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To Be a Jew

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As I waited to board a flight from Ben Gurion International Airport to New York, I felt an impatient shove from behind and turned to flash a bothered look at the offender, a rotund man who wore the sidelocks, black hat and frock coat of a devout Jew.

“You got a problem, lady?” he asked in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

“Yes,” I answered. “I don’t like to be pushed.”

“Well, maybe you can deal with that problem when you get home,” he said.

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Mustering my most indignant voice, I fired back, “Mister, I am home.”

This quieted the jostler as abruptly as I knew it would. For a religious Jew, immigrating to Israel is considered a mitzvah--the fulfillment of a biblical commandment. He had referred to the United States as “home,” so I knew that he did not live in Israel. I did, which granted me the moral high ground. What clever repartee, I thought.

Too bad I had lied.

Well, technically it was not a lie: I am Jewish, and I had moved to Israel. But it was not as I had led him to believe. I had not immigrated or made aliyah--ascended, as Israelis would say--and was not committed to staying in the country that Jews call the homeland. In fact, from the day I had arrived two years before, I had never felt at home in Israel.

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I am an assimilated Jew: I am not religious and not affiliated with any Jewish group beyond my family. I am married to a Roman Catholic and might never have visited Israel if I had not been sent on assignment for The Times.

Like most American journalists, I think of myself as a fair and impartial observer. Arriving in Israel in 1995, I felt I had no more stake in the Middle East conflict than I had had in the civil wars of Central America, which I had covered in the 1980s. I did not see myself as a participant in the Arab-Israeli tug of war, or in the religious-secular battles that were breaking out among Jews.

And yet I could not help but wonder if I would find that I had anything in common with Israelis by virtue of having been born Jewish. Would I recognize myself in these people, or them in me? For the first time ever, I asked myself why I had become so assimilated. Why had I rejected Judaism? Or, why did I still think of myself as Jewish when I had not practiced a religious rite since leaving my parents’ home more than 20 years before? Would a few years of living in Israel alter the way I saw myself?

Jewish at Home, American in the Street

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I am descended from Midwestern Jews whose original surname was lost in the last century somewhere between a Polish village that no longer exists and the pen of an immigration agent who signed my great-grandfather into America as Isaac Miller. We were offspring of the Enlightenment, Jewish at home and American in the street. We belonged to a Reform temple in Iowa and moved in a small world of a few hundred Jews.

My parents migrated to California in the 1960s to what seemed like a state of people who had cut ties to the past. We joined a Reform synagogue where my older sister finished religious school and my brother had his bar mitzvah. But after a year of religious school I refused to go back, and our membership eventually lapsed. My mother made sure that we celebrated Jewish holidays three times a year--Passover, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah--and we did not celebrate Christmas, as did many of our new Jewish friends in California.

Mine was not a particularly Zionist household. I vaguely recall that my parents thought something wonderful had happened in June 1967 when Israel won the Mideast War, conquering the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, West Bank and East Jerusalem. I believe that they contributed to the United Jewish Appeal and sent their dollars to plant trees. But Israel was not idealized at home, and my parents, who were not travelers, had not been to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv any more than they had been to Paris or Rome.

So it was that I arrived in Israel with very few expectations. And my first encounter provided little of the familiar. On one of our first days, my husband and I found ourselves driving through a funeral procession for a revered scholar of Jewish law. Hundreds of thousands of men in black hats and frock coats had converged on Jerusalem in February 1995 to pay their last respects to one of the giants of Torah study of this generation.

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As our car inched through the streets, parting a sea of black, I was overwhelmed by this procession of Orthodox Jews in 16th century dress; I felt transported to a time and place I had seen only in photographs of Eastern Europe before World War II.

Growing up in America, I did not experience deep anti-Semitism or a sense of exile that many Jews describe feeling in the Diaspora, but I did have a sense of being different. I was a brunette in the blond, beachy California of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although I was frequently told by Jews and non-Jews alike that I “didn’t look Jewish,” I did not conform to the California Girl stereotype. And I was not a Christian. I identified with Woody Allen’s Jewish humor--that is, with Jewish jokes told by Jews. I thought of myself as outside the mainstream.

