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Jerusalem: In search of identity

By Gabriel Levin

“The eyes of all the Jews in the world praying right now are on you”. Our tour guide Yuval is explaining how Jews all across the world face the Western Wall when they pray. Our group of 39 young adults from across Canada are in Jerusalem on the third day of our Birthright Israel trip. The program Birthright Israel sends young Jews between 18 and 26 from all over the world to Israel for free.

Despite being afraid of tour groups, my addiction to travel, as well as a curiosity to see Israel, could not let me pass up a free trip. The people who fund Birthright do so in order to create a link between the Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel. My own Jewish roots are complex. I grew up religious and was immersed completely in Judaism. My friends were all Jewish, my school was Jewish, my life was Jewish. At 15 I decided that the religious life was not for me, I abandoned almost everything Jewish. My trip to Israel was about not only seeing a new country filled with culture and history, but also about perhaps finding my own sense of what it means to be Jewish.

As I write, the trip is just starting to settle nicely into memories. My experience as a whole was mixed. I’m not someone who enjoys traveling in groups. The hours spent waiting… for people to use the bathroom…for people to get on the bus… for people to finish shopping are incredibly frustrating.

Also, because of the super security on the trip, it often felt as if we were looking at Israel from a distance rather than actively discovering it. For me, as pretentious as it may sound, there is nothing I prefer to sitting in a café on a busy boulevard and just watching the new city go by. On the other hand, Israel is absolutely gorgeous and ripe with the history and myth that are fundamental to Western culture. We visit a valley where David fought Goliath; a mountain where the Zealots held off the Roman army; a river where Jesus was baptized (not that Birthright stressed the Christian or Muslim importance of Israel), and so on.

Birthright also brings Israeli soldiers along with the group for a few days, which gives the group a chance to interact with real Israelis. As a Jew, it is incredible to be in a country where almost everyone is Jewish. There is a commonality; a mutual understanding there that is not present anywhere else in the world for me.

One of the discussions the group had in Israel was about our loyalty to Israel versus our loyalty to Canada. This is always a tricky question because it is the basis for so much anti-Semitism, dating back thousands of years. The idea that Jews’ loyalty will never be the state they live in but lies elsewhere is even written in the Bible: Exodus 1:10 says “Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.” It’s a very difficult position to find myself in, because I love Canada. To me, Canada is the greatest country in the world. At the same time, I know history and I know that again and again throughout history, countries in which Jews have felt secure were ultimately not secure. In the end, there is no such thing as security for Jews. Israel, in that sense, acts as a security blanket for all the Jews of the Diaspora. So, I do have loyalty to Israel, but it is different from my loyalty to Canada.

Ultimately, my quest to understand my Jewishness was not answered with any finality. As usual, I was looking for easy answers where there are, of course, none. Being in Israel opened up new questions and new ways of looking at myself as a Jew. I know I will spend the rest of my life trying to answer them. Some people define their Jewishness based on religion, some on race, and yet others on culture. I have attachments to all three identities. Why is it that I feel attachment to other Jews? Is it common history? What makes me feel so attached to Israel? Is it purely self-interest or is it something more? I may have to go back to find out for sure.

First publisher in Women’s Post Jan. 2005 print edition