Beginning to wrestle
April 27, 2008
During the first few years of this blog's existence, I didn't write about Israel. Because I wanted to quietly challenge the assumption that a Judaism-focused blog must necessarily be Israel-focused. Because I figured the last thing the internet needs is another person pontificating about a place she barely knows. Because most online discourse about Israel and Palestine is hotheaded and partisan. Because time and energy and passion are limited resources, and it often seems that so much of these go to Israel that little is left for other aspects of Jewish identity and experience.
All of those reasons still hold. And yet I'm beginning to grapple with what it will mean to shift this unofficial blog policy (and, more importantly, to shift the internal focus behind it) because this summer I'm going to spend seven weeks in Jerusalem, studying in the Conservative Yeshiva Summer Program.
The primary reason for the trip is to burnish my language skills. I'll spend mornings in ulpan, beating my head against verb conjugations and vocabulary, because I need greater Hebrew fluency than I have now; I'll take a variety of classes in the afternoons, to round out my learning in other directions. But beyond these academic purposes, I hope the trip will give me a chance to begin getting to know the place and its inhabitants. Israel feels to me like a distant cousin: I know we're related, but we don't exactly have a relationship. I don't delude myself that seven weeks is enough time to really get to know any country, but it's a start.
In 1998 I went to Israel for ten days with my mother and two dozen other San Antonio Jews. Much was wonderful about that trip, not least the chance to spend ten days traveling with my mom. Much was also frustrating (especially the sense that our experience was constructed in a way that was designed to push our emotional buttons.) I came home from that trip, wrote several poems, and -- feeling unsettled by the strength of my mixed emotions -- put Israel in a mental box labeled "I'll deal with this later." 2008 marks a decade since my first trip, and it's clear to me that I need to reopen that box.
I often feel caught between people I know and love who support Israel without reservation, and people I know and love who find Israel problematic at best. And, of course, everyone in between, including friends who've taken the leap of making aliyah ("ascent" -- a.k.a. emigration to Israel.) Over the last several years I've spent time exploring the question of what it means to have a Diaspora identity, and how I believe the mainstream American Jewish attitude toward Israel tends to leave us disempowered where Diaspora spirituality is concerned...but I mostly haven't engaged with Israel itself.
I experience some cognitive dissonance when I think about Israel. Put me in a room with Israel's detractors, and I feel called to defend it; put me in a room with Israel's defenders, and I want to point out every way in which it doesn't live up to my hopes. There's a certain kind of unquestioned support for Israel that troubles me (and don't even get me started on Christians United for Israel and their ilk, who drive me up a tree.) And yet every time I read about someone discovering that Israel isn't the Big Bad Wolf of their worst imagination (I'm thinking here of Khaled Diab's essays about his travels in Israel, At Home With The Zionists and Behind the Zion Curtain) I want to cheer.
This is not an easy tension to hold. Between the people in my life who love and admire Israel, and the people in my life who shy away from it; between the parts of my own heart and head which resonate to both of those viewpoints in differing ways. The tension is often painful for me. It's why I took a ten-year hiatus from engagement with the place and the knot of issues which surround it. And it's also true that I'm deeply interested in the question of what Diaspora Judaism would look like if we weren't so intertwined with Israel -- if we took the energy we expend arguing about Israel and poured it into our prayer lives, our learning and teaching, our Diaspora communities. That's a positive reason to focus my attention elsewhere; my uncertainty about how to navigate the place's political and emotional tensions is a negative one.
The positive reason still holds water, but the negative reason isn't good enough anymore. As a rabbinic student and as a Jew, I need to move beyond that. In order to serve the American Jewish community, I need to be able to listen to the
rainbow of perspectives on the Middle East, and I need to be capable of speaking
with the courage of my convictions --
which means I need to know firmly what those convictions are, beyond
wish that peace come swiftly and in our days. It's one thing for an
Israeli to argue that the current situation is apartheid (as Yossi Sarid does in today's Ha'aretz), but historically I've felt that I don't know enough to have an opinion of my own on the matter. It's time for that to change.
So 2008 is the year to spend some time in Israel and to begin working through some of this stuff. And, of course, to do some solid academic/linguistic learning, the practical reason for my journey in the first place. I've posted before about the Pardes model of interpretation, which invites us to see our texts through the fourfold lens of pshat (surface), remez (hint), drash (story) and sod (secret.) On a pshat level, my summer plans are all about learning to speak/read Hebrew more fluently. That's true, but it's not especially engaging. Where this gets tough, and therefore interesting, is on the deeper levels: what are my emotions surrounding this trip? What are the stories I tell myself about where and why I'm going? What's happening deep down? That's where the poems and essays and blog posts are going to come from.
I've been warned not to expect a single Jerusalem summer to work magic where my language skills are concerned. I need to be able to comfortably read three variants of Hebrew (Biblical, Rabbinic, and Hasidic -- not to mention Aramaic, which is a cousin to Hebrew); practicing the Modern variant, in the classroom and in ordinary life, will do me a world of good, but it won't instantly imbue me with multiple levels of fluency. By the same token, I probably need to remind myself that a single Jerusalem summer won't work magic where my relationship with Israel is concerned, either. I've got thirty-odd years of baggage to unpack and selectively jettison. (Most of the baggage is probably outdated, too. I've spent ten years shoving this stuff into a closet without looking closely at what was inside. This could take a while.)
But it's important work, and work I think I'll benefit from doing. I
put my relationship with Israel in a box ten years ago because I wasn't
ready to do the work of making that relationship healthy. Now I'm ready to do the work, and I have a community of colleagues and friends who I trust to be my sounding-boards as I think through this stuff. As that old chestnut from Pirke Avot has it, it's not incumbent upon me to finish the task, but neither am I free to refrain from beginning it, right?
So I'm beginning to wrestle with Israel: what it is, what it represents, why it looms so large in my consciousness. (And also with Palestine: how that word makes me feel, what it means and doesn't mean to me, how much I'm realizing I don't know. I hope to go on an Encounter Program trip, as a start.) This doesn't mean I'm going to start posting regularly about Middle East politics; it's not my area of expertise, and I still think Israel dominates American Jewish discourse in a way that's not necessarily spiritually healthy. But neither is it spiritually healthy to ignore Israel and the role it plays in American Jewish consciousness. This summer's trip offers me an opportunity to strengthen my language skills, and to try again to figure out how I want to relate to Israel and how Israel might relate to me.