I remember sitting on a park bench in Jerusalem, hummus smeared across my mouth. In between bites of falafel, I leaned over to my husband and whispered, “Do you think he’s Jewish?” I looked in the direction of a nondescript man walking across the street.
“Well, what about her?”
“Carla, they’re probably all Jewish.”
It was an amazing moment for me. It was my first (and to date, only) trip to Israel, and I was still trying to wrap my head around the reality that I was surrounded by Jews. These people would understand why I don’t eat bacon, and they would never accuse me of “making up a holiday” when I try to explain that I can’t take an exam because it’s Yom Kippur. They wouldn’t look curiously at me after hearing my last name, and then tell me that it’s funny, because I don’t “look Jewish,” somehow thinking they were paying me a compliment. And they would understand what it means to have the weight of the Holocaust buried deep in your soul, twisted in your DNA.
The next day, as we stood in the oppressive heat atop Masada, I had this overwhelming feeling that somehow, at some point, I had been there before. I’m not a terribly mystical person, but in that moment, I felt as though I was home. Over the rest of our trip, from visits to the Knesset and Ein Gedi, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I belonged. Days later, on the flight back to Massachusetts, my husband (who has been to Israel many times) and I vowed to strengthen our relationship to the Jewish nation.
Fast forward six years. We haven’t made it back to Israel, due to the demands of school, work, and the birth of our daughters. To be honest, our connection to Israel has faded a bit over the years, as we became focused on diapers and daycare, pediatricians and playdates, and all of the other details of daily life with two children under the age of four. Thanks to Tot Shabbat services, our growing library of Jewish books, and our Israeli friends and family, the girls are starting to understand that there is a place called Israel, and for reasons they don’t yet fully grasp, that it matters to us.
All of this means I need to figure out how I feel about Israel, despite how Israel may feel about me. Here’s the thing: My father is the son of two German Jews. But I don’t know if my mother is Jewish. Thanks to Mussolini’s persecution of Italian Jews and the wave of anti-Semitism and xenophobia that my Italian (possibly Jewish) maternal grandmother faced after immigrating to the US in 1946, my family history has become a deeply buried secret. The truth about my family was destroyed along with the Jewish community in Mantova, Italy, and then lost again with the passing of my grandmother just a few years ago.
After much thought and debate, study and conversation (you can read about it in this post I wrote for Kveller.com), I had a conversion ceremony with three female Reconstructionist rabbis. I am well aware that my trip to the mikveh will not hold water with the powers that be in Israel. Although we are not considering making aliya, I know that it would be possible for me, as I am the daughter and wife of Jews. However, as far as I have been able to ascertain, my daughters and I would not actually be granted Jewish status in Israel.
Most of the time, this doesn’t bother me, as my status in Israel has nothing to do with my life, my Jewish life, here in the States. My family, my synagogue, and the rest of my local Jewish community, considers me to be a Jew. But there are still times when I get angry, when I want to minimize or even dismiss entirely my relationship with that small piece of land on the other side of the world. If Israel doesn’t consider me to be Jewish, why should I care about the fate of the Jewish state?
But then I take a breath. And I realize that Israel is so much more than those few people who have set the current policy. The Jewish people has always included, and been strengthened by, those within our community who have a diverse heritage. From Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, all the way through the millennia to every man and woman of our generation who decides each day to stay connected to Judaism and to raise Jewish children regardless of what Israel might think, we are keeping our heritage alive.
Years ago, a mentor of mine taught me about the concept of mahloket l’shem shamayim – a dispute for the sake of the heavens, a disagreement for a greater good. This question of who is a Jew and who isn’t is so much bigger than any one country, or any one policy. We need to move beyond politics and power grabs, and focus on what kind of people we want to be. As our community becomes increasingly diverse, and intermarriage becomes increasingly common, the future and strength of the Jewish people depends on our ability to find a way to fully acknowledge and welcome each and every person who chooses to join us. Until that happens, I will continue to care about Israel, even if it is a struggle. And there is nothing more Jewish than that.