Now that the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur are here, I’m struck by the fact that I have become a “High Holiday Jew.”
Every fall, all over the world, Jews who’d never dream of darkening the door of a synagogue all year long suddenly scramble for tickets — often expensive — to high holiday services so they can hear Rabbis alternately tease and scold them for not coming to shul more often. In response, High Holiday Jews like me titter or nod, and then when the holidays are over, we go back to leading our lives exactly as we had before. See you next year.
I was similarly reminded of the distance I’ve traveled from my traditional Jewish upbringing while reading the recent cookbook phenom Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi, a chef-restaurateur who happens to be an Israeli Jew, and his business partner Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian. Though I’d been hearing a great deal of buzz about this book online and from family and friends, I was surprised to read in the New York Times earlier this summer just how colossal a hit it’s become, with 200,000 copies in print in the US alone.
Leafing through the book’s beautiful, even haunting photographs of Jerusalem street life, I thought back to the last time I had visited the city, back in 2000, to do research for what eventually became my debut novel, Faith for Beginners. Since then, I have not returned to Israel, which marks a 13-year absence, probably the longest in my life.
Growing up in the Jewish suburbs of Southeast Michigan, Israel felt closer to me than the city of Detroit, a mere 20-minute drive from my home. Our family raised money for Israel, marched in parades for Israel, mailed packages, cards, and letters to cousins in Israel. My parents sent me to a special private school where I gained a fluency in Hebrew that has now lapsed.
Two of my brothers lived in Israel briefly and one came home with an Israeli wife. My father, a doctor, often traveled to Israel to attend conferences or to give lectures, and while I did not accompany my parents on similar trips to places like Chicago or Boston, whenever an opportunity to visit the Holy Land was in the offing, I went.
As a kid, I loved the dry heat, the salty ocean water, oranges so fresh and so juicy and with so much flavor compared to the ones in American grocery stores, it was as if I had never eaten an orange before. I was fascinated by the age of the ruins and the cheerful, noisy anarchy of the outdoor markets, such a contrast to the piped-in muzak playing overhead as we waited in orderly lines at our antiseptic Kmart.
Eventually, however, I got tired of seeing the same sights and hearing the same paeans to Israeli bravery and ingenuity (intended to inspire American generosity). I wanted to see cathedral spires rather than yarmulkes, taste prosciutto rather than hummus. I wanted to trill in elegant French or lilting Italian rather than contort my mouth and tongue to produce the rasping, earthy sounds of the Hebrew language.
After a relatively long absence from the country, I returned there as an adult in 1998 and then again in 2000, with ideas of writing fiction about a place that had been such a part of my upbringing. The Israel I experienced then was not the place I remembered.
The landscape was every bit as dramatic and lovely. The food was as fresh and even more delicious. The people were as funny and even charming in their brusque way.
But I also noticed other things that as a child I had not wanted to or been able to recognize. I noticed people who seemed to me borderline psychotic with their religious fervor. I noticed spoiled American kids on holiday with extremely loud voices and bad manners. I noticed angry looks from the non-Jewish population. At the end of my trip, I felt very glad to go back home to the States.
A t-shirt popular at the Israel parades of my youth read “Israel is real.” That’s also how I thought of my last experience in that country. Much of what I’d been taught about Israel, much like what I’d been taught about Judaism, proved to be a kind of dream starring idealistic, rugged men and women alternately turning desert sand into arable land or doing traditional folk dances.
As with any dream, some of the Israel dream I grew up with was real, but with a healthy dose of fantasy woven in. When the fantasy element got punctured, a kind of trauma resulted — they lied to me! — which was followed by feelings of confusion and resentment. And here I am: a High Holiday Jew who whether by omission or design has avoided returning to Israel.
I had amassed any number of good reasons for not going — too expensive, too familiar, too inconvenient for my calendar. And maybe even too cliché. An American Jew traveling to Israel, what a surprise.
Now as I read the cookbook Jerusalem, I feel like a High Holiday Jew facing the end of summer. At times, I have been quick to turn away from or even reject the traditions of my upbringing because their scope felt too narrow. Yet in excluding those traditions from my life, I too have been narrow, in failing to concede the indelible mark they’ve left on me. There’s a reason we High Holiday Jews keep coming back to synagogue every year, even if we’re not always sure what it is.
I wonder what I’d find if I now went back to the narrow streets and outdoor markets illustrated in the pages of Jerusalem, to see what’s changed and what’s still the same. Or maybe to see if I’ve changed.