"Why did you go to Israel?" - It's the first thing out of his mouth as we find a quiet spot in the corner of his coffee shop. He invited me in just to chat. To listen. It's divinely timed because I needed it today. Especially today.
I’ve been home for a little over a week now and I have spent the better part of that time trying to figure out how to talk about the journey that took me to the other side of the planet in search of something I wasn’t present to when it all started. So far, the english language has failed me miserably when I search the depths of my vocabulary (and my soul) for ways to communicate the magnitude of the ten days I spent in the holiest land on earth. Often it feels as if I’ll open my mouth and no sound will come out — as if been put on mute. Up until now, when someone asks about Israel, all I can say is: “Israel was…yeah.” hoping that they feel even a fraction of the weight that I’m conveying in that moment of pause. That’s what Israel was — a moment of pause. Everything after is a humble attempt at telling the story of that moment. Perhaps in what feels like fruitless attempts to do justice to the most transformative experience of my life, I can illuminate that moment if I let my heart do the singing.
You know for a second, I didn’t think they’d even let me on the plane. And for a second, I would have understood if they didn’t. It was 11:30 at night and I was being questioned by a (very) young woman from the Israeli airline, and whatever test she was giving, I was not passing. No I didn’t speak Hebrew. Both of my parents are Jewish. Yes, I was Bat Mitzvah’d. No I don’t have any friends or family in Israel. Do I know any prayers? Only for Hanukkah and Shabbat. No I don’t know any songs. My tattoos mean this, this and this and are in these languages. Yes you can search my bags. Why am I going to Israel? On Birthright. As she walked away, not taking kindly to my ignorance as I requested access to her homeland, I felt a particular strand of defeat that was entirely new in the scope of my existence. What was I doing here? I don’t belong here. I’m not one of these people. I don’t deserve this free trip to this place. Every voice in my head screamed “fraud” — and told me I was about to be sent right back home without ever making it to security.
It was with a lot of reluctance and skepticism that she let me know that I could go, but that my bags would be checked more throughly once I got to my gate. As I made my way to security, took my shoes off and loaded my backpack onto the x-ray belt, I noticed three young girls in front of me, also on Birthright, who had clearly spent more time entrenched in this lineage than I. In them, I saw who I might have been if things had been different growing up. I hadn’t even boarded the plane yet and already there were question marks being drawn around who I am as it relates to being Jewish.
I was “the Jew” in every class I’ve been in, the butt of and participant in endless jokes around what a “bad Jew” I am, an on again off again attendee in Hebrew School, a lazy and ignorant observer of “high holy days” — whatever that means, and the 12-year-old asking for a Bat Mitzvah with no fucking clue what that signified, but who knew that a big party with all of her friends sounded like something she could endure a year of private Hebrew study to earn. The majority of my nearly 27 years on this planet in this lifetime have been spent in a swirling confusion and quiet crisis around being Jewish — a conflict buried so deep, I was unaware of the fact that it was hiding. Like my Judaism itself is the mysterious blackness in the eye of a whirlpool who’s force I’ve been fighting against for as long as I can remember. “I’m Jewish by way of blood but not by practice” I’ve heard myself say over and over and over again.
At 12:30 am I boarded the plane that would transport me into a world of answers to questions I didn’t know I was asking. Shadow places that began to see the light, when I welcomed Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem at The Kotel.
Five days after being embarrassingly interrogated in the airport, I observed Shabbat for the first time in my adult life, in the most sacred city in the world, surrounded by hundreds of other Jews. The fullest and most unbounded joy burst from my chest as I stood in a circle with my group, these forty strangers-turned-family, arm in arm. For the first time in my life, I prayed and I understood. I celebrated and I knew why. I sang and I felt something break free inside my heart. I was home, I knew it. As we walked away from the Kotel that night, I turned to a new friend and said “If this is being Jewish, I want to be this.”
What happened over the course of those ten days was a journey into this part of myself that perhaps I’d been unconsciously longing for. Something deep, deep within, knew that I needed this pilgrimage. That I needed these strangers that saw somehow, the absolute truth of who I am and who spoke it with abandon. That I needed Israel. Somewhere in and between the Negev Desert and the Golan Heights, lay the root structure I’d been digging for, ready and waiting for me to slowly water.
Why did I go to Israel? I honestly didn’t know when I applied for the free trip that was my birthright three months ago. All I knew was that I needed to get out of here for a minute and this was a means of meeting that need. But as I sit here in my room, at home in America, with more questions than I left with, the answer is actually crystal clear. I went to Israel in search of my Judaism. Mine. In search, not of religion, but of identity. Of a culture that is rich, a way of life that is meaningful, a tie that cannot be severed. Of a home that resides, unshakably within.
I went to Israel to ask, “What is a Jew?”
I came back from Israel knowing, “I am.”