At different times in my life, Jewish educators would often prompt seminar audiences to describe and prioritize their Jewish identity. The technique used was to ask “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American”? Responses from the group almost always guaranteed an energetic discussion. I was never able to make up my mind.
Plus, I have to admit that depending on my mood, sometimes my first thought was Really? What will this answer possibly tell me about myself? How is this question even relevant to my life? Why would I ever have to choose?
Well, years ago on a summer trip to Israel, I did choose and though it happened over a decade ago, I somehow forgot about the circumstances of that decision. I put it out of my mind until recently when, in honor of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday, a workshop leader prompted us to think of stories when our relationship to Israel might have changed–and I remembered.
The year was 2006 and I traveled with other Jewish educators on a 10 day trip that culminated a year and half of study. We knew before we went that this time of year might be somewhat dangerous, because there were flare-ups of aggression in the weeks before our departure. Knowing this in advance did not discourage us, and only one person stayed back.
During our travels, our guides were in contact almost hour by hour with Israel’s security office, making sure that our destinations would be shielded from any conflict. It was a little disconcerting though, as one day we couldn’t go to the North, then we were not able to go to the South. Katushya rockets were landing in Israel on a regular basis. You could feel that things were heating up.
Sure enough, towards the end of our trip, the security office informed our guides that they needed to abort the trip. Israel was at war with Lebanon. Within what seemed like an instant, people began calling family in the United States to tell them they would be making arrangements to come home, and calling relatives in Israel to let them know that they wouldn’t be visiting. There was a flurry of activity. I needed to be alone to gather my thoughts.
I distanced myself from the others to gain some quiet space to think heavily about what I should do and what I felt I had to do. A rational voice inside said “You have a husband at home and two children at home” I shot back, “Yes, but they’re over the age of 18…”. Back and forth the voices went. In the end, I could not leave and decided that I had to stay. I didn’t have a rational reason for what I would say to my husband. All I knew is that I needed to be in Israel and not desert the country I loved.
My father, an immigrant, barely in the United States for two years, enlisted in the army and fought for this country in WWII–but he loved the emergent state of Israel. He would understand.
I braced myself knowing that all at once it seemed egotistical to stay (really, what would staying here accomplish?), but pulled by the feeling that I did not want to leave…just in case I could be of help somewhere, somehow.
When I called home, my husband rightly challenged me with questions that I could not answer. How will you be a help to Israel if you stay? What will you do? Fly a fighter jet? Become a nurse? Go to the battlefield?
I had no answers. When he had no more questions I said “because I have to. I need to.” I stayed for three more weeks until the Lebanon War was over, and then I came back to my second home.
A few years later, after graduating from an ivy league university with high honors, my son told my husband and I that he decided to enlist in the Israeli Army, and would try out for special forces. We were speechless and held each other while listening to him describe his reasons for his decision. I cried on that phone call for his bravery, loyalty, and from a place of total fear. And I cried several times in the weeks that followed. But I understood.