What It Means To Be Jew-ish

A conflicted account of a Birthright Israel trip

Jesus Christ, I took on far too big of a subject this time.

I just want to be really clear about that from the start because there are a ton of articles out there that talk about Israel as though they have a crystal-clear idea about what’s going on there. A lot of these articles even dare to suggest they know how to solve the conflict and when you scroll down to the comments, you’ll see that literally everyone has an answer for what to do about Israel.

I, on the other hand, have no answers. Zero. I had zero answers when I went to Israel, I received zero answers from spending some time there, and I have zero answers since coming back and diving into research mode. It’s like those videos where someone pokes a piece of fuzz with a stick and it bursts into a million little spiders that all crawl off and have their own freaky little eggsack spider nests. The more I learn, the more questions I have, the more confused I am, so I poke another sack and out pops a million more questions. I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere poking spider nests, but at least I know more than the guy who walked by thinking it was just a piece of fuzz. …Then again, that guy’s not dealing with a billion spiders right now.

Whatever, I’m good at metaphors.

I started writing this piece the same week that over 100 Palestinians were killed on the Gaza border and look how long it’s taken me to post this. What year is it, even?

Now Donald Trump is calling on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to resign for her tweet about AIPAC’s (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) financial influence on US political leaders, which sparked outrage among many Conservatives and moderate Democrats who spluttered at the accusation, and caused hurt among many Jewish people who immediately saw anti-Semitic undertones relating to the whole Jewish money “Shylock” stereotype.

I have to admit that when I first saw what she said, I thought about this article and the number of times I’d wanted to post it but chickened out. I personally have earnest concerns about the intentions and influence of the Israeli government, but I also have a tendency to want to avoid conflict.

And I really don’t want to offend any of my Jewish friends or anyone on the Jewish side of my family.

Omar’s comment could have been more diplomatic, more conscious of racist stereotypes and open wounds among the Jewish community, but if I’m being honest with myself, I believe she has legitimate criticisms of Israel and AIPAC. And, whether you agree with what she said or not, she opened the door for us to have these conversations.

This shit is complicated and all I can contribute is my own perspective, if that’s even worth anything. All I did was go on a freakin’ Birthright trip, but it was illuminating for me. I think what I can share about it will be illuminating for you too.

My cousin posted a video to Facebook several months back about a group of people on a Birthright trip who questioned their guides when they were given a map of Israel that omitted Palestine. After receiving no satisfactory answers from the leaders of the trip about why they weren’t being given the opportunity to learn about the Israel occupation of Palestine, 5 Birthright participants walked off the trip to visit a Palestinian family that was being evicted from their home. The Birthright organization responded by seizing their deposits, canceling their flights home, and threatening a lawsuit.

I don’t think I felt Jewish enough to be vocally critical of the Birthright organization when I went on my Birthright trip. I suppose you could say I was paralyzed by a need for acceptance or that I had resigned myself to the journalistic task of remaining a neutral observer. But the truth is-

When it comes to Israel, none of us are neutral observers.

I’m coming at this from a very specific perspective, as is everyone, and there are several variables I need to add to help you understand exactly which angle of the elephant I’m looking at and from how far away:

My dad is Ashkenazi Jewish but doesn’t practice anymore.

He’s a man on an endless spiritual journey but found the Jewish community he grew up in to be stifling and inflexible- particularly on topics such as marrying outside of the faith.

My mom is Irish Catholic and is the most spiritually connected person I know.

But she stopped practicing at an early age when she questioned her priest about why anyone who wasn’t Catholic had to go to Hell. He said he felt bad about it but “God’s law is God’s law”. This wasn’t a satisfactory answer for my mother.

According to tradition, Judaism is passed down to the children from their mother and only their mother.

Why? Because you can always prove who the mother is. This means that I am not technically Jewish unless I convert. Conversion would mean Hebrew school and a bat mitzvah and probably some other pledge stuff depending on the community. My parents gave me the choice when I was six years old to attend Hebrew school but I politely declined.

My lack of experience, knowledge, culture, and faith did not, however, exclude me from going on my Birthright trip to Israel.

By the time I was 26, this was a trip that my siblings and every cousin on my dad’s side of the family had participated in before me but I wasn’t sure I was interested until it almost wasn’t available to me anymore. I started wondering about missed opportunities and how my life might have been different if I had gone to Hebrew school. What if this was my last chance to explore my Jewish heritage?

