In a few weeks I will marry my fiancé Brenda and adopt her 4-year-old daughter, Marta. I will also attach myself to a new country.
Brenda and I were dating when she adopted Marta as a toddler and brought her to Brooklyn, where we live. Brenda, who was raised shomer Shabbos, has numerous Israeli relatives, including her three siblings, who made aliyah as young adults. Her parents will soon move from Cleveland to Jerusalem.
Many of Brenda’s Israeli relatives have visited Brooklyn since Marta’s arrival and otherwise keep in touch through social media.
“That’s your new cousin,” Brenda says, her wide smile highlighting high cheekbones. “She’s a baby,” Marta says, pointing to the Facebook posting.
Marta talks about her extended family during fantasy play. “We have to pack for our trip to Israel,” she says, her pug nose and big eyes conveying a sense of seriousness.
“Hello, cousins,” she says, pulling toys from a suitcase. “These are for you.”
In her bedroom is a photograph of her cousin Malki, in a bathing suit. “Look,” Brenda said to Marta recently, displaying a photo on her computer. “It’s Malki in her military uniform.”
Unlike Brenda, I had little Jewish identity until I toured Israel in my late 30s. Absorbing the simplistic beauty of the Kotel, weeping at Yad Vashem and meeting veterans of various wars, I determined to connect to my Jewish heritage. I did chavruta study, explored synagogues and became active in federation.
This was around the time of the 2000 peace negotiations. I hoped that the talks would end the stain of occupation, allowing me to love Israel unreservedly.
The failure of those discussions stunned me. Needing an outlet for my angst over the occupation, I became active in J Street, the pro-peace lobby. But continuous violence has ended my hopes for a two-state solution. From my perspective a just peace is made impossible by a government blind to the moral and diplomatic catastrophe that continued occupation promises, and a Palestinian leadership that disdains compromise.
Meanwhile, Brenda, Marta and I have taken several trips to Israel. I immediately felt welcomed by Brenda’s family. I especially bonded with her brother-in-law Simon. He coached an Australian Rules Football team of Jewish and Arab players in an international tournament. His squad was called the Peace Team.
“Don’t give up on J Street,” he pleads. “They stand for the right things.”
Not all of Brenda’s relatives are in the peace camp. Several are fervent nationalists living in the West Bank, including her aunt Mimi. A wiry, engaging octogenarian, she easily charms me. She works as a hospital social worker, and visited us in Brooklyn with homemade cookies.
Mimi will attend our wedding, as will Brenda’s soft-spoken, 6-foot-5-inch nephew Shraga. When greeting me he always wraps his arms around my shoulders, squeezing tight. His cousins call him the gentle giant.
Shraga recently left the army, where he was part of the 2014 Gaza incursion. I blanched at the Palestinian civilian deaths during that war, yet every report of Israeli casualties made me worry for Shraga and Brenda’s other nephews in the IDF. Today I anxiously read reports about the wave of “lone wolf” terror, hoping I don’t recognize any names.
My disappointment with Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians has often left me thinking that I should distance myself from the country — isolating my Jewish identity from the sometimes ugly impulses of Zionism. But now that I have Israeli relatives I care for, and a daughter who feels tied to her Israeli family, such emotional disengagement is impossible.
This leaves me holding the connection I feel to Israel through my Jewishness and my new relatives, alongside the distaste I have for the country’s rightward turn. I must accept this dichotomy as part of my religious heritage, as part of my ethnic DNA. After all, Israel is family for me now.
Marta’s narrative is simpler. For her, Israel is a place where she is embraced by loving relatives. I hope her relatives and their country are always a source of pride and joy for her. Yet, Israel is sure to offer up an increasingly spicy dish of moral complexity.
But on a recent Sunday, during some Facetime with Simon, in Israel, that complexity was absent.
“Look who it is,” Brenda said, prompting Marta to look at a computer screen.
“Hello Marta,” Simon said.
“Hi,” Marta said. “You’re invited to the wedding.”
Ben Krull, an attorney in Bronx Family Court, is a regular contributor to this space.