Israel and a time of return

5 Mar

Four months ago, I received a voicemail from an unknown number. “Hello, Jessica,” said a male voice on the other end of the line. “Please give me a call back. We have a few questions that we’d like to ask you about your Jewish affiliations.”

Despite the fact that I called him back while cooking bacon for my apartmentmates and just a few weeks before I hosted the giant Interfaith bash of Chrismahannakwanzaatheismadon, I felt defensive. Of course I am Jewish, I thought as something inside of me twisted with anxiety. My mother’s Jewish! I celebrate Hanukkah and Passover! And my grandma lives in New York City and knows how to curse in Yiddish!

“…And yet…” the voice on the phone reminded me, my father is Christian (“A priest?” I was asked); and yet, I went to more Sunday School lessons than Hebrew School ones; and yet, neither my brother nor I were ever bar or bat mitvah’d; and yet, I refused to renounce my upbringing in a fairly secular, though spiritual, family that was determined to be respectfully interfaith and to let both children choose their own religious identity at will. And yet…

This phone call, which came to verify my eligibility for the Taglit Birthright program, was not the first time that I have struggled with what it means to identify as “Jewish and…” Like many children with mixed heritage, I grew up thinking that I had a legitimate claim to multiple cultures, but slowly grew to realize that without true immersion, I would never have the kind of social currency to thrive in any of them. It’s a realization that drew me to take a course on the New Testament during my freshman year at Yale and that drove me to apply to Birthright to begin with. While for many people, Birthright is a journey to the home of their past, Birthright for me is one tool to help me to determine what I want for my own future, as well as that of my children. It is a return — both to my bloodline and to thoughts of my own religious and cultural identity, thoughts that I have mostly placed to the side during my time at Yale (with the exception of a few 3am deep life conversations) in favor of more intellectual or social inquiries. And it’s also a return to the kind of complicated, sometimes painful, sometimes delicious (see: Italian baker), travel that I have written about on this blog before.

And with that, I introduce you all to Israel. I am only about 24 hours in on this 10 day trip around the country and am doing my best to record as much of it as possible, in the hopes of expanding my thoughts now and my conclusions later (spoiler alert: there are no immediate, easy answers here. That became apparent before I even set foot on the plane.) I recognize that this trip is not the be-all, end-all – in fact, many of us on the trip packed a healthy dose of skepticism along with our clothes for Shabbat, and I have taken too many courses on the Middle East to ignore the larger geopolitical issues at stake – but it is, for me, a first step, albeit a first step large enough to carry me halfway around the world.

I’ll keep updating, but I’ll leave you with the same wish that Muriel, my grandma’s friend as well as my own, sent to me in card form: may you experience the best that life has to offer, and travel well:

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One Response to “Israel and a time of return”

  1. Sue Howard March 7, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Jess….this is awesome. Good for you, I wish you the best on your journey. I have always been interested and facinated with the Jewish faith. I will be looking forward to your updates.

    Be well…take care
    Love Sue

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