I have led a double life as Herman Wouk once defined. In his semi-autobiographical novel Inside Outside is the tale of the life of a second-generation American Jew. To his American friend and the world outside his Jewish enclave, he is known as David; however, his Jewish identity is Dovid. Now this might seem to be a trivial distinction, replacing an “a” for an “o”; however, Herman Wouk was able to write a very inciteful book on the challenges and obstacles of maintaining your Jewish identity in a society that values the melding of cultures.
When I once met Herman Wouk I told him I was a very big fan of all his books, but the one that stood out to me the most was Inside Outside. I relate to it because of my own struggles between my Jewish identity and my American identity. I too have struggled with my Jewish identity.
Growing up in a home with mix signals, yet a strong sense of Judaism, we had Sabbath meals on Friday night; kiddush then chicken. We went to synagogue every Saturday morning. And yet, our home was not kosher, I did not stay home from school on Sukkot or Shavout, and Saturday after Synagogue there was no sense of Shabbat.
Looking back, I remember one incident that can summarize the mixed messages of my youth. Every Sunday my family went to a treif Chinese restaurant for dinner. This was our weekly treat. Sitting in our favorite restaurant, eating Shrimp in Lobster sauce, a weekly staple, right before my Bar Mitzvah, my father started to explain that his father had expected him to attend the Shacharit (morning service) every day after Bar Mitzvah while he lived in his parent’s house. My father then went on to tell me that he had the same expectation for me. And so, starting a month before my Bar Mitzvah, until the time I left my parents house, I went to synagogue and put on Tefillin every morning.
My parents, who were not poor nor affluent did send me to Jewish Day Camps, but not to a Jewish Day School. At 16 they did feel it important to send me on a trip to Israel although they had never been. Several of my cousins had made Aliyah and the only comments I heard from my parents were, “Why did they go if they keep on asking the family to send them stuff from the US?”
My split identity continued through college; however, the first of several hints of my true identity appeared. Having the ability introducing myself to a totally new set of people, I decided to use my Hebrew nick-name, Avi. You see, just like the protagonist in Herman Wouk’s novel, I had been given 2 sets of names and two identities in the Goldena Medina. My English Name is Alan Jay; however, on my eight day of life, after my circumcision, a prayer was said which included the line, “Let his name in Israel be Avraham Yosef.” Roughly translated into English my name is Abraham Joseph.
Most of my friends throughout my life up until college were Jewish and knew me as Alan. All my friends in college were not Jewish and knew me as Avi. So, my identity bifurcation was complete. In college, except for my name change I began to distance myself from my Jewish identity. Although I went down to the local synagogue my first morning for Shacharit, I was turned off when I found it to be a place of old and dying and never went again, even on Shabbat. Instead I joined a fraternity and became the kitchen steward planning and preparing treif meals for my brothers.
After college I found a job and every Friday night, working down on Wall Street, in the halcyon yuppie days, would go out drinking with my friends. I met many girls but never dated anyone seriously until I met a Jewish girl. We went out for a long time, got engaged but ended up parting ways.
This began my journey and exploration into Orthodox Judaism. Now you would think my embrace of Jewish practices would have unified my identity; however, it did not. I led a Jewish life at home and although I was easily identifiable as a Jew outside the home because I now wore a Kippah, I had to interact with a world that was inherently not Jewish and made no accommodations for me.
The best example of this was the many Sabbaths I spent in Beijing. Most of my career was spent in International Business. I have travelled extensively. Unfortunately, I have had to spend may Sabbaths away from my home. When I am in Beijing, I always stay at the Hilton Hotel in the Chao Yang district right off the 3rd Ring Highway. Every time I check in, it takes a little longer because there is a big note on my file giving instructions that I cannot use the elevator, nor the electronic key provided for me on the Sabbath. Therefore, the staff makes sure someone is there to assist me. However, since the staff does not understand the concept of the Sabbath, they always ask if they must escort me while checking in, take me up in the elevator and open my door for me.
I married a wonderful Jewish woman, had three remarkable children. Leading the way to reunification, my wife insisted on giving our children only one set of names. These were names that were easy enough in English, no hard-guttural Hebrew letters in any of their names, while also being acceptable names in Hebrew and Israel. Our lives then revolved around Jewish institutions; the Synagogue we attended, the Jewish Day Schools we sent them to, the Jewish Community Center we were highly involved with, the local chapter of the Anti-Deformation League, and Jewish Youth organizations including the local Bureau of Jewish Education and the International National Council of Synagogue Youth or NCSY.
After each of my children completed High School my wife and I sent them off for a “gap year” studying in Israel. Once in Israel, my children stayed. My oldest did come home for a year to work and save up money to start her life in Israel. My other two never returned.
Making Aliyah was always a dream of mine. And many times, dreams are not realized; however, with my children in Israel and very little holding us back from moving, my wife and I packed up and made Aliyah over two years ago. I am still employed in the US, so I do have to go back and forth for a few more years until retirement. And yet, my reunification has begun.
