Friday, February 24, 2006


Every time I mention Israel, I get a couple of comments, so I’m going to write about it. Be warned, this is a long, ramble of a post. Maybe my complicated family stuff and my radical politics and my unconventional views on religion explain it. You tell me--if you make it to the end.

(My trip is March 16-21 and Miss Tabitha still needs a home. Poor kitty.)

I have no romantic ideas about Israel. I don't think of it as my homeland. I'm living in my homeland. I've been there twice before, both times to visit my family (one of my older brothers lives there). Minimal sightseeing was involved.

Both trips occurred about 16 years ago. Maybe a year after I graduated from college, I finally took the solo trip to Europe I'd talked about ever since going on a college-sponsored group trip the summer before my senior year (I was 18). On my solo trip, I was 21, which is why I have the timing about right. The trip lasted about three months and I spent two weeks of it in Jerusalem, sleeping in what can only be termed a closet (with a window) off of the living room in my brother's tiny apartment. I also served (willingly) as an informal mother’s helper for my sister-in-law. Oh, except for the three or four days when I was knocked out by a stomach virus or a reaction to the local water. After that, my sister-in-law started boiling water, filling up old 2-liter coke bottles and chilling them in the fridge for me. There were four kids then and my nephew was five. Some highlights:
  • Renting a car, challenging when you are under 25, but somehow I managed it.
  • Driving to Tiberius with my brother, taking a dip in the Sea of Galilee (it’s just a really big lake). We took turns waiting for each other in the car—no co-ed bathing in his religion.
  • Getting lost on the way back, at night, without a proper map.
  • Looking at the Dead Sea but not going in.
  • Looking at Masada but not climbing up.
  • Preventing my nephew from fooling me into buying him two gumballs instead of one due to my ability to count to 7 in Hebrew.
  • Staying up late into the night three or four times talking to my brother—we bonded.
  • Going to see “Pretty Woman” with my sister-in-law—we bonded a little too.
Even though Israel doesn’t have the “homeland” resonance for me, I did have this funny feeling one day when I was walking on my own in downtown Jerusalem. I looked around and I thought, “Everyone of these people is a Jew. The exceptions are the non-Jews.” While I've been lucky that I've encountered very little anti-Semitism, I'd never had the feeling of being in the majority--where being Jewish was taken for granted. Perhaps I could have had that experience at the Jewish summer camp I attended if the other kids hadn't been so mean. The only bonding along these lines occurred when I asked my tent-mates one of my standard getting-to-know-you questions, "What religion are you?" There was a moment of silence and then we all burst out laughing. That feeling of being in the majority is a cozy one.

The second trip to Israel took place just eight months after I returned from my mini-tour of Europe. My father was making his semi-annual trip to visit the grandchildren and my step-mother declined to accompany him (this was the first of two times she’s done that—she’s a trooper—and a good grandma to the kids—she’s their only living grandma, in fact). In her absence, Dad asked me to join him (Dad hates to travel alone). I agreed—I was working a crap temp job and I was happy to have a reason to quit. I remember relatively little about that trip except taking the two oldest kids to Tel Aviv for the day and watching them swim in Mediterranean in their underpants. Very cute and possibly one of the last times they were nice to each other. Oh, and how could I forget the mini-van Dad forced me to drive to the "safari" about an hour away. Look at the lions! Keep your hands in the van! Mommy, I can't see! The van only had seatbelts for the front seats and on the way home we had four tired, crying, sick kids rolling around in the back. It was great.

One reason for my upcoming trip is that my friend, Spesh, has been asking me to visit since the day he got back to Israel (January 16th). The Israeli family has also been asking me to visit for at least the last two years (ever since I cancelled a trip I’d planned to make with Dad right after we started our war with Iraq—Dad was stuck on his own and he didn’t like that).

However, the main reason for this trip is that my 20-year-old nephew is getting married. The most common reaction to that news is, "You have a 20-year-old nephew?"

I have eight nephews and nieces. The Israelis: 20-19-18-16-11. The New Jerseys: 6-4-1. The oldest and youngest are boys. My brothers are 7 (B2) and 8.5 (B1) years older than I. B2 got married when he was 23. B1 got married about seven years ago, when he was 38. (If it isn’t abundantly clear by now, or you haven’t read previous posts about my family, I have a lot more in common with B1 than with B2. Oddly, temperamentally, B2 and I more alike. Life loves those little ironies.)

My Israeli family are strict Orthodox Jews. They could be characterized as “Ultra-Orthodox,” “Haredi,” or "frum.”

They have arranged marriages. However, the marriage of my nephew wasn't arranged by a matchmaker--the bride is the niece of my nephew's boss. The boss introduced them and I guess they've been dating--though I'm not sure what that means in their culture. The families got together and made the marriage arrangements. The bride is orthodox, but not to the same degree as my family.

My family follows the kosher rules to the letter, they dress modestly and they pray a lot. They keep the Sabbath, aka Shabbat, which runs from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday (actually, a bit later than sunset). Keeping Shabbat means that innumerable things are forbidden. The Shabbat don’ts include: lighting a fire (anything that creates energy is forbidden), tearing paper, carrying things outdoors, cleaning house, earning money, exchanging money, smoking and writing. Reading, eating, walking and praying are permitted. There are mixed opinions about bicycling.