What is Birthright? you ask, goyishly. Well, I’ll tell you, friend.

Israel became a Jewish state in 1948. For the past 20 or so years, it has invested government money into bringing Jewish people from all over the world back to their homeland. The program itself is a non-profit that is not explicitly run by the government, but the government does invest money, as do multiple very wealthy Jewish-American families. GOP and Trump backer, Sheldon Adelson, is Birthright’s biggest donor.

You must be between the ages of 18 and 27 to take part in Birthright and you must have at least one Jewish parent.

When you apply for Birthright, you’re interviewed over the phone and asked about your family background. I didn’t have to lie about my lack of experience and knowledge during the interview. In fact, all of my insecurities about not being Jewish enough came pouring out of me when the interviewer asked,

“Is there anything that worries you about coming to Israel?”

Gosh, where to start?

“Well, several members of my dad’s family have expressed anger at my mom for not raising me Jewish and that’s always made me nervous to explore it, but it’s really not her fault because she actually taught me more Yiddish and Hebrew than my dad ever did and she’s the one who insisted on celebrating Hanukkah and going to summer camp at the Jewish Community Center every year.

I keep forgetting that Hebrew is read right-to-left but I can count to ten and say my Shabbat prayers. And I don’t know if I believe in God but I don’t think that should exempt me from this trip.

I took a test on Facebook one time that said that only true Jews could pass it and it had a bunch of questions from the Torah. I surprised myself by actually passing it with a perfect score but that might have been a fluke…”

The woman on the phone listened to me for a long time. She let me talk myself into an exhausted silence before saying,

“So I meant, like, terrorism.”

“….Oh. No, I’m not worried about that.”

If you make it through that process, you’re asked to pay a $200 deposit. The program then arranges your flight, hotels, meals, and transportation, and you get to pick a themed group to go with. Groups range from extreme sports to diplomacy, archaeology, LGBT, music; they even have a trip for people with IBS, IBD, and gluten sensitivities. I imagine they take a lot of bathroom breaks.

At the end of the trip, you can either request your $200 back or you can donate it to the program.

I had no idea, going in, whether or not I would decide to take my $200 back.

My original intention was to go on the music-themed trip. I had just started audio-recording everything in my life in order to make a first-person narrative documentary podcast (which has since fallen through, of course) and the one thing I knew I liked about Judaism was the music and prayers. I imagined myself hearing God through the headphones of my microphone as it captured the voices of the cantors in the synagogues. I thought if anything could bring me to a place of spiritual epiphany- it’s music.

Apparently, there were very few people who were interested in this tactic. The trip was canceled due to lack of applicants.

By then, everything else was filled up and my only option was an even more Spiritual-themed trip: Kabbalah.

Meditation. Mysticism. Fate?

Cut to:

Around 30 American millennials between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-seven are laughing and joking as an air-conditioned tour bus drives through Israel’s countryside on the way to the Holy City of Safed. We are accompanied by seven young Israeli soldiers, two young American Birthright representatives, one young Israeli Birthright representative, and one heavily-bearded guide in his 60’s named Brian. He wanted us to call him Baruch but most people called him Brian.

The Israeli Birthright representative, an effortlessly cool woman named Yovel, takes up the bus’s mic and begins to sing in a cheesy, self-deprecating tone.

“A word, a word, a word, a word, a word, a word, a word, a word, a… word of the daaaaaaaaaaay!”

By the end of the jingle, everyone is singing with her, adding their own Christina Aguilera trills to the end, as “day” is held for that particular purpose.

“I’m so proud of you,” Yovel says with a little cough. She’s losing her voice. “Okay. So. The word of the day… wait- First day was?”

“Sababa!” people yell from the back of the bus.

“Which means?” Yovel presses.

“Cool!”

“Cool! Okay, okay, okay. And yesterday was?”

“Yallaaa!”

“Yalla! I love that you’re saying it like Israelis, Yallaaa! So proud of you. Um and today… It’s gonna be… Esh.”

Everyone- “Ish!”

“Esh,” Yovel corrects them. “E. S. H. It means ‘lit’. This night is gonna be-?!”

“Esh!”

“Alright. Also, esh, it’s ‘fire’ and ‘lit’ is ‘fire’. Sort of, right? So it’s ‘fire’, and also ‘cool’, ‘awesome’, esh.”

A girl in the back who had been writing new vocab words down in a little black notebook every day yells a sentence that’s meant to be Hebrew for, “It’s gonna be lit!”

