My heart is in the east and I am in Key West: A TOI anniversary

I chased the setting sun, a fiery orange colored spectacle, as we raced along the Overseas Highway portion of US Route 1 South, toward Key West, Florida. I first came to Key West a year ago for a writing workshop, during which time I wrote my first essay for the Ops and Blogs section of the Times of Israel. I briefly explored the lives of members of the Israeli expat community that gathers at Mam’s Best Food, one of two kosher restaurants on the island and an informal Jewish community center for them.

My return to Key West this past week for the same workshop felt a little like a homecoming, when Ilana, the tireless owner and cook of Mam’s greeted me warmly in Hebrew, in the fashion of the gracious middle eastern savta (grandma) that she is. Between a busy lunchtime takeout business and frequent phone interruptions, we caught up with one another as if we had just parted the day before. Aside from the excellent food, my main motivation for returning to Mam’s was to spend more time with the Israelis who have come to this marginal Jewish Diaspora, rather than a larger urban Israeli and Jewish center like New York.

I set out to do this with the naivete of an over eager cub reporter who is so enthusiastic about coming up with brilliant answers that he forgets to ask thoughtful questions. Not that I didn’t listen to the Israelis in the tourist shops and restaurants that I frequented; in fact, I did a lot of listening, yet with too much rigid a plan of what I wanted to discover and how to go about discovering it. I began my week asking people what they thought about Ariel Sharon’s legacy, on the assumption that this would give me a fuller picture of how they as Diaspora Israelis look at their relationship with Israel and the Jewish community. This line of questioning went nowhere. Sharon, for all intents and purposes, has been dead for the past eight years since his stroke, and too much water has gone under Israel’s bridge since then. Time, not distance, has largely shaped these Israelis’ perspectives on him.

Next, I asked people about living in America. I assumed I could chronicle their existential turmoil about leaving the country, their drifting out of Judaism, and their increasingly distant relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. This too was a misguided line of inquiry. Stories certainly abound of secular Israelis coming to America and completely assimilating because they have no distinctive sense of Jewish identity to anchor them beyond being Israeli, but these were not the stories I was hearing. The people I met often connect to the local Jewish community through Chabad, keep kosher in some form (as hard as this is to do in the Keys), maintain close connections with family and friends back home, and have at times attempted to return to Israel permanently. Often, concerns such as making a living and being close to family in America thwart those attempts. One man I met is a tee shirt shop owner who came to America as a boy, went back to Israel for army service, then returned to America. He treated me to a special “price for a brother” on four tee shirts before explaining himself. “Look,” he said, “If your motivation in life is mostly spiritual and you want very little, you’ll get along just fine. But I’m not a tzaddik, a righteous, holy man. I live in the world and I want to be able to afford things. Do you know how expensive it is to live there?”

My quest for sweeping, definitive answers about this small Israeli community tail spun into frustration. Then, I remembered my encounter with a man named Meir earlier in the week. A tall, gaunt, dark man with Arab features, he sported a black kippah and tzitzit (ritual fringes) that made him look even more out of place in Key West than I did. During lunch with some friends, I struck up a friendly conversation with him about matters Jewish. “Where are you from in Israel?” I asked him. After he told me, he launched gently into a beautiful religious teaching. “Look,” he said, “When you ask a person where he’s from, you have to remember that no one is from just one place, on the outside or the inside. I know people who are ‘from’ a particular place, but their journeys there took them through so many detours, so many other places. Every person is his or her own kibbutz galuyot, a microcosm of the in-gathering of the Jewish exiles from all over the world to the land of Israel.”

I was attempting to tease out some angst ridden “Israeli Jewish Diaspora” master narrative. However, the people I met defied my simplistic attempts at generalization. Meir’s poetic insight showed me that I cannot put their, or anyone’s, lives, travels and decisions into a one-size-fits-all box. Our myriad layers of history, geography, personality, past experience, genetics and insight combine in ways so unique that not one of us is exactly the same as anyone else. Paradoxically, this makes us all the same, and in this respect it is irrelevant if we live in Jerusalem or Key West. To paraphrase the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, wherever we are, outwardly or inwardly, we are all already home in the holy land.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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