I’m going back to Israel next week with the 248 Community Action Network Cohort as part of a program to explore initiatives that foster stronger community connections & strengthen Jewish identity. It feels strange to say. My own sense of Jewish identity has long been fraught with doubt on a spiritual, institutional, and social level. I don’t really practice religiously, I don’t belong to any congregations, or I didn’t grow up in the local Jewish community. Yet, I’m always drawn back to Israel.
It’s been almost a decade since I was last in Israel, so much has changed in my life since I was 25… and before that, I was 9 years old. As I prepare to return once more, I can’t help but ponder the significance and meaning Israel holds in my own life now and as a child. It meant purpose. It was family. It was community. It was an adventure of divine destiny before it was ever a philosophical quagmire.
For a child, life is not complicated. There is right and wrong. God and Satan. Good guys and bad guys. Truth and lies. Adulthood, on the other hand, is filled with so many nuances and paradoxes, contradictions and hypocrisy – it’s abhorrent. However, a necessary part of growing up and maturing is learning that life is not fair, your parents are not infallible, and religions and governments are full of corruption and deceit.
It’s enough to get me good and jaded.
You see, leaving Israel wasn’t just the continuation of my childhood in America, it was the beginning of the end of my faith and trust. I went from living as Jew among Jews with my parents and brothers, in the hills of Judea, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, to living in suburbia, parents divorced, brothers and dad living in different states, and adjusting to being the weird foreign (but not foreign?) 3rd grader in Apple Valley. Forget being Kosher, celebrating Shabbat & holidays. Sure, we’re still Jews but pretend to be normal, do what you gotta do to fit in with your fellow Minnesotans, less you be silently judged and passive-aggressively commented upon. The green lawns, drive-thrus, and Toys R’ Us stores were great distractions from the fact that my reality had been shattered. If Dad said God wanted us all to live together in Israel, but now we are living separately in the US – Dad is wrong about God. And if he’s wrong about God, what else is he wrong about? He taught me everything. He was the authority on such matters, but maybe there is no authority on anything?
And thus, a skeptical, cynical boy came to be ambivalent and lackadaisical. Then turned into a shiftless and depressed tween, who would become a self-destructive teenager. From there, it was a short walk to the existential snark of a disingenuous young adult. There was truth in humor because life seemed like a joke. Oldest story in the book, right? Fast forward to now: I’ve come to the conclusion that if you make a joke out of life, life will make a joke out of you.
As a father of my own, look to the past for clues to the best future. Every child at some point must reconcile with being lied to, betrayed, tricked, or traumatized in some way that shakes their hold on existence and morality in some form. This is not something to dwell on, but it can be learned from. I am grateful for my unconventional childhood, the time I had in Israel, my parents, and my Jewish roots. How do I give my own son the same sense of identity, belonging, and greater purpose I once had? Do I want that for him? Oh, the struggle of parenting!
The word Judaism comes from the land of Judea named after Judah or Yehuda (the fourth son of Jacob & one of the 12 tribes), which literally means – to celebrate/give thanks to God. So at the very core of Judaism, gratitude is literally the name of the game. So if that’s the case, why the struggle? Why the doubt in our souls? Why the conflict? Why aren’t we all zen with gratitude and want for nothing? For that answer, we need only look at Judah’s father, Jacob AKA Israel. Jacob – the crazy joker – decided he needed to be extra blessed, so he picked a fight… with one of God’s angels! I mean, really? Who has the gall to fight a friggin angel?! So he wrestles the angel, who must have thought, “damn, this Heeb got moxie!” So instead of knocking Jacob’s head off, the angel just busted his hip and gives his blessing.
From then on, Jacob limped and was known as Israel – which means one who wrestles/struggles/contends with God. That’s the funny thing about Judaism. It’s not about just being grateful, complacent, and content with rules and the chain of command, because without the struggle, without contending with the highest of authorities and sacrificing mortal comfort – we will have gained nothing for which to be grateful. Is that irony? Jacob’s was Isaac which means “will laugh”. That’s the kid who was almost murdered by his own dad. That’s the original comedy gone blue. Don’t we all live a life of laughter to some degree until we are forced to struggle with something eternal, something life-altering? Don’t we all wrestle with God in some form? And don’t we go through all these struggles just so that at the end of the day we can count our blessings, and give thanks?
I am Israel.
I am Judah.
And I am grateful for this blessed struggle that is life.