Israel is a country steeped in biblical history, a country filled with faith yet torn apart by war and intolerance. In June of this year I was given the opportunity to visit Israel to explore the ideas of faith and identity.
|Jennifer (L) tries her hand at chocolate-making with Michal Lahav at her famed Art de Coco chocolate shop.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in an interfaith family. My mother was Catholic and my father is Jewish. When my parents first met in the late 1950s, they faced a great deal of opposition--mostly from their own parents. They came from a generation that did not accept interfaith relationships and their families were deeply opposed to their relationship and pending marriage.
After my parents got married, they struggled to mend relations with their families. Both of my grandmothers had stopped speaking to my parents and basically disowned them. It took many years to re-establish ties with the family, which caused much pain for both of my parents. My mother's Catholic mother came around first, and my sister and I had a very close relationship with her. My father's Jewish mother never accepted my mother, but tried to create a relationship with my sister and me, which was often tense and strained due to the conflict with my parents.
Despite these trials or perhaps because of them, my parents raised my sister and me in an open and accepting environment. We were encouraged to follow our own beliefs and live a life that was good. We would sometimes go to church with my mom for Easter and Christmas Mass, and occasionally go with my dad to synagogue. Our parents made it very clear that it was our choice to decide what religion, if any, we would follow.
Last year, I decided to convert to Judaism. My husband is Jewish, and as I thought about creating a life together and starting a family, I decided that I wanted to be able to share traditions and build a solid foundation.
Rabbi Bonnie Grosz, who helped me through the conversion process, told me about an opportunity to visit Israel. I responded to an outreach by JWorld, an Israeli production company working with the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States, for a television series about children of interfaith marriages interested in their Jewish roots. After an audition process, I was chosen to be the subject of this television series and the next thing you know, I was on a plane to Israel.
I arrived in Tel Aviv on a hot June day and was met at the airport by a very welcoming crew. They briefed me on the journey we were about to begin. They had arranged for me to travel from Tel Aviv up through the north of Israel to Rosh Pina, Galilee and the Golan Heights area to meet six very different people, each of which have been on their own personal journeys to discover how they define themselves.
The first person I met was Amin Sawad. Amin is a Bedouin sheik who teaches at a Jewish kibbutz and has a unique perspective on life. This is a man from a culture that has been largely oppressed, and many of his cultural traditions and way of life have been stripped from his people. Instead of turning to hate or blaming others, he uses acceptance, forgiveness and a positive outlook to transcend adversity and teach those around him regardless of race, religion or gender.
After spending the afternoon talking and teaching with Amin, we traveled north to the small town of Rosh Pina, where I met Shiri Havkin. Shiri had worked in Tel Aviv until her mother was diagnosed with cancer. As her mother battled the disease, Shiri made the decision to move to Rosh Pina to help her. After her mother passed away, Shiri stayed on at her mother's house to continue her work in herbal medicines and in music and dance. Shiri finds peace and spiritual connection by carrying on this legacy and keeping her mother's spirit alive.
The next day we headed into the Southern Galilee to a kibbutz called Shorashim where I met Mark Roter. Mark is an American from Chicago who moved to Israel to connect with his roots. Mark and his family invited me to stay for Sabbath dinner. I had never participated in a Sabbath before and I was very touched by the way this tradition brought the family together to celebrate. He and his wife come from very different backgrounds: his family practiced Reform Judaism and his wife comes from a strict Orthodox family. Nevertheless, they have found ways to observe their faith together by accepting each other's views and creating new family traditions.
After a delicious meal, I went to the coast to Michal's famous Art de Coco chocolate shop--where I tried my hand at chocolate making. Michal Lahav grew up on a kibbutz, but found this too confining. Although leaving the safety and security of the community was frightening, by breaking away she was able to find out what she was truly passionate about--chocolate. She established a very successful business and then decided to return to a modern kibbutz lifestyle with her own family. She feels that all of her experiences have made her a fuller, happier person and she now is able to incorporate traditions from her past into her own family lifestyle.
On my sixth day I met Soul who is a hippie, artist, mother, and traveler living with her young daughter in a large tent only 10 miles from the Lebanese border. Though she had traveled the world and learned about world cultures and religions, at the request of her daughter, Soul settled down. She lives simply and happily without what most people would consider necessities: a toilet, phone, television, etc. Last summer when rockets started falling in their community, she had no idea why or what to do as she had no connection to the outside world. Now Soul has a cell phone and a small radio in case of emergencies. Always a free spirit at heart, she realized that she must take into consideration how her lifestyle will affect her daughter.
We arrived back to Tel Aviv to meet up with Lotus Etrog, a young actress and film maker who had just returned from her first international film competition. She co-directs an experimental theater troupe in Tel Aviv and her film was borne out of one of their original plays. We found out that we had a lot in common; we are both actors and teachers who bring our passion and experiences into our work. Lotus grew up in Israel with an Israeli mother and a Japanese father who left before Lotus was born. She told me how she has always had questions about her identity and her father. She wrote to her father and the day before we arrived to meet her, she had finally heard back from him. He invited her to Japan to meet him, where she was hoping to find some closure and possible reconciliation through this journey.
Jennifer's journey to Israel aired in the fall of 2007 as part of a series called "Israel Journal" on the show "New Morning." The complete episodes are available at the FaithStreams Network.