I have a good friend who recommended that I read a book entitled Identity by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Coincidentally, this year, while reading an essay by James Baldwin in the book Collected Essays, I had realized how much Baldwin, who I had read intensively in high school, had influenced my decision to come to Israel. His discussions of the battled identity of blacks in America had made me question my own uneasy identity as a Jew.
I often say that every year I discover a new reason I came to Israel. This was the year of Jewish identity. I very well remember reading S. Y. Agnon’s wonderful story “The Kerchief,” and being astonished by the marvelous sense of wholeness, I had never experienced, that was conveyed even in translation by the story. My Judaism was fragmented, occasionally oppressive (would my world always be divided pointlessly into milchadiche – milk products – and fleyschediche – meat?). In Amherst, being Jewish was accompanied by shame. It was not really what one wanted to be.
Moreover, I wanted to be a writer – but I knew I could not encompass the enormity of America, the very chaos of it, its multiple voices. I wanted to write about New York City, a cacophony of voices, and not with the elitist diction I was taught but something else, something much cruder – and yet, in imitation of Whitman, singing. But I had no stable, unmoving point from which to view the chaos, that capitalist beautiful monstrosity, both beautiful and monstrous, where everyone became a commodity and moved about from place to place, and where that safe haven of s. Y. Agnon had no possibility. The best piece I wrote at that time was probably a description of Bloody Mary’s birthday party in the subway caverns underneath New York. Bloody Mary was one of the homeless, and since the ulcers on her swollen legs bled, I called her Bloody Mary. There was also a rabbi who colored himself black and pretended he was an African American. And a white young man who in the best Russian tradition represented innocence. I could never succeed in putting the novel together.
So that was one of the reasons I came to Israel – to get away from the melange of identities and find one I could like. I studied Jewish Studies and learned about the religion I really knew little about. I had my first cholent, I visited synagogues. In New York, I had visited Chabad; here, I tried Yemenite, Moroccan, and eventually settled on Ashkenazi. And I learned Hebrew – the language of the Jews. In the end, I became what in Israel is called a secular Jew but more than that, I became part of the workers movement. That was the ethos that placed its imprint on me and my family.
The question of identity (in its original meaning) ceased to be relevant. There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing Hebrew. It is the language not only of liturgy but of a tribe so that speaking Hebrew gives one immediately the illusion of a closed community, in which all its speakers are somehow related. In addition, the civic holidays in Israel are the Jewish ones, so that there is a feeling of wholeness one can never achieve outside of Israel unless one is religious. On Yom Kippur, nothing runs. The silence is uplifting. On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, the roads are jammed with traffic, as everyone celebrates with family. Knowing Hebrew puts you closer to the sources – you are implicitly part of a community over 3000 years old.
But of course, politically, this sense of wholeness is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous one. Israel is not only the home of Jews but of Arabs. The total identification of the nation with Judaism implicitly denies their existence. If you’re on the side of the majority, the feeling can be great; but if you are in the minority, you are constantly reminded of your status. Arabs know Hebrew; Jews don’t know Arabic. In many respects (without considering the Occupied Territories), Israel retains the characteristics of a nineteenth century nation, which is one of its difficulties when confronting 21st century nations in the West. The only diversity Israel celebrates is diversity among its Jews.