Last month, I took a quick, five-day trip to the Unites States to visit my grandfather at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital, an assisted living facility in North Miami Beach where he is (hopefully) recovering from several strokes. While I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity shown to my grandfather by complete strangers (staff members and volunteers) and the extreme emotions exhibited by our family’s usually unflappable patriarch, I was simply stunned by my own feelings toward the “Old Country.”
Though I was born, raised and spent some of the happiest times of my life in the U.S., something felt unnatural about my return.
As my flight from Tel Aviv touched down in Newark International Airport, a quick pit stop before I resumed my journey to Miami, I stretched my legs, took a glimpse out the window and felt nothing.
I was not emotional about being back within driving distance of my old New York City neighborhood, and I did not yet feel pangs of homesickness for my Israeli life. I just went through the motions and followed my fellow passengers out of the plane and into the arrivals terminal. It was normal. After all, I had made this trip more times than I could remember. But as I wended my way through the airport, Newark’s industrial parks came into full view through the terminal’s massive windows and I shuddered. My body actually shook from head to toe.
While I’m fairly certain that viewing the Newark skyline triggers violent reactions in most well adjusted individuals, it was clear that there was more to my response than an aversion to New Jersey’s infamous pollutants. But it wasn’t until I returned home to Israel that I realized what had occurred: I had actually been “rewired” in the 18 months since our young family made aliyah, and I sparked and sputtered in response to what was now a foreign frequency. My Zionist body had blown a fuse.
Because I spent most of my time in America by my grandfather’s side, my interactions with other human beings were kept to a minimum. Still, my brief encounters with taxi drivers, cashiers, airport security officers, flight attendants and other travelers made me uneasy. Not because I thought they harbored any ill will toward me. Rather, I always caught them stopping mid-sentence to stare at my big knit kippah and ponder why I chose to be so different.
No, it wasn’t paranoia. They were looking — just as they always had. I was simply no longer accustomed to it.
In the same vein, the abundant English-language signage in the airports and on the roadways, coupled with a complete lack of kosher dining options just about everywhere I went, made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Not because those were the intentions of the American businesses that commissioned those signs and chose to open non-kosher establishments, but because I just wasn’t used to it anymore.
What I discovered was that, for a Jew, living in Israel means allowing yourself to feel comfortable in your own skin. By its definition, Israeli nationalism, or “Zionism,” means identifying with (and, if necessary, defending) the Land of Israel as the historical birthplace and spiritual, religious, and cultural soul of the Jewish people as well as the sovereign Jewish national homeland.
But it also means creating an environment in which Jews can simply (and unapologetically) live their lives just like everyone else. No long-winded explanations to employers about the religious significance of your weeklong vacation during busy season, no need to pack a lunch for a family trip to the fair, and no qualms about wearing a big knit kippah. Ever.
As I waited to board my flight from Miami International Airport to Newark, the first leg of my journey back to Tel Aviv, I spotted only one other Israeli standing among the crowd gathered at the gate. Though we had never met before, we greeted each other like long-lost friends. Smiling from ear to ear, we began to chat in Hebrew (our language) and breathed deep sighs of relief to finally be with someone else who “got it.”
We were thrilled and grateful to be making our way back to a place where public television shows entertain our children with stories and songs about our land, our holidays, and our history; where supermarkets stock their shelves with menorahs, Seder plates, and sukkah decorations and planned their sales around our calendar; and where encounters with taxi drivers, cashiers, airport security officers, and flight attendants would inevitably end with a hearty and synchronized “Shabbat Shalom.”