I can’t remember a time when being Jewish wasn’t the center of my life, wasn’t everything. I have just always felt warmly, proudly Jewish. I never wanted to be anything else, and always felt grateful to be what I am.
One of my earliest recollections was running outside with my new doll, a gift for Hannukah, to show my up-the-street neighbor, Susie McElvaney. “What did you get for Hannukah?” I asked her. I think I was three or four years old.
“Nothing. Only Jews celebrate Hannukah. We’re not Jews.”
“Not JEWS???” I asked. Tears came to my eyes. I held out my doll to her. “You can play with my dolly, if you like,” I said.
I felt so bad for Susie. I had no idea. I thought EVERYBODY was Jewish.
In a way, I never got over that early experience. It was the first time I knew that I was lucky. Because everything that was warm and beautiful in my life, in my HEART? It was all wrapped up in that. It was all about being Jewish.
And everything flowed from there.
For instance: I loved kissing the mezuzah as I walked through the doorway to my bedroom. I loved when my mother or father put me to bed, to hear my “Shema.”
I loved the Hershey bar I got on Simchas Torah. I loved sitting next to my mother at the Passover Seder.
We weren’t a religious family. Not in the way most people think of what it means to be religious. We weren’t Orthodox. But the deepest part of me was inextricably Jewish in the most soul-satisfying way.
It’s possible there are no words for this thing I felt and still feel. Or that I have yet to find the right words.
But all of it was always bound up with Israel. Israel was part of me the way being Jewish was part of me. It was in the Shema that I said; that my parents listened to when I went to bed each night.
It was in the hushed worried voices of my parents murmuring over the news, or the scent of my mother’s perfume, wafted to me in a whoosh of cold air as she left the house with my father to go to a bond dinner. It was my sister coming back after a long summer on a kibbutz with a tan and a handful of Hebrew slang words. I could almost smell the oranges on her skin as she hugged me.
So much was Israel a part of me that I burned to come to Israel, to live in Israel. I just had to. I had no choice.
There was nothing to do but come to Israel.
My mother made me finish high school. I swallowed my disappointment and honored her in this alone. Because making Aliyah meant leaving her forever. My mother and everything I knew.
But there was no choice. It was the strongest urge possible. It overruled everything else. I had to.
And I have watched on from my happy perch in Israel, the most wonderful place in the world, where the earth is the scent of life, as American Jews, my people, voted for Obama not once, but twice. Knowing that he would hurt Israel. And I could not understand this. Could not understand them.
How is it possible that we are one? How can it be that we are the same people, with the same God, the same land, the same plight?
I became a writer. I would get an idea and write about it and sometimes I would interview people.
Over the past week, I have sought to interview Jews who had voted for Obama twice, and regretted their votes now, finally.
I wanted to hear their regret. I wanted to hear their connection. I wanted to hear that somehow we are the same, them and me. That all of us are Jews in that deep down essential place that can’t be nudged, budged or moved out of place—that all of us think of Israel and God and Oneness, as we close our eyes, the last thing we do each day in our respective lands and homes.
But it wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there.
I said that to some of them. I wanted to hear how they would respond. One of them, a man I interviewed said to me tonight, “I found your words interesting, about the disconnect to our people. Maybe some time you could give me suggestions on how to do more?”
There I heard it at last, or at least a spark of it: the longing to belong, the longing for Yiddishkeit and a sense of connection to Israel. And I, the one with the words, was suddenly at a loss.
Quite frankly, I had no idea. I hadn’t a clue how to give him what I’d had for as long as I can remember. The thing that is at the core of it all, the whole world, and more.
How do you put that back into a middle-aged man when it was never there in the first place? How do you get him to take it in, deeply, in huge enough soul-filling draughts to make it take, make it stick?
I thought back to the beginning and I saw myself in my childhood home in Pittsburgh, straining to reach the mezuzah way up high on my bedroom doorframe, to touch and kiss it. The letter shin embossed on the outside of the simple metal case. And I said, “Do you have mezuzahs?”
He said, “My mom always gives me one when I move. But how do I use them? I kiss my hand and touch them. Beyond that what?”
I reviewed with him how we touch the mezuzah, and kiss the fingers. I said to him, “No. You touch it and you kiss your fingers. You think about the scroll inside it and what it says:
“‘Hear oh Israel, The Lord is God, The Lord is one,’” I said to him.
“I was thinking that building a connection to Israel starts there,” I said tentatively, hoping I was right. “You kiss that connection that says that God is the God of Israel.”
“I will try,” he said.
And I felt my heart break a little, thinking about that, about having to try to find what I’d always had. What I’d been born with. And I promised I’d have more patience with American Jews. Because most of them?
They are so very obviously lost.