As the first month here in Israel progresses, the begrudgingly admitted sensationalist in me is beginning to wind down and the days are returning to an idea of normalcy. Our volunteer sites are finally finding our American accents to be [slightly] less entertaining, going “home” from Tel Aviv after the weekend means going back to Karmi’el, and ulpan is…well, ulpan.
This is not to say I am growing restless or experiencing any monotony rather simply that I am able to begin to explore my surroundings, my reactions, and my life here in the holy land more critically and analytically. Struggling inside of my own mind for the past couple weeks, I’ve been investigating how the components I identify with or as are at times rubbing up against my present experiences and this year of my life in its geographical allocation.
Some of these minor epiphanies sprout from the surplus of onlooker’s inquiries, and the questions I receive from curious spectators are ones I ask myself as well: Why Israel? Why Israel for a year? They are questions I prepare myself for, appearing to meet inquiry with verbose conviction and aplomb.
Be that as it may, secretly I can’t help but interrogate myself as well. Why take a year off after graduating from college, leaving friends and family, my heart, in New England for the past four years, to come to a foreign country having no kin here and knowing no people on my program? Better yet, why did I blindly jump at an opportunity to live in Israel, with complete disregard to any of these questions before I hopped on a plane to come here for a year, maybe plus?
And what is this strange and alluring attraction to the country’s capital city? The ineffable impression that Jerusalem leaves on me whenever I visit it is beyond doubt one of the most intense connections to a land I have ever experienced, and it always leaves me vexed and puzzled, replete with curiosity. Albeit culturally and biologically Jewish, I was not raised especially religious…so what’s with this city leaving me like a dog with its hair raised and its tail between its legs?
Visiting the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem during our last education day, I allowed myself to investigate some of the questions marinating in my mind. I found myself in a difficult place, searching for a comfortable fit in between my curiosity and passion to learn and the fact that I am nearly foreign on the topic of Jewish studies. With a background in women’s studies, there are, of course, some difficulties and bumps in the road I experience in terms of the treatment and status of women in organized religion, that provoke inquiry during education days and Beit Midrash.
Although religion mixed with feminism are often hot topics of contention, my curiosity and attraction to the cultural, political, emotional and geographical elements of Judaism and Israel stretch far and wide and are currently settling amongst and trying to find homes within my personal identity and the “pieces” that make up who I am as a Jewish feminist and student—and for me, this is most interesting. The entire day in Jerusalem and since then, I find myself constantly evaluating and reevaluating my system and set of beliefs, influenced by some discourses and made uncomfortable by others. I’m glad I was raised by parents who allowed me to pave my own way rather than influencing me with a specific ideology, but a bit disappointed I missed out on learning—and questioning—from an earlier age.
The mission of the Pardes Institute, however, momentously impresses me. This is for a multitude of reasons, but significantly due to how open and welcoming the professors are to questions and how willing they are to deviate from the norm. Emphasizing intellectual and personal spiritual growth through textual analysis and interrogative discourse, I appreciate how pluralistic Pardes functions as: for instance, that the women study with the men, when very few yeshiva welcome such a thing. I find solace and comfort in pluralistic institutes and discourses, as an individual who has been taught to be consistently critically and analytical of her surroundings. However, this gets exhausting, and sometimes I feel as though I contradict myself when I wish to dive fully into this experience, blind and with my mind as a blank slate, ready to learn and become entirely immersed in new experiences.
Channeling Walt Whitman, I embrace his words as my mantra, greeting life’s contradictions and inconsistencies with humbled understanding and celebration: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” For me, this quip shares the realization that nothing has a single or set meaning, as we often wish there to be. More soberly, life is not a jigsaw puzzle containing the perfect amount and shape of pieces that willingly fit together harmoniously. Where a tension of opposites or contradictions exists, as human beings driven by preference we often identify initially with a specific side, until being exposed to alternate experiences that help us to begin to identify with that other side, or more dismaying, both sides—therein lying contradiction. A frustrating but simultaneously brilliant discovery, this process leaves us with a larger understanding of the world, in realization that there is never one constant or one truth, but rather rich layers and multitudes of truths.
For instance, a large chunk of my occupation as a student in academia willed me to grow passionately interested in critical theory, specifically feminist and Marxist theory. Understanding the workings of the world in ways I am able to through a feminist and Marxist perspective, my beliefs have come under interrogation since moving to Israel. Even the two perspectives which I most study, feminist Marxism, often contradict themselves and have me always on my toes, for Marx’s writings have been criticized for failing to be gender inclusive and feminist theory has historically received a bad wrap for functioning primarily within the bourgeois sphere. However, nothing, of course, is black and white. The topics here, for instance Jewish marriage and law, or the Israel-Palestinian conflicts, are anything but straightforward, and the conversations I have with Israelis paired with what I read and have read in the news and hear on the ground extend my kaleidoscope of reasoning to become even more polychromatic.
Even the minutiae surfaces, for instance being out with Israeli friends who order coffee or lunch for me in Hebrew since I can’t fully order in the language on my own. Always speaking up for myself in my home country and representing myself as a fully capable, communicative and independent woman and person, I find relying on others in situations like these to be certainly uncomfortable, but at the same time a tremendously important life lesson. I feel out of my element almost daily, but I now realize this is indubitably one of the most substantial motives of my yearlong decision.
Adept in situations where I’m able to better represent myself, I’m specifically more comfortable in the world of academia, where I feel more versed and proficient. In Israel, learning a new language has got me exercising a whole different area of my brain and, in doing so, is putting me in quite the unfamiliar position. Having to rely on Israeli friends in areas like Akko and Karm’iel where not everyone speaks English well, evokes unfamiliar feelings for me even more. But, this is why I’m here, and I’m learning more about myself as each day progresses. This self-exploration and identity crisis, this searching and consistent reevaluation I’m learning is vital, and it is exactly what I’m here for. I realize through the frustration and overwhelming sentiments that I need to do insert myself in vulnerable situations that are going to test my principles and politics, in order to get to where I need to be in my life. The same goes for all who read this blog or who go on adventures like mine—if there is one thing I’ve learned in my all too short month here in Israel, it’s that as human beings we need to always be “getting weird” and putting ourselves out there into the unknown, questioning as long as we find it to be necessary and never, ever falling into states of complacency or contentment.
An incontestable supporter of Israel’s unwavering safety and it’s citizens yet also an advocate for peaceful and mindful coexistence with Palestine, I’m humbled to be in this country during such a time of change in political climate. I’ve spent my first month in Israel growing more puzzled on the conflicts than I ever have before, but this impresses me—I’m glad to have been exposed to more angles and presented with a profusion of alternate perspectives that consistently force me to second guess what I believed to be the rigid nature of my belief system. I’m always thinking here, evaluating and re-evaluating. I do think that having and understanding multitudes is a vital characteristic in a person that will never leave them speaking or living dogmatically, rather help them to embrace the knowledge that there is never only one answer, one truth, or one meaning.
I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be involved in a program like OTZMA, and for other programs to exist like OTZMA, ones that bridge budding curiosity and tangible action and that greet such political and cultural wanderlust.
Parting with the words of an idol of mine, writer and grassroots community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose work radically improved the lives of the poor and powerless in America and who was, coincidentally, Jewish; I attempt to drive my sentiment home in some arena, inclusive of contradictions, reservations and multitudes.
“One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated.”
Shana Tova and tzom kal, may all of your fasts be as powerful and meaningful as you wish them to be.