search
Malka Fleischmann

Israel: The Exilic Jew’s Phantom Limb

Since October 7th, I’ve worried that the cries of non-Israeli Jews seem performative. At a time when identity politics—though, arguably, having always been at play—reigns supreme, it would seem that worldwide Jewry is seizing upon an opportunity to be among those who matter. Pointing to the tiniest of countries on the map—one that most influencers currently decrying her wartime strategies can’t even locate—non-Israeli Jews are charged with the crime of laying claim to some exotic and complicated geopolitical conflict because it makes us, in turn, seem more exotic and complicated ourselves.

But, here’s the thing. It’s not a performance, and Israel is, indeed, ours to claim.

***

In a sort of ever-present and at-all-stages kind of way, a Jewish life bears directionality. With Biblical and Talmudic underpinning, we face Jerusalem for our thrice daily prayers, scanning the walls, when unsure, for the guiding “mizrach” (east) signage posted in every home and synagogue. And, in those same structures, there are unfinished parts—whether a prominently featured unpainted patch on the foyer wall or an unrenovated closet in an otherwise brand new build—to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Grace after meals boasts no fewer than eight references to the Holy Land, and, if one aims to be observant of all 613 commandments, several of which are dependent upon Israeli residency, inhabiting the Land is a requirement.

There’s more. So much more, in fact, that I’m daunted by the prospect of detailing our identity’s inextricability from the land. How could I possibly? Where do I begin? Where is there an end? I wonder, too, whether any attempt at delineation of Israel-based ritual will resonate among wider non-Jewish audiences, especially progressive ones, which seem hellbent on projecting western racial and socio-political schema onto millennia-long histories they’ve neglected to study. They repudiate the fact that the remarkable global rise of incidents of antisemitism in the wake of October 7th is undeniable proof of Judaism’s elemental tether to Zionism.

Perhaps, though, chapters of my own enmeshment will help to reify our Zionist cores and demystify exilic Jews’ synchronous mourning and seething with their Israeli brethren. Perhaps something about a girl’s personal relationship to her Homeland—leaving aside attempts to chronicle our mammoth, Israel-centered national biography—will strike morally wayward and history-blind hearts and minds.

***

Since infancy and on every night of my childhood, my mother held me or lay beside me, reading aloud from our latest library find before helping me to recite the nighttime Shema prayer. Hear, O Israel, HaShem (the Lord) is Our God, HaShem is One.

This prayer, which is also the final statement of any Jew facing death—and is audible in several videos currently circulating and depicting the final moments of innocent Israeli civilians as they face Hamas’ worst-ever terrorist rampage—is the liturgical centerpiece of Jewish expressions of faith. And, quite clearly, it is a call—a burning and faithful yawp—to Israel. The People of Israel. A People inseparably and definitionally tied to a place. 

Upon waking, I would go to school. There, we would conclude morning prayers with a blessing for the safety of our homeland.  

For the next seven hours, alongside math, history and science, we would study Hebrew language, as well as the narratives of Ancient Israel’s judges and prophets, laws pertaining to the Holy Temple and Israel’s harvest, and our own Jewish history, an unending spiral of persecutions, expulsions and plans for Return. 

We wore blue and white on the first of every Hebrew month; we sang HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem, at every assembly; and we gathered—children, teens and families from across the country—to march and sing our way down Fifth Avenue at the annual Salute to Israel Parade.

In 2002, during the Second Intifada, we wore stainless steel cuffs bearing the names of missing Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. Throughout high school and college, our fingers and necks were adorned with Hebrew engraved silver– the sideways hammered heart necklace representing the height of the trend– inscribed with the Psalmic phrase, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand.” And some among us—perhaps the most romantic and zealous—swiped a bit of jarred Israeli dirt across the bottoms of our shoes each morning so that, wherever life took us, we walked upon our own holy ground.

We attended Zionist summer camps, wherein experiential programming brought everything from Biblical-era Judaism to Israel’s modern day high-tech culture to life. We spent our 10th grade summers on roving tour buses, adapting to the rhythm of kibbutz for a week here or there. And, finally, in rather poetic and idealistic first steps away from our parents, we lived there during gap years spent in various seminaries and volunteer programs around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, before heading off to our respective universities (though, in some cases, we stayed and enlisted in the army). 

Now, as adults, the question of Return remains ever-present, the dulcet yet prodding white noise of every chutznik (foreigner) Jew’s existence. Even if never realized, the dream and debate of aliyah will be lifelong. Like the other dealbreakers that singles list on their dating profiles—things such as where one falls on children, smoking, drinking and politics—“plans to move to Israel” is a categorical filter in the Jewish dating world. I, for instance, though admittedly uncertain about when, how or if I’ll get there, wouldn’t date anyone for whom aliyah were a firm and resounding ‘no’. It’s the oh-so-complex but everlasting hope that must undergird my future home’s construction, wherever that home may be located.

