I recently took a trip to California. The timing worked out so that I was able to be with my mother in Cherry Hill for Thanksgiving weekend. In order to fly into Philadelphia, I had to fly via Frankfort, Germany changing planes to board the flight to the Philadelphia International Airport. During my travels, I noticed a transformation taking place. Not only was I traveling through space, but as I traveled, everything around me was changing.
It was a bit jarring for me, as I walked through the Frankfort airport, to hear announcements in German over the public address system as people stood in lines for inspection.
The people around me looked less familiar. There were no kippot or black hats and I saw only one woman wearing a halib as I walked between terminals. There were noticeably less Russians, more Asians and the complexion changed from dark middle-eastern features to fair Europeans, African Americans and a sprinkling of Spanish speakers. My tribe was absent and I felt alone again.
No one would have noticed this had they looked at me or spoken to me. I speak fluent English and I look American, but I was watching a transformation taking place. I was entering the melting pot; leaving home.
Waiting for my connecting flight to Philadelphia, I heard a voice in an annoying yet familiar tone. The television was on. We had cancelled TV three years ago and this droning anchorwoman reminded me why. Few of our friends have TV on should we ever be in their houses, but here it was as a constant background. Before I reached her shores, I was transported back to America.
My America (or the America which I remember and to which I usually relate) is different than that which was represented on my flight from Frankfort to Philadelphia. I forget about the guys with gray hair tied back in a pony tail wearing blue jeans and black Harley-Davidson t-shirts. Very few of my friends served in the US military. None have tattoos that cover their entire arm like a sleeve. I am not used to the salesmen who feel compelled to dot their sentences with profanities. I felt very foreign. And yet, I was coming back to the place I had grown up, one of my anchors on this earth. All of this was part of what made me who I am today.
Not having lived in the United States in over 20 years, but having visited an average of every other year, the Delaware Valley has become both foreign and familiar to me. Both the people and the place have changed, as I have as well.
The short answer to why I made aliyah is because I have always felt a sense of belonging in Israel, long before I ever visited. As someone whose primary identity is as a Jew, I have long felt that Israel, the Jewish State, is the place that I belong.
Within Israel, I am a Jerusalemite. I live in an Anglo bubble of religious pluralism in south-eastern Jerusalem. I have found a place where I belong with people like me. Most of us visit the US on a regular basis and maintain close ties with American family and friends. We have never completely left America and in Israel, we are defined by our American ethnicity.
However, every time I come to America, I realize how different I am and always have been from other Americans. America may be the easiest place in world to be a Jew outside of Israel. American Jewish communities seem to be thriving with schools, synagogues and community centers. There is an abundance of kosher foods readily available, summer camps youth groups and more. However, living this way among the nations would tear me apart, trying to balance two worlds, never being a whole and complete part of either.
Almost instantly, compromises are required, questions are asked – Do I wear a kippah in public and in all situations, do I only eat in kosher restaurants or do I eat dairy out – only cold or also hot? How do I explain to people that I can not meet them on Friday afternoon or Saturday? These are non-issues in my world. It is expected that we do not call people on Shabbat and we can just stop by to visit, that we have guests for Shabbat meals and that it is a time that our family spends together. Shabbat is not just another day. The calendar in America is different, every day, each week and especially around holidays.
Upon deplaning in Philadelphia, before we even saw an American flag or went through passport control, I was greeted by a Christmas tree as if to call out to me “Welcome To Christendom.”
A few days later, I found myself preparing matzah ball soup for Thanksgiving dinner while humming “The Little Drummer Boy” and I thought, “This is the melting pot which is America.”