September 20, 2003
Just a little more than a year ago, in July of 2002, I gave a talk here on the topic of “Why We’re Going to Israel Now.” I was astonished to go back and read what I said then, because so much of it echoes what I wanted to say tonight. I realize that I’ve been ruminating about these issues longer than I thought…
Last summer, I spoke about the impact that September 11th had on me. On September 11th, something dramatic shifted in my worldview. On that day, I began to see my life in the context of Jewish history.
Over the course of Jewish history, there is a lengthy litany of the years and the lands from which Jews have been expelled. After the Medieval crusades, expulsions of entire Jewish communities became commonplace. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England. In 1306, Jews were expelled from France. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Dozens of sporadic expulsions of entire Jewish communities in Europe continued into the 19th century.
I was born in America, after the Holocaust. On September 11th, my lifelong presumption of safety in America was immediately and irrevocably shattered. I abruptly came to see the United States, where my parents, and the two generations that followed them, were born and have been living, for what it really is.
A host country.
Don’t believe me? A few historical facts may help you see things more clearly. The first Jews came to America in 1654, but Jewish men, because they didn’t believe in Jesus, couldn’t vote in Maryland until 172 years later. In 1692, the Church of England was the official religion in Maryland. And until less than 150 years ago, public office could only be held by those able to take the oath “upon the true faith of a Christian”.
Make no mistake. America, for all its love for religious tolerance, is hosting the Jews who live in her borders. This country is not ours.
And it never will be.
Right now, Jews live in relative safety and security in America. But for how long will that be the case? As great as this country is, I can’t allow myself to get so comfortable anymore that I can’t imagine America vomiting out its Jews. Remember the lesson of history. It’s happened in every other country where Jews have ever lived. My sense of security in America was deceptive. It’s a mistake to rely on it.
After September 11th, I asked myself, “What does this event mean to me?” “Is this a foreshadowing?” “Is this horrific event supposed to wake me from a coma of apathy? ”
I have surely been awakened from my coma and my eyes are wide open.
As great as America has been to Jews, and it has been, it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a Christian country. Two months of every year, we are overwhelmed with preparations for Christmas. Here, Christmas and Easter are Federal holidays. In America, Christians get their holidays off.
A friend of ours who made aliyah recently said that in Israel, the holiday soda bottles say Chag Sameach, not Merry Christmas. In Israel, Rosh Hashana, Pesach and all Jewish holidays are national holidays. There are no pagan, Pilgrim or Christian holidays with which to cope or ignore. There is no “December Dilemma” in Israel. Instead of Christmas tree lots, there are Sukkot all over Israel. Instead of Easter candy in every store, there are sufganiot, fried doughnuts, sold all over during Chanukah.
In Israel, Sunday is a regular weekday. Since Sunday is the Christian day of rest, we experience Sunday very differently in America. There’s no mail delivery in America on Sunday. In Israel, there’s no mail delivery on Shabbos.
In America, more than 15 states still have restrictions on business operations on Sundays. Many of you probably remember when Baltimore still enforced Sunday Blue Laws. My mother recently told me a story about something that angered her when we first moved to Florida from New York in the mid-1970s. She saw a sign on the grocery store door that said, “Closed on Sunday. See you in Church.” In America, there’s a frequent presumption that everyone is a Christian.
When you go into a stationary store and buy a calendar in America, the calendar has a small space for Sundays. In Israel, the calendar has a half page on Friday, a few lines for Shabbos to note who’s coming for a meal and a half page for erev Yom Tov.
The more traditional a Jew you are, the more you notice ways that Israel is a Jewish country, where things are designed to meet Jewish needs. When I began to realize all these differences, I began to see more clearly how I make constant accommodations for living in a predominantly Christian country. In Israel:
Tzitzits and kippot are sold in grocery stores, right near the laundry detergent
All the rooms in public buildings have mezuzot
Before Pesach, visitors to public buildings are requested not to bring in chametz
Bulletin boards in government offices list times for mincha, the afternoon prayer service
Bonuses are given twice a year: before Rosh Hashana and before Pesach
Israeli-made refrigerators have a special snap to shut off the refrigerator light before Shabbos. In America, we take out the bulb completely
Dishtowels come in red and blue and have words for meat and milk woven into them
Two sinks are standard in an Israeli apartment
Taxi drivers quote from the Bible
On El Al Airlines, Tefillas haDerech, the prayer for safe travel, is printed in English and Hebrew in the in-flight magazine
Also on El Al, the in-flight entertainment system has a special option for those who refrain from listening to music during the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av
There is no Hebrew word for Saturday. Even the most secular Israelis say, “Shabbat Shalom.”