Now, here I was in Jerusalem, the soul of Jewish identity, and it was utterly foreign. There was nothing of me in this spontaneous outpouring of men in black who rejected modernity, revered a rabbi and embraced the Bible as the literal word of God.

Nor, I realized, did I identify with the Holy Land itself. We drove to the Promenade, a high point in Jerusalem that offers a panoramic view of the walled Old City. For the first time, I stood before the site that is holy to half the world, where the Jews built their First and Second Temple, Jesus walked to his crucifixion, and Mohammed rose to the heavens. I waited for an emotional pull, a kind of spiritual gravity, but felt none. I felt a tremendous sense of history but no tug on my soul.

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In fact, as spring gave way to a summer of white heat, I began to hate the desert landscape that everyone around me found so compelling. I recoiled from the gnarled branches of ancient olive trees like a young child stands back from the arthritic hug of a great-grandparent. What were those silver-gray leaves trying to pass for greenery? The famed cypress trees had none of the swirls and soft curves of a Van Gogh; to me they were dark daggers jutting into a merciless sky.

Friends spoke of the beauty of Jerusalem, but I was blinded by sunlight blasting off hard stone and high walls. I was forever lost in narrow streets without grid or logic. I was hot and trapped among mottled apartment buildings that looked like giant sheets of matzo. I was quite miserable at times.

Like all journalists covering the Middle East, I immediately confronted the irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives and their dueling claims to the land. That is “the story” we are sent to cover.

The Israeli view was that a Jewish presence in the Holy Land dates back to the first Jew, Abraham, more than 3,600 years ago, and that the right of Jews to make their home here is derived from the Bible. Forced to live in exile for some 2,000 years, Jews decided at the end of the 19th century to rebuild their nation in the Land of Israel, the land of their ancestors.

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The Arabs who had lived here for hundreds of years were “newcomers” who rejected the Jews and their offer to partition the land called Palestine in 1947 and to live in peace as neighbors. The Arabs attacked. Jews fought back, won the war and statehood; the Arabs lost and left.

The Palestinian view was quite another. It is that Jews are colonialists from Europe and other parts who violently occupied their land in Palestine. The Arabs were living here when Jews immigrated en masse with the intention of usurping all the land for themselves and not, as Israelis tell it, to live together in peace. The Arabs of Palestine tried to defend themselves against the onslaught, lost and were evicted by the Jews. That is why, I quickly learned, Palestinians rarely use the word “Israeli,” which legitimizes a citizen of a state that should not exist. Israelis are “the Jews.” Jews had besieged them, and Jews were their historic enemy.

Most Palestinians Willing to Negotiate

In fact, half a century and five wars later, most Palestinians accept that the state of Israel is here to stay. They are willing to negotiate for a smaller state of their own in the land Israel captured in 1967. And most Israelis recognize that they must give up some of that land in exchange for peace. They want to negotiate the price--how much land for how much security.

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I had arrived to witness that negotiation, which was launched with a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in September 1993 and is still uncompleted today. But while I saw myself as a spectator to the epic story of peacemaking in the Middle East, I quickly learned that neither side saw me that way.

Palestinians viewed the American press as wholesale suppliers of the Israeli government line. A dead Jew was front-page news in the U.S., but how many Palestinians had to die to make Page 1?

Israelis, on the other hand, generally felt that the U.S. press was in the Palestinian camp, portraying Israelis in the poorest possible light. Yet they would try to figure out where I stood personally.

“Are you Jewish?” Israelis asked me time and again.

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“Rak Ketzat--only a little bit,” I would answer humorously, knowing that to them, being a little bit Jewish is like being a little pregnant.

Yet the question confused and annoyed me. It had never come up in previous assignments. It seemed too personal and probing from perfect strangers. What difference did it make?

