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Why I Had to Travel all the Way to New York in Order to Understand More About My Israeli Jewish Identity
Brooklyn. The first night of Hanukkah. Just a few hours after landing in New York, I found myself standing at Grand Army Plaza with the crowd of people that had slowly gathered around “the largest menorah in Brooklyn”. I was amongst the first to arrive because I am used to people outside of Israel being punctual. However, it seems that American Jews are just like Israeli Jews in this regard, and the Jews of Brooklyn did not rush to arrive at the starting time announced in Time Out magazine
It was interesting to see the crowd gathering around me and I soon found the words to “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York” playing in my head – just with “Israeli woman in Brooklyn” replacing “Englishman in New York”. I think that the feeling was pretty much the same. I had come to New York with a delegation of TALI school principals who were spending their Hanukkah vacation getting to know the Jewish communities in the place with the second-largest concentration of Jews in the world. The purpose of the trip was to learn about Jewish education in the Diaspora in order to broaden their perspectives on issues of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. I didn’t realize then that the choice to begin my visit specifically here would be a defining moment which would accompany me throughout the week.
As a tourist, but also as a journalist, my eyes darted around, absorbing what was happening between all of the activity: Lubavitchers wearing dreidel costumes bearing the letters “nun”, “gimmel”, “hey” and “shin”. The “shin” confused me for a minute but its meaning underscored exactly how I felt: The “shin” stands for “sham” (there) but in Israel we use a Peh for “Po” (here) and it’s not the same. The walking dreidels distributed tasteless, industrial latkes which were consumed eagerly by the guest who were asked if they wanted to receive a gift package consisting of a menorah, a box of candles and a dreidel.
Everything was grandiose, showy and attractive: The menorah was too big to be lit from the ground, and was instead lit from a boom lift carrying not just the Rabbi, but also the Mayor of New York himself. The “famous” singer Moishie performed onstage accompanied by an all-male band of musicians, but in the plaza at the foot of the stage, women and men danced together without hesitation, including women wearing wigs and men sporting beards – this would not happen in Israel. Moishie sang mostly in English and the audience joined in, but when he sang “Jerusalem of Gold” in Hebrew I noticed that, except for a few individuals who were definitely Israeli like me, no one knew the words to the song.
The event closed with songs of exaltation for the country, including “America the Beautiful” and the canonical “God Bless America”, as well as words of appreciative thanks to the security forces of New York for guarding the crowd. The MC thanked the participants and said that only in New York – “the greatest city in the world”, which allows for diversity, pluralism and tolerance – could they have come together to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah next to the largest menorah in Brooklyn.
It was at that moment that I asked myself: Why would they need Israel? They are Orthodox Jews who live together, observing their Judaism amongst themselves and protecting it from the outside with the help of the NYPD. They appreciate the ground upon which they walk and they also enjoy the shopping at the likes of Walmart and Amazon. Why should they yearn for the Promised Land where the cost of living is high and politics often divisive? Everything they need can be found right where they are and that should be enough.
And this led me to question even further: What is Israel for them? Is there a single Jewish nation that is dispersed and diverse, or are there two main Jewish nations? Can Jews feel at home in this place with the second-largest concentration of Jews in the world? Do Christians feel at home anywhere where Christmas is being celebrated? Or is it just the Jews who are constantly searching for belonging and home? And what makes people feel like they belong?
I got the impression that in New York there is a different kind of Judaism and during that evening I did not feel part of it. Perhaps I am too influenced by the polarity and separatism that prevails in Israel, that constantly insists on defining you or categorizing you as Orthodox or secular because, like many things in life, Judaism in Israel is perceived as black or white and there is no room for anyone who wants to wander in the middle and find his own place. Right after the huge Menorah was lit, I returned to Manhattan to the other members of the delegation who I had only met that day to officially begin the week of activities. There, next to the small menorah that had been placed on a folding table in the middle of the small decrepit office, to the sounds of the Hanukkah songs which had accompanied me since childhood, I felt at home.
Throughout the week we visited numerous places: a Jewish day school where the Israeli flag waves proudly next to the American flag and two clocks tick side-by-side on New York and Jerusalem times. We experienced Kabbalat Shabbat with a dynamic and cohesive congregation that meets in a Protestant church on Friday nights and uses a sound system to amplify its spiritual experience. We visited a Hebrew charter school in Harlem that serves African-American and Hispanic students who consider Israel to be a hi-tech powerhouse and think Jewish education is better than secular education. And we met leaders of Jewish congregations across a wide and diverse religious spectrum.
We had other experiences: We heard about Jews who won’t pray in synagogues flying an Israeli flag and about rabbis who were fired, some because they spoke in condemnation about Israel and others because they spoke in praise of it. We learned about the generational gap between grandfathers, fathers and sons who, despite their pro-Israel Jewish education, turned their backs on Judaism because they heard in university that Israel is an apartheid state, or because they discovered on Facebook or in the news that Israel is not perfect. We heard that some congregations had reached the conclusion that if the topic of Israel was not easily swallowed, it was better avoided than argued. We were introduced to a viewpoint that many Americans see intermarriage as something positive because if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman or a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man then there will be two new Jewish families instead of just one Jewish family. According to still another opinion, it is better to be Jewish outside of Israel since Jews (even those who are not formally Jewish) choose to be Jewish and enjoy it, while Judaism is for many Israelis an oppressive default and that they are first and foremost Israelis or citizens of the world, and only after that Jews (if at all).
Between visits and shopping trips or during subway rides, the conversations between us and our individual thoughts were occupied with the similarities and differences, and just like the difference between the Israeli dreidel and the Diaspora dreidel “here” vs. “there”, who and what are we compared to them, and what can we learn from them about our Jewish identity here? This nonstop ping-pong didn’t rest for a minute. It hasn’t stopped since I returned to Israel and I believe that it will continue for some time.
During that week, I truly began to appreciate how well-run and diverse Jewish community life in New York is. The community funds impressive institutions, endows and maintains beautiful buildings that are filled to the brim with activity, and supports educational programs that impact the future of American Jewry as well as Jewry worldwide. While Israel is undoubtedly my home, I learned that we have a lot to learn from Jewish communities abroad. In the meantime, as I start my family, I’ll look for a town that has a quality TALI school and a Conservative/Masorti synagogue housed in a well-designed building and not in a temporary caravan.
Moriah Karsagi Aharon is the director of public relations at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem
Moriah Karsagi Aharon is the former Director of Media and Public Relations and a Hebrew language editor who has been working at the Schechter Institutes since 2012.
She is a graduate of The Hebrew University with a BA in Journalism and Communications and has an MA from the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies in Contemporary Jewry and Land of Israel Studies. She previously worked as assistant spokesperson for the Israeli Court Administration, as an internet content coordinator at Channel 2 television and as the press coordinator of the Jewish National Fund. She was born and raised in Jerusalem.