The Wandering Jew in my Israeli Garden

A 'Wandering Jew' flourishes when it finds a home in rich, Israeli soil (Image courtesy of author)
A 'Wandering Jew' flourishes when it finds a home in rich, Israeli soil (Image courtesy of author)

This past spring, we adopted a new puppy, about a month after losing our beloved family dog. The new puppy was so small, she almost fit in the palm of my hand. Even so, she was capable of being quite destructive and wreaked havoc around our house, but especially in the flower bed in our garden. She seemed to have a particular penchant – she would wedge herself between the sides of the flower bed to feel contained, all the while trampling on the purple Wandering Jew plant, leaving it in tatters as a result.

My husband was beside himself with frustration and anger. I told him with the conviction of prior gardening knowledge, “Don’t worry. It will grow back even stronger, you’ll see.”

Over the summer months, even though I tended to the plant and watered it faithfully, the Wandering Jew withered and shriveled relative to its hearty potential, due to the blows it had endured. But as autumn started to creep in, the plant began to blossom once more.

Not long after that, October 7th happened. A few days later, near one of the flower beds with the same purple succulent, I met up with my neighbor who happened to be taking down her laundry. My neighbor is what we would call here in Israel “National Religious.” I am perhaps, although I don’t like ‘boxes’ of classification and simplification, neither for myself nor my neighbor, classified as “Secular Traditional.” Nevertheless, and classifications aside, she’s my neighbor and I love my neighbor as myself. I also love the enlightening conversation and exchange of ideas that inevitably ensues, especially when we both have laundry to either put up or take down.

Avital recounted for me the horrors that befell her husband’s extended family on Simchat Torah a few days before on one of the many Kibbutzim in the South of Israel. She told me how a member of the extended family had just given birth a few days before that horrific Saturday and so her mother was on her way early Shabbat morning to bring sweets and candies to her son-in-law and her grandchildren, to celebrate the festival and give the little ones a bit of grandmotherly love. Avital told me with tears stinging in her eyes as her breath shallowed and her voice strained, how this dedicated grandmother met her violent demise. Grandma got out of her car with plates in her hands and her arms laden with bags filled with goodness and began down the path to her daughter’s home. On the path she met armed Hamas terrorists who took no mercy upon her.

We collectively sighed as tears rolled down both of our cheeks.

As our conversation continued on October 9th, we eventually moved to the heartening thoughts of the acts of unity and solidarity that had already begun to spring up in our community and in the entire country. People collecting clothing and supplies to help those survivors who suddenly found themselves displaced and homeless because of the terrorist attacks and the need for the army to move them to a safer location. Blood drives for the wounded both civilian and military from the 7th of October and the aftermath. Even dog blood drives to help ensure the survival of the highly trained canine units whose animals were injured in the line of duty. And the list and the creativity of the Nation of Israel goes on and on and on as we recounted to one another.

(Since this conversation, I have been witnessing the endless acts of kindness and initiative among the good people of the nation of Israel. For instance, Arik Cohen from Ramat HaShavim who, with a group of entrepreneurs, rigged up a way to bring shower facilities on a truck directly to the soldiers near the Gaza Strip. Just a few days ago, I heard about another simple but selfless and important initiative by a woman named Yael Lavie, who gathers groups of volunteers to clean the interior of houses in the south of Israel, in the Negev. The project is called “Return to a Clean Home” / פרויקט חוזרים לבית נקי. They pledge to help those who had to evacuate their homes in a hurry, while under fire, to relocate in a safer part of the country until the rocket fire subsides. Her thinking is, if one returns with one’s family to an orderly home, this will help to combat some of the trauma and allow the family to ease back into their lives a bit more comfortably. Creativity and heartfelt kindness flourish in the Nation of Israel!)

But on October 9th, Avital and I sighed once again, as words didn’t seem to be enough; this time the sigh was simultaneous and somber, realizing that this kind of solidarity and unity had been missing in our country over the last year. Due to the bitter division created by the real and important debate over judicial reform, which many feared would threaten our fragile democracy, we had been at each other’s throats. We agreed it was nice to see the “ruach Yisraelit” (the spirit of the People of Israel) once again. I said, “I wish it didn’t require such tragedy to bring us together, to unite us”.

Avital said, “That is what unites us, Amalek. From forever, and until now and moving forward into the future, we will always be united against Amalek. That is our destiny”.

I bristled.

Avital was born here, in Israel. I was not. I was born in America and adopted Israel as my chosen country when I made aliyah under the “Law of Return” more than 30 years ago – the law that allows Jews to immigrate to Israel and obtain immediate citizenship.

I do not consider myself any less Israeli than Avital, just not native born.

What Avital was referring to is the story of Amalek in the Torah, the Old Testament. Amalek was the grandson of Esau who was the fraternal twin brother of the last of the three patriarchs, Jacob. (Some even claim that Amalek is a direct descendent of Ham, one of Noah’s sons, back from the days of the ark and the flood). The descendants of Esau diverged from the Hebrew faith and as the generations progressed, became known as  “the nation of Amalek.”

The Torah contains a very clear commandment to destroy Amalek and the Amalekites, to the point of destroying any memory of the existence of Amalek. Paradoxically, this means that we must hold two things in mind: the need to destroy the memory and still remember that according to tradition, Amalek is our sworn enemy, and we must keep in mind that there is no compromise with this kind of enemy. Compromise with this kind of enemy would be tantamount to aiding in our own destruction.

