Shulamit S. Magnus
August 19, 2016
Tu Be’Av, An Anniversary
Today is tu be’av—the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, and the anniversary of my aliya two years ago. The English date then was Aug. 12, etched forever in my consciousness. Two years ago, these dates converged. This year, as is more often the case, the dates, as these worlds I inhabit, do not. The “secular”, or “non-Jewish” date, was last week, so I got to commemorate this—the decision to shift my center of gravity to the Hebrew, Jewish world, to Israel—twice. Fitting enough for a hybrid existence.
Yet the decision to come on aliya was a choice to live predominantly in a Jewish world, speaking a Jewish language; the calendar and my life, personal and professional, in sync. To live not as a minority but to have my culture be the majority culture. The other reality felt particularly sharp around Jewish holidays, when my obligations at work, at the university, took no cognizance of my Jewish observance, and the latter took no cognizance of my work obligations, and I was torn between what Mordechai Kaplan wrote of, approvingly, as “living in two worlds.” For me, there was nothing sanguine about that existence. It was not integrated, each element feeding the other (particularly the non-Jewish feeding the Jewish), as Kaplan’s construction celebrated. My worlds were in utter conflict, a tug of war played out in my exhausted body and psyche, as I struggled to live out my passionate commitments to my students and profession and to the religious life which is as precious to me as air, making up missed classes in weeks, I used to say, that have no days, given the many that were occupied by yamim tovim and the preparation for them.
The slew of autumn festivals, one after the other for a month, was especially stressful. Sometimes the holiday period began in the first week of classes, when students were shopping for courses (enrollment numbers ever looming to administrators), when not just being there but being utterly present was critical. Yet week after week, I’d be cancelling classes and scheduling make ups that fit no one’s schedule, while the festivals, coming but once a year, celebrated well, were wonderful, beloved, and essential to my existence. Pesah with its special demands several times threatened to leave me bedridden from exhaustion. Living in two worlds was not elevating. It did not enrich me. It wore me out. And every year, it was the same, dreaded scenario. There was nothing I could do but live out that year’s peculiar convergence, or lack thereof, as best I could.
In Israel, the buses greet you with not just holiday greetings when whichever holiday arrives, but the culturally correct ones. It is: shana tova and g’mar tov for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, respectively, and hag sameah for sukkot and pesach, but mo’adim le’simha during hol hamo’ed, the intermediate days of those holidays, a fine point of terminology for initiates in the Diaspora but here, the common currency of buses.
Here, the university calendar handles for me taking off for Jewish, and for national, holidays that in the US would not even be on the calendar. On the eve of holidays, the impending switch of time is manifest in the streets, in the radio programming, in the aromas of neighbors’ holiday cooking in the halls of your apartment building. Rather than an extensive effort to obtain arba minim, the four species used during sukkot, the need to reserve them, pay high prices for them in the limited places one can obtain them, here, they are all over the streets, hawked everywhere, stalls full of them in multiple locations, including entire arba minim shuks. And for once, something in Israel is cheaper, way cheaper, than in the US. Sukkot built with ingenuity and creativity decorate the streets. The sounds of family dinners in sukkot spill out into the lovely weather of autumn, whereas in the US, we were often shivering in multiple layers of clothing in the cold, sometimes, even in snow. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the streets here empty out and fall silent in the afternoon, several hours before the awesome day commences. Buses stop running, even cars disappear. The Hebrew-Jewish radio stations play the Israeli Philharmonic’s stunning version of Hatikva and then go off the air. The airport shuts down. Yom Kippur is not my private observance. It’s Reality.
There were many things that drew me to coming on aliya. I had wanted this my entire life, unable to fulfill the wish because of what I do for a living (I was able to come on aliya now only because I had made a successful career there). As I have taken to saying, some people feel they were born in the wrong body. I was born in the wrong country. Not that there is anything wrong with America, fundamentally; on the contrary, there is much that is exceedingly admirable, and from which Israel and Israelis could and should learn. I owe America my life, as it was the place to which my mother was saved, by fluke. But I always felt off there; as if I had landed by mistake. As my son put it when he was deciding to forego an American BA, of better quality and better suited to the kind of student he is than what he could have in Israel, in favor of aliya, army service, and university here, he felt a fundamental disconnect with US society. And a fundamental connect with this one.
Which does not mean, whatever, acceptance of what is wrong here. On the contrary, I engage and fight what I believe is wrong and for what I believe is right with an unmitigated passion, every cylinder engaged, that I never felt elsewhere, even when I cared, deeply, about issues there, too.
Being here is about—love. That is what I told dear friends who made an aliya celebration for me a few nights before I left, two years ago: I was raised with love, not hate. This, despite the fact that my mother was the sole survivor of her family. Despite the fact that the one brother who left before the Nazis and got to Israel was killed in Jerusalem in 1948, after he ran out in a street raining Jordanian bullets to help another civilian. A brother who, from his impoverished rooftop dwelling near what would become the Mandelbaum Gate and no man’s land, separating Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, wrote poetically of sunrise and of the Kotel and, during the Siege of Jerusalem, of starvation and thirst, of being unable to answer his children’s pleas for water. I heard love. I heard reverence. I heard millennial yearning. “Yerishulayim,” my mother and the woman who saved her from Europe, would say, in their Galitsianer accents, with reverence and love.
I am an historian. I know the critiques of nationalism; I have them myself. I see the horrible distortions, the hate, the denial of others, the violence that it can breed. But I no more believe that love of corporate self— of our history, language, cultural heritage—necessarily must produce hatred and violence than I do that healthy embrace and expression of individual self necessarily produce those behaviors to others, or would be tolerated if they did.
For me, this date, traditionally, a day to celebrate love, picked by Nefesh b’Nefesh of course, deliberately—indeed, is about love. And immense gratitude for being able to live out this dream, to be here, to wake in the morning and realize where I am. Those words in Psalm 126 are no mere print on the page. I experience the sense of wonder, indeed, amazement, just about every time I walk out, or hear Hebrew on the radio and in the banter of children.
A Jew has come home. Hayyinu semehim.