“It’s a matter of trust,” Hebrew University sociologist Stephen Cohen explained. “Clubbiness. Tribalism. Since they don’t know by looking, they want to know, ‘How do we treat you? As a member of the tribe or an outsider?’ ”

Well, clearly I’m not an insider, I thought. I’m a journalist, a perennial outsider. It was, however, a perspective that I also regarded as quintessentially Jewish.

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Message of Jews as Persecuted People

I knew little of Jewish history. When I was a teenager, my father bought two copies of “Jews, God and History” by Max Dimont and said we would read the book together.

I said I wasn’t interested. He responded that I had better get interested: I was a Jew under Jewish law--and Hitler’s too.

That may have been “the law,” but it was not my reality. I was American, a citizen of a country that allowed me to be as Jewish or non-Jewish as I pleased. At the time, I wanted to be a writer, maybe a zoologist. But Jewish?

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What little I had learned of Judaism had made it seem like a religion of crises and conquests. Jews were always getting clobbered, forced into slavery or exile. Sure, they overcame, but that was not the message that stuck with me. I saw a persecuted people who broke a glass even during a wedding ceremony to remember the destruction of the Second Temple, recalling tragedy at a moment of unfettered joy.

It caught me by surprise, then, when a tragedy provided my first emotional link to the Jews: The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Rabin was shot dead Nov. 4, 1995, by a religious nationalist who believed that the prime minister was a traitor for giving up “Jewish” land to the Palestinians. It was a horrifying moment that plunged the country into gut-wrenching grief and self-examination.

Many Israelis agreed with the aims of the assassin, Yigal Amir, although not with a murder. They were convinced that the Palestinians could not be trusted. They wanted the peace process halted.

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Others believed that Rabin was a hero for sitting down with the enemy and felt sure that Israel’s only chance for peace had died with him. Devastated, they blamed his death on all religious and right-wing people, who lashed back in anger.

The mourning and mutual recrimination awoke a deep-seated fear in Israelis, who are taught in school that infighting among Jews was partly responsible for the fall of the holy Second Temple in AD 70 to the Romans. Division was dangerous. Now the assassination had revealed just how bitterly divided the Jews were again.

For decades, modern Israelis had suffered attack and inflicted occupation, even death, on others, be they Palestinians or Lebanese; they had accepted this as a necessity for the survival of a state of God’s “Chosen People.” Now, the leader of Israel had been killed by one of its own, and young Israelis in particular were forced to confront the fact that the Chosen People were a lot like everyone else. Israel, which had wanted to be “a light unto nations,” was no more a beacon than India or the United States, which also assassinated its leaders.

In this time of naked soul-searching, many of the Israelis’ usual defenses came down. And so did mine. Bold and blustery Israelis were humbled and exposed, and because of that I felt more intimate with them. Maybe I was an outsider, but I had been allowed into the living room at a time of family tragedy.

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A Taste of Olives--and Jewish Identity

Life would be neater if I could say that my first encounter with my Jewish identity in Israel took place at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, or at least in a synagogue. But it was at the supermarket, next to the olives.

Israel’s many varied olives are sold from open vats. A shopper spoons the desired quantity into a plastic bag, to be weighed and priced at the checkout counter.

One day, unconsciously, I began to taste olives right out of the vats. I had eaten about half a dozen before I realized that not only was the man next to me doing exactly the same, but that a container had been set aside for the pits. The supermarket clearly expected such behavior.

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I looked around to see another man munching on some nuts that he had grabbed out of a bin down the aisle. He had some more in his right hand and was shaking them like dice, just the way I had seen my dad shake nuts many times. Suddenly, between the olives and the nuts, I felt familiar with these people who behaved like me, noshing and making themselves at home in a supermarket.

Another flash of recognition occurred during a visit to the dentist.

“Hi, how are you?” I asked upon arriving.

“Oh, can’t complain,” he answered.

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“Really, what’s wrong?” I said.

We laughed together at a joke we both understood: If a Jew can’t complain, something must be wrong.

