I spent six weeks in Israel the summer of 2009. It was one of the most amazing and definitive experiences of my life and served as the perfect bridge from homeschool and Hebrew school to college. One of our writing assignments near the end was to write about what it means to be Jewish. A lot of people despised it, many of us knew it was coming, and I just sat in the computer lab until it was finished.
No matter, as a prelude to the assignment, we were asked to walk around an area of Tel Aviv where we were visiting for the day and see what people living in Israel considered Jewish. We went up and down the streets in small groups. We walked to a cafe. We walked past soldiers. We sat down with some modern Orthodox Jews. It was exciting, yet nerve-wracking approaching strangers in a strange land (alright, it wasn’t that strange, but I’m naturally quiet, so it was surely an exercise in extroversion!). And then, with our classes, we sat down. And then they dumped it on us.
The essay doesn’t stand as my best example of writing (in rereading it, I feel it lacks an air of sophistication about its coherence and structure), but it reflected my evolving views on Judaism and being Jewish at the time, and for that, it did what was intended of it. I hadn’t ever had the intention of sharing it at the time, at least with none other than our teacher, and since length wasn’t it issue, it ended up becoming a fair bit longer than the bit I posted yesterday. So, without further ado, I present to you the essay I called “Recon.”
(Short for “reconfirmation,” of course.)
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A little more than a year ago, I wrote a short speech entitled “What being Jewish means to me” for my Confirmation at the end of the twelfth grade; it took me months of introspection and looking at Judaism to even begin to formulate an answer to the question, and then it took me five tries to write a speech that sufficiently captured what Judaism had then meant to me. In only a few words, I spoke about my connection with my religious school as a madrich (teacher’s aid) and how it helped reignite a passion for Judaism within me. I closed my speech by saying that what Judaism meant to me was a connection between generations, teaching others and learning from everyone. It was a good speech, truly captured what Judaism had meant to me.
In the year since then, especially since this past Yom Kippur, and even more so in the past four and a half weeks, my definition of Judaism—and my personal beliefs within and surrounding Judaism—has drastically changed. The easiest place for me to begin is not with my own thoughts, but with the thoughts of others. Today when we went on our interviews, I flexed my limited knowledge of Hebrew to ask people if they could speak English: A few people did not, so we thanked them and moved on, and a fair number of people did, but declined when we asked if they were able to answer a few questions for us.
Among the few who spoke to us were an Israeli-born man, an Orthodox Jew who made aliyah six years ago, and an older woman who was also born in Israel. The only unifying factors among these three very different people were their perception of Israel’s greatest problem—our lack of unity as a people; sinat chinam (causeless hatred)—and their feeling close to all Jews, no matter their level of observance or their location, and that no Jew is better than another. These views are ones that I, too, agree with.
Our first interviewee and our last were the two that had the most impact upon me in the ways of religious observance and what makes a Jew a Jew. The Sabra (native Israeli) we spoke with didn’t wear a kippah and looked rather secular before we approached him, but in talking with him he mentioned that he prays in the morning and wraps tefillin and that he keeps kosher and that he’s shomer Shabbat as well. These I can relate to: I now happily wear tefillin whenever I’m able to, and I now keep kosher (though I always haven’t, except at home where it’s been customary), and I hope to one day be more observant of Shabbat (I might not be there yet, but it’s a goal, an end I hope to someday achieve), and that similarity between two people who had met so briefly was amazing. I felt an instant connection to this man and a greater connection to the Jewish people, all from knowing him for only a few short moments on a Thursday afternoon.
Shoshana, the older woman we were able to speak with, only spoke Hebrew, so David helped translate for us. When we asked her how she observes Judaism, how she expresses her being Jewish, she told us that she was born in Israel and, for her, that’s sufficient. When we asked if she believes a belief in God is necessary to be called a Jew, she only said it’s not obligatory. Yet despite her seemingly not-Jewishness, I felt no less a connection with Shoshana than I did with the man we’d spoken with earlier; it was merely a different kind of bond, one forged through a love of Israel and faith in Judaism than with our shared practices that bring us together.