“No,” Yovel says as she untangles her arm from the microphone chord. “You just said, ‘Come with us to the person’.”

Everyone laughs and chides the girl.

“Esh is ‘fire’, ‘lit’. Ish is a person. It’s the small changes. It’s like Mary, merry, and marry? Got it?”

Goddamn, that’s a good metaphor for Israel. It’s like Mary, merry, and marry.

Everybody’s saying the same thing but they’re also absolutely not. Israel is a land of dichotomies, contrasts, and many truths. In order to wrap your head around it, it is vitally important that you know what someone means when they are talking, except that it all depends on the context. And context can be a hell of a tricky thing when you’ve got thousands of years of history, tribalism, war, religion, and magic- all compacted into a land the size of New Jersey.

I was a mess of contradictions myself when I arrived. I wanted to be critical of Israel but I wanted to be accepted by it. I wanted to feel a connection to this land and yet maintain a certain level of distance from the pain and suffering I knew had occurred and was still occurring there. I wanted this trip to be for me but I knew that there were people in Israel and in Palestine who needed me to be on high alert for propaganda and brain-washing.

And so I decided to make it simple for myself. I gave myself a relatively clear-cut first mission:

On our first day, the group sat around in a circle and told each other our reasons for being there. When it was my turn, I explained my plan.

“When my grandpa on the Jewish side of my family was young,” I said, “he was trying to find a job in the motor industry in Detroit but nobody would hire a Jewish man. So he changed our name from Rosenbloom to Roberts. After that, he got a job within two weeks.

My sister once asked my grandma what she would think about us changing the name back, but Grandma hated the idea. She insisted that we’d never find a job and that it would be akin to putting a target on our backs.

I guess that’s a question I want to ask while I’m here. Does it make sense to change our name back?”

Brian, the gray-bearded guide, smiled brightly at me when I was finished. “That’s very interesting,” he said. “You know, in the tradition of Kabbalah, names are very important. They provide key insights into a person’s purpose and life path. I think that you will find the answers to your questions here in Israel.”

Of course, my real concern wasn’t really about the name. The name was symbolic and he got that. My real concern was about my Jewish identity. Was it something I felt connected to? …Enough to reclaim?

Oddly enough, that question was answered for me fairly early on when we sat down with an American man who had moved to Israel to study Kabbalah. He owned a little art studio/bookstore where he did beautiful prints based off of the principals and the numerology of Kabbalah. He called himself Avraham and told us that he had chosen the name for himself when he decided to devote his life to his spirituality.

I want to say that he showed us a picture of what he looked like back in America, but I may be remembering that wrong. Maybe I just imagined that he’d had short hair, a skater t-shirt, and some gauges.

The man before us certainly was no longer that. He was a wiry man sitting cross-legged in a simple button-up and pants that hung on him very loosely. He had long hair, a long beard, and the Yoda-like presence of someone who is secure about where they are on their spiritual path.

As we were about to leave his shop, someone asked him what his name had been back in America.

“Robert,” he said with a chuckle, then looked down at the book I was attempting to buy from him.

“You know this is some dense reading, right? I’ve been studying this for years and I don’t fully understand it.”

The book was called, “A Tapestry for the Soul: The Introduction to the Zohar” by Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag, and he was right. It’s some advanced-level spiritual physics. Every time I’ve tried to read it, I feel like my brain is collapsing in on itself.

But it occurred to me in that moment that my last name, Roberts, though not inherently Jewish, in the Jewish tradition would mean “Son of Robert” or “of Robert”. And I had never realized it before, but I am indeed “of Robert”.

Robert was my Irish-Catholic grandfather on my mother’s side who had just died two months prior to this trip. He had been like a second father to me growing up and his death was still very fresh on my mind. I was still looking for signs from him. I’d always called him Boba and so I’d never associated Roberts with his first name. Keeping that surname suddenly felt like a fitting coincidental tribute to him.

I decided I wouldn’t change my last name back to Rosenbloom, as pretty a name as that was. Not only did Roberts suddenly seem to fit but I had realized that I didn’t feel prepared to take on such a Jewish surname. Clearly, it carried more weight than I knew what to do with.

Instead, I decided to take the name of my Jewish grandfather, Simon, as my secret Hebrew first name (since everybody seemed to have secret Hebrew first names) to honor the sacrifice he made to keep his family fed.

