An ode to an identity crisis:
When I was little, Yom Ha’atzmaut was a white shirt and a blue skirt, felafel from a box, and techina, which we ate exactly once a year. Now I eat techina every day.
As a young girl in Michigan, I attended an Orthodox Jewish day school. For some unfathomable-to-me reason, we had to stand up every morning before class began and pledge allegiance, hands on hearts, facing the American flag which stood in the corner.
I refused to participate in this ceremony; even as a child, I experienced it as fake. I insisted to my teachers that I was exempt, since I had been born in Israel. Why would I pledge allegiance to a flag that wasn’t mine? I don’t remember anyone giving me any flak, but at the same time I still remember the pledge of allegiance by heart. Maybe my teachers didn’t exempt me, or only when they didn’t feel like arguing with me.
Displacement found its place within me. I could tell that I wasn’t at home, no matter where I happened to live (Michigan, Boston, Northern California, Montreal, Brooklyn).
I could tell I was different. And in a country where everyone is a little bit different, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it was. I remember strangers pointing to my nose on the train in Montreal. I remember non-Jewish friends in California questioning my rituals and rites. I experienced myself as other, and, to the extent that we can tell what another’s experience is, I felt I was experienced as other.
The truth is, I didn’t want to be locked in a Jewish box either. I wanted to go out on Friday nights, I wanted to be interested in a boy without first making sure he was Jewish. Maybe I should just take my mid-term on Shavuot instead of asking for a new test date? Maybe I should go out to the Chinese buffet with my friends, even though the thought of eating chazer (pork) made me sick?
The December I was 19, I went on a Birthright trip. It was the middle of the intifada and our trip was heavily curtailed. We couldn’t go into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, so we went to Eilat. One night (well, every night really), we went out to a club. I remember dancing on top of a table, trying, like all the other girls on our trip, to flirt with the soldier charged with guarding us, when the lights suddenly brightened and the music dimmed. I felt the room collectively blink and I watched through bleary Arak eyes as a two Chabad dudes hustled in, long black coats flapping, a menorah nestled under one armpit, a box of candles in the other. They set up on top of the bar, and led the whole club in singing the brachot and lighting the candles.
Afterwards, they hustled back out as suddenly as they had come in. The lights went back on and the music went back up. Everyone went back to partying, and a puddle of hardened wax remained on top of the bar as a reminder.
It sounds so cheesy but that’s what cemented it for me. I could be a Jew, doing whatever I wanted: I could be a Jewish woman dancing on top of a table in a club in Eilat while also lighting Chanukah candles. Without dissonance.
I didn’t move to Israel until a few years later, and after 15 years I know just how dissonant life here can be. Life here is not perfect; it is deeply flawed and there is a long way to go to reach peak balance and unity. But flaws and bombs and inequality and poverty and all, there’s still nowhere else I’d rather be.
Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s not fair. Even when we need to fight to fix inequalities — and they are massive, they are huge — and even when we want to just give up on the dream of all of us living in harmony with each other and with the land. Even when it sucks. Even when it’s beautiful. Even when we have our own identity crisis over here. Even when it’s chaos and its people in your space all the time. Even when you feel suffocated. Even when you feel held. Even through everything.
Israel, you have me body, mind, and soul.