Israel, Day Five: I Know Jew Are, But What Am I?

It’s amazing what a full night of sleep can do. I woke up Saturday morning knowing exactly where everything in my bag was, which made getting dressed much easier than previous mornings. I successfully navigated my way to the basement dining room. Once there, I spotted–for the first time in Israel–granola. Granola! I didn’t have to eat lettuce and cheese for breakfast! I served myself a heaping bowl of cereal, yogurt, and banana, which I ate in about two minutes flat.

Armed with a belly full of granola, I headed to the morning’s activity, which turned out to be a discussion of Jewish identity. Each group was given a piece of paper with various concepts on it (bar/bat mitzvah, family, education, the Holocaust, synagogue, antisemitism, etc) and we were instructed to agree, as a group, which terms best defined our collective Jewish identity. As someone on the “set foot in a synagogue once in my life, don’t even know the Hebrew on a dreidel” end of the spectrum, I could tell this would be a problem. In fact, there were only two or three items on the entire paper that described my Jewish identity. (All of the things pertaining win cash at online casinos in Alabama to culture/history, and none of the religious stuff.) I expected a long discussion, but nothing our group couldn’t handle. I was wrong.

While every other group reached a reasonable conclusion (“Well, everyone’s identity is different so these terms reflect a compromise rather than being at the top of each individual’s list”) our group had difficulty even picking one common item. We were sharply divided between those who’d been raised in a more religious environment and those who–like me–hadn’t. After an acrimonious 20-minute discussion, we still hadn’t resolved anything. I’d like to be able to say that it was an illuminating, productive exercise resulting in mutual respect and understanding, but that would be a lie. I had a sour taste in my mouth after being told that I wasn’t a real Jew, something that I never thought would happen in this group. I was disappointed in everyone.1

Still full of granola and ire, I spent lunchtime sitting outside in the sun, chatting with people from another Birthright group and befriending a cat. In the afternoon, Dima led us through the streets of Jerusalem to the Israel Museum. I was ecstatic. This time, we were given 40 minutes to explore the entire museum. I was not ecstatic.

One of the Israelis, Guy, tagged along with me. This meant he had to tolerate Serena’s-in-a-museum-let’s-look-at-everything level excitement. I dragged him from murals to eastern European costumes to intricate spice boxes and Moroccan jewelry. To his credit (or perhaps his disadvantage) he met my enthusiasm with encouragement, which meant he got long explanations of embroidery techniques, African amber, mineral dyes, and a host of other things I’m sure he never wanted to know. We’d explored only two rooms of the museum before our time was up.2

Mural in a room within a room.
Mural in a room within a room.
More mural.
More mural.
I found an antique Moroccan necklace! These were going for under 100dh ($11) in the Tangier medina.
I found an antique Moroccan necklace! These were going for under 100dh ($11) in the Tangier medina.
LOOK AT THIS THING. It is a spice castle.
LOOK AT THIS THING. It is a spice castle.

After dark, we walked into downtown Jerusalem for a couple of hours of shopping and eating.3 With nothing on my shopping list, I sat with Mollie, sipped a hot chocolate, and watched tourists come and go noisily. On our way back to the hotel, Yotam and I kept up the rear guard and talked about feminism, families, and falafel.

Previously: Israel, Day Four: Shuk, Shabbat, Shimmy

  1. My Jewish identity, if you’re curious, is entirely cultural. I firmly believe that we are a community and culture bound together by shared experiences, traditions, and values. Strong family ties, a drive to excel, support for the arts, a history of perseverance, and beautiful traditions that bring families and friends together. Think about an important part of your own identity for a second. Maybe it’s your community, your sexuality, or your religion. Now imagine if someone told you it didn’t count. Angry? []
  2. Outside, I petitioned Dima to give us more time, but he laughed and shook his head. []
  3. Walking with our enormous group across streets, through tunnels, and over train tracks was both painstaking and nerve-wracking at the same time. []

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