Questions In Search of Israel’s Soul


I used to be ‘white’. Growing up in America, that was how I identified myself and I felt bad about it, because it seemed as if ‘white’ people (mostly from Europe) were responsible for a long list of horrible things in world history from slavery, to destroying the Native American people and culture, to environmental destruction. Then during a life changing trip to Israel when I was 21, I had an identity transformation and I found out that I wasn’t white, I was Jewish. I was from the tribe of Israel, and my ancestors came from the desert sands of the middle east,  my people had wandered all over the world, and in fact, my tribe had some pretty horrible run-ins with ‘white’ people as well. Upon returning back to America, when filling out forms asking my background, I was happy to skip ‘Caucasian’, check ‘Other’ and then write in ‘Jewish’, I was a minority.

In 2009 I made Aliyah, I was inspired by stories about the original pioneers and the hardships they faced, the miraculously epic victory the under armed, under equipped just born nation of Israel experienced during the War of Independence. Over 2000 years worth of the bottled up yearning of the Jewish people to return to the Eretz Yisrael was coursing through my veins and I wanted to be in that picture of young idealistic settlers, filled with vision, building the homeland of the Jewish people, living the verse from Psalm 126: “When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion we will be like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song”.

Now I am living here and in so many I see ways the heady vision of the young pioneers has come to fruition. The deserts have bloomed, more than half of the Jewish people now live here in Israel, and living in Jerusalem I can walk through the ‘city of gold’ to the ancient walls of the Old City and be at the Kotel in less than 20 minutes. I have danced in the streets and my heart has swelled with pride watching other Olim be sworn into the IDF at the Kotel plaza.

I can also walk about 10 minutes in any direction and buy some schwarma (when my Mom grew up in Tel Aviv in the 40’s and 50’s meat was rationed to a few times a month per family) or pick up some Ben & Jerry’s at a ‘makholet’ (like a 7-11). In fact my life here is very comfortable. Its true I have my own set of challenges, I need to make a living, instead of draining swamps in order to settle the Land, I have to deal with Israeli bureaucracy and customer service. Lines don’t really exist when waiting for the bus or in the shuk, and I am still getting used to how Israeli’s talk to each other as if they are threatening each others lives when really they are just discussing the weather.

Still, its a relatively comfortable existence, but thats the thing, I didn’t come here just to exist comfortably and I’m frustrated because I feel as if something is missing, like the overarching story, the magnetic, compelling narrative of the Jewish people returning to the land and doing amazing things, is evaporating into a cloud, and what is left is tremendous material wealth and success, but its missing soul. Many Israelis I know are not excited about the fact that they are living here in Israel and that they are part of the Jewish people. They want to go to America or someplace else, and get away from all the drama and trauma of this place.

When I think about someone like Eliezer Ben Yehuda and how for centuries Hebrew was considered to be a dead language, a cultural artifact left over from a vanished civilization along with Latin and ancient Greek and how now poetry, literature, and scientific studies are all written using the Aleph-Bet, I am blown away and I ask myself, if he were living here in Israel in 2013 with all of our wealth both physically and intellectually, what would he be attempting to accomplish?

Here are some more questions I am asking myself and I hope this blog can start a conversation that can lead towards some answers. Now that we have a country that although filled with internal and external problems (but when has that not been the situation) still affords us a freedom, standard of living and culture unparalleled anywhere in the middle east, what are we doing with it? The original pioneers had a collective idealistic story that gave them a spiritual strength which allowed them to fight off five attacking armies. What is our story? What does it mean to be a Jew living in Israel in 2013? What are Jewish dreamers of today yearning to build and how are we going to do it?

About the Author
Eitan Press was raised in the Garden State of New Jersey and received his BA from St. John’s College, the "Great Books" school. He is passionate about nature, building community, teaching and Judaism as a vehicle for social change. He made Aliyah in 2009, lives in Jerusalem and works the #kosher #hustle in field of new media. He can often be spotted talking with poets, entrepreneurs and rabbis about ultimate questions.