A Sense Of Belonging

A Sense Of Belonging

There is nothing like waking up to the siren song of the shofar to remind me that I’m not in Chicago any more.

Which is another way of saying, if I had forgotten that I had up and moved to Jerusalem, suddenly, I remembered.

It could have something to do with the fact that my bedroom is so close to a synagogue that when they blew the shofar during morning minyan every day this month of Elul, I felt like my bed had catapulted out the window and flown straight into the middle of the sanctuary, hovering mid-air near the bima.

Which is all another way of saying, here I am, inching closer to three years as a resident of the Jewish state, and I still don’t know where I really belong.

Where, exactly, is my home? Is it Israel, so vibrant and colorful and alive, where I will always be a little bit of an outsider, me with my American accent and my taken-abackness at the sheer invasion of privacy at every turn?

Or maybe this really is the place for me, where I’m constantly running into friends on the street and where my neighborhood vegetable man, out hosing the sidewalk on a scorching hot afternoon, asked if I wanted a “little spa for my feet.”

“A spa for my feet?”

All I asked was that he didn’t get my shoes wet “because I have to go back to work…”

Before the words had even left my mouth, I felt a cold rush of water cascade over my feet, sandals and all. It hit the spot.

“Feels good, huh, chamudah [cutie],” said my new favorite spa practitioner. And I had to admit, paying for my cucumbers and tomatoes and kolrabi, that he was right.

By the time I got to work, my shoes had already dried.

“But why would you move here?” an aggressively incredulous Israeli asked me recently. He could make no sense of it. According to him, life is better in America. Period.

And in many ways he’s right. To begin with, it’s easier to make a living in America. And the day-to-day navigation is often a bit more pleasant. Then there’s the little thing called, “you never know when you’re going to die in a terror attack,” that you just don’t have to worry about in America. At least, that’s how it used to be.

But as Tevye the Dairy Man would say, “on the other hand.” Because what does it really mean, “a better life?” What constitutes better? Is it material? Is it spiritual? Isn’t it “better” to be living in our state, the Jewish state, even if the “our” and the “Jewish” are contentious and often come at a very high price?

Because when I think about it, I also felt like a bit of an outsider in America. Not in terms of the language and the culture and the in’s and out’s, but in terms of something much more profound, something that has to do with belonging. Something that is all about the latest buzzword: Peoplehood.

Because this Peoplehood manifests itself in a thousand different ways every day in Israel. Like the way the old lady ahead of me on the bus wished the driver a Shana Tova and he gave her a Shana Tova kiss on the cheek in return. Or the way the man in the pharmacy cautioned me to put my tweezers in my purse so that “they don’t get lost.”

It’s like everyone’s your mother in this crazy country. But what of my real mother who lives very far away?

It’s not easy, seeing Israelis all around me who, no matter how old they are, go to their parents’ house every Shabbat. Or how so many Israelis seem to settle in the exact same neighborhood where they grew up, with their entire extended family at arm’s length.

So what to do? To be among my real family, whom I miss every day, or my new family of friends in the life I’ve made for myself here?

“I just wish there were one person who could tell me what the right answer is,” said the 8-year-old girl seated at the table next to me at a café on Emek Refaim street.

She was so wise, this child, so eloquent, so knowing, that she seemed straight out of a Salinger story.

Her mother didn’t have any answers for her.

But at the table next to her a woman 30 years her senior nodded in recognition.

Wasn’t there one person who could, in no uncertain terms, make sense of this giant question mark that is life?

Until then, I’ll keep holding down the fort here in Jerusalem on the cusp of yet another New Year: expectant, open and wondering.

Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.

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