Israel turned sixty two this week! Sixty two! Well on our way to a century but nowhere near the United State’s 230 years plus. The statistics make Israel seem so young, so little. But as we all know young and little can be feisty, strong and resilient.
While some find religion within prayer, ritual and practice (all of which I love, adore and hold dear), I found mine in Israel. In strolling down Ben Yehuda. In trying (and failing) to win an argument with an Israeli. In seeing a room full of Israelis sing along to American music perfectly, at the top of their lungs, at the discotheque. In drinking shoko basakit and munching on bisli. The way some people feel in synagogue, I feel in Israel. In my skin, at home and oh-so-very Jewish.
Does that make me a cultural Jew? I don’t really know. I do know that Israel is part of my identity. Like my family. Chocolate. And books. I have memories and photographs. Stories and friendships. From times living, and other times visiting, Israel. I speak Hebrew fairly fluently, slightly out of practice and with an American accent. I can just hear natives (“real Israelis”) calling out, “Hey! Americayit!” and I know, without turning around, that they’re talking to me. My clothes, my stance, my obvious awareness of being surrounded by soldiers, my “oh look! a shiny object” look-around-style all scream, “Not. From. Here!”
Except that I am. My parents and I left Israel when I was six years old, a brand new first grader. But even once living in the States, Israel remained a given for us because we had all lived there. Learned there. Loved there. We all speak Hebrew. Our memories tie us to Israel and keep us loving it even though we don’t always agree or approve of its decisions. Choices. Politics. Kind of like a Mama’s love for a child. But it’s oh-so-very different for my own children. Whatever memories, connections, love they’re going to build for and with Israel is on my shoulders.
What do I want them to know about Israel? What kind of a fondness do I want to foster? I think about these questions in terms of my own children but also for others around me. Living in the Midwest, I am often struck by the fact that I am the only Israeli that many of my friends and acquaintances know and come across. Because people are so politically (and religiously) passionate about Israel, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to say the right words, express the right sentiment and answer questions “correctly.” Because asking those questions? That’s brave. And trusting. And just plain hard to do sometimes. I am so impressed by and fond of people who openly and honestly ask me questions about our little country. Is it safe? Would you go there? Would you let your children go there?
I do believe that it’s safer in Israel than we think it is in the States. When I was in Israel, watching American coverage back-to-back with an Israeli news station was absolutely striking. That was my first taste in media and how it too has temperament. Biases. Opinions. When something happens in Israel and the same clip is played over and over again in the States, it does indeed start to feel like every minute of every day in Israel is dangerous and that life in Israel is centered around explosions and bombs.
But fact is that Israelis are living their lives. They’re worrying about things just like we do. They’re working, cooking, cleaning and raising their babies just like you. And me. Their babies might know how to put on a gas mask before they can tie their shoes. Or serve in the the army before they can legally drink a beer in the States. But a lot of what we do in the States is hard for others to understand, right?
Do I see myself going back to Israel? Yes. With kids? For sure. For good? Probably not. It’s that dual citizenship thing. I love ’em both, but only one feels like forever-home.
What I do want to make a given for my family is traveling to Israel. I want our kids to be a bit older so we can experience Israel together fully, completely and meaningfully. I want to bargain at the shuk, taste bamba, float in the dead sea, climb masada, pray at the wall, cover up and walk through the old city, eat falafel and drink fresh squeezed fruit juice from a hot dog-like stand. All with my kids. That’s how they’ll know if they’re in their skin in Israel. I want to share with them what’s so loved. Why people are so fiercely passionate about it. What “all the fuss” is about.
Jason and I have kicked around the idea of skipping the Bat and Bar Mitzvah bashes that have become so customary, so the norm. And instead, when that time arrives, plan a trip for our family to go to Israel together. I can’t imagine a more meaningful celebration of our children’s coming of (Jewish) age. And I have shiver-inducing-visions of all five of us marking maps, negotiating how long we’d spend where, being loud, talking
over each other. Just like real Israelis.
Though years away, we bring up these travel plans today to model the given of our relationship with Israel. As they get older our children will become more aware, more savvy and perhaps more skeptical about Israel. I remember watching my mom take in criticisms about Israel. She nodded and listened. Agreed to disagree. And, chin up, stood by Israel throughout the entire discussion. Kind of like she would if she was faced with a negative conversation about me. She’d still love me. Still stand by my side. And still be passionate about my survival, my existence, my being.
I suppose that my hope, my goal, is through the years to help my children form their own connections and relationships with Israel. So then they, too, will know how to approach the news, how to keep their chin up and how to stand by Israel. For now, I’m wishing Israel a Happy 62nd Birthday. Cheers! L’chaim! Or as my kids say when they toast, “Clink” to you!