Some of you might know me by now. But if not, naim meod, my name is Virag, and I am a non-Jew who is obsessed with Israel, the people who are lucky to be Jews, and I am also obsessed with the people who are against these former two.
My journey started somewhere in 2012, but I won’t repeat myself as you might already know all that. You know, the Sholom Artzi, Idan Raichel, Dead Sea and egg scrambling story. If not, you can find it here.
Many, many, many things have changed since 2012, but something didn’t: I’m still a non-Jew. I still don’t know if I’m going to convert, if that is really my path, or I need to do what I need to do as a non-Jew, as an outsider. But let me be very honest here (as I always am), there is something else that changed: I became more self-aware and as a random Jew in Manhattan told me the other day “you totally own yourself”, well, yes, here is what he meant: I told him that thinking back to the pre-2012 myself, I think I was on the verge of being an anti-Semite. No, please, don’t stop reading here. I was never hateful; I was never denying the Holocaust; I was never even questioning the legitimacy of Israel.
But I was filled with stereotypes, I ‘had enough’ of the Holocaust studies as I wanted to say ‘there were people who were killed in the Gulag’, and I was indeed absolutely negligent towards Israel and its existence. I was a typical Eastern European. And if you’re an Eastern European, please don’t comment that I shouldn’t generalize and that I’m this or that. I was born in 1985, spent my early years in the communism and I did grow up with all the stereotypes about the Jews. We can deny it, but it was the norm. I like to think, and I do believe that today, things have changed. Obviously, we are living a different world.
But back to ‘me owning myself.’ It was hard to admit that I was acting as, what today, I would call an anti-Semite.
Because who is an anti-Semite? A person who projects a belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish (and well, rest assured, none of the stereotypes were positive) and who denies Israel’s right to exist (well, I could not care less about the question). Once I was able to define my old-self I tried to dig deeper where it all rooted. My parents? My grandparents? School? Friends? Meeting Jews? Guess what: I have no idea. Yes, I did hear the typical Jewish jokes at home and at school, but I don’t remember giving them any deeper intention than a joke, just as a joke on blonde women. Inappropriate? Yes. Anti-Semitic? Not.
Then, I dug more; I remembered everything we learned about the Holocaust, I learned what Hungary’s leadership did and didn’t do; we went to the Holocaust Museum, none of us ever thought of questioning the horror that we saw, but it was still a distanced almost impersonated experience. Apart from the human dismay, I could not connect. I connected with the Gulag where some of my relatives were killed. And I think it is somewhat normal: you connect to the things that are closest to your personal experience.
And then, as the last point in my soul searching, I realized I don’t know if I even met a Jew before 2012. I know, this sounds crazy. But – and this actually makes me an absolute antithesis of being an anti-Semite – I was always in an international group because of my dancing career, so we were all the just the same. Today, I know I had many Jewish people around me, I just simply had no idea they were Jewish. And to make this mess even messier, I remember that we had the Jewish jokes with these Jewish guys. At this point, I am not sure anymore if this whole is really so typical Eastern European – but this is my story.
So where am I today?
The majority of my best friends are Jewish. (Yes, I’m fully aware of that they are). The majority of my clients are Jewish. The majority of my air tickets are to Israel. My personal brand turned into naming me an Almost Jewish. And yes, I have just submitted my last exam paper to a master program in Judaism studies in Midtown Manhattan. In fact, I moved away from my Israeli boyfriend, to study Judaism in New York City.
During the last six months, I met incredible Jewish people and pro-Israel advocates in New York. (You think it’s easy here, but let me tell you, it is not.) I attended all the possible events out there, from lectures to talks, and I even went to my first Shabbat service. But then, I also met plenty of Jew-hater Jews, leaders of anti-Israel movements, BDS supporters, and at last, a Holocaust survivor, who told me in the eye that no matter what I say all Hungarians are anti-Semites as it’s in our blood. (About this more, at another time)
It was an intense six months even if I strictly focus on the Judaism, Israel aspect of my life. I had it all planned out, and I kicked off my blog, the Almost Jewish, to share my discoveries, challenges, and stories as a non-Jew in the big Jewish world, but I could not keep up with it. I found no time to write. I worked full time and studied full time. I took three courses in a subject area in which I have no undergraduate degree or previous studies, nor do I have a Jewish background. But I was curious beyond belief. For the first few classes I was in a euphoria: I was thirsty for knowledge, everything that I heard was giving me an ‘aha’ moment, I tried to keep up with the class where I was the non-Jew who understands nothing related to the Torah. But I thought, to have my hamsa on my neck and my heart filled with love towards this country and its people, I can be one of them, I can be one of you. Of course, it doesn’t work that way.
I have gone through many episodes of smaller and bigger breakdowns. The first smaller one was to write five book reviews from Jewish literature and check whether they were accurate, biased or factful. I took the first book and realized I couldn’t benchmark it against anything as I have never read a book from Jewish literature. So I worked harder. I researched the author, then I researched the topic, and the I researched everyone else writing about the topic. I finished the five book reviews and recovered from the small breakdown.
The big breakdown came with my last exam where I needed to write 22 pages of in-depth analyses using at least 20 sources. I had three weeks. I had almost 2,000 pages to read. I traveled with my Zionist book everywhere from my hip hop dance class to my business meetings. I thought it would never end. It did. And I submitted my paper. My little studio turned into a Jews library, and I need new bookshelves.
And before I give closure to how I feel after a semester studying modern Jewish history, studying about the post-Holocaust times and the DP camps, studying about the collective memory of victimhood, and the correlation between the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, I need to say: thank you.
Thank you to everyone who supported me during these months, the Jews and the non-Jews. The Orthodox rabbi who took the time to write me at midnight helping me figure out why the conflicting views of Hakham Zevi and R.Yonatan Eibschutz were important, to that secular rabbi who gave his views on Rav Kook. From the observant Jewish friends (and family) who went through my exam questions and at 3 am highlighted what I should still change. From my friends from Tel Aviv and New York, who offered help when they saw the pile of books on Zionism, to all the strangers who wrote me on social media sending their support without even knowing me simply because they enjoyed my snippets of the struggles that I shared.
I thank my classmates, who never made me feel an outsider and when the class turned into a half Hebrew half English lecture, they simultaneously WhatsApp-ed me the translation. I thank the Dean, Michael Shmidman, who after a 3-hours interview back in December trusted me enough to offer me a place with scholarship as he saw the potential in me. I thank my amazing Jewish clients who started each business call with “how is school going?” To my mentor, Matt Sweetwood, who introduced me to the magical world of doing mitzvahs. And to my boyfriend, who changed my life in so many levels, but what connects here is that he took me to Israel and helped me to fall in love with his country, family, friends, culture and all that – and who accepted that he will need to proofread each of my essays for the next two years.
And now, I tell you how these six months changed my life as a non-Jew standing with Israel. Today, I am not only emotionally protective of Israel and the Jews, but I’m ready to stand still in front of a hateful and yelling BDS supporter (yes it happened) who tells me that Israel is a baby killer apartheid country. I’m OK to stand still because I have the knowledge to answer; I have the knowledge to know I am on the right side; I know that have the tools to do what I want to do and that is to change the stereotypes about Jews and Israel one day at a time.
Deciding to enroll in a Master program far away from everything that I would call comfort zone and at an age when I should be grounding my family and settle down, was the best decision of my life. Because something deep inside tells me that even if I am just an Almost Jewish I have work to do. And for that, the struggle is so worth it.