Israel and it’s role in Jewish life was also something that we spoke about with these three Jews (of course we’d also spoken with a couple soldiers, but they didn’t have nearly as much an affect on me as these three had), so for a moment I shall digress from the topic of religion and talk a bit more about that of Israel.
When we asked Shoshana if she thought all Jews should live in Israel, she said, yes, they should, because she believes that no one sincerely likes us, even in the US. I wholly disagree with this: Although there are those who still harbor hatred against the Jews (I can recall my time in Cub Scouts when, because of my being Jewish, only one person in the entire pack would associate with me), and although there are still those who try to convert Jews no matter their tolerating them, there are still even more people who have no problem with Jews and in fact even love and respect Jews, even if they’re Christian! (While doing some volunteer work before coming to Israel, I helped at my local Christians Outreach Center, and there I met a man who, upon learning that I’m Jewish, shook my hand and said he wholly supported Israel, even more so than he supports the US!)
For me, Israel alone is not enough to call myself a Jew. Having never lived in Israel, having only heard stories and seen pictures of Israel until a short time ago, the bulk of my Jewish identity is not in locale, but in practice and tradition, in mentality and faith. Perhaps Israel has further strengthened this inside me, but to completely set myself apart from these parts of Judaism would, for me, be akin to no longer being Jewish at all.
The Sabra we spoke with said that he feels all Jews should not live in Israel, eloquently stating that Jews are in such a way special that we should be spread out, taking note to say he nonetheless feels Jews should live in Israel so that we are still the majority here. The Orthodox man we spoke with stated that he thinks all Jews will come to Israel in the end, not all at once, not all at the same time, but that Israel is our place and that, in time, we will all come to make aliyah.
Before coming to Israel, I felt more inline with the first position than the second. I felt a deep religious connection to my synagogue and my home, and therefore did not think I could ever imagine leaving them to permanently live in Israel. I hoped to love Israel—in truth I loved Israel so much already that when I first arrived, I almost felt disappointed that my reaction was so subdued and not nearly as emotional as I had expected and had wanted it to be—and I hoped to grow close to the land, but I did not expect to love Israel enough to think of leaving home.
Now that I’ve been in Israel so long, I’ve come to find I was naïve in thinking I could love Israel more and at the same time not want to make aliyah. Some time ago, without noticing, I stopped feeling wonder when I gazed at the landscapes around me and simply began to admire them, to expect them, to think of them as I think of the trees enclosing the highway we’ve taken to our synagogue for more than eleven years: They’ve become familiar to me, and through that, have become an integral part of me.
I wrote in my journal yesterday, as I thought about this very subject, that I had never intended to fall in love with Israel as I have. I wanted it, but the connection I was hoping to achieve was not the one I have forged. I no longer see my departure at the end of HSI as returning home, but as leaving home. Just the same, I know I’m not ready in any way to live in Israel permanently, but that does little to lessen the sadness I shall experience when the plane lifts off the ground and, hours later, finally lands again in the US, the only home I have ever known, until now.
In his speech yesterday, Murray Greenfield (an author and visiting speaker) said that he came to Israel by mistake, and I think I now understand what he meant. I hadn’t meant to fall in love with Israel, I hadn’t meant to acquire this urge to make aliyah despite my love of North Carolina, but that didn’t stop it from happening. None of that kept me from committing this mistake, and although it’s not necessarily a bad mistake, it’s no more intentional than missing the light changing and crossing the street anyways.
But Israel is in my future. Israel is only my home for the next week and a half, and then although it shall be the home within my heart, it shall not be my physical home any longer. In a week and a half, what defines me as a Jew will not primarily be my connection to Israel, but the practices I engage in that keep Judaism alive.
