Did you ever have the feeling of being on the outside looking in?
I used to on occasion, as in certain circumstances where I distinctly felt like an outsider. Not too infrequently, I envisioned myself at a window peering in through the panes. Prior to my move to Israel, Christmastime in the States, for example, had that effect on me.
I have this clear memory of myself as a very young child shopping with my mother in a department store, where Santa, in all his white-bearded glory, suited up in bright red velvet, was perched on a kingly chair giving out free gifts to the children of customers. I recall my mother telling me to join the other children and pick out a gift. And I remember not wanting to do so. I couldn’t have been more than five years old, yet I understood that those gifts were really not meant for any Jewish child. My reluctance to partake of the department store’s Christmas giveaway was like sacrilege to my mother. In her defense, she didn’t see it as compromising our principles. As a Holocaust survivor, she simply could not lose an opportunity to acquire something that was being given out for free. It was important to take it, for survival’s sake, whether we needed it or not. Not to take it was to waste it. And waste for Holocaust survivors, I learned early on, was a grave sin.
Standing there with my mother, it was so palpable to me that I was not an authentic member of this Christmas holiday crowd. Though I spoke the same language and looked no different from the other children, I knew I was an outsider. It was an overwhelming feeling — call it innate.
Finally, after much persistent cajoling from my mother, I worked up the courage and stole my way into the crowd of children. I shyly said hello to Santa, averting my eyes, nervous he would discern my true identity, and made off with one of the many wrapped gifts that were stacked in a huge pile. I quickly grabbed my mother’s hand, wishing to exit the store in haste before anyone got wise to the big sting I had just pulled off.
Throughout my years in the US, there were many instances of feeling as if I was on the outside looking in. Two thousand years of forced exile and persecution has a way of seeping into the Jewish consciousness. Conversely, there were other occasions where I experienced a thrill at “blending in” and being just plain American. As much as there is a separation of church and state, the United States is essentially a Christian country. After all, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter are national holidays. Blending in effectively, therefore, meant being mistaken for a Christian. Down the line, however, having the name “Zahava Lifshitz” made anonymity a tad tricky.
Even when I was finally old enough to vote, I was keenly aware there was no candidate who truly represented me. I would simply try to make an educated calculation as to who would be the lesser of two evils — where Israel was concerned, that is. I found it impossible to get too enthusiastic about any one candidate or any one party. I was, after all, on the outside looking in.
Though there is admittedly room for improvement and many obstacles to overcome in our little land of Israel, at the end of the day I go to sleep knowing that the State of Israel is my state, the Land of Israel is my land, and its defense and future are once again in Jewish hands. Why settle for anything less?
I welcome the challenges that we face here as I welcome the privilege of having a share in solving the hardships and shaping our destiny, however humble my contribution might be. Only by being here can we directly help shape Israel’s future and secure the destiny of the Jewish people.
My eldest son began his three-year army service last month. I still have the feel in my gut of driving him to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem where he was formally inducted. He was understandably nervous, but at the same time proud to serve not only in the Israeli army but in the army of the people of Israel. Standing on the outside and looking in was not an option. His words to me that day still resonate in my mind:
This is where I’m meant to be, and this is what I’m meant to do, and it’s my privilege to be a part of it.
As he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors on both his father’s and mother’s side, I dare say it was almost poetic.
But, make no mistake — we are not here because of the Holocaust. We are here despite the Holocaust. And that is the miracle of our times.
My nose is not pressed against any windowpane. Here in Israel, I’m already on the inside. I have the bird’s-eye-view, and it is good.
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Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a letter the author wrote to her friends in the US a year after making aliya. The letter was later published in her book “Settling For More: From Jersey to Judea.”