Distilling what it means to be a Jew

Beit Hatfutsot’s 20th Anniversary My Family Story awards ceremony this week was like an experience in figuring out, for once and for all, what it means to be a Jew.

Forty-two 12-15 year olds and their proud-as-punch families, selected from over 20,000 program participants from 25 countries around the globe gathered at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Combining in-depth research into their family trees with the resulting artworks – I could feel a whole years’ worth of days and nights of effort finally given a voice. All those discussions with family members, the pouring over sepia-toned photographs, digesting the highs and lows of their individual and collective, inter-generational lives. The chuppas, the Seder meals, the family in-jokes…..the trains to places we don’t want to even contemplate.

A noisy explosion of color, ideas and emotions – both somber and joyful, leaped out of the exhibits all so lovingly arranged for the opening night of the exhibition. The room was full of excited young teens and their parents. At this point I felt that being Jewish was about sharing the good stuff but also the hard stuff, oh and also about being loud.

I wandered around mesmerized by the artworks, especially the incredibly life-like busts of Michelle Rosenstock Gelber from Costa Rica’s “Past Connections”. This family was so real it was crazy.

Past Connections by Michelle Rosenstock Gelber from Costa Rica
Past Connections by Michelle Rosenstock Gelber from Costa Rica

The final awards ceremony continued the emotional journey – and the dial only went upwards. MC’d by the Director of the Museum’s International School of Jewish Peoplehood Studies, Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste, we began our upward spiral (beginning at base camp, by the way). Close to 600 of us, from 15 countries were there for one thing only – to tap into our personal and collective Jewish identity and heritage. To add to the sensory experience Talia spoke simultaneously to countless others around the world in Hebrew and English via livestream. Then there were the names – the procession of young people coming up to the stage to be acknowledged in some way, the cheers and the hugs, interspersed with videos of participants with their relatives learning about their past. At this point I really felt that being Jewish was about being dizzy, but mainly about being one. And about being ready to cry.

But just like that the loud beats of Israeli drumming group Tararam bursting onto the stage lifted us up and took us to a higher plane than we ever thought possible with their rendition of “Because I’m happy”. At this point, I decided (shifting gears very quickly) that being a Jew was about being as happy as possible.

The evening gave no shortage of opportunities to choke up. Like when Nofar Sereche proudly strode up to the stage with her mother to receive the award for 1st place in the Israel category for her sculpture “Bird Aliyah”. Nofar’s mother had come to Israel from Ethiopia as an 8 year old and had truly believed they were being flown by a giant bird, as she had never seen a plane.

Making us soar - Bird Aliyah by Nofar Sereche from Gedera, Israel
Making us soar – Bird Aliyah by Nofar Sereche from Gedera, Israel

The sight of hundreds of young school students – so happy to be together, so proud of their home countries, so elated to be in Israel with their oh-so-shiny shoes, starched ribbons and new-found friends was also very moving. And well, Hatikva sung by a room full of people from all over the world at the end of a big and wonderful day? That’s got to moisten the eyes of the most hardened individualist.

So perhaps this is what it means to be a Jew? To have others share the most intimate moments of your joy, your pain and your story because so much of it is our story. Strap on your seat belts, parachute or whatever – either way being a Jew is going to get emotional.

About the Author
Anna lives in Herzliya with her husband and three kids. She is originally from Australia and made Aliyah in 2009. She is on a fascinating, mostly unmarked journey of being a new Jew and an even newer Israeli, while trying to get some balance and joy out of every day.
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