The Spirit of a Nation

IT WAS A CRISP SPRING EVENING IN JERUSALEM. Newly-sprouted olive trees lined the winding cobblestone streets as the sun set, children scurrying through the alleyways to make it home for dinner. It was nearly dark as I walked out of my apartment in the Parisian neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, my six-foot-five roommate Oren lethargically in tow. On board the 21 bus and over the Begin Expressway, past the central bus station and through the narrow corridor of Ma'ale HaShalom, even Oren looked small in the presence of the majestic Western Wall.

It was quiet. Strangely quiet for a day of such historical significance. Yom Ha'atzmaut is the Israeli Independence Day, commemorating the unlikely founding of the state 64 years earlier. Surely on a night like this, Israelis would flock to the sacred remnants of the second Jewish Temple to celebrate the occasion. I had successfully argued this to Oren hours earlier in our apartment. However, the atmosphere at the wall remained eerily still. Oren looked down at me through glaring eyes. Let's go home.

Yet my mind was elsewhere. Looking down at my feet, I noticed a small pebble, dancing along the concrete. The ground beneath me began to shake. I heard roaring sounds in the distance grow closer, louder, stronger. It was the unmistakable beating of a drum. The audible fury of an oncoming mob. I felt my heart pound, a chilling fear racing up my spine. In the distance, I spotted the ferocious wave of people, charging directly at us. A single man led the surge. Wide eyed in fervor, he sprinted, a flag raised in his hand.

Yet on the flag was the Star of David. The group was an outpouring from a nearby Jewish school, and the hundreds of smiling Israeli students now swept us into a swirling flurry of song and dance. Rhythmic Middle Eastern music bounced from the loudspeakers as the pack grew larger and larger still. Streams of people rushed in from every direction, a sea of blue and white. The jubilant sound of drums filled the air and Israeli flags swayed from above as tens of thousands filled the enclosure. I was in a trance; my mind overwhelmed as I danced, sang, and celebrated with the Jewish Nation.

I linked arms with row upon row of Israeli soldiers; my head raised, my eyes wet. On my right stood Chaim, his black velvet yarmulke barely containing the flowing braided hair spilling down from his temples. On my left smiled Amsalu, his head closely shaven and his hand clutching the Ethiopian emblem on his uniform. Marching down the moonlit streets of Jerusalem, we sang with the force of a thousand armies. Yet as we sang, my mind drifted into a deep, distant place. As I looked around, my thoughts began to wander. What does it mean to be a Jew?

I STARTED TO THINK of my arrival to Israel eight months earlier. It had begun with a heaping portion of uncertainty, a splash of apprehension, and just a pinch of excitement. I had lived in Brooklyn, New York for all my life, rarely stepping outside the 'bubble' of my community. I had interacted with people that were, for the most part, just like me. Yet I was lost. I received a Jewish orthodox education for 12 years, but after graduation, I was left searching for a religious identity. In school, I was given constant subtle messages not to become too involved with Jews of different denominations or worse, non-Jews, lest I should intermarry. Yet I was unconvinced. Unconvinced that the world was as limited to me as my teachers made it out to be. Unconvinced that being a Jew is merely about strictly observing the rituals. So I left. With raw excitement, I left my community of safety and familiarity in search for something new. I was searching for meaning and for inspiration and for people through whom I could find the answers to my dilemma of Jewish identity. I was prepared to live the next eight months alone in Jerusalem, away from everything I knew, with all the opportunity in the world at my fingertips.

I remember how my grandmother used to warn me: "Be careful." Be careful of getting too close. As if the impure beliefs of a different type of Jew would slowly crawl into my head, infecting my brain. I used to wrinkle my nose and quickly shrug off the notion. Yet over time, I realized that the world has truly seen the dark side of religious diversity. Minute interpretations of an ancient text or a slight difference in a prophecy were all that was needed to ignite intense and bloodstained fury within a people. Hellenist Jews slaughtering Maccabees. Quaker sons set in flames by their neighboring Presbyterians. Hundreds of thousands of rotting Syrian bodies ruthlessly left astray by their Muslim cousins. Religious diversity has been pivotal to the conception of hatred and violence.

