Where They Have to Take You In

One more post about Judaism and then I promise I’ll shut up about it for a while.

My last surviving aunt — the one at whose house my father first told me we were Jewish — passed away in 2018. I arrived in time for the funeral (in Judaism, as in Islam, the dead are buried swiftly) and sat shiva with my cousins for a few days. Shiva is a seven-day gathering period for the mourners, during which well-wishers drop by to pay their respects and gab. Everyone is kind to each other. Food abounds. It is highly therapeutic.

We were greatly honored when a prominent rabbi joined us with his wife and daughter. He was fatigued, having just returned from Israel to speak at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, but his wife and daughter — the daughter especially — were fired up. Before they arrived I’d been amiably chatting with cousins about baseball players of old. A few who sensed what was about to happen discreetly vanished before the wife, then the daughter launched into an extended diatribe (although it might have been only two minutes and felt like two days) that culminated with the daughter declaring that if Palestinian mothers loved their children as much as they hated Jews, Israel wouldn’t have an Arab problem.

Most of my cousins are secular, but one is devoutly orthodox. She sat across from me during the daughter’s tirade and must have watched me at some point, because after I returned home she sent an email remarking on my discomfited silence.

We had never discussed Israel before. Some of us become so used to hiding our Jewishness we even conceal it from each other.

I told her I was quiet mainly because I was so startled and felt the daughter’s strident political speechifying inappropriate for a shiva call. Which was true — but not wholly true. I adore my cousin, so I took what you might call a leap of faith and fully opened up:

“It is true, though, as I’m sure you suspected, that I didn’t entirely agree with the message, either. I am one of a rapidly-dwindling minority despised by both sides of the dispute: a liberal Zionist. I do not question Israel’s right to exist, and find extremely offensive any hint that it doesn’t. [Note: today I’d say I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.] I also agree that the Arab world would do much better by emulating Israel rather than fighting it. At the same time, though, I don’t believe any country, including Israel (which, based on its people’s history, should know better) has a right to treat people in a racist, discriminatory, or imperialistic manner. That only exacerbates instability and over the long run guarantees disaster, regardless of military advantage. I feel many of Israel’s policies toward Arabs are racist, discriminatory, and imperialistic, and when I hear someone support those policies by generalizing about Arabs and relying almost entirely on inductive reasoning to support her arguments, I’m sorry, but that just further convinces me.”

My cousin, who had served as the daughter’s literal amen chorus, rewarded my leap with understanding. “It’s complicated,” she acknowledged. Her bottom line: “It’s important for us to be supportive of Israel regardless of any religious standings simply because at the end of the day, Israel is our insurance policy (for ALL Jews).”

It’s an insurance policy I hope I never have to make a claim on. I am an American and aspire to reach a contented old age here. But as someone imbued with Dara Horn’s “epigenetic instincts reminding me that I am only a guest,” thoughts of emigration have crossed my mind since the 1980s. Israel wouldn’t be my first choice of refuge, but that presumes I’d have a choice. So the ultimate reason I wish for Israel’s sustained, peaceful existence is the same as my orthodox cousin’s: it meets Robert Frost’s definition of home. When you go there, they have to take you in — and in my case, they have to take your fabulous non-Jewish wife, too.

Robert Frost around the time he published “Death of the Hired Man” (1914). He modified his definition of home in the poem’s next lines: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”