Growing up in suburban New York, I remember our annual pilgrimage to the city in honor of the annual Israeli Day Parade. As a small child, my family would take the train into the city, meet up with our extended family, and watch the countless marchers pass by, along with the floats, performers and Jewish music. It meant a lot to my younger self to leave the confines of my banal suburban existence and see the grand, big-apple, and it always served my parents as a sense of pride that we would join our friends and family at the largest annual, interdenominational, Jewish gathering in the diaspora.
The Israeli flag would feature prominently among the marchers and spectators, but, ironically, we would also see lots of American flags. Once, my Bubbe returned home from the parade with a binational flag, Israel and U.S., and proudly hung it on the side of her car. I remember my father voicing his concern for her safety, driving around in Brooklyn in an increasingly Arab neighborhood with an Israeli flag in full view, but she insisted on leaving it there. I also remember the many paraphernalia, cufflinks, shirt pins etc., all bearing the same binational statement. I would proudly attend shul wearing a pin with both flags. It just seemed so natural.
Not because I was making a calculated political statement, I just felt it natural that as an American-Jew I would feel patriotic about both countries. I remember how as a young camper at Camp Moshava, I once complained that at mifqad (the main gathering before Shabbos) we never sang the Star Spangled Banner alongside Hatiqwa. As a patriotic American, I had always assumed that as a Jewish-American I should respect both anthems. I felt a sense of loyalty to my American fatherland, a sense of belonging.
As I got older, though, I began to disassociate psychologically from my American patriotism. My politics grew more nuanced, my identity complex, and my loyalties confused. I don’t refer to my burgeoning sense of Zionism that overtook me later on in my adolescence, but to another, less obvious, alternative sense of belonging that I began to adopt.
Growing up on the outskirts of the major Jewish community in New York, I did not have a normal childhood. The majority of my peers from day-school didn’t live in my community. They lived in other communities, particularly more affluent ones. I grew up lonely, I suffered through many asocial shabbosses. My community, small-but-growing as my mother always said euphemistically, couldn’t provide for me a solid sense of identity. I lacked a peer-group, I lacked friends, I grew aloof from my peers at school, and I slowly but surely began to search out alternative solutions to my social stagnation.
On account of my social issues with my previous peer group, I consciously chose to seek out another set of friends, from another type of community, with whom I could identify. When I started at MTA, I quickly fell in with a group of intelligent, introverted but interesting friends. I competed with them but I also felt more comfortable among them. The volatile individualism which had drained me in my previous environment seemed to be partially subdued by a sense of duty and community, something that I had never before experienced.
I still remember fondly my first few Shabbosses at my friends, mostly in Teaneck. I remember the elation of having found a safe space for myself, of having connected with friends who accepted me along with my unique, flamboyant and idiosyncratic personality, and whose families and siblings also took interest. My insecurities and doubts about myself and my abilities evaporated, I had found a second home, and what I had lacked my entire childhood.
For those who don’t know, Teaneck, in many ways, serves as the capital of Modern Orthodox Jewry. It started as a satellite community for Yeshiva University students and graduates, who found the proximity to their alma-mater, in addition to its convenient commuting distance to New York, opportune. Many thousands of Modern-Orthodox Jews call Teaneck their home, and owing to its relatively small size, walkable on Shabbos, the density of Modern-Orthodox Jews in Teaneck must surely register as the highest in the world. It’s a town of many shuls, schools and community groups, with ample activities for youth and adults alike, quite unlike the small, quiet community life I had known.
I would spend much time with my friends from Teaneck, on the phone and in school, and from time to time would also invite myself out for shabboses. When I received my license as a junior, the doors opened up. My parents didn’t need to ferry me any longer to-and-fro, a forty-minute trip from my home, and I independently began to explore. I would spend afternoons knocking on friends’ doors, meeting up for chavrusas, study for exams and hanging out at the local restaurants and parks, especially outdoor hikes in the area.
In general, I benefited greatly from my newfound community. To an extent, my friends and their families came to adopt me. They understood my uncomfortable situation and welcomed me into their homes and families, coming to see me as more than just an occasional visitor. When I went through tough times later on, I felt comfortable turning to my friends and their families for support. It meant a lot to me.
On the other hand, I always felt like an outsider. I needed to drive over to visit my friends, and I couldn’t spend every Shabbos away from home. Some days I would aimlessly drive around Teaneck, looking for friends to talk to. One time I even crashed a friend’s date (they ended up getting married). Additionally, I also began to see myself as different socially. My childhood experiences lent me a more diversified emotional gamut, I saw more of the world, met more interesting people, than most of my friends from Teaneck, who had known only the dalet amos of their community their entire life. In contrast to my friends who focused mostly on schoolwork and religious study, I became enthralled by goyish society. I learned to speak Spanish from my bus drivers, I interested myself in larger, political questions. The naïve competition that I had embraced as a freshman began to irritate me as I grew older. I sought authenticity, my peers sought, with almost religious fervor, college acceptances and, eventually, careers. Even their religious studies became competitive, and I distinctly remember feeling that my friends had decided to compete on their place in heaven. I fell out of stride with my clique, and, owing to the sense of alienation, I decided to forego my relationships and study at a different Israeli yeshiva. I wanted another restart.
In Israel, I continued to visit my friends, mostly at Gush, but I also grew more apart. I started to embrace Israeli culture and identity, I became enamored by Zionist idealism, and my friends’ nonchalant, practical, banal outlook on life became all the more infuriating. When I returned to Yeshiva University after unsuccessfully integrating into Israeli society, I was dismayed by my friends’ inability to understand the cause for my idealism. I felt that they judged me for my “childish” dream of authenticity, and in order to get the support I desperately needed, I felt obligated to submit to their banality, effectively self-effacing the vibrant personality that I had come to call my own. Eventually, I couldn’t stand the inauthenticity and I fled to Israel, looking for the idealism that I had experienced briefly in my year-abroad.
Along the way, my American patriotism was replaced by the visceral sense of belonging that I had accustomed myself to in high school. My at-times obsessive relationship with Teaneck supplanted the ephemeral, esoteric notions of national identity that left me socially impoverished as a child. When my relationship with Teaneck began to falter, I sought to rekindle my nationalist spirit in the form of Zionism, but this too faltered, as I couldn’t successfully navigate the cultural divide between American and Israeli societies. I tried yet again, upon my return to the states, to feel patriotic, but my political intuitions had changed and hampered such sentiments from taking hold. I now understand that the synthesis of both types of identity, community and nationality, serves as the only solution to the strange dynamic of being Jewish. One cannot be only Jewish, one must also interact with his surrounding countrymen. On the other hand, one cannot fully adopt a national identity without reneging on his Judaism. Jews must, as it now seems clear to me, share their identities with others, including gentiles, or risk either assimilation or becoming a cult-religion, with its associated psychological and social repercussions.
So too, in Israel, the Jews must forego their national identity and settle on community collectivism. Israel, with its diverse population, including a large gentile minority, cannot replace the likes of the warm, communal Jewish identity I came to love in Teaneck, but can only offer a sterile, safe civil society, like America, for our communal identities to flourish. For now, I’ve found my Teaneck in Israel in Givat Shmuel/Petah Tiqwa. I take issue with the banal bourgeois lifestyle of my friends, but, learning from the great support that Teaneck offered me in my adolescent years, I know not to disengage from such a community. Israel will change, as will America. We will one day feel comfortable living in a more tolerant society that will accept us for our beliefs and traditions. One day, we will live together: Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics in the Americas; Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze in the Levant.