I’ve been thinking alot about “return” lately. Aliyah is enabled by the Law of Return (חוק השבות). Enacted by the Knesset in 1950. The first sentence of the law states: “ Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.”
David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister at the time wanted no nuance and stated the following (emphasis mine):
“This law does not provide for the State to bestow the right to settle upon the Jew living abroad; it affirms that this right is inherent in him from the very fact of being a Jew; the State does not grant the right of return to the Jews of the diaspora. This right preceded (sic) the State; this right build (sic) the State; its source is to be found in the historic and never broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.”
The law is not called the “Law of Citizenship” nor the “Law of Immigration.” It is the Law of Return affirming that the state was built on the right of every Jew to return to Zion after 2000 years of yearning and exile.
Ben Gurion did not need to state the obvious but did so I gather so as to shut down arguments still going on today challenging the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael. Ours is a history rich in expulsions, forced conversions, exiles, persecution and ghettoization. As a result, we Jews have always been returning to something. Yearning for return is enshrined in our history, scripture and liturgy. Perhaps if our days of yore were less dramatic our sense of connection to the land would be different, maybe less acute. Alas, our kinship to the land is just as much from blood as it is from aspiration.
I am thinking of my father’s “return” to Eretz Yisrael. He survived the Nazi occupation of his home town, Chernovitzi, the public execution of his father in the courtyard of his synagogue, a months-long forced march to the Sharograd ghetto, separation from his mother and sister and forced labor near the Russian front. He was lucky and on a fluke according to his telling, escaped to Russian occupied territory. Though in his fourteen years of life he had never stepped foot in Eretz Yisrael he “returned” to what was then the British Colony of Palestine along with other orphans from Nazi-occupied Europe in a secret underground Jewish Agency mission.
Except he wasn’t an orphan. Having escaped, “returned,” resettled and started a new life he would find sometime later that his mother had also survived and was living in New York. Torn between his new life, the language he embraced and mastered, the land he loved and a people who gave him new life – and the biblical commandment of respect for one’s mother – he set sail for New York.
While the move worked out well for him, till today he lives with a certain amount of what-ifs as would anyone. He did however, internalize his love of Israel, Hebrew and the Jewish people dedicating his life to teaching Jewish children their language, religion, culture and heritage. From as far back as I can remember, Hebrew was spoken in our home together with English (Yiddish was spoken by my parents when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, we picked it up soon enough). Our phonograph was always stacked with Israeli Song Festival records. Our heroes were Moshe Dayan, and Yizchak Rabin. When the news was on we were shushed if the anchor so much as mentioned Israel. Bar Mitzvahs, vacations, gap years were all done in Israel. My father may not have been living in Israel any longer but he had “returned,” was always spiritually there and he brought us along.
The Jewish word for repentance is teshuva (תשובה) the root of which is return. When times are tough, after giving sage parental advice my father will often invoke an old Yiddishism; “mir daf teen teshuvah,” which literally means, we have to repent. I always personalize it to mean, you can always come home, you can always return; to home, to God, to family.
Covid, for all the horror it has caused has afforded me an opportunity at renewal. I return to Israel because you can always go home again. While there I can shed the multiple hyphens my American identity seemingly embodies. Oh, I’ll still consider myself a Jewish-American-liberal-New Yorker (plus some other adjectives) but in Israel I aim to be just one thing, a Jew. And yeah, I get it, I’ll be hyphenated and classified there too, Israel has after all evolved into a multi-ethnic, multicultural state. For me though, it will be my own personal Jewish bubble, by choice. I think back to my childhood, sheltered from the outside world by my home, Yeshivas, shul, summer camp, neighborhood, friends etc… It was diverse in a certain way but it was comfortable and almost all Jewish.
The Israel I am returning to is complicated, nuanced, diverse, messy and a whole bunch of other things but the commonality is Jewishness, being part of a tribe with the most unlikely story in human history; a people returned home after 2000 years and all the entanglements that comes with it. I look forward to my tiny little part in it.