It began as a surprisingly unremarkable day, but Yom Kippur turned out to be especially poignant for me this year. I spent much of the day unable to fast for the first time in years and unable to go to synagogue, also for the first time in years. Marc Ellis’s piece, “Stop the Yom Kippur Prayers if They Don’t Make Sense in the Gaza Rubble” helped me with my ambivalence, as he put into words much of what I had been feeling–namely the hypocrisy of praying next to other Jews who are atoning for their year’s ills but won’t acknowledge what has happened, again, in Gaza.
By late afternoon, I decided to go to synagogue for the Yizkor and final service. One reason for this was to support Brant Rosen in his final Yom Kippur service (mine too, as it turns out, at this particular synagogue) as Rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston. Another reason was to come face-to-face with the conflict that many anti-Zionists like me–at least those who were former Zionists–have had to reconcile in our separation of Judaism from Zionism. It’s less of a struggle for me as time goes by. I see much more clearly that these two are not the same, were never meant to be, yet they became synonymous with the Jewish nationalism that the Zionist movement was trying to grow, with me as one of its ardent members.
Ellis’s essay linked to another piece which also helped me reconcile my torn feelings that day, “Yom Kippur: Why We, as Jews, are Fasting for Gaza,” by Jared Sacks, Benjamin Fogel, Heidi Grunebaum, and Lauren Segal. The authors explained how they dedicated their Yom Kippur fast to raising money for Gaza. More importantly, their essay reminded me of the “prophetic reading recited on the morning of Yom Kippur which in fact denounces people who fast as a substitute for working for social justice.” In light of these essays, I was glad that I attended the afternoon service, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, and grieving–silently–for the deaths incurred in Gaza this year, and really, for the on going occupation. I sang the melodies of my youth, “Shalom Rav” my favorite, relying temporarily at least, on the congregation’s collective voice of singing and chanting.
I remember the High Holidays as a little girl, sitting in synagogue next to my dad, playing with the strings of his tallit, and moments before that, feeling as though I was underneath a giant hot air balloon, watching everyone stand and don their tallit at the same time, the white fabric looking as though it were flying far above me. As a teenager, I chanted haftorahs once a month, an ardent Zionist–I thought I was just a really good Jew–pledging my love daily to Israel and begging my parents to send me on an Israel summer program, which they gladly did. To help pay for the trip, I got my first job working at the local kosher butcher, then called Kosher City, bragging to all the old people who came in, “I’m working here so that I can save up for my first trip to Israel. I’m going on a summer program!”
Half of my twenties were spent living in Jerusalem, studying for my Master’s degree at Hebrew University, writing love poems about Jerusalem, believing–in between my graduate courses–that I was channeling Yehuda Amichai’s Love Poems, “In a Foreign Country,” one of my favorites:
In a foreign country you must love
a girl who is a history student.
You lie with her in this grass
at the foot of these hills
and in between yells and groans
she’ll tell you
what happened here in the past.
‘Love is a serious matter’:
I never saw animals laughing.
Knowing that so many had done this before, as I did now, but not knowing that it was for the wrong reasons, I fell in love with Jerusalem long before I fell in love with anyone else. When I was living there during my twenties, I used to joke with friends that Jerusalem was the only woman I could ever love. This belief was challenged when I fell for Nomi, a Hebrew University doctoral student. Even then, though, when she painted me, she wanted it to be on a map of the world, my upper thigh painted in blues and greens on the Middle East.
My thirties were spent meeting Palestinians, going to the West Bank, learning, really, that there was an entire world and perspective I didn’t know about. My early love for Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman was now replaced by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe and Yizhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism. Most importantly, I learned that most of what I had learned growing up, what had been taught to me, was propaganda. I wasn’t special for loving Jerusalem so much; I had simply bought into what others had fed me–remarkably convincing propaganda backed by lobbyists and money to colonize and “Judaize” Palestine.
I’m not writing this to claim victim space. I know that I am not alone as a Jew who has the epiphany of Palestine–the Jew who realizes, slowly and painfully, that everything I had been taught about the mythology that is Israel needed to be deconstructed and rebuilt, that friendships would need to be lost and new ones found, that entering the “other side”–the side I was taught was the “dark side”–actually meant to enter into a commitment to justice and empathy.
Now in my forties, I am learning to love Judaism again, knowing that it isn’t Judaism–its essence–that colonizes, and that I can chant a Hebrew prayer and say, “Free Palestine,” all in the same breath.
In 2010, I went to Israel/Palestine with 20 other Jewish members of the JRC, led by Rabbi Rosen. We traveled together for ten days, staying in refugee camps, meeting with non-violent activists, chanting Shabbat songs in our hotel in East Jerusalem. On one of our last nights, we stayed with Palestinian farmers who work for the Canaan Fair Trade olive oil factory in Jenin. I remember this last night, drinking tea, eating, talking with our hosts. Late in the evening, as the dusk was rolling into night, I looked out the large window. From this particular view, I didn’t see the Occupation Wall. There were no soldiers. The voices of my hosts faded. It was silent. The hills and valleys went on as far as I could see. There were olive trees everywhere. It was green, plush, native. It was quiet and dark. I saw Arab-style homes built squarely into the landscape, lights dotting the hills. Inside the homes I couldn’t see, but pictured, families making dinner, kids doing their homework, a mother tucking her baby into bed. My mind rolled back to pre-1948. I saw–perhaps for the first time, really, finally–Palestine. “More tea?” my host asked me, as I turned away from the window.