Difference was nothing new to me. In every way of life, there are few religions more fiercely disjointed culturally, religiously, or behaviorally, than Judaism. I witnessed the fanatical disputes between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or secular Jews rage on with unreserved force every day.

However former Chief Rabbi of England Lord Jonathan Sacks once said in his Dignity of Difference, "But religion is not what the enlightenment thought it would become --mute, marginal, and mild. It is fire and, like fire, it warms, but it also burns and we are the guardians of the flame." In many ways, argument fuels Jewish growth. It challenges us, and makes us feel connected. Argument is not a sign of disorder or of doubt, but of passion. Diversity not a sign of weakness, but of freedom.

As I marched at the Western Wall that night, I started to reminisce. I have come to believe that the defining characteristic of Israeli culture is its diversity of Jews. The stunning complexity carefully interwoven into everyday Israeli life is a testament to genuine acceptance and understanding. In the first few weeks in Israel, I made a conscious effort to encounter all that the country had to offer, especially its people. I met every type of Jew possible; Nationalist, Ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Secular, whom all seemed determined to tell me everything they thought about anything. And I was hooked. I found myself bargaining with cab drivers over fares, or discussing products with a bellowing vendor by the markets. I spoke politics with the beggars by the Western Wall and debated over Israeli sports with bus drivers. I ate falafel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner I and danced in the streets of Jerusalem with complete strangers, simply because we were alive.

I found that the concept of Jewish identity has been rapidly changing. As generations have passed more Jews have removed religion as a means of defining themselves as Jews . Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. Forty-four percent of Jewish marriages are intermarried. One-fourth of Jews do not believe in God. I was shaken. How can one be Jewish if not through religion of Judaism? How can we not be mindful of the clear dilution of our sacred tradition? What will the future bring?

These questions were on my mind one week earlier as I walked through the doors of Yad Vashem on a muggy April afternoon. On this day of memorial for the victims of the Holocaust, I walked with hundreds of stiff faced American tourists silently trudging through the dimly lit Jerusalem museum. Slowly, carefully, I moved from section to section. One by one, horrible images of death seized my attention. Hundreds of emaciated prisoners awaiting their final fate in the bitter cold, a huddled group of living skeletons staring at me through photograph. My body seized, heart pounding nearly out of its chest. My mind swirled with anger and confusion and pain and overwhelming emotion.

I stormed out of the museum, and I ran. I didn't know where I was going or why but I kept running, a light rain beginning to descend from the sky. I reached a highway overpass, cars streaming below as the rain intensified. In a moment, a sudden piercing sound permeated the air. For decades on this day, an air raid siren would wail throughout the country, commemorating all who had perished in the Holocaust. In this spontaneous moment, the siren had begun to consume me. Gradually, the flood of cars beneath me slowed to a complete halt. Their owners stepped out of the cars and stood in the rain, eyes closed in solemn reflection. In this surreal moment, time had stopped. All was still as the siren continued to blast, a nation standing quietly together as one.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A JEW? Slowly but surely, my mind refocused. I am here, marching arm in arm with Israeli soldiers under the Jerusalem moonlight. It is here where I finally discover the answer. The Nazis cared not what type of Jew one was, or how many times they went to synagogue. Yet in reality, the beauty of Jewish culture is its splendid diversity. We are defined not by differences in our customs, beliefs, or denominations, our ethnicities, cultures, or religious observance. It is the fiery spirit of the Jewish nation that defines us. It is a power that makes a country freeze at the sound of a siren, the force that links the most unlikely of soldiers together by the arm. It is a spirit deeply rooted in 5,000 years of tradition, hardened through persecution and challenges, and centered around a land that after generations of wandering, we could finally call our home. This life has taught me not only to appreciate my own individuality, but also to celebrate the unifying diversity of the Jewish nation. Under the strikingly clear Jerusalem sky, I sang the Israeli national anthem, together with my brothers.