I lived in Indonesia during the summer of 2010. When Indonesians meet someone new, they ask two questions: What is your name? and What is your religion?
I was startled one day when a wizened Indonesian grandmother pushed her way up to me and asked these two questions: “Nama Anda siapa? Apa agama Anda?” I told her my name was Jenn, but, as usual, I had no idea how to describe my religious affiliation. “Jewish” seemed complicated. Indonesia is a Muslim majority nation with no small amount of tension against the Israeli state. A few days prior to this encounter I had seen a giant billboard in town that announced: ISRAEL GO TO HELL. Luckily, Judaism isn’t one of the five recognized religions of Indonesia, so when I told the Indonesian lady I was Jewish, she didn’t even know what I meant. “Are you a Christian?” she asked. I said, “No.”
“Then you are Muslim!” she concluded. I said, “No.” “Then you are Christian!” she insisted. I explained that I was an Israelite from the Old Testament. “A Christian,” she mumbled.
A few weeks later, I interviewed a Muslim kyai (teacher) at a pesantren (boarding school) about his policies on interreligious marriage. When the kyai found out I am Jewish, he wanted to argue about the Jewish claim to the promised land. I felt alarmingly out of my depth about Israeli land dispute politics, and I also wasn’t able to convey that Israel is a very bewildering and often absent aspect of my Jewish identity.
He continued to aggress me about Israel, the Israeli Army, settlement politics, and pressure against Arab populations. Finally, I reminded him that most Americans equate September 11th with Islam, although this sweeping generalization is dramatically unfair and grounded in ignorance. He joined in with another analogy: surely, all Catholics are not pedophiles, right? These parallels brought us together. We were able to commune sadly about these complicated situations and what we could respectively do to advance interreligious understanding when such tragedies are afoot and embodied in the symbols and faces of the world’s religions.
The truth is, I’m about as wary and uninformed about Israel as your average Indonesian Muslim, or your average American Christian. You see, I traveled to Israel when I was 19, with a college trip much like Birthright, and I had a terrible time. Funded by a Zionist non-profit, the trip functioned to convince student travelers to make aliyah and settle in the West Bank.
But when we visited in January 1998 the restless Lebanese Hezbollah launched scuds into Quiryat Shmonah and we were sent to a reinforced bomb shelter for two days. We returned to Jerusalem early and were asked to remain in our hotel rooms because of Ramadan rioting between Muslims and Jews in the Old City. I didn’t understand the plight of the settlers that we visited, or of the Beduoins in the desert, or even what basic Israeli political parties like the Likkud stood for.
I had never been consigned to the women’s balcony or behind a Mechitza curtain during Shabbat; I had never seen a rifle half the size of the soldier who carried it. I was scared and uncomfortable, and I reacted by dreaming out the window throughout the trip. My trip to Israel was supposed to enhance my Jewish identity, but instead it scared me out of my wits. This was not the Judaism I knew. I didn’t know whether I should have found a trip that was a better match for me, or whether my Judaism was so idiosyncratically American that Israel had no role in it. I was relieved to come home and thought I would never return to Israel.
Tomorrow, I return to Israel.
L’shana habaah b’yerushalayim, indeed.
I’m writing this in the wee hours, alone in Brooklyn on the night before my departure. I feel so very alone. I feel scared and I wonder why I am going back to a place that disrupted my religious identity for ten years. What will Israel do to me this time? Why do I push myself into scary situations under the guise of bravado and personal growth? Must I always try to stare down the beast? Why can’t I be lazy and do pleasant things? Why can’t I be a normal, tranquil, darling lady who enjoys molehills, fool’s gold and snake oil?
Because I’m not, that’s why. Just like Popeye, and just like the God of Exodus, I AM WHAT I AM.
Because I’m a fool for the truth, and I believe in second chances.
Sometimes, this is awesome. Sometimes, right now, it sucks. In eleven more days, it might feel awesome again. Or not. Oh life! You really keep us guessing!
Last February I saw an email advertising the Christian-Jewish Seminarian Program on Israel and Palestine, a joint project of the New York American Jewish Committee and Auburn Theological Seminary. The project brings together Rabbinic students and Christian seminarians to learn about each other’s communal, political, and theological perspectives on Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and the regional conflict.
When I saw the program description I thought to myself, there’s a big difference between 19 and 33. I don’t think I had much of a steady grip on anything the last time I went to Israel. So I applied to the trip in order to have another chance at this country, 14 years later. Don’t we all deserve second chances? Israel included?
When I get into conversations about Israel these days I tend to listen silently because I have nothing to contribute but discomfort. Ironically, I can talk at length about Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Confucianism (et cetera). But the Israel component of my Jewish identity has, since that frightening and confusing trip so long ago, been quite dormant. I think this has caused my joyful participation in my own religion to atrophy somewhat. I love being Jewish so much, but I am scared and ignorant about Israel.
I want to join the conversation about Israel. This is very important, because, considering my current vocational trajectory straight into the belly of interreligious affairs, I need to be able to speak to the topics of Israel and Palestine. Being paralytically tongue-tied about the historical centerpiece of my own religion does not bode well for my leadership of interreligious initiatives. Moreover, after several years of intense education in world religions and Christian theology, I am far more versed in the issues percolating in Israel and the history behind them, and my return to the region is bound to bear more milk and honey.
Tomorrow I revisit this land. I will connect with Israeli people, to the history of the land, to the religious communities throughout its territories, and I will develop some understanding about current land dispute politics. I will spend an evening with a new friend in Jerusalem. I will eat a Halvah bar, salve my weary heart at the Western Wall, and squint at the gleaming Dome of the Rock. I will eat falafel and hummus, and I will have nowhere fun to go on Saturday.
I hope the trip will be redemptive. I hope it will be rewarding and fruitful, and will enable me to be a better-rounded religious scholar, a productive ethnographer, and a civically-engaged interfaith writer and activist. Not to mention, hopefully, a more integrated and articulate Jew.
It might scare me witless all over again. At least I will have tried to stare down the beast, which they say is a worthwhile thing to do. Usually, the beast is my own fearful ignorance. May it be slain real darn dead, forevermore.
L’shana habaah b’yerushalayim. Indeed. Wish me luck, with extra olives on top.