I felt at ease and a sense of camaraderie, so much so that I decided to celebrate Passover for the first time since leaving my mother’s home. I had a Seder with our closest friends in Israel, American Jews. But as we read the Haggada, the story of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt and later liberation, I could not help but revert to my outsider role.

“Do we know the Jews were enslaved in Egypt?” I asked. “Is there any archeological proof?”

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“If it weren’t true, I think we would have heard,” answered my friend’s father, a judge.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true,” Rabbi David Hartman answered when I put the question to him later at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “To me, the important issue is the narrative story that shaped my people’s identity. . . . It symbolizes the belief that you can move from slavery to freedom.”

That is why Jews end the Passover Seder with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem,” even if they are in Jerusalem.

Belief was foreign to me, but I was beginning to feel more Jewish. I was starting to identify myself as a cultural Jew who shared a history with other Jews when I learned in the course of reporting on Israel’s religious-secular divide that devout Jews did not see people like me as Jewish.

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Although Jewish law says the child of a Jewish woman is Jewish, many observant Jews had decided otherwise: A Jew who did not keep to Jewish law and commandments was no longer Jewish.

This often-expressed view was succinctly put by Gen. Yaacov Amidror, one of the Israeli army’s highest-ranking religious Jews, in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot: “There is much wisdom in the assertion that the secular are nothing more than Hebrew-speaking goyim [Gentiles].”

I didn’t even speak Hebrew.

Woody Allen, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, said he wouldn’t join a club that would have him. I hadn’t wanted to join the club until some members said I didn’t belong. Suddenly I was offended.

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“What do you mean, I’m not Jewish?” I huffed.

Assassination Awoke Old Fears, Mistrust

After Rabin and the brief reign of his Labor Party successor, Shimon Peres, Israelis elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader who promised to slow down peacemaking with the Palestinians in response to a wave of suicide bombings that took scores of Israeli lives in a matter of days. He did.

The delays prompted both sides to retrench. Israelis stepped up construction in the occupied West Bank, and Palestinians started killing land dealers suspected of selling property to Israelis and withholding security cooperation. Chronic fears and habitual mistrust were reawakened.

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As the Netanyahu government negotiated a hand-over of the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinians in January 1997, I witnessed the inability of either side to recognize the rights and humanity of the other. I heard fundamentalist Jews who live in Hebron describe Palestinians living across the street from them as “animals.” Then I crossed the street to hear the same thing about Jews from Palestinians. Blind hatred prevented both sides from seeing the ugly mirror image they presented.

I recoiled. I did not belong to this us-versus-them world. Maybe I was beginning to feel Jewish, but I did not regard the Palestinians as my enemy.

As the Israeli government debated a Palestinian prisoner release under the peace agreement, I heard some Israelis protest: “Don’t release prisoners with Jewish blood on their hands.”

What made Jewish blood so much more valuable than another’s, I wondered.

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Then one day I saw something that made my own blood boil. At a fashionable optical shop in Jerusalem, I was being attended by the owner, a hip, secular Israeli, when an elderly Palestinian woman in traditional embroidered dress sat down on the sidewalk in front to sell fruit. The owner went outside, shouted at her to move and swatted her on her covered head much as one might shoo away a stray dog.

Certainly, worse acts have been committed against Palestinians. Even now, perhaps on a daily basis, Palestinians are mistreated at army checkpoints in worse ways. Yet this image is engraved in my mind. That woman was somebody’s grandmother, I thought. She deserved respect, even though she was forced by poverty to sell fruit on the sidewalk. The shop owner had treated her no better than anti-Semites had treated Jews in the Diaspora for centuries.

I became aware of an important subtext to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was a competition to be the biggest victim. Israelis insisted that no evil as great as the Holocaust had ever been visited on human beings. They were determined that the Palestinians accept this--and all the centuries of Jewish suffering in the Diaspora--as justification for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Palestinians, who felt that they had been made to pay the price for the Holocaust with their land, often refused to acknowledge the Shoah--the Catastrophe--as Jews call the Holocaust. The Palestinians said they had their own Catastrophe, the Nakba, which was the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

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This comparison drove Israelis crazy, and the competition, revived with every killing, drove me crazy. It also made me realize why I had turned away from being a Jew.

