If I Forget Thee Atlanta: Escaping Israel to Find One’s Jewish Identity

In Israel, religion is so politicized that our own people is divided. But in the Diaspora, we can be proudly Jewish while remaining non-partisan.

Dr. Samuel Lebens
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dr. Samuel Lebens

Many Israelis have to leave the Jewish state and experience life in the Diaspora in order to remember what it means to be a Jew. Some Israelis report that their confrontation with anti-Semitism, as a real and living force, jolts them into the realization that they are not just Israeli, but also Jewish. It isn’t just the negative side of Jewish life in the Diaspora that helps the Israeli to realize what he or she has. There is also a richness to Jewish life in the Diaspora that is somehow more accessible.

Jewish life in Israel is very politicized. Do you wear a kippa? If so, what is it made of, what color is it, how big is it, where exactly on your head do you wear it? Similar questions can be asked of women: do you wear a skirt, how long is it, from what material is it made, and, if you are married, how do you cover your hair, if at all? Religious Israelis are able to detect, rightly or wrongly, all sorts of subtle political cues from the answers to these questions. Reading from your religious dress code, we make assumptions as to how you vote. All of this is a sign of how polarized we are in this country, and of the toxic mix, that we have become accustomed to, of religion and politics.

In Israel, every Jewish space is owned by some politically charged identity. Most religious spaces, be they synagogues, or yeshivot, are owned by one or other form of Orthodoxy. Visitors may be welcome, to various degrees, but if you’re not Orthodox, or if you are unobservant, there will always be a sense in which you cannot feel at home. Other religious spaces in Israel are owned by other denominations; there are even secular Jewish spaces, like the secular yeshivot in Tel-Aviv. The ownership of these spaces always serves to make somebody feel excluded.

I have just come back from the Diaspora, and the experience served to remind me just how precious much of the Jewish life is there. My first stop was at the Limmud conference in the United Kingdom. One of the things that is so special about this 32-year-old annual conference of Jewish learning is that the conference and its atmosphere are jointly owned by all of its participants. It is not an Orthodox space, or a Reform space, a religious space, or a secular space. It is a Jewish space. It is a space in which the Jewish people can celebrate what they share whilst engaging in heartfelt conversation and debate about how to move our joint history and our joint destiny forward into the future.

As has always happened after my experiences at Limmud conferences, which now take place all over the world, I left exhilarated. Despite having been imported to Israel, with Limmud events taking place annually in the Galil, in the south, and, as of this year, in Jerusalem, the whole notion is a distinctly Diaspora innovation. Limmud comes from a place in which Jewish identity is less politicized, and less polarized.

Whilst at Limmud, I had the pleasure of interviewing an Israeli guitar duet, Isra-alien. They live and work in America. Their formative musical influences had been American: rock and jazz. But, playing in America had taught them that their best chance of creating a truly distinctive sound was to hone in upon what could make their music Israeli. In some sense or other, these Israelis had found out, not just what it means to be Jewish, but what it means to be Israeli, in America. Providing them with a Jewish text, and challenging them to write a piece of music based upon it, was, for me, one of the most thrilling aspects of Limmud this year. I live in a wonderful religious town in Israel. I love life there. But, I had to go to England to have this experience with secular Israelis.

After Limmud, I rushed off to Atlanta in the United States. I went to attend an academic conference on the philosophy of Judaism. The ideas that were presented at this conference were creative, in deep conversation with non-Jewish voices, and refreshingly free of political undertones. Are there places in Israel that generate this kind of creative gesture toward new and innovative, proudly Jewish, and yet non-partisan, philosophies and theologies?

And then, I found myself in Atlanta for Shabbat, sharing meals and receiving hospitality from a vibrant community that had never met me before. The experience underlined the truism that a Jew can find family and friendship anywhere in the world, providing he can find its local Jewish community. Jewish youth throughout the world learn so much about Zionism and Israel by coming to Israel on trips such as Birthright. I think Israelis could learn a great deal about themselves by going on organized trips to the Diaspora. Not back-packing around India, but visiting Jewish communities around the world. I am honored to live in Israel. It is the realization of an ancient dream. But if I forget thee Atlanta, let my right hand wither.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

The color, size and knit of a kippa are politicized in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum