found in me deep rooted American themes of freedom, right, and peace. I haven't decided yet if this is reassuring or if it will lead to a hard fall. It's difficult to admit that my glasses are much rosier than I originally thought. Maybe it's not a coincidence that pink is a pervasive theme for me. But why do I feel the need to challenge my beliefs this deeply in this place? Why didn't I do it in Ireland? Why didn't I do it in China? Maybe its because this is how I'm exploring my Judaism, my connection to Israel. In my relationship with Judaism, I'm not yearning for Israel, I'm yearning to understand Israel.

"Danger Mines" - even though its right in front of me, I can't grasp the reality. I took a picture of it for pete's sake.

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