There are many things to appreciate about this country. There are the superficial things, like the weather, the food and the sweet-smelling cologne that adorns every young Israeli man. But then there are the real things, like the IDF and the technological, scientific and medical advances that Israel has produced. I appreciate all of those things; however, the thing that touches my heart the most about this country, more than wearing flip-flops in November or eating ice cream on the Promenade in Netanya, is that in Israel, I can be as Jewish as I want.
I’ve never made it a secret that I wasn’t raised a “proper” Jew. I think back to my Birthrighters, 99% of them being American Jews, and remember what their post-Birthright plans were—law school, medical school or graduate school. They were going into professions where they would make money, like any stereotypical American Jew would. I was the outlier. My Birthrighters convinced me that graduate school was a huge mistake because unlike me, they knew what they wanted to do with their lives. I didn’t. Graduate school didn’t offer me the choice to change my mind like I could (and did) in college. I applied to graduate school in order to get my grandparents off of my back about not having a “real job.” In other words, I applied for the wrong reasons, and my Birthrighters made me see that. While I felt like I wasn’t one of them because I wasn’t a “good” American Jew (working towards money, or at least marrying someone with money or having an advanced degree), they still saw me as a Jew. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t gone to Hebrew school. It didn’t matter that I never had a real Bat Mitzvah and settled for one on the top of Masada during our trip. All that mattered was that I was a Jew, however Jew-ish I may be. I am thankful for them with every fiber of my being—it’s been exactly two years since I received my Birthright acceptance email—but I wish there were more people like them in America. Massachusetts does have its fair share of Jewish cities—Framingham, Sharon, Brookline and Newton, to name a few—but when out of these cities, it’s much harder to act “Jewish.” Even though Massachusetts is a blue state, the dominant religion is Christianity. West Roxbury, the town I grew up in, was mostly Irish-Catholic and hadn’t changed when I nannied there over two years ago. With these demographics, it makes it harder to practice Judaism. Being a secular, half-Jew helps, but it can be a struggle to strut around with a tee-shirt that has a Star of David on it in America. At least with Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, it’s much easier to have a Star of David anything.
I spent this past Friday and Saturday in Tel Aviv to say goodbye to my friend, Allie, a lovely journalist I met at the 2013 Masa Israel Leadership Summit, as she prepared to move back to America this weekend. She dragged me to a minyan (my first) at a synagogue on her street. We entered the synagogue with our small group, dropped off the goodies on the tables adorned with coffee, wine and dinner foods, and sat down with the prayer books. My Hebrew is dismal at best and I sat in my chair with the book in my hands, pretending to know what I was doing. I stayed quiet, admired the calligraphy of the letters that were written on the pages and listened to the singing of the people who spoke. After prayers were over and the dinner had started, I excused myself to call Paul, as he and Cassie arrive to the Holy Land this Tuesday. As I went outside, I marveled at how there could be this synagogue with prayers going on coexisting peacefully with all the bars that were playing music on Bograshov Street. It was Shabbat and this synagogue was following it, yet here were these bars and restaurants open and no one batted an eye. Tel Aviv, while a modern place, represents Israel and the bigger picture—that one can be as Jewish as they want here.
The part of Netanya that I live in is fairly secular. The Russian and French immigrants keep their stores and restaurants open on Shabbat. My gym stays open until 6:30PM on Fridays and opens at 5:00PM on Saturdays. I can wear a skirt that hits above my knees and a tank top without a side-eyed glance. My school is extremely secular and I have never gotten in trouble for wearing sneakers and sweatpants. I use my phone on Shabbat and I don’t keep kosher. And at the end of the day, Israel still recognizes me as a Jew, well, minus the Rabbinate who won’t let me get married because they still see me as a shiksa. Even still, Israel lets me say Shabbat Shalom, put a note in the Western Wall or eat all the matzot my teacher gave me this past Friday without facing judgment. I have had to turn off my “Jewish-ness” in America. At least in Israel, I don’t have to.
There have been many hot afternoons this week, and I have spent my afternoons at the gym, pounding the belt on the treadmill since I just took up running. I hadn’t seen Allie since New Year’s Eve and she marveled at how much weight I lost (does thirteen pounds make that much of a difference?). Allie is smaller than I am, yet she still let me borrow her clothes, shared her tequila and let me spend the night. No matter who you are, everyone is family in Israel.
I recognize that Israel doesn’t waste time, moments or grinds time. Israel has an efficiency that is revitalizing and a terseness that doesn’t bother. Over the weekend, apart from eating too much at brunch at Olive or all the sand on my clothes since I didn’t know I’d be going to the beach with Allie, there were the colorful flowers that were being sold in the shuk and the soft rumble of the ocean waves. There were guys bumping into us at Cafe Noga and broken glass bottles outside of the Central Bus station, but I focus on the sun and the Jews who breathe life into it.
When I hope for a good future for Israel, I usually think of something like, Please let Her have friends, and please help Her still be a friend.
I can learn a lot about friendship from Her.
I know that many members of my cohort are much more emotionally intelligent than I am. When I get upset, they try and meet me with sympathy and tell me to breathe. I have experienced scenarios here that didn’t happen back home, and despite turning twenty-five in nine days, I still don’t know as much as about the world as I thought.
I think that I need to focus less on talking and lean into my cohort while waiting softly.
Israel has shown me the importance of using my ears to listen, to not rush and to stop and breathe things in. She has also shown me that others will listen as long as I do. Relationships and friendships are reciprocal. I know I cannot empathize with every struggle of my cohort, my students, the Israelis or Jews in general.
But I want them to know that I will listen.
Last night on the bus ride home from the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv to Netanya, I thought about this weekend—the hospitality, the weather and the conversations that will stay in my head. Being in Tel Aviv, closer to Ben Gurion Airport than Netanya is, I thought about Cassie and Paul’s upcoming arrival this Tuesday and how for them, they get to see what a predominantly Jewish place is like. Living in Connecticut, they don’t have that option. Even though they aren’t Jewish, they are still coming here to visit me, to explore and to learn. I don’t feel the need to put on a show for them and to be “Super Jew.” Our Passover seder will be in our hotel room in Tel Aviv, eating matzot with chocolate spread and gefilte fish out of a jar. Having been to both reform seders and a Modern Orthodox seder last year, I at least know that by being in Israel, I can do Passover my way, although I have had to freeze the bread I bought the other day since Passover is a much bigger deal here than in America.
Although I often think that I cannot love Israel more than I do right now, listening to the music, prayers and conversations that happen in every which way here, I feel my heart open even wider still. Lev sheli, forever blessed by this country that gives me the choice to be a nonchalant Jew or a Super Jew, continues to widen and let more love in the longer I’ve lived here. And as long as Israel continues to touch my hand, the sun will shine brighter.