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Where I come from, I’m a Jew

By most standards, I'm a success story, but it turns out I might not be Jewish enough for Israel

At the risk of sounding stupid or uninformed, I’d like to admit that before I made aliya I wasn’t familiar with the term “religious pluralism.”

In reality, I likely heard it or read it, but never paid any attention. It’s possible I quickly scanned over the phrase once or twice while proofreading a story for the Jewish newspaper I used to work for. Or I might have heard the two words paired together as part of a sermon given by my Conservative female rabbi in New Jersey. But the honest ignorant truth is that religious pluralism wasn’t a phrase that meant anything to me until I was already living in Israel.

Beyond noticing that most of the potential male olim in the Jewish Agency office were wearing kippot and my husband was not, it hardly occurred to me at all before making aliya that I had to know what kind of Jew I was before I moved here. I am a Jew. And for as long as I can remember, I have understood that Israel granted Jews citizenship. Without ever acknowledging this, I imagine I counted on this fact, too. Gently caressed the notion with my mind every so often, like a climber might finger his belay. Understood its significance and its imagined protective qualities.

Israel is a home for Jews.

When we decided to make aliya in 2010, my husband and I filled out the required paper work, including a few letters to “prove” our Judaism, and a few months later we were granted citizenship. Call it luck or call it circumstance – my aliya was fairly smooth. I never once questioned whether or not I would be accepted by the government or my community as a Jew.

It was only after I arrived in Israel, and got settled on Hannaton, the community in which I live in northern Israel, that the term “pluralism” stuck in my head long enough for me to finally ask someone, “What exactly does that mean?”

Founded in 1983 as a Masorti/Conservative kibbutz and on the verge of disappearing completely only a few years ago, Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee was recently revitalized, and its new vision incorporates the ideas of religious pluralism and tolerance. Living on Hannaton, among individuals whose experience living in Israel is dependent on religious tolerance, made it impossible for me to ignore the phrase any longer.

So I got to know the words a little better. I listened carefully to the answers my friends gave me when I asked to understand: answers from my friends, the gay couple with adopted children; the Masorti rabbi; the feminist; the Conservative American Jewish oleh who’s dabbling in Buddhism; and the born and bred Israeli who never once entered a synagogue until she was in her mid-twenties.

Where I come from, they’re all Jews. But apparently, in Israel their Jewish identity is questionable.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that mine might be too. Depending on who you ask.

I got in to this country purely with paperwork and an informational interview (and intense behind-the-scenes security review, I’m sure). But no one ever asked me how devout I am, how often I go to synagogue, how kosher I am, do I believe in God, do I like women or men?

*      *      *

I find it really ironic that despite the odds and despite the statistics, I grew up to become an American Jew who actually identifies as Jewish enough to move to Israel. Only to live in Israel, read the headlines, learn about the struggles that Jews face in this country related to tolerance, and wonder, “Am I Jewish enough?”

Does the Torah say so? Would that particular Rabbi think so? Would the kibbutz klita (absorption) committee?

I could easily have been an intermarriage statistic, people! The odds really weren’t in my favor at the start.

When I was a young child, we lived in one of those New Jersey suburbs that didn’t have Jews. Yes, such places existed, and in the 1970s when I was growing up, being a Jew in one of these non-Jewish suburbs wasn’t something you necessarily advertised. Instead, you minimalized it over cocktails at Christmas parties.

My brother and I, circa 1980, on Santa's lap

It wasn’t long before my parents realized what might happen to my brother and me if we continued visiting Santa at the mall every December.

So we moved to a neighboring New Jersey suburb known for its elevated Jewish content.  (As in, “Cherry Hill is so Jewish it requires its own division at the Anti-Defamation League.”)

I was your average assimilated American Jewish girl. A girl who was first American, and then Jewish. The culturally driven, spiritual seeker most American Jewish philanthropic entities aim to reach. I was the American Jewish girl whose religious identity would be ultimately measured not by the length of my skirt or how often I prayed during the day, but where I went to camp, what profession I ended up in, what type of guy I married, and what kind of household I kept.

Slowly but surely, my identity as a Jew started to take more shape: through making friends whose families celebrated Chanukah and whose parents liked Woody Allen; through attending Hebrew school three days a week and going on synagogue-sponsored ski trips to the Poconos; and through meeting cute boys (who also happened to be circumcised) at weekend Jewish youth group conventions.

I think that by most standards, I ended up a success story. If you ask my mother, a little too much so.

But as Jewish as I may look on the results of a survey, it turns out I might not be Jewish enough for Israel.

It’s hard to tell when you see the black bra straps peeking out from beneath my halter top. Or when you pass by me walking up the hill to the synagogue on Friday night in a skirt covering my knees.

It’s hard to tell from looking at me that I consider myself both secular and observant. Carefree, and mindful. Sexy, and modest.

Jewish. And not.

Am I Jewish enough for Israel?

And who’s deciding?

Not me.

I’m too busy thinking, and dialoguing, and writing — spreading mostly love and good cheer about this country. And singing, singing, singing… and watching my kids sing “Lecha Dodi” at the beit knesset…and “Hatikvah” at their end-of-school-year tekes.

All the stuff I thought Jews did.

At least, that’s what Jews do where I come from.

About the Author
Jen Maidenberg made Aliyah to the Lower Galilee with her family in 2011. A published writer and author, she chronicles her life in prose and poetry at www.andyaddayadda.com