What compels one to make aliya?
Is it a decision of the mind? After all, Israel is at the forefront of academia, medicine, renewable energy and just about every other field worthy of devotion. It is a land of opportunity.
Or is it a matter of the heart? The land where you realize the Zionist vision, give yourself over to the Jewish ancestral home and come to raise a family in the center of Jewish life.
All of these considerations drove my decision, for Israel is both a land of infinite possibilities and a place of refuge. But there’s also something else: I’m tired of sighing.
You see, in every country where I have lived, my national identity has been at the core of both how I have viewed myself and how society has viewed me.
Time and time again I would be posed the question “Where are you from?” And in response, I would sigh, pause and then unleash my complex personal narrative, complete with a polemic on the delicate interplay between race, religion, culture, language and countries of birth and residence.
The sigh has come to represent my struggle to understand my national identity as a Jew living in the Diaspora.
I can only explain why I found such torment in this seemingly trivial inquiry in the following way:
We live in a world obsessed with questions of race, religion and national identity. We believe that in order to understand ourselves, what we are destined to become and why we act the way we do, we must explore our roots, our origins. The answer to where we are going lies in where we have already been.
Equally so, national identity dominates the way that we perceive others. For better or worse, we assume that by knowing where someone comes from, we can draw conclusions about their morals, their values, their tolerance of others, even their dietary practices and countless other characteristics.
The fifth paragraph
In the country of my birth, Ukraine, the trouble of defining one’s national identity was conveniently simplified by the state. There, you were the nationality that you were told you were — and there was no escaping that. So despite possessing an unbroken Ukrainian lineage for as far back as my family could trace, my nationality was always “Jewish.” Or “an invalid of the fifth paragraph,” as Soviet Jews called themselves – a wry poke at the persecution they faced by virtue of the “nationality” sections of their documents.
By the time my family was taken in by Australia as refugees, though I did not quite know who I was, I certainly knew I was not a Ukrainian.
As a schoolboy in Australia, I found I was relentlessly quizzed as to my origin by bright-eyed classmates perplexed by my curious packed lunches full of smoked meats and the handed down, tassled loafers I wore instead of sneakers. Here I would naturally apply the Soviet (or is it Nazi German?) principle that one’s nationality is precisely what the authorities deem it to be. I would suggest that I was a “Jew,” though with some hesitation, for even at that age I had some inkling that to be a Jew meant a complex and mercurial state of existence. But I found that this response, rather than being greeted with hostility, was met with knitted brows, as my inquisitors were less concerned with race than with finding out which distant land I had drifted in from and why on earth I was nibbling smoked mackerel and not peanut butter like everyone else.
So I promptly came to understand that while in the Ukraine I could never be a Ukrainian, in Australia I was warmly accepted as one.
But just as I had grown content in the belief that I was some sort of a Ukrainian, I was forced to reconsider my identity all over again. Innocent childhood curiosity quickly gave way to more sophisticated adolescent inquiries. If I was indeed a Ukrainian as I had claimed, why did my name not end in “ko” and where were the Slavic blue eyes and blond hair?
I could have been happy to answer that I was a Ukrainian but of the Jewish variety, but frankly, by this point, I was scarfing down peanut butter like everyone else. I was also in possession of an Australian passport and had begun to resent any implication that I was not an Australian and that my origin should be of any consequence.
And this is a pattern that would be repeated throughout my life in Australia. I never felt like any characterization of my identity was satisfactory. If I said I was “Australian,” the next question was always “Yeah, but where are you really from?” If I said I was a Jew, I would be told “I wanted to know where you’re from — not what your religion is,” and if I said I was “Ukrainian,” well, I knew better than anyone that that was simply not the case.
‘Jewish’ is more than a religion
The next four years of my life would be spent living in London, which did nothing to solve my crisis of identity.
I would still sigh and then diligently explain that I came to London from Australia, the land in which I was raised and that I adored; and yes, I know I don’t “look” Australian; that’s because I was in fact born in the Ukraine; and yes, I know I don’t really look Ukrainian either; that’s because I am actually Jewish, descended from a long line of other Jews of Ukrainian and Soviet extraction, and no, “Jewish” is not merely a religion.
As vexing as my battle with the question of identity has been, I don’t believe that I am alone in this struggle. Could it really be otherwise given the Jewish condition of exile, statelessness and absorption into foreign lands for nearly 2,000 years? Could it be otherwise for a people that still has not decided once and for all whether it is a race, a religion, a nation or some hybrid of three three? For a people endowed with an inquisitive nature and a more-than-healthy dose of neurosis?
All of these things leave us questioning the extent to which we can immerse ourselves in the cultures of the countries in which we have come to live without compromising our Jewishness.
Do we assimilate and displace our traditions with those of the host nation or do we confine ourselves to intellectual ghettos to retain our identity while inevitably attracting fear and hostility from the rest of society in the process? Can we find an appropriate balance between the two?
I don’t propose to hold all of these answers. In fact, I have merely evoked that inherent Jewish ability to answer one question with many more. But there is one thing that I do know with perfect clarity: I don’t want to sigh any more. And nor will I. I was a Jew first and I will be a Jew last. And now I will come to live in the Jewish State. I will know what it means to live among my own people. I will apply my energy and my abilities toward strengthening my ancestral home. I will learn to speak the language of my ancient forefathers. I have always been an Israelite but now I will be an Israeli too.