July 8, 2008
You really have to leave the airport before you get your first impression of any country. Except for a few advertisements and perhaps some food vendors, most major airports are culturally sterile. So last month, after I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod, just outside of Tel Aviv, with 37 other American Jews as part of a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, I moved thoughtlessly off the plane and through the terminal. As I emerged from the immigration line however, my first impression of Israel was waiting for me: a firm handshake from a sturdy Israeli man and his words: "Welcome home!"
Shlomo "Momo" Lifshitz, the President of Oranim Educational Initiatives (one of many Taglit trip organizers), has greeted more than 30,000 young people the same way in recent years, and we met him again an hour later at a small community center in nearby Kfar Saba for the program's introduction. Momo spoke with a strong accent and a forceful tone, occasionally pausing — always stern and silent — while disturbances in the audience passed.
|Some of Matt's friends from the Birthright trip in the Dead Sea.
Jews are a special people, Momo insisted: "We are just 0.25 percent of the world population. You all must be proud to be Jews," he pleaded. "Did you know that Jews have won 23 percent of all Nobel Prizes? You have a unique connection to each other and to Israelis," he explained. "It is not our religion that ties us together, it is our blood. We are all one Jewish family." And then: "I do not want you to go home after this trip and give money to Israel; Israelis gave you money to bring you here [the Israeli government contributes to Taglit-Birthright funding]. I want for you to find Jewish love and make Jewish babies."
While Momo's dynamic lecture set the tone for the rest of the trip, its last message came as no surprise to anyone. The marry-someone-Jewish message of Taglit programs is well known. What did come as a surprise to me, however, was the intensity with which the message was delivered and the derision of those who might not grant his request, "Every one of you will make your own decision, but nobody has the right to cut my bloodline."
* * *
Most immigrant groups in the United States find that after several generations in America, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a strong connection to their homeland. Most Jewish-Americans, whether they are children of interfaith marriages like me or not, cannot trace their ancestry back to Israel. My great-grandparents had fled Europe decades before the Second World War and came to the United States instead of Palestine. My grandparents and parents never moved to Israel and, as far as I know, I do not have a single relative living there today. I certainly do not feel any personal connection to Israel on account of my family being from Israel.
Nor do I feel a link to Israel on account of my religion. I am the product of an interfaith marriage: a Jewish father and a Catholic mother (she has since converted to Judaism). However, I was raised as nothing other than Jewish. I attended Sunday school, observed the high holidays and had a bar mitzvah when I turned 13. So, while half of my extended family practices various forms of Christianity (and half of my "bloodline" is non-Jewish), I identify myself fully as a Jew. However, Israel has never held any true religious significance for me.
The connection to Israel that was awakened within me during the Oranim trip, however, was on account of the historical struggle of the Jewish people with which I previously had difficulty identifying. My great-grandparents fled Lithuania and Poland after the pogroms near the turn of the 20th century, immigrating to the United States. My grandfather and his brothers anglicized their last names in order to succeed in business and my father faced anti-Semitic jeers frequently at boarding school. These events are commonplace in Jewish history and I had been aware of them prior to my visit to Israel. However, for some reason — perhaps it is because my generation of American Jews is the most accepted (or at least tolerated) group of Jews in history — the struggle of those before me had never seemed real. That is, until I visited Israel.
While in Israel, I had no epiphany or earth-shattering experience. I did not find God or religious enlightenment. Instead, I saw the borders; I met the soldiers who patrol them and the veterans who won them in battle. I walked Mount Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin Square; I saw the Temple Mount and King David's tomb. I sat in Independence Hall and heard Ben-Gurion's radio address declaring the State of Israel. This is what made the trip so powerful and eye-opening, what gave the experiences of my family relevance to me today. Ultimately, I discovered that my connection to Israel is not a shared religion, but instead a shared identity, a collective perseverance.
And in that realization, Momo's words and goal began to make sense to me. Raising Jewish children is the strongest action — short of moving to Israel and joining the military — I can take in support of Israel, in support of Judaism. It is an obligation that I have to previous generations of Jews who carried on their family's history in times much more difficult than my own. Indeed, what right do I have to cut the line?
However, the obligation to pass along my Judaism does not require me to marry someone Jewish. I am surely evidence of that, as were the other young Jews on my trip from interfaith families. The Taglit-Birthright trip, at the same time, strengthened both my desire to raise my children Jewish and my belief that a loving, honest and open-minded interfaith marriage can help me accomplish it. One day, I wish to pass along not only my values, beliefs and customs to my children — as my father did — but also a connection to the State of Israel.