Monday, January 17, 2011

My Heart is in the East & I am at the Edge of the West

By the time you read this post, I will be on my way to Israel for the very first time.

I have no other posts scheduled to go up in my absence. I'm taking my cell phone, but I don't expect to make calls. There are out-of-office messages set up on both my Gmail and my work email. I will only tweet when and if I have free wi-fi at any of the hotels I'll be staying at. I'll be back at the end of January, at which time I expect to be exhausted and jet-lagged and massively happy.

My Israel trip by the numbers looks something like this: I'm taking five pairs of pants, six t-shirts, two jackets, three dresses, 12 pairs of socks, 14 pairs of underwear, three bras, four sports bras, one bathing suit, two purses&  about a million assorted toiletries. I am taking one magazine and no books & 10 granola bars. The memory card on my camera is empty, & my travel credit card has been loaded up with a couple hundred dollars with which I plan to purchase lots of falafel & assorted souvenir tchotchkes. Five people, including three non-Jewish friends, have given me dollar bills to donate to tzedakah, or charity, when I reach "The Land," & just as many friends have sent me texts & emails telling me to have a good time. Last night, one stranger told me not to get bombed (thanks, man).

I’m less focused on the numbers, though, than I am about the emotions, which are innumerable. I've spent about 15 of my 26 years struggling internally with my feelings about and connections to Israel. Do I care? Should I care? Do I have to care? And how do I figure out whether I care & what I care about? Whew.

I was born to a Jewish mother and an agnostic Presbyterian father. I grew up celebrating Christmas but never attending church, sometimes skipping Friday night football games with my overwhelmingly Christian friends to go to synagogue with my mother; when I sent out my bat mitzvah invitations, I begged my mom to let me include the line "Kate's 13th Birthday Party!" just so my friends' parents would know what bat mitzvah meant. I was one of three Jewish students at a high school of nearly 2,000, the only one who I refused to sing a song titled "Beautiful Savior" at my commencement ceremony with the a cappella choir – even going so far as to ensure that the song was banned from future events at my public high school.

But when I made my way to D.C. to work for a Jewish nonprofit after college, I found I knew none of the Hebrew or the hymns or the traditions my community held so dear. I was frequently confused & frustrated, particularly when someone joked that I was “practically Lutheran” for all my (lack of) knowledge of Judaism. Regardless, I somehow found the Jewish friends I'd gone my whole life without – and I have since learned the words and the ways & embraced both sides of my life in equal parts, proud to be a part of them each. I have come to love my Jewish identity as much as I love every other aspect of my identity; I now know I am Jewish not just by birth but by spirit.

Still, I never figured out one very important part of my Jewish identity: What does Israel mean to this girl of such a varied background? Does it have to mean anything except a pretty place to visit? Can I connect with a country whose values so frequently fail to align with my own? Will being there, standing in a place of ancient significant & modern day politics, change things for me? For so long, I have maintained that I can, indeed, be a committed, educated Jew without having been to Israel, without feeling particularly connected to Israel; on this point, I have remained stubborn to the point of obstinacy. But it's been too long. The questions won't go away, so it's time to be true to myself by giving myself the opportunity to answer them. There are so many questions, but they all boil down to this one: What does Israel mean to me?

By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere high over the Atlantic, ready to find out.
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