I spent six emotional weeks visiting my first love. Although we don’t meet often, when we do I feel uncomfortable at how easily we still relate. There is no denying that with my first love I understand the language between us, the culture around us, and the spark which united us for so many years. Things aren’t complicated between me and my first love; everything is routine and familiar.
Familiarity. That’s the word which captures the confusing and conflicting feelings I have when I return to America — my first love.
Eleven years after leaving, I still love California’s rolling mountains, New York’s commanding skyscrapers and the Midwest’s endless forests. I will never stop being awed by Arizona’s breathtaking canyons.
But it’s not home.
I still love walking into a mall without having my bag checked, going to a concert without fear of a terror attack and driving for hours without a military check point.
I love sleeping in my childhood bed, fully understanding the language spoken around me, laughing at jokes which I ‘get’ without thinking, and being able to express myself comfortably in my mother tongue.
But it’s not home.
As a first love, I will never stop feeling a connection to, and appreciation for, America. But I have moved on.
My home is now a land which my forefathers walked thousands of years ago, witnessing miracles and wonders. It’s the land I prayed towards in my childhood, and sang about at summer camp. It is the Promised Land that my people yearned to return to through exile and suffering. It’s the place that kept my people’s spirit alive and hopeful, through some of the darkest days in history. It is a country unlike any other, in which keeping Jewish children safe is a top priority for the government and military alike.
My home has welcomed the return of its people from every corner of the earth, just as the prophets foresaw thousands of years ago. We have made the barren desert bloom and changed the world with our innovations. We might be small, but we are driven, passionate, and a mighty force for creativity and ‘tikkun olam’. We are forgiving, yet fearless; understanding, yet deeply rooted in our beliefs.
My home has grandmothers who pray for strangers like they do for their own children, bus drivers who detour to hospitals with all passengers on board when there is an emergency and media whose front pages celebrate the new immigrants who have come home.
In my traditional homeland, which can be the most untraditional place in the world, tabloids speak of rabbis and cab drivers keep Shabbat. Mobsters wear Star of David necklaces and clubbing teenagers, who are soldiers home on leave, wear M-16 rifles. Heated discussions in Parliament deal with ritual baths, how to sanctify the Sabbath, family values, and biblical passages.
Yes, it’s true. My second love is way more complicated than my first. And it’s not as familiar to me. I might not understand every joke, the quick speaking radio announcers, or the menus at restaurants, but truth be told, that’s no longer what is most important to me.
I have come to realize that this isn’t my second love at all. Israel was always the land of my soul, and the soul of the Jewish people. In hindsight, I have returned to my first love and am just trying to catch up on lost time.
Some say I’m crazy to leave the luxury of America for the challenges of the Holy Land. But we’re soul mates, me and Israel. And love will make you do crazy things.
Yael Eckstein is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), overseeing the organization’s programs and serving as its international spokesperson.