Why I am an Israeli



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If I forget thee...

By Yoel Nitzarim

After reading a particularly virulent, destructive verbal assault on the people of Israel and their treatment of the Palestinians who inhabit East Jerusalem by a Palestinian colleague at the college where I teach English, I find it necessary to speak out about my own take on my Israeli citizenship, even as I presently live here in the Chicagoland area. Having been born, raised and educated in Chicago, why in the world would I become a duo-citizen — American-Israeli? The answer lies in the question — How could I ever forget Jerusalem, my spiritual, historical city and true home?

Whenever I ascend to Jerusalem, I meet with millennia of Jewish lives, Jewish hopes, Jewish prayers, Jewish yearnings. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaultz, a great scholar who lives in Jerusalem, more than a million Jews have died by murder or killing solely because they were Jews living in Jerusalem's perimeters. In contrast, today about 13.5 million Jewish people can be found in the entire world. And yet the Divine Presence, the Shekhina, dwells in the midst of Jerusalem, lighting the entire Jewish world from the Temple Mount. This place is not only the holiest of all places in this world for Jews, but it is the site where all of humanity began according to Jewish tradition and belief. Such an acknowledgement is based on human ties to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in terms of the human soul. Adam and Eve began their human existence at this very spot. The Ten Commandments are buried in the caverns in the depths of Mount Moriah on the Temple Mount. Furthermore, the First and Second Temples once stood on the Temple Mount. Abraham, the father of monotheism, was put to the test in the request to sacrifice his son Isaac, also on Mount Moriah.

Here at my desk in Skokie I want to explain my profound love for Jerusalem and Israel. Here in the Diaspora I wish to share the soul of my souls with a reader I do not even know as one human being to another: as my mirror image, my interlocutor, my friend. Yes, my reader, since we live in the same world at the same time in history, please listen to my sentiments pertaining to my countenance in the annals of human record…and beyond.

These strong feelings for Israel and my roots began at the age of nineteen, in a month long tour of the Land of Israel, in December, 1969. Now at age fifty-nine, some forty years later, an Israeli citizen living in Skokie, Illinois, I still find myself torn between two worlds—North America and the Middle East. I can remember so many life experiences in Israel: a summer ulpan (work-study program) in Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev in the summer of 1971; a 5 ½-month ulpan at Kibbutz Heftzi-Bah in 1975; studying at Greenberg College in Talpiot, Jerusalem in 1976 for 5 ½ months; teaching English as a Foreign Language at Kibbutz Maoz Haim and Kibbutz Neve Eitan in the Beit Shean Valley in 1976-1977; teaching EFL at Rogosin High School in Migdal Haemek, in the Jezreel Valley, as well as at ORT Israel Vocational High School in Osefia, a Druze-Arab-Christian village on Mount Carmel near Haifa in 1978-1979; teaching adult learners at the Mount Tabor Community Center in 1978; teaching at Reali High School on the Carmel in Haifa in 1979-1980; teaching at Oranim Kibbutz Regional College in Tivon during the summer of 1979; and teaching at the Regional High School at Kfar Menahem in 1987-1988 in the Negev.

My experiences included teaching elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. So many experiences over so many years—how could I ever forget? Most memorable, drinking coffee from a samovar with a Druze family on one occasion and instant coffee in a transparent drinking glass with an Arab-Christian family on another occasion in Osefia allowed me to meet with families other than Jewish ones as an American Jew. I learned something that I will never forget: our shared human needs, concerns, desires, and loves are not so disparate as one may imagine.

A year with the "other" enlightened me as to the realization that those of another belief system so foreign to my own also congruently fit into the Divine Design. Even more moving was my trip to meet my junior class at an army encampment in the Golan Heights late at night in the dark by myself. After a day of teaching, imagine traveling on an Egged bus from Haifa for a couple of hours and then dismounting the bus in the pitch-black frosty air just a few kilometers from the Syrian town Kuneitra on the Israel-Syrian border only to be met by the words: "Ha'im atah yodeia ha'sisma?" (Do you know the password?) Of course my response was a guffaw! And…in English, "Are you kidding me?" At that moment, I sure did not believe in bloviating.

On a searching tour for a teaching position in 1993, I decided to spend a few days in Giza, Egypt. I had climbed Mount Sinai on two occasions in 1969 and 1971 when it still belonged to Israel. Now the Sinai Peninsula belongs to Egypt, and it can be a very dangerous venue for Israeli citizens. At any rate, leaving Egypt after a an incredible adventure touring the pyramids, walking up to the Sphinx, taking a boat trip on the Nile and actually observing the wild papyrus growing on the shores, I would never have guessed that my time as an American would be changed forever. Upon reaching the passport control at Rafiah, the border between Egypt and Israel, the guard said a natural "Good Morning," but in Hebrew. And my response was a natural "Boker tov." Then we started to converse in a naturally comfortable Hebrew about the beauty of the morning weather until he said the few words that joined me to my Israelite ancestors in a historic leap: "Atah Yisraeli!" I tried to reason within my mind: What, I am an Israeli?

More recently, my two daughters had their bat-mitzvahs in Israel: In 1999, my older daughter Rachel became bat-mitzvah, the Jewish ritual whereby a girl becomes a woman at age twelve, at Massada, the fortress built by Herod and used by the 980 Essenes, Jewish zealots, at the time of the fall of the Second Temple as a refuge during the three-year siege by 10,000 Roman soldiers; my younger daughter, Gavi celebrated her bat-mitzvah at Robinson's Arch, located at the southernmost part of the Western Wall, the Kotel, the outermost wall of the Second Temple, in 2003. After Gavi's bat-mitzvah and some recreation time at the port city of Jaffa near Tel Aviv, I stayed on in Jerusalem and wrote a short story, while my wife Esther and two daughters returned to the States.

In the last five years I have returned to Jerusalem twice: the first time to write a five-act play on the Israel-Palestinian conflict over a summer; the second time, four one-act plays, having completed them in four weeks, just one week prior to the start of the Second Lebanon War in August, 2006. As my mentor Elie Wiesel has stated, "I think more creatively and on a more elevated level every time I come to Jerusalem." Maybe it is the prophetic air recycling over the millennia…or the presence of the Shekhina. Do the actions of the next generation speak for the miracle which is Israel ? If so, my younger daughter Gavi's studying in a Jerusalem seminary as I write this essay says it all: I am so proud of her. Her middle name "Leebah" is an acronym for her paternal great-grandfather Yitchak, who left Poland for fear of Cossack pogroms, and her maternal three great-uncles Leib, Herschel, and Binyamin, who were murdered at Maidenak death camp during the Holocaust. Gavi represents the survival instinct of the Jewish people—that is why she is named Leebah, Hebrew for "beloved."


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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