As long as I’ve been praying, I’ve been facing East, toward Jerusalem. But like most American Jews, I hadn’t let in the significance of what I was doing until this year. I had been at home among non-Jews, completely unaware that I am in exile.
This year, my vision cleared. Just by watching the northwest migration of Jews in Baltimore, I saw that all Jewish neighborhoods in America change and become non-Jewish over time. Permanence for Jews is impossible here.
I recently began to notice how often American Jews build luxurious, permanent homes here, ignoring the possibility of returning to Israel. I’ve begun to question why, since the Land of Israel has returned to Jewish hands after two thousand years, we Jews choose to build in someone else’s Land.
In America, you have 30 days to put up a mezuzah when you move to a new home. In Israel, Halacha requires us to put a mezuzah up on the first day. This is to acknowledge our permanence in the Land.
While Israel has spiritual qualities beneficial to Jews, America is rich with natural resources that the Land of Israel does not possess. The Land is utterly dependent on rain to remind us that sustenance comes from G-d alone.
Life in America functions, for the most part, according to predictable patterns. Life in Israel is much less predictable. Our tradition teaches that, rather than being a shortcoming, this uncertainty is of spiritual benefit to Jews. A relationship with G-d grows from uncertainty, because we have to turn to Him at every juncture. Being in Israel requires us to be close to G-d.
In America, it’s possible to be spiritually asleep for an entire lifetime. I suppose it’s possible to do the same in Israel, but it’s much harder! Mitzvot outside their natural habitat are, at best, incomplete, a departure from Jewish normalcy. I began to see that there is an inevitable incompleteness of Jewish life in America.
All this thinking about how Jewish life is in Israel transformed something inside me. This year we made a financial and spiritual connection with the Land by buying an investment apartment in Ma’ale Adumim. I realize very well that not everybody can buy an apartment in Israel, although undoubtedly, some of us can. Not every Jew can move there, but some of us can.
Even if we can’t do these things, everybody can increase his or her connection with Israel in some concrete way. For example, during the High Holidays, we’ll each be asked to pledge a commitment to visit Israel sometime in the upcoming year.
Over the last year, I find myself thinking that we Jews travel all over the world, but the vast majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, not even once. We travel everywhere else, but we don’t go home.
One of the most visible symbols of Sukkot is the arba minim – the four species, the lulav and essrog. At the beginning of Sukkot, they appear fresh and healthy. Over Sukkot, everyone’s lulav withers. Why? Because it’s been detached from its life source.
Every Jew has a soul that yearns to be attached to its life source. As long as we think and act as if America is the beginning and the end of our Jewish lives, we’ve detached ourselves from our life source. I wonder how long it will be before American Jewry withers because we’re not attached to our life source.
Our tradition teaches us to express hakaras haTov, to recognize and appreciate the good others do for us. I have tremendous hakaras haTov for America. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to America, which has been taking in Jews since the 17th century. America took in Jewish refugees, including six of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents, from pogroms in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. America has been exceptionally good to its Jews. But it is not our permanent home.
Many years ago, I heard a story about a Jewish family that was just starting to think about living a Jewish life. With great excitement, they told their rabbi that they had stopped ordering butter on their baked potato when they ate steak. And how did the rabbi react, knowing full well that the steak they were eating was completely treif? He wished them a mazel tov! They deserved a mazel tov, because every journey begins with the first step.
I close with a quote from Ahuva Artzi, who writes with absolute clarity about why she left a life of material abundance and security in America to live in Israel. She said, “I came because of my awareness that our lives are nothing but a vehicle for serving our Maker, and He said I could serve him better in the Land of Israel.” You and I may not be able to respond to that awareness as she did. But this year, I learned that, to live my life as a serious Jew, I need a connection to Israel. This year, I took the first step.