As a 15-year-old, I made my peace with the reality that I would not follow my cousin Hank Greenberg to baseball stardom. I chose the next-best alternative: I would become a sportswriter. But by the time I graduated from college I had relinquished that ambition for law school, imagining that I would eventually argue cases before the Supreme Court. Dulled by courses on torts, contracts, and civil procedure, I quickly realized my mistake. But I needed to remain a student to elude the military draft. Inspired years earlier by Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy, I decided to become a historian. So, I learned how to remember the past.
Perhaps in retribution, I eventually turned my scholarly attention to the legal profession. When Unequal Justice, my history of its contribution to the separation of law from justice, received front-page praise in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, I felt vindicated — and liberated. Leaving law and lawyers behind, I was free to pursue a different path.
That path emerged after a chance encounter with a friend who recommended a recent trip to Israel for disaffected Jewish academics sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. I knew that I was qualified; so did the Committee. It became the transformative experience of my life. Fascinated by Israel, which touched who I was as a Jew as nothing else had done, I applied for, and received, a Fulbright professorship at Tel Aviv University. But I knew enough from the wondrous excitement of my earlier visit to make my home in Jerusalem.
It was a year of discovery, not only in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Judaean desert but in myself. In December, after a day-long bus ride with my family on a Hanukkah group trip to Sinai, we finally reached our destination. As we searched in the dark for our baggage, the yeshiva students among us unfolded a table, unpacked their menorah, and called everyone to participate in the lighting of the first candle. As they led us in singing Maoz Tzur, I felt that a spark had been ignited, not only in the hanukkiah but in me.
Retracing the journey of the ancient Israelites from Egypt to the promised land, we returned to Jerusalem on the eighth day. I suggested that we go to the Western Wall to see if there might be a celebration. The plaza was packed with many hundreds — perhaps thousands — of Jews whose joyous anticipation was palpable. Suddenly eight large oil vats placed high on the Kotel ignited with a loud “whoosh.” Everyone sang Maoz Tzur together. It was a transformative moment: I realized that I was a Jew and that Jewish history was my history.
Israel became the focus of my attention, passion, research, and writing. In the 45 years since there have been many returns, another year in Jerusalem, and the powerful impact of visits to Hebron that prompted my history of its millennia-old Jewish community.
Along the way, there were discoveries of a different kind. Meandering through the Old City I found a small shop that sold intriguing Jewish antiquities — millennia-old coins, juglets, and Canaanite fertility figurines with bulging eyes and breasts. Mahmoud, the owner, became my teacher, identifying what fascinated me and, as our friendship deepened, guiding me to ancient sites that I never could have discovered on my own.
Down the street was Ibrahim, who left me alone to explore his antiquities collection while he played chess with a friend. Over time, he took me on my first visit inside Machpelah in Hebron, the burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs; and to biblical Shechem (now Nablus), where Abraham built an offering to God and the first capital of the ancient Kingdom of Israel was located.
I often found unexpected kindness. In the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, on a steaming hot day when my canteen had run dry, a kind shop owner recounted Abraham’s generous hospitality to a stranger as he refilled it. In Hebron, David Wilder, the English-language spokesman for the Jewish community who had left New Jersey for the promised land, became my guide and mentor for my history of Hebron Jews.
I can never repay Israel, and Israelis, for liberating my Jewish self and returning me to my people. They bestowed cherished memories that will remain with me always.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, among other books, of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel; Jewish State, Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy; and Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel: 1896-2016.