“You want to make Aliyah to Beér Sheva? From Australia??? You’re crazy! Behatzlacha!” This was a common theme as I travelled through Israel last summer volunteering on a Kibbutz, practising my broken Hebrew and sharing my dream of moving to Israel – yes, with a sense of nostalgia for the Homeland of the Jews!
After growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Sydney, becoming Zionist when we moved to Israel, and then Secular when we moved back to Australia, I hadn’t the opportunity to return to Israel so whole-heartedly than I had last summer. I have lived in Australia for over 10 years and I call it home. I love the lifestyle, I love the calm, I love the landscape. It truly is the “lucky country”. The small Jewish community in Brisbane lives mostly undeterred and I am generally the only Jew amongst my friends. But more importantly my family is here and form the basis of everything I do – I am healthy, have a good job, good friends, good life – I have created a community for myself and I’m “happy”. Not to mention I’m ready to start a family of my own…
What I hadn’t foreseen in my years of living here is the growing disconnectedness from my community I was feeling. A disconnectedness that I had created for myself. From Orthodox to Secular was a big shift when I was young, it left a vacuum that I knew not how to fill. My parents pushed us through Jewish Youth movements to a point, maintained Jewish traditions through Shabbat and the High Holidays but as they divorced and family break down ensued, a deeper hole in my identity grew. At 14 years of age I wanted to return to Israel and did so by way of an agricultural program to experience Israeli culture once more and to reconnect with other Jews from the Diaspora. This experience is worth an article in itself but being amongst Americans, South Africans, Russians, Israelis, Ethiopians and more, whilst studying, eating, and living – was life changing. Even at a young age I was questioning my Jewish identity – Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? The sense of community I felt during these years of being in Israel has left a sense of nostalgia for that community again.
At 33 I am asking myself the same questions. Although now, I am questioning whether I want a Jewish partner? Do I want to raise my children Jewish? Do I want to live in Israel or Australia? These questions have gained momentum as last year I lost one of the greatest parts of myself, my mother – the centre of the family. It was very unexpected and I hadn’t imagined a life without a Jewish grandmother for my children – what I thought essential to a child’s upbringing. More than anything, I questioned whether I have the strength to raise a Jewish family without a Jewish partner? Can I return to my so-called happy life and a return to the care-free lifestyle of Australia after such a loss? So much uncertainty hit me all at once and I had no way of overcoming these feelings and loss of self other than going to Israel to reconnect with my roots.
I can’t tell you what Jewish identity is as we all know it’s a hard to define concept. In a time of growing anti-Israel sentiment coupled with news media bias and sensationalism it becomes increasingly difficult to continue to defend Israel’s right to exist – and my own. Being the sole Jew amongst my friends has meant that I am often asked the questions about current events and political issues in Middle East politics. Further, being subject to Jewish stereotyping was something I had grown accustomed to living in a small city in one of the most rural states of Australia. It was common to hear flippant remarks that Israel’s biggest problem is Gaza and to boycott the state to entice action and the like. I began to retreat from engaging in political conversation to avoid having arguments. I grew tired of it and yearned for some understanding and empathy.
So, I arrived in Israel and came to rely on a friend I hadn’t seen for twenty years to help me settle in. As we all know, Israelis are very direct and I didn’t feel like having strangers involved in every part of my life just yet! Alas, the questioning began, “what are you doing in Israel? Are you married? How’s the family? When are they coming?!!”. My friend gave me a thorough introduction as to what I could expect for my stay. In fact, as I began my trek across the Holy Land I did meet one too many men that offered their hand in marriage – or their sons!! I worked on a Kibbutz and lived how tough the farm-life can be but also how a community can give you strength and stability. I experienced a week of the dreaded “gastro” that is on every holiday itinerary and when visiting the Emergency Department at a local hospital was introduced as the “Cutie from Australia” and asked when am I having children. I watched Taglit-Birthright groups of young adults discover Israel and what being Jewish means to them. I felt a strong sense of connectedness to others whilst stuck in traffic on highways listening to car sounds and watching the “daringness” that is classic of Israeli motorists. After all, we really only feel comfortable yelling and honking horns at those close to us!
Which brings me to today filling out my Aliyah paperwork, planning for my return to establish a new life for myself this coming new year. I can’t pinpoint why Israel as a home resonates so much within me considering I have spent the majority of my life outside of it – perhaps I will always question this. In the words of Cynthia Ozick, living in the Diaspora “we cannot be Jewish just by being”; it is a constant questioning and a constant struggle. And perhaps that is the point – I may not know wholeness. I recall comments from a family member just before I boarded the plane last summer – “Go! Change your life!”. Israel has changed my life. I felt at home. I felt a history and a culture that resonated with my deepest beliefs and values. I felt connected. I felt a longing to continue the traditions of a people. I felt Jewish.