When my husband and I were deep into the process of coordinating our Aliyah back in the States, we received a lot of email communication from Nefesh B’Nefesh, some of which was extraordinarily helpful. (In addition to weekly webinars, NBN also has a robust website with lots of information for potential new olim — I would have been a lot better off if I had read any of it before I landed in Israel.)
Occasionally, though, I would get an email from NBN in my inbox and I would be really confused; in the same way I sometimes feel confused when I go to Shabbat services these days and in the middle of the service everyone starts bowing or shuffling their feet and I have no idea why or what I am supposed to do.
There I was 12 months ago: Confident enough in my intention and desire to make Aliyah — married to an American Israeli; 10 years of Hebrew school and USY under my belt; synagogue membership; two kids in Jewish preschool — but still, in many ways, feeling like an impostor. This was not a new feeling for me — uncertain of my Jewishness among Jews– but a feeling that was becoming much more pronounced with my decision to make Aliyah.
While preparing for Aliyah, there were some things I didn’t understand, but felt awkard asking for an explanation. Shouldn’t I already know the answer? If was “Jewish enough” to be making Aliyah, shouldn’t I have been Jewish enough to understand all the steps involved in transforming from an American Jew into an Israeli?
This was all very subliminal, mind you. I wasn’t consicously aware that I was questioning my own qualifications for making Aliyah. Consciously I was preparing all the documents with ease. I am a Jew after all. I have the figurative C.V. to prove it.
But just as I had never felt Jewish enough among Jews, I didn’t feel “oleh enough” among the olim.
Let me offer you an example. Apparently, when Jews from other countries make Aliyah, they will sometimes change their names. You could be a 45-year-old woman, whom her whole life has been called Randi, and one day she lands in Israel and her name is Rivka. In December, you’re Susan or Bill or Mandelovitch and, in January, you’re suddenly Shoshana or Ruven or Manof.
And it’s not just make believe. It’s legal. I don’t know exactly what happens, particularly when you go back to the States to visit, but it’s legal in Israel. I imagine your American passport still lists you as Susan, but for all official and unofficial intents and purposes here in Israel, you are Shoshanna.
So, Nefesh B’Nefesh sent us this email a month before we made Aliyah asking us if we would be changing our names, and instructing us what to do if so. Huh? I thought. Change my name? Isn’t that something only zealots and freaks do? (Yes, judging, judging, judging.)
I could see the practicality of changing our names — all of which save for my husband’s are very Anglo — but I could not imagine calling my son Oliver by his Hebrew name, Itamar. Or by any name other than Oliver. Certainly, as an idea, it seemed fun to come up with a new beautiful name for myself–one of my own choosing, one that was easy to say– or to have a second chance in naming our children (particularly our daughter whose name I think we chose in haste). But I couldn’t imagine it. For better or for worse, I am a Jennifer who likes to be called Jen.
Then, soon after receiving that email, we went to an NBN job fair a month before making Aliyah. If we didn’t feel out of place enough already at the event — fairly secular Jews in a sea of Orthodox –we were introduced to a seemingly secular couple our age who was also making Aliyah to the North around the same time we were. They introduced themselves to us by their “new names,” with a shy footnote that they were trying those new names on for the first time. My husband Avi and I smiled and nodded politely, but after they parted, we exchanged looks as if to say, “Say WHAT?” (This was one of those delightful moments where I once again thanked the Divine for gifting me a husband who I could have “say what” moments with.)
Who were these people we were making Aliyah with? Who were we to be making Aliyah?
Who am I to be making Aliyah?
And really…Who am I to call myself a Jew?
My husband was already an Israeli citizen. He was born in the States to two Israeli parents who moved to the U.S. as young adults. His parents returned to Israel with their children when my husband was in preschool and they lived here for many years while he was growing up. He’s Israeli. He may not “look Israeli” or “act Israeli” (this is something I heard over the years from my family and friends when they first met my husband.) But he’s Israeli. This (along with the eight years he spent at Solomon Schecter) lends legitimacy to his both his Judaism and his Israeli-ness, in my eyes.
But who am I? Am I Jewish enough to live here? Am I Jewish at all?
The irony, I have learned in the 11 months that I have lived in Israel is: I am not the only Israeli asking myself this question.
In fact, a lot of Israelis are asking themselves this question. And, in some ways, I might be considered “more” Jewish than the ones who aren’t because I am asking the question.
As deficient as a Jew as I often felt in the States, I am feeling here…awakened spiritually. Indeed, more awakened possibly than Israelis who have lived in this country since birth…Israelis who have never stepped foot in a synagogue their entire lives. Perhaps, even more awakened than religious Israelis who have been praying daily in the synagogue for years.
I bring this up not to judge or to compare, but to transform my judgment into compassion. My judgment of myself. My judgment of others. My judgment of religion, of spirituality. My judgment of the words “God,” or “Universe,” or “Divine.” My judgment of prayer practices, of devotion.
I share this with you as a way to publicly offer myself compassion retroactively and to ask forgiveness for the judging.
My wish is that as my spiritual journey continues, however it continues, may I continue to explore Judaism (my version and yours) with curiousity and compassion…and an open heart and mind.
And, as always, your feedback and contribution to the discussion (via Comments) are welcomed.