I mentioned earlier that I keep kosher, that I wear tallit and tefillin when I can, and that I aim to one day be more shomer Shabbat than I am now. I’m also learning to speak Hebrew conversationally and to read it sans nikud (vowels), which is an integral part of my Jewish identity that I only discovered this past year. I’ve always read Hebrew and have always been able to lead services (in fact I read Torah five times in the three months prior to coming to Israel), but not until I was unable to attend HSI as early as I’d expected to and decided to brush up on my Hebrew skills did I truly come to love Hebrew as a language outside the synagogue. And yet, I cannot describe the wonder I felt when I was able to pick out words, and sometimes even entire lines, of meaning while praying. I cannot begin to describe the pride I feel when I look at a Hebrew expression I’ve known for years—such as Ma zeh? (What is this?)—and I’m able to say what it means not because I’ve been told, but because I now know the words themselves.
I mentioned that since this past Yom Kippur I’ve experienced a lot of growth as a Jew. It’s a longwinded and by now tiresome story for me to tell, but in short it can be summed up in only a few words: For many years after coming out to myself, I came to develop a split personality; on one side was Judaism, the side I showed to the world, and on the other side was being gay, the side I kept to myself. This disparity split me in two, and it was not for many years until I began coming out to others that the gap between my two identities began to close. Finally, it was upon Yom Kippur, after having missed Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre services, while I was fervently, passionately trying to make up for what I had missed, that I read those God-forsaken words and finally found significance within them:
“Thou shalt not lie with a man as one lies with a woman.”
There my world stopped, my heart skipped a beat and my lungs emptied, and I could no longer deny the fact that I did not know how to be a good Jew if I’m gay, or how I could be gay at all if I’m Jewish. This longing for reconciliation, this need to find my place in Judaism, led me on a journey that brought me closer to Judaism than I had ever been before. I found someone to talk with, and he led me to resources that then led me to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and their responsa on homosexuality. Throughout all of this, I not only came to understand the halakhic position on homosexuality (which helped me to reintegrate myself into Judaism over the months it took me to read them all), but also came to learn about Jewish law and how it’s decided and even the manner in which such processes go about.
My aim in setting out on this spiritual journey had been to find my place in Judaism, and where I found myself at its end was finding Judaism’s place in me, a journey that was only then beginning and even now still continues. The months following Yom Kippur made me want to learn more about Judaism, made me want to practice Judaism more observantly, and made me at times even consider the possibility that I might someday want to become a rabbi….
But that is a story for another day.
The first truly religious experience I had after coming to Israel was our first trip to Jerusalem, our first trip to the Kotel (the Western Wall). I had wanted to feel this brimming, inspiring, unbelievable sense of emotion upon visiting the Western Wall, and my first thought upon arrival was, it’s so much smaller in person. I felt disconnected to God when I went up to the wall, aptly summing up my feelings in a single sentence: “There’s a wall between me and you.” The dual layers of significance were a bonus.
What led me from that feeling of disconnection to my feelings of unity and connection to the Wall when we next visited on Shabbat, I’m not entirely certain. To name each of them, to even identify them, is right now beyond me. But the fact remains this: Somewhere between then and now, that disconnection was severed and the walls around me have fallen. In becoming closer to Israel’s history, in becoming closer to my friends here, and in learning more about Judaism and other religions, I’ve come to feel closer to myself, my faith, and my God.
I’ve mentioned multiple times that I’m still on a journey. I can describe today the path that’s taken me here, and I can describe the scenery I see around me, and I can even describe the horizon I see ahead of me, but in even a moment’s time, all of this may change. It’s the fluid nature of humanity, the expansive nature of Judaism, and the unpredictable nature of time that prevents us from living life without change. In only a year what being Jewish means to me has completely changed, and I can only imagine that it shall continue to change without end. What shall always be constant, however, is that I shall be Jewish throughout my life, no matter how I might define it.