My father in his youth could still only dream of a Jewish homeland. I came of age when Israel passed through the struggle for its day-to-day survival and—despite terrorism and Iranian bomb threats—began to experience itself as a permanent nation.
At Camp Ramah I learned that my Jewishness was the key to my being. In the Young Judaea youth movement, I imbibed the romance of the reborn Jewish land, but I was also trained not to trust the myth, to see the internal schisms and oppression of our neighbors for what they were. True Zionists, I discovered, moved to Israel; they made aliya.
The slogans of the aliya emissaries never persuaded me; I did not believe that American Jews would assimilate out of existence and found the parallel to Weimar Jewry absurd. But then I read Israelis: Founders and Sons and the vision of the early communes supplanted my bourgeois aspirations in a few short paragraphs.
I wouldn’t accept I was not fated to be a pioneer-farmer-spiritual-intellectual who spent his days in the field and nights in truth or dare, until I broke the kibbutz baler in the most beautiful corner of the Lower Galilee because my allergies were blinding me. Who knew hay fever had anything to do with hay? (Letting go of the communal piece took longer.)
What ultimately replaced those romantic teenage dreams was not yet another image of remaking myself, but daily life in Israel. Here, I do not have to reserve my Jewish sensibilities for specific arenas. I feel less—or at least differently—divided, almost forced not to compartmentalize.
When, as the Moriah Fund program director for Israel, I encourage my foundation to defend Israeli democracy, to bring Falashmura to Israel, or to fight plans to displace Bedouin from their villages, these recommendations are informed by my Jewish values. At the summer protest in Tel Aviv, I followed family precedent and brought my children to the demonstration to scream The People want Social Justice.
But we also searched the crowd for the most cutting and sarcastic posters, joining my love for self-conscious and smart-ass humor—common to bright Jewish boys from New York and the bright young protest leaders—with my kids’ knowledge of Hebrew slang. On hagim (holidays), the cable movie channels routinely show Christmas flicks, “holiday films” from the wrong culture. It used to drive me crazy to see my children watching them, but now I don’t care. The Jewish year utterly shapes their sense of time, and Santa is only a curiosity.
When the Tel Aviv municipality voted last month to move toward launching public bus service on Shabbat, I counted at least five circles of debate: “Shabbos! Shabbos! For shame!” and other Haredi slogans; the fallout from altering the orthodox-non-orthodox “status quo”; the “rights” of those who don’t keep Shabbat; “economic justice” for low-income locals with no cars or transportation alternatives on their only day off; and competing images of Shabbat in a Jewish State as a day for shul, for shopping, for family, for leisure, for quiet, for errands, for nature, for culture, for study, for traveling, for staying put. But all these arguments are Jewish.
Israel is a small country. The threats, the inequities, and the joys are in your face, but the chance to be part of this chaotic discourse is also right there, insistent, and unavoidable.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.