You see, in Israel, I do not have to explain why I need to take off time to celebrate Sukkot or a few days before Pesach to prepare my home. Everyone does it. Because I lived in a remote Jewish Community in California, I would have to go up to Los Angeles twice before Sukkot. Once to pick up a Lulav and Etrog before all the best were sold out, and a second time the day before the holiday to pick up the Aravot and Haddasim. Here I can go to the Shuk or just walk down the street to pick up Lulavim, Etrogim, Hadassim and Aravot. Hotels in Israel are equally not a problem. Yes, they do have electronic locks; however, they also have manual keys. I live on the fifth floor of a building and have an elevator that I do not have to punch any buttons on the Sabbath since it automatically stops on every floor.
The journey I started when I realized my Jewish identity was important to me has been completed with the act of Aliyah. Alan and Avi are a unified. I along with thousands of other early Friday morning head down to the Shuk to purchase all the freshest ingredients to make our Sabbath meals special. On the eve of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, I am invited to view a film by my daughter’s in-laws on how her Father-In-Law’s father was able to survive the Holocaust. I am not alone in this endeavor, everyone is headed somewhere to attend some memorial because the entire nation is shut down. At 10:00 AM on the Holocaust Memorial Day, and on the Memorial Day in remembrance of those who fell in defending the right for Israel to exist, I stop whatever I am doing. If I am in my car, I pull to the side of the road and step outside as a siren calls out for us to remember those who sacrificed with their lives for me to have what I have today.
To be a Jew in Israel, whether religious, secular, or anywhere in between is to be whole. There is no façade you must put on to fit into the broader society. Here in Israel, any and every Jew can be just as they are with no concern to their identity. And yet, many still choose to remain where they are in chutz l’aretz.
Although Aliyah is on the rise, many still, especially in the North America, still have no desire to emigrate. There are many reasons for this. Many have established lives, have deep family ties, and are very comfortable in their homes and communities. They see the sacrifice and hardships that their families endured to get them to where they are today, to a better life paying off. And yet, as I look at what is going on in the world today, I am concerned.
There have been many societies in the past where Jews were given citizenship and equal rights, and where each of the two phenomena have arisen; Assimilation and Antisemitism. Jews living in Germany who had either reformed their religious practices or abandoned them altogether were still sent to the gas chambers and exterminated. Their belief in their rights as a citizen and a German quickly vanished. The Antisemitic Nuremberg laws enacted by the on September 15th, 1935 for the protection of German Blood and German Honor, did not distinguish Jews by their practice or behavior, they identified a Jew as one who had at least one grandparent that is Jewish. Thus, many Jews who had assimilated suffered the same consequences as those who did not.
One fact that is not widely known is that the Israel Law of Return, allowing people from a Jewish heritage to declare their desire and instantly become citizens of Israel is not based upon Orthodox Halacha (Jewish Law) which states that for you to be Jewish, your mother must be Jewish. The law of return is based upon the Nuremberg laws. Therefore, any person who would have been a target of discrimination and death in Nazi Germany can come to Israel and become a citizen.
Theodore Herzl saw that being an upstanding member of your country does not protect you. He witnessed firsthand throughout his life, first in University and then covering the Dreyfus Affair. He played around with the idea of assimilation and even mass conversion to Catholicism; however, he quickly came to realize that would have no bearing on the Antisemitism in Europe.
He concluded the only place where Jews could be free is in a country where the Jews constituted a majority. And although his major concern was saving Jews from Antisemitism, especially those facing hardships in Eastern Europe, he came to realize that the only place to establish such a state was in the Jewish ancestral homeland; Israel. He concluded having seen democratic societies not create an environment of equality for all its citizens.
Democracy by definition is majority rule. The will of the many do not necessarily protect minorities. The United States is frequently held up to be a bastion of Democracy; however, one does not have to dig too deeply to see that majority rule does not benefit everyone.
The US Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words were written by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner. Slaves were not protected by democratic founders.
Many do not know this, but when the United States was founded, many, Jews, in the 13 colonies could not vote. It took time to extend the right to vote to the Jews. It took even longer to extend the right to vote to women. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed only passed on August 18th, 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote. These are not the only examples. History is replete with examples of discrimination and inequality. During World War II approximately 110,000 people of Japanese descent, which represented most of the Japanese population in the US, were interned in camps. Approximately three quarters of this population were either second or third generation Americans. In comparison there were 1.2 million people in the US at the time that were born in German, 5 million people who had 2 German parents and another 6 million who had 1 German parent. And yet, out of this entire population of Germans only approximately 11,000 were interned during World War II.
These are but a few examples in modern history of how Democracy does not guarantee the rights of every citizen. Which is why Herzl and other Zionists knew that the only place a Jew would be protected was in a Jewish State. And yet Zionism striving for a better world also recognizes that the majority has an obligation to protect the rights of the minorities.
Waking up in the morning in Jerusalem, I know I am not alone. I can hear the Muezzin calling the Moslem faithful to prayer. I can hear the Church bells ringing of the many denominations of Christianity who have established a permanent presence in this holy city. And yet, the most dominant sound I hear all around in this month of Elul is the blowing of a shofar, a Rams horn, calling Jews to repent as Rosh Hashanah approaches. Late at night many Jews are headed to Synagogue for Selichot services. The busses have started posting signs wishing all a Happy New Year. I can already see Sukkot being built by apartment houses and restaurants. Pomegranates are in season, and I know I am home. I am one.
As I enter this New Year, I hope and pray that more of our brethren will come to understand the importance of Israel whether living abroad or in Israel Israel makes it possible for all Jews to be whole.