Brooklyn, 2009: I was sitting on the windowsill, watching the evening crowds fill the synagogue across the street. From the apartment below, snatches of songs and the faint clinking of glasses were already rising.
“What is this service to you?” I thought to myself, munching on my festive pepperoni pizza. “To you, but not to him, for he has excluded himself from the community.” It was a proud, lonely righteousness that I was feeling.
Leaving your country, I found, is a lot like breaking up with a boyfriend. It’s a process; you go through different stages, but they’re not always totally balanced.
My own process started with the realization that life in Israel was just not working for me, followed by a tearful goodbye and a promise to always stay friends.
Once the departing was over, and I was suddenly living in a strange country on the other side of the world, came a long period of longing and regret. I kept thinking about everything I loved about Israel, until I came to see it as some lost Eden: bright, luscious, flush with juicy fruits and lazy days on the beach and an easy familiarity that I could never recreate here. The bustling city outside my window meant nothing to me; if I had the money for a ticket, I would fly back and kiss Israel’s ground.
I was so busy sulking that the next stage — relief — took me by surprise. I was watching the news on the Israeli channel when it suddenly dawned on me: I don’t have to do this any more. The endless, constant fighting that shaped my life — between left wing and right, secular and haredi, Israeli and Palestinian, ideology and reality — no longer had any direct effect on me. I was free. I turned off the news, and the shocked silence that followed seemed filled with possibilities.
I started to open up to my new surroundings. I went out more, met more people. It took a while, more than a year or two, but eventually I decided that I liked America, and that I wanted to get to know it better. But my feelings for Israel kept getting in the way. I was still obsessing about Israel, only now it was with indignation: America did not teach its children that it’s “good to die for our country”; it merely suggested I ask occasionally what I can do for it. America wouldn’t have disregarded my wishes and forced me into the army, or played favorites based on race and religiosity, or shoved institutionalized religion down my throat: Can you imagine America forbidding the sale of bread? Oh, and America doesn’t turn an ice-cold shoulder to its émigrés either, Israel.
One day, after driving myself to a tearful fit of fury over injustices long past, I realized I just couldn’t keep doing this to myself — I needed to move on.
Stage five consisted of deleting all the Hebrew songs from my iPod, giving away my Israeli books, disconnecting the Israeli channel and switching from Kol Israel to “This American Life.” I knew now that I wasn’t going back, and I wanted to disappear into America’s bountiful bosom, forgetting Israel was ever a part of my life.
I was living in Midwood at the time, in a largely Hebrew-speaking neighborhood dubbed “the Israeli reservation.” It was Passover eve; Kings Highway was eerily quiet, with only a few festively dressed pedestrians rushing past the closed kosher stores. Everyone was either on their way or already gathered round the seder table. Everyone but me, that is. Me, I had a date with a pepperoni pizza and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It was to be my emancipation celebration: my first Passover without a seder.
It was how I wanted it. For me, back then, Passover was purely an Israeli thing. It was about the cousins and nephews and friends back home getting together and celebrating their Israeli bonds without me. It was about an entire country reciting the same words at the same time, year after year, in a synchronicity that transcended the petty differences between us — I mean, between them; not my country anymore. I wasn’t planning to be next year in Jerusalem anyway, so this night need not be different than any other.
I was into my fourth slice, with Frodo just leaving the Shire, when I heard a knock on the door.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” said my downstairs neighbor, “but I thought maybe … maybe you want to join our seder?”
“God, thanks, YES,” I gasped, “I can’t tell you how much.”
It was a good seder. The 90-year-old granny, once she discovered I wasn’t married, interrupted to ask shrewd questions about my past relationships and childbearing prospects, since her grandson was looking for a shidduch. An argument over who found the afikoman escalated into a slap fight, ending with a spilled glass of wine and someone biting someone else’s ear. It was in all English, but the yelling and fighting were just like back home. I felt like family; I was just happy to be back in the fold.
Things between Israel and me have continued to change, and long ago I stopped counting the stages. Israeli, American, Jewish — they all flowed into each other, and I can’t tell where one identity ends and the other one begins anymore. But looking back at that seder four years ago, when the borderlines between identities were still raw and deep and seemed to cut right through me, as if no compromise was possible, I realize I wasn’t the wicked one; I was the one who didn’t know how to ask.