The Ultra-Orthodox follow the covenant that the Jews made with God. That's what Moses brought down from the mountain. It wasn't just the ten commandments--it was a whole bunch of other rules too. To the Haredi, keeping the covenant defines being Jewish. That's why the Reform are bad Jews--because we don't keep the covenant.

It's not entirely clear to me why we're even considered Jewish if keeping kosher, etc., is what makes you a Jew, but that’s ok with me. Ideally, Reform Judaism is more about beliefs than practices.

However, you can also be a Jew by birth. Since my mother and her mother and her mother and her mother were Jews, I am a Jew. (One of my great-grandfather's parents was Catholic, but the religion is passed through the maternal line so that doesn't matter. It is not progressive--the reasoning is that you always know who your mother is.) There is lot of lineage baloney wrapped up in Judaism and it's even more pronounced among the Orthodox, despite the covenant business. The Orthodox care a lot if you have a famous Rabbi perched somewhere in your family tree.

Interestingly, since keeping the covenant makes you a Jew, it's possible to convert to Judaism (there are tests involved). In fact, B2 had to convert because his mother was not Jewish. (I share a father with my brothers, but we have different mothers. B1 and B2 are full brothers.) B1 converted too, but not until he was in his 30s, in anticipation of his marriage (another long story). If you want your conversion to “count,” though, it must be Orthodox. An Orthodox conversion will actually earn you the right of return to Israel; a Reform conversion will not.* Because, you know, Reform Jews aren't really Jewish.

*I can't document this, but it's what I was taught in religious school. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

I know that when some people find out I'm Jewish they will look at me differently. My differences were emphasized early because I went to elementary school in Knoxville, TN (The South). I've never minded answering a lot of questions about Judaism. I've always been on an informal education mission for my religion--transforming the bible stories into short comic myths. There is some good stuff in the old testament. And, thanks to B2, I know more about the ins and outs of kashrut (kosher in Hebrew) than any Reform Jew you'll ever meet.

I'm not offended by questions, but I am offended when people tell me that Judaism is a culture and not a religion. My position is that it is a religion. You can convert to it. Sure you have to ask three times (the rabbi will turn you away the first two times), but it is allowed. I just read something, in the search for a definition of “frum” on the internet, that said you don't even have to be circumcised to be a Jew. There are some rituals you can't take part in if you aren't circumcised, but that's it. Born of a Jew, you are still a Jew. Oh, wait. I'm contradicting myself.

Still, the idea of a Jewish "race" is offensive—it feels like racism. I want to be able to believe whatever I want to believe because I’ve chosen to believe it, not because I’m born to it. I want to choose to carry on whatever family traditions I like because they are traditions in my family, not because of a racial obligation. We know that if you are black, you are burdened with all kinds of expectations—you are supposed to be a good athlete or like rap music, or dozens of other inane and infinitely more offensive things. I guess that’s how I feel when people tell me that Jews are a race. I’m a member of that race, which means what? What expectations of yours do I have to defy to prove that it does not define me?

There is a woman at work who talks about her Jewish friends in New Jersey and she’ll say things like, “You know, that’s what Jewish people do.” Once I said to her, “I’m Jewish and I’ve never done a single one of those things you mentioned. Maybe it’s a New Jersey thing.” Maybe.

Even worse, Israel a propagates a most virulent kind of racism. I'm not saying we should get rid of the state of Israel or that there shouldn't be a sanctuary for Jews, though in a ideal world we wouldn’t need one—I recognize that’s not where we live. But it's still troubling. Did you know that,
…the UN maintains a separate and distinct definition of the word “refugees” for Palestinians who left Israel in 1948 and/or 1967. Palestinian refugees from Israel are classed as both the individuals who left Israel and any descendants of those individuals. This stands in contrast to the UN definition of refugee as it applies to displaced persons connected with territories other than those of the State of Israel: in the latter case it refers only to those individuals who were forced to flee, not to their lineal descendants.

This is beyond disturbing. Jews and all of their descendents and non-Jewish family members have the right to return to Israel. Palestinian refugees and all of their descendents do not.

What does this have to do with me and Judaism? I don’t know. I take part in very few Jewish activities. I celebrate some of the Jewish holidays at home. I go to services for the High Holidays, for reasons that are obscure even to me. Spesh continually tells me that I'm an atheist (which I neither confirm nor deny). I tell him that believing in God is not required in Judaism, which is true, but belief is preferred. I am Jewish. I am firm about that I will never convert. (Remind me to tell you the story about the Baptist revival where my Judaism was tested and proved.)

I think the trip will be composed of one-third Spesh and two-thirds family. Spesh may end up spending time with my family. That will be interesting if it happens. On the diversity spectrum in Israel, my brother and Spesh are about as far apart you can get. All they have in common is their Eastern European heritage--and that's only on my dad's side for B2. Did you know that B2's mother's family came over on the Mayflower? It doesn't get much more WASP-y than that. Interestingly, B2's mother was more accepting of his conversion to Judaism than anyone else in the family. Before her untimely death she actually moved to Israel and converted to Orthodox Judaism.

Can you believe that I could write more about Judaism, Israel and my trip? I’ll stop for now.

Feel free to debate me in the comments, but let's try and keep things civil, ok? Ok.

Grateful for: being a Jew.
Drop me a line.

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