Over time, this commandment and the name Amalek became a symbol of all staunch enemies of Israel and the Israelites. Colloquially, Amalek has become code for any group dangerous to the nation of Israel.

In essence, the Amalekites became consensus among the “in-group” of ‘us’ as representative of the “out-group” of ‘them’; whether ‘them’ throughout the millennia were the Romans, the Nazis, ISIS or Hamas. Amalek came to symbolize any group of ‘them’ that clearly wanted or wants to destroy ‘us’ and thereby, unites ‘us’ against ‘them’ with consensus across the board and with little to no dissenting voices to be heard in the public sphere.

The part that made me bristle was the “this is our destiny as a nation” portion of my neighbor’s words. And so, I explained myself to Avital. And she listened. And she explained herself to me. And I listened. And then I said, “I just pray for a day when we won’t need a ‘them’, to unify ‘us’. Avital nodded her head, and we parted as neighbors, her walking one way, away from the Wandering Jew plant. Me walking the other, back into my home.

As I was walking, I thought to myself, “Avital definitely has a point but I can’t accept that.”

I realize I may be ahead of the band, but I dare to say it because it’s important to lay the foundations to make room for change.

All the unity we feel amongst ourselves these days because of the horrific events that transpired on October the 7th and the frightening antisemitic backlash that has ensued since – all that unity can and most likely will dissipate almost as quickly as it rose. If we don’t tend to it, it will wither like the Wandering Jew plant in my Israeli garden during the summer months. Over the last 30 years since I made aliyah, I’ve seen it happen time and again. I know that it will most certainly happen this time as well unless we take preemptive steps to actively till the soil to maintain this hearty but strangely delicate succulent, the Wandering Jew.

Let me explain.

In the field of psychology there is a well-known dynamic that I alluded to above; that of “in group” versus “out group.” Anyone who was ever in high school or saw one of the numerous John Hughes films of the 1980s such as “Pretty in Pink” knows intuitively about this dynamic of cliques and gangs, ‘them’ and ‘us.’ This “in group”/”out group” dynamic burns fervently up until the point that another high school or “out group” threatens the numerous, exclusive cliques and then everyone bands together, united to fight against the ultimate “them” of consensus.

The reason I bristled when I heard Avital’s assessment of the situation is because I cannot, I will not, surrender to the narrative that the only way Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) can be united and find some solidarity within its ranks is if we continue to rally around and find our strength in times when “Amalek,” whomever that is in any given epoch, rears its ugly head.

I do not want to surrender to the idea that the only way we can be a nation, a democratic state, is if we have enemies. I do not want to surrender myself to the binding, limiting thought that ‘this is the way it’s always been and therefore this is the way that it is ordained that it shall always be.”

Where’s the hope? איפה התקווה? To be a free nation within the borders of our own country, להיות עם חופשי בארצינו.

As such, I revisit the Wandering Jew in my Israeli garden. What can this hearty plant teach us, the people of my chosen country? And why is it that my perspective is different than Avital’s who was born here and comes from a different sect than I? From living in the diaspora as long as I did, I believe I internalized an important lesson about the Wandering Jew. It is a lesson that someone who never lived abroad as a minority may not have internalized.

When you live in the diaspora you learn that even if you go to a different synagogue, whether you are affiliated or not, whether your ancestors were Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi or whatever, you learn that meeting another Jew is a celebration. We’ve been scattered before and so we know, the strength of being scattered to the four corners of the earth and the celebration of finding each other once again. We’ve learned to recognize more of our “in-groupness” and focus less on our differences. We’ve learned, at least theoretically, to listen to one another.

This in no way negates or simplifies the differences in points of view. As a matter of fact, there can be no real, true unity without contentious debate over differences in opinion. Otherwise, the claimed unity is either false and only on the surface or in the face of a common enemy. Or the debate is so bitter it threatens the very fabric of the nation.

I make a concerted effort to bring this “Wandering Jew” mentality to all of my interactions and have done so from the moment I made Aliyah. Even though I realize that there is something precious and unique about not having to think about our similarities in the Land of Israel, I try not to lose my “Wandering Jew” mindset. I make a determined effort to listen very carefully to differing points of view among my fellow countrymen and women, even those I find very difficult to digest. And yes, there are some points of view I cannot stomach.

I wish to believe the majority of this land’s inhabitants can learn to listen to one another, especially when the political system doesn’t try to place wedges between us for its self-serving advantage. The majority of the nation doesn’t need the bitterness of the infighting within the ‘in-group’ that scattered us to the ends of the Land of Israel over the past year. If we learn to listen to each other, maintain the knowledge of the Wandering Jew, we may be able to manifest true unity within ourselves, in our own group, within our own borders without an ‘Amalek’ needing to rise time and again to feel and show us our ability for solidarity and to unite us.

If that were to transpire, there would be true unity from within, even though we would still be allowed to have our differences of opinion. We could shrivel and be weakened among ourselves with the differences in our opinions, like the plant in the summer months, but without fear of internal destruction and havoc. And we would be able to come back stronger from these debates, like the succulent in the autumn, winter and spring, flowering and thriving. We could maintain a hybrid existence of the knowledge of the diaspora in our own rich Israeli soil.

And then, perhaps, we could truly say that we are “a light among the nations”.

About the Author
Michelle Lisses-Topaz is a psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and parents, both in the public and private sector. She has lectured widely to both professionals and the general public on Child Development and raising bright, well-balanced, independent human beings. She has also written on the subject of the complexities of being a third generation Holocaust survivor. She lives in Israel, and is committed to her chosen country, in good times and in bad.
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