A couple of weeks ago at a friend’s party, I met a woman who told me she had heard that I was making aliyah and had wanted to see me beforehand because she wanted me to have contact information for her cousin who lives in Tel Aviv. Her cousin is Ruth Dayan. Miriam’s family chose to live in either the United States or Israel; her immediate family stayed in the United States when others made aliyah in the 1960s. She told me that when she went to visit shortly thereafter, the sight of Hebrew on the manhole covers brought tears to her eyes. This woman, now quite old, remembers that moment with clarity that was emotionally striking as she spoke. I will visit Miriam before I leave. She lives just two blocks from me and has in the summers for many years and yet we had not connected before. It was easy for me to understand her reaction back in those teen age years of Israel’s statehood. And her desire for me to meet her cousin who has been her emotional connection to Israel.
Other people have told me that they have had the same reaction when visiting…seeing Hebrew on mundane everyday things brought up emotions they had not expected. Again, it’s the here or there thing, especially for American Jews. Can we be fully Jewish in the United States? Of course, we can. And then again, your personal definition of “fully Jewish” might change when experiencing the encompassing nature of Israel. However Jewish your life might be here, even in frum communities, there might always be a nagging feeling of it not being enough. Maybe it is enough, maybe not for some.
Jokingly (or not), I posted on social media that this year will be the last when I have to explain why I had declined an invitation for an event being held on Yom Kippur. Ten minutes after posting it, I received an invitation to the local theater’s annual celebration and fundraiser being held on the evening of October 4th. One of their board members wrote a personal note on it “Hope you can join us again!! Alan” In the ten years of this theater’s existence, I had attended almost every year and surely would have again this year because a New York friend is having a play produced there this fall. In reality, I have never thought that things should not be scheduled on Jewish holidays; the blunt reality is that if the audience includes a handful of assimilated Jews, it doesn’t really matter. In New York City where I lived for sixteen years, it did matter, as it did when I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island; Jewish festivals and holy days were part of the ebb and flow of the cities. Cape Cod, not so much. It just seemed that with a name like mine, they might have gone, hmmm, maybe just send her a note just asking for a donation in lieu of attending and wishes for the holiday. The reality is that the only Jewish holidays known are Passover and Hannukah, which has been turned into faux Christmas (“ooh…gifts every night!”). When I posted that comment, I was joking (or not), but in reality it feels like a great relief to not have to explain the mezuzah on the door or a myriad of other things. I think my crankiness about all of this is a problem; I should be happy that people are interested in learning more about Judaism. So for the next six and a half weeks, if someone mentions that Jews are so lucky because we atone once a year on Yom Kippur and Catholics are supposed to confess weekly, I will smile and say, yes, we are very fortunate. I assume no one will ever again ask me if the reason Jews do not carry money on Shabbat is so that we can have one day a week without thinking about money. Argh.
That’s why I nodded in understanding (and my eyes filled up) when Miriam told me about her tears when she saw Hebrew on a manhole cover back in the 1960s. I got it. If the mundane can be so clearly Jewish in a Jewish nation, then the important things of day to day life must be totally rooted in our Judaism. And who we are as Jews truly matters as does the flow of our calendar. Only in Israel are we able to live by our own timeline without question. We might not all believe the same or live the same, but the yearning for Zion is strong for a reason. Because in Zion, we are without a doubt free to live fully Jewish lives in the ways that matter to each of us.