Simon (or Shi’mon) means “He who hears”, which felt especially fitting for me.

I’d picked two men’s names. At the time, I reasoned with myself that both of my grandmothers were still alive, so I had some time to find other ways to honor them. Recently, however, after binge-watching season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale and having some shocking and confusing conversations with my Nana about the complex nature of her marriage to Robert, I’ve felt some regret about taking two men’s names.

That’s a story for another post.

I announced my decision in the form of a group bar/bat mitzvah that was performed for us at Masada, an ancient fortress at the top of a massive plateau which overlooks the Dead Sea. A rabbi met us there to conduct the ceremony.

I made my announcement with a lump in my throat, choking back tears for the evolutionary step I was taking in forming a new identity for myself — a mixed identity that celebrated my full background.

The group seemed pleased with my choice. Brian said he was proud of me when he handed me my bat mitzvah diploma and a brand new pair of sabbath candlesticks.

At the end of the ceremony, the rabbi, an American man who reminded me a little of my dad, asked if we would be going to the Shuk Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Brian told him that yes, we would.

Rabbi said, “Good, then I have something to read to you,” and he pulled out a book written by one of his favorite fellow rabbis.

“If you want to talk to God, go to the Western Wall. If you want to see God, go to the Shuk Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. The fruits and vegetables are proof that God wants us here. The Jewish people are again taking their place on the world stage. No longer wandering. No longer homeless. No longer existing on the edge. No longer at the mercy and the whims of tyrants. No longer beaten and hunted. After 2000 years, Jewish blood is no longer cheap. No burning at the stake. No crusades, no programs, no Kishinev. No Kielce, no Damascus blood libels. Those who would lift a hand against us have learned that it is a costly endeavor. The fruits and vegetables are proof that God wants us here. The tomatoes and cucumbers broadcast a divine message- Kinderlach, my children. Come home.”

Wow.

Yeah. No, I completely get it. But…

Didn’t I read that the Palestinians are starving? That Israel, after declaring themselves a Jewish state, kicked them out of their homes and confined them to the Gaza strip while maintaining control over all of their ports and borders, including the Egyptian one? Didn’t I read that Israeli settlements were popping up all over the already very limited Palestinian land and that the Israeli government wasn’t doing anything to stop it? How could Israelis see God in their vegetables when the Palestinians had none?

Was it because they all knew someone who had been killed by a Palestinian?

Was that an excuse if the Palestinians knew the same grief at the hands of Israeli soldiers?

And why the hell had Brian told me at dinner the night before that he thinks Trump is a great guy? Why did he have this idea that anti-Trump protests had gotten violent? That Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group? He said he saw it on Israeli TV and that it had angered him.

“Why do Americans think they have anything to protest?”, he asked me. “Just shut up and be one nation.”

I found myself asking him his views on women’s rights. “My wife loves to be a woman”, he said, defensively. “She has a duty just like I have a duty. The man may be the head of the Jewish family but the woman is the neck.”

From here on out on my trip, having discovered the answer to my own personal dilemma about my Jewish identity, my attention shifted to what was going on around me. I began to see a pattern in the dichotomies that existed in Israel. I began to form a mental and emotional map of this land of many truths and contrasts.

But this is a map drawn from my own perspective. You may have a different one. Keep that in mind as I lay out several scenes for you in the coming weeks.

If you follow me, you can stay updated as I post moments I’ve selected from the rest of the trip. These are moments I want to present to you like imperfect little paintings. And, like a piece of art mounted on a wall, you can feel free to mull them over for yourself to determine how they make you feel.

As terrified as I am that I’m opening Pandora’s box (or poking at a bunch of angry spider’s nests) I would love to know your thoughts on this topic. Because you’re not spiders. You’re people with experiences and perspectives just like me.

“When two things occur successively we call them cause and effect if we believe one event made the other one happen. If we think one event is the response to the other, we call it a reaction. If we feel that the two incidents are not related, we call it a mere coincidence. If we think someone deserved what happened, we call it retribution or reward, depending on whether the event was negative or positive for the recipient. If we cannot find a reason for the two events’ occurring simultaneously or in close proximity, we call it an accident. Therefore, how we explain coincidences depends on how we see the world. Is everything connected, so that events create resonances like ripples across a net? Or do things merely co-occur and we give meaning to these co-occurrences based on our belief system? Lieh-tzu’s answer: It’s all in how you think.”

Liezi, Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark. www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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