It wasn’t hard to leave home when I left for college at 18. There were very few things to keep me there and very many things to draw me away from it. In fact, until two weeks ago, I never understood the complex emotions that I saw on others’ faces when they described their own moves away from home.
That is, because two weeks ago, I left the only place that’s ever felt like home. After six months living in Israel, I returned to America. Yet even though I knew that I was going back to the place that I had come from, I still felt like leaving Jerusalem was leaving home. I suddenly understood the emotions I had seen countless times before – the complex combination of excitement, trepidation, fear, and regret.
I didn’t anticipate that Israel would feel like home – maybe because I wasn’t sure I would be able to identify the sensation of being ‘at home’ even if it happened upon me. I didn’t even know if I agreed, conceptually, with the idea that any one place could be a ‘home’ independent of circumstances.
All of that evaporated shortly into my time in Israel. Within days of arriving, I realized that I had somehow experienced no jet lag, no culture shock, no anxiety about new languages or currencies – I had simply felt comfortable. Comfortable being overtly and proudly Jewish, comfortable speaking and reading Hebrew, comfortable even with the many and variegated things that might make one uncomfortable about Israel. Like Ian Pear in his recent book The Accidental Zionist, I found myself unexpectedly swept into the stream of Israeli society.
As a rabbinical student, I certainly didn’t come to Israel with a blank slate. I had a half-way decent, overly medieval, grasp of Hebrew. I had a idea and a concept of Eretz Yisra’el inherited from rabbinic texts. I had the vague sense of pride one achieves by watching the epic three and a half-hour film adaptation of Leon Uris’ Exodus. Yet even a few days in, Israel showed me that all those things were thoroughly and completely superficial. The Israel I experienced was not one that could be captured by foreign concepts, Hollywood movies, or the late-antique imaginings of an exiled people. The Israel I experienced was and is a lot of things – but ultimately – it was home.
If home is the place where you feel you have things to go back to, things that require your attention, people that need your love, and places that stir your soul – then Israel is certainly the closest thing I’ve experienced to a home. When I left for college almost seven years ago, I had no one to drive me to the airport, no place remaining which was mine to return to, no sense of lost identity, and no regret. I may not have understood the feeling of leaving home then – but I almost certainly do now. Nearly a thousand years ago, the Hebrew poet R. Yehuda Ha’Levi wrote a line that a millennium later captured so many Zionist sentiments, my own included: “My heart is in the East, but I am in the very West.” גם אני, יהודה.