A Jew-by-Choice Visits His Daughter in Israel

By Jim Ball


It was my first trip to Israel. I was supposed to feel awe-struck. That’s what everyone told me, anyway. As a Jew-by-Choice, for the past eighteen years I’d heard the admonitions, the history, the longing. People told me that I had to go.

But, I’m entrenched in the Diaspora, a firmly American Jew–partly because, born in the Middle East (Iran) and moving here as child, I had struggled with issues of difference and the wish for acceptance. America is now clearly home. And I think the Diaspora is important, that Jews need to be everywhere.

So when my wife Anita and I made our first trip to Israel this spring, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My fifteen-year-old daughter Emilia was spending spring semester in a Reform high school program in Jerusalem. We hadn’t seen her in two-and-a-half months. The Intifadah had been going on for six months. And we were going as part of Emilia’s program’s trip for parents–which entailed meeting up with nearly fifty other people who were going to visit their children and tour together. So, it was…complicated.

Anita and I left early and took a four-day sojourn in Rome, arriving, of all days, on Easter Sunday. A Jew visiting Italy is overwhelmed by Catholic culture. For a Jew-by-Choice, it can be discombobulating, especially if you were raised Catholic (I wasn’t). You can’t turn a corner or visit a museum without confronting religious pictures, or shrines, or cathedrals.

We toured the Vatican two days after Easter, and thousands of chairs were still set up in St. Peter’s plaza. We overdosed on Madonnas. And we made it a point to find as much Jewish “stuff” as we could.

One day, after many ruins and almost as many Madonnas, we walked to the large, grand synagogue of Rome, which lies next to the old ghetto. In response to events, though, it was closed and armed guards stood at the doors. We walked the narrow, lovely, and haunting streets of the ghetto, imagining Jews of times past living there.

Landing at Ben Gurion Airport on a hot day, the birthplace on my passport–Teheran–was flagged at customs. After the questions about what I was doing here, the inspector asked if I knew Hebrew. I said, “Only a little. I’m studying it–at my temple.” She turned to speak with her superior to tell her she thought I was okay.

After the rest of the group’s plane arrived a couple of hours later, we boarded the bus and made the trip to Jerusalem.

We were clearly not in the United States. Road signs were written in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Steep hills and deep valleys looked very different from Massachusetts. Then, we had our first view of Jerusalem: white houses stacked on the sides of cliffs and a large traffic jam. Our route barely allowed us to see the Old City walls, and then we pulled up to a modern hotel.

The reunion with Emilia was joyful. Her dormitory room at Beit Shmuel overlooked Jaffa Gate. Now I’ll feel it, I thought! But, there wasn’t yet the sense of awe or life-changing power that others had described. Was there something wrong with me? Anita didn’t feel it, either. Maybe it was too early.

Our week was heavily programmed. Our touring was keyed to our kids’ curriculum, which at that point was the late 19th and early 20th century–leading to the War for Independence and the birth of the state of Israel. We got a crash, but in-depth, course in a history few of us knew. Yes, we toured Masada and floated in the Dead Sea. But we also visited a “fake” kibbutz set up before 1948, with a munitions factory hidden beneath baking ovens and washing machines. Our time coincided with Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Independence Day. We stood on an overlook to the Western Wall, crowded with thousands of people, at moving evening ceremonies for the dead. That afternoon, we had stood on the fortifications at Latrun, the site of several major (losing) battles against the Arabs. We sat in the room where Bun Gurion declared the State of Israel in 1948–on the day of the anniversary!

The Western Wall itself was, well, a disappointment. Perhaps it was ruined for me on Independence Day when, as we waited in the crush at a security checkpoint, three young Orthodox men pushed ahead of us as if entitled. Once through, I saw them standing on the plaza entrance to the Wall, smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones. The supposed holiest site in our tradition, and they acted as if it were any old place!

The buildings of the Jewish Quarter looked too new! Somehow, I longed for the sense of tradition we had felt at Masada, or at the fortress at Akko.

What astonished me most was that my connection was not the one I had expected. I loved the history, and the sense of being someplace new and different. But I did not feel a spiritual connection. Maybe it’s because I don’t speak Hebrew. Or because we spent a lot of time on buses. Maybe I need a longer, more leisurely stay. My daughter, who lived there for four months, loved [it] and felt it. I wanted more of the haunted sense I experienced touching the side of Mt. Moriah, deep beneath the street in the Western Wall tunnels, which felt ancient and laden with history.

On the way home, we visited Venice. We toured the original ghetto, and sat in two of the three synagogues still there. We wandered along the canals, looked at more Madonnas and palazzos. We fell in love with Venice in a way we hadn’t with Israel.

Oh, we’ll go back, I’m sure. I read the newspapers more closely each day, and now subscribe to the Jerusalem Post and four email newsletters. But I also discovered just how much of a Diaspora Jew I am. My spiritual home is here, with my community, where I became a Jew.


About Jim Ball

Jim Ball is a public relations professional. He worships at Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley in Sudbury, MA. He lives in Newton, MA, with his wife Anita and daughter Emilia.