Update June 3rd 2020: This post was originally written in 2013 after a Birthright trip to Israel. My views have changed and evolved since writing this piece. I am keeping this archived post available for accountability & for recognition that I can learn from my experiences and my past.
We all have that one personality trait or interest that is so distantly far from MOST of who we are, that our friends are super surprised to learn about it. It’s like learning that the valedictorian has a deep love for Jerry Springer or that your therapist has an addiction to pulling out strands of hair when he is nervous.
For me, it’s that I’m an active feminist and I’m also proudly Jewish. I had a Bat Mitzvah when I was 12- one that I didn’t fight my parents on. I can read Hebrew and was even elected President of my Hebrew school when I was a senior in high school. In college, I worked for a Jewish organization and I went to Shabbos (the sabbath) dinner every week. Long story short: I’ve always been involved with the observant Jewish community, even though my political beliefs might point everywhere but to religion.
Growing up proudly Jewish in America usually means growing up Zionist. Many would say that by going to certain Sunday schools, a child can be “brainwashed” into protesting for Israel to stay an independent Jewish state. I never felt brainwashed. I had visited Israel twice before the age of 18, because my parents knew it was important for me to see the country and learn about my history. Like most children and teenagers, I could have cared less.
A few days ago, I returned from my third trip to The Holy Land of Israel. During the ten-day trip, I discovered many new reasons why I call Israel “home”, even now that I have returned to the United States. (I can assure you that I wasn’t brainwashed.) I was eager to find a better answer as to why I stood with Israel. Especially because most of my other political beliefs have evolved so much in the past few years, but I hadn’t updated any of my feelings about Israel since I was 15.
I’m not one for sad stories, but on the day I visited the graves of fallen Israeli Defense Force soldiers, my heart broke into a million pieces. In Israel, citizens must join the army at 18 years old for two years. Since they’re entering the army at such a young age, most of the graves are for people under the age of 21. I listened to current soldiers speak, who expressed their pride to serve in the army. The new connection I had made from this adventure is that these soldiers are protecting the Jewish state of Israel because they understand why the land needs to be peaceful. Many of their parents or grandparents protected the land in their War of Independence, and they are proud to continue the legacy. My own grandfather was a solider in that war, which I learned after I returned home from this trip.
The landscape throughout the State of Israel is incredible. While you’re floating around in the Dead Sea, you’re touching some of the lowest points on the globe. But, to get there, you have to drive on the side of some of the tallest cliffs. I grew up believing that the stories of the Bible and the Torah were just mumbo-jumbo written by some guy named Moses in order to teach people how to behave. While this trip didn’t make me believe that Adam and Eve really did eat some wonky apples, I did find it fascinating to look out on a land that has been walked on by many, many important characters which have been guiding the major religions for thousands of years. My given name comes from a woman, Rachel, who cried over this land. (I cried at one point too, coincidentally enough, but that story is for another post.)
This picture was taken while I was riding a camel, which my partner and I named Two Chhhumps. Yes, the Hebrew “chh”, and yes, like Two Chains. If that’s not cool enough, that ground is part of the Negev, which is the biblical desert. One night, at two in the morning, I snuck off with 3 other adventurers, and we walked into the Negev. People have been sneaking off into this desert for over 3,000 years. (Don’t worry, everything we did out in that land was kosher.) I had never before been in a place where my great, great, great, great, great grandparents had walked before me. I’ve met many people who have rich histories, which date far back into the invention of pasta in Italy, but there was something magical in imagining that my ancestry could date back to the first humans, which have walked in this desert.
Being Jewish is a part of the culture in Israel. In America, malls around the nation are closed on Christmas Eve and public schools get the entire week off. On Ash Wednesday, people proudly walk the streets with a cross of ash on their forehead. I’ve had to fight for extensions on papers because the due date was on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year and part of the high holy days). My high school never acknowledged Holocaust Memorial Day, even though we had a handful of Jewish students. In Israel, memorial day is observed by the entire state. There are sirens that can be heard all over the country, and when they are heard, the people get out of their cars or stop what they’re doing and have a moment of silence. It’s one of the many small reminders of how important the State of Israel is as a community. I also think the picture above, which was taken by a street market in Tel Aviv, is just a small example of how much representation the Jews have. (When I past by, my first reaction was extreme fear and then I happened to fall in love with the statue. And all I got was this picture.)
I cannot begin to tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard “You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met” or “Jewish? But you don’t even look like a Jew!” In Israel, it’s hard NOT to be exposed to Jews. And, when people think about Jews, their first representation is not an Ultra Orthodox Jew, with the “long curls on the side of their head” and a big black hat. Their idea of a Jew is any other person, going to school, in the army, living on a Kibbutz, or hiking across the country. (Which, apparently, Israelis love to do.)
I really just wanted to share some photos with you and give you my excuse for being absent from the site for 11 days, but I also wanted to share my new connection to what I know fondly call my second home. As a Jew, I get asked regularly what my opinion on the State of Israel is. I never had an answer because I never understood the connection to my roots. I might not have the full answer yet, but I am on my way to finding out.