***

During my first trip to Israel, at only four years old, I logged the shimmering Kinneret waters as one of my earliest memories, thinking that the sea’s euphotic zone looked as much like the hand of God as anything I’d ever seen. During my second trip—a two-week long visit in celebration of my middle brother’s Bar Mitzvah—we stayed in an apartment in Jerusalem. Those weeks remain alive in my mind, snatches of jasmine-scented alleyways, buttered baguettes, bagged chocolate milk, and Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia. Finding that solitary record in our rental, my eldest brother played it incessantly, until it became forever bound up in memories of Jerusalem stone, the unremitting sun over the Western Wall’s visitor plaza, and family. To this day, strange as it may seem, the duo’s delightfully percussive call to Cecelia, begging her “please to come home,” tugs at my own heart and makes me ache for my land.

I’ve lost count of the number of notes I’ve left to God in the crevices of the Kotel. We all have.

I’ve danced in the shuk with soldiers who, without introductions, called me their sister. 

I’ve hitchhiked with strangers hundreds of times, only to discover that they knew my parents back in Ohio, go to the same synagogue as my Israel-based brother, or live in the same building as my once-upon-a-time summer camp best friend. 

I’ve journaled at cafes across the country, collecting and leaving bits of myself alongside drained cups of Nana.

I’ve scurried, unbidden and curious, through the Hasid-lined roads of Geula and the Muslim-dominated streets of Silwan.

Together with one of my closest friends and a decades-long study partner, I analyzed and emotionally enshrined Steinbeck, Wharton and Stegner in Nahalat Shiva’s cozy and dimly lit Tmol Shilshom, a hybrid restaurant and literary hub amid Jerusalem’s bustling streets. 

With morning coffee in hand, I’ve nestled in my brother’s hammock, gently swinging, rocked by a breeze carrying earthy scents from nearby farms and the mystical sound of the neighboring Arab village’s adhan.  

I met sunrise in the Judean Hills—the same ones trodden by our Biblical forebears—attempting to run through that particular season’s young adult existential crisis, stomping and crying to the rhythm and refrain of Ingrid Michaelson’s words: This is my home. This my home; where I go, when I’ve got nowhere else to go.

And, in the end, despite the mutable facts of our current addresses, that’s what She is for us. Israel is home. She is where we go—both willingly and under duress—when we’ve got nowhere else to go. 

Yes; after millennia of persecution, America and some other countries have, indeed, offered wonderful refuge for Jews. After all, I write this piece during a uniquely privileged and safe era for us, however relatively new and precarious our security may be.

But for exilic Jews, no matter how wonderful our foster homes and circumstances, we feel, in part or entirely and for all our lives long, beckoned elsewhere. As if by magnetic pull, we are divided, building and working in the here and now, but always and simultaneously daydreaming of our national fountainhead and future.

It’s why nearly 300,000 of us rallied in Washington on November 14th. That march was a symptom of a maddening sense of impotence in the face of our national, communal and eternal duty. We are a people bound by our sense of brotherhood and ungrudgingly obligated to our small yet mighty corner of the earth.

***

Five days after the October 7th massacre, my sister-in-law surreptitiously recorded my niece’s dinnertime musings, a mix of bewilderment and concern. After asking about wartime logistics and the reach of a two-dollar donation from her very own piggy bank, she said:   

Why would they even want to start attacking us?

My niece was born in the United States, has lived in one house for all seven years of her little life, and hasn’t set foot in Israel. Yet, somehow, she knows that she is written into this story. That there—across the ocean—is our fate and family. There is home. 

Israel—the homeland that preserves echoes of our birth and bears promises of our eternity—is the exilic Jew’s phantom limb. The thrumming of our blood, some 6,000 miles away.

And, though they say that a severed limb survives just hours before viability is entirely lost, ours has endured some two thousand years, its pulse growing ever stronger in these last seventy-five.

***

This coming summer, my oldest nephew will join the Israeli army. I remember the first time I held him in my teenage arms, wonderstruck and immediately in love. This little boy who made me an aunt.

So, you see, I have no story without Israel. Without Her, I cease to exist. Without Her, we—the Jewish people—cease to exist.  

And so, grieving and galvanized, now and forever, we lay claim. 

About the Author
Malka Fleischmann is a writer and educator living in Manhattan. She is passionate about Judaism, love, literature, education, and interfaith work. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Divinity School, Malka is also a Wexner Fellow-Davidson Scholar and M2 fellow, with roots firmly planted in Camp Stone. Malka's writing has been published in the New York Times, the Jewish Week, Tablet and in Maggid Press' Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Esther in America.
Related Topics
Related Posts