I was about 7 or 8 years old when I went to religious school. My teacher introduced me to the Hebrew alphabet, dreidels and the Holocaust--the story of the slaughter of Jews in Nazi Germany. Then one Sunday morning, she attempted to re-create the terror that Jews had experienced. Solemnly, in a scared voice, she called us to order and told us to pay close attention. Had we heard the radio? The government was telling the Jews that we had to convert or leave the country. This was the first step, she said, maybe the beginning of another Holocaust. What would we do?

Many children in the class began to cry. I began to calculate. How would they know I was Jewish? I didn’t “look Jewish.” No need to convert, I simply wouldn’t admit to being Jewish.

Faced with so many tears, the teacher soon told the truth and explained that she had only meant to show us how it would feel. Many of the kids were relieved, but I was angry. Soon after, I refused to return to religious school.

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I did not even remember this episode until I lived in Israel and considered what had happened. I had learned from it that to be Jewish was to be a victim. I didn’t want to be a victim, so I wouldn’t be Jewish. It was a choice that many Jews had made before me.

Survivors Awakened Sense of Faith

The peace process floundered for the next year and a half. Arabs and Jews continued to kill each other, with no apparent end in sight. It was a sad story and personally unenlightening; the fight over the land of Israel did not awaken a Jewish identity in me. But the Holocaust, the very history I had once fled, eventually, gradually, did.

I remembered my religious school “lesson” after meeting several Holocaust survivors. I saw the bruise-blue concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms and heard the story of the Nazi terror from those who had lived through it.

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Over coffee in her cozy living room, nursery school teacher Aliza Landau recounted how she had hidden in the woods of Germany with her father until Wehrmacht soldiers found them in the final days of World War II.

She was a small girl holding on to her father’s pant leg for life when they were lined up with dozens of other Jews at the edge of a freshly dug pit. The soldiers fired and Jews fell dead into the hole. Miraculously, the bullets missed the little girl, who lay still on her father’s body until nightfall. Then, weak from hunger, she climbed over the corpses out of the death pit and crawled toward the sound of barking dogs--toward a farm--as her father had taught her to do if ever he were caught.

Driving home after hearing this story, I thought back to the time I had toured the wind-swept Nazi death camp at Buchenwald and seen ovens where the bodies of Jews had been burned. I had been horrified that the manufacturers were so proud of their product that they had put metal nameplates on the front of the ovens: Topf & Sohne. And it occurred to me that I had identified with Jews while standing before those ovens more than I had standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

For many Jews, the two would be inseparable. Both symbolize the history of the Jewish people, their suffering and endurance. Like many secular Jews in Israel, however, I eventually found it easier to relate to the Holocaust. This was because of people like Landau and Daniel Chanoch, another of the 360,000 Holocaust survivors alive in Israel today.

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Chanoch, 65, is a Lithuanian-born Jew who outlasted Dachau and Auschwitz and has dedicated himself to educating future generations about the Holocaust. His patient recounting of the horror, his black humor and beaming green eyes made me see him not as a victim but as a symbol of hope. He was a proud Jew who belonged to a tradition of survival, and who laughingly called himself an “unrealistic optimist.”

After three years in Israel, I had not become religious and was no more wedded to the country than I had been when I arrived. I was still an American reporter. Yet I had come to identify with Jewish history, and even to appreciate the beauty of Jerusalem--the way the evening light plays off the stones that I once found so hostile. I came to feel a part of the Jewish family--although, as often happens with family, part of me couldn’t wait to escape.

I conveyed some of this to my parents when I called to tell them we would be moving to England.

“Well, Dad,” I said on the telephone from Jerusalem. “Next year in London.”

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Miller, The Times’ bureau chief in Jerusalem from 1995 to 1998, is now chief of the London Bureau.


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