Ever since I can remember, Israel has been, for me, a land of promises as well as a Promised Land. And what I was promised was a Feeling. Capital F. No one could describe it for me, but I was assured that it would come, and that, when it did, I would know it.
During my Jewish upbringing in Edgware, I was given the impression, from a very early age, that Israel was a home away from home, somewhere I would belong with ease. Being there would be natural and comforting. But when I finally did visit Israel for the first time, nearly five years ago, the Feeling wasn’t there.
I don’t remember deciding that I would not go on “Tour” during the summer after GCSEs. I don’t think it was ever an option for me.
I was encouraged to go along to some Jewish clubs with the vague idea that, if I got along with any of them, I’d probably join them on the traditional rite of passage that is Tour, but it never happened. I came home from a Maccabi meeting crying because the evening’s activity involved dance routines (the horror!) and I didn’t seem to be wearing the right clothes for any of the other girls to like me.
One FZY meeting ended with my being shamed by one of the leaders in front of everybody for not knowing the words to the Israeli national anthem. I barely knew the words to the British one, so why they expected me to know the Israeli one was baffling.
These weren’t people I wanted to hang out with for an entire summer in a strange, hot country. So, instead, I handed in my CV to the desk at the Natural History Museum and ended up getting a summer job as a gallery attendant.
Israel became an issue again when I hit my mid-twenties. I lost track of the people assuring me that I was still entitled to my Birthright trip and that I really didn’t want to miss out on that. Except… I did want to miss out on that. On my list of places around the world I desperately wanted to visit, Israel was never even in my top ten. But I did visit Poland. I visited the camps, plus the sites of the ancient and now decimated Jewish communities in Lublin, Warsaw and Krakow. There, in places clouded over with horror and misery, I felt my first inklings of the Feeling I had been promised as a child.
My first visit to Israel finally came about due to a family wedding, and I was thrilled to be able to experience such a happy occasion with all the people I loved most in the world. But, earlier that summer, I’d made a two-week solo trip by train through Central Europe. Berlin, Prague and Vienna were on the itinerary, and often I was completely overcome by the abundance of Jewish heritage, as well as the beauty of those great cities.
The Feeling found me among the layered gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in old Prague, in the schnitzels and strudel cafés of Vienna, and in a model of a centuries old mikveh found in a corner of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
This was my heritage. Here, was the story of my people, not just my allegorical ancestors, but quite possibly my actual, real-life ancestors, going back generations upon generations. The connection was profound and moving, the Feeling was strong. But when I finally — finally — got to Israel, I was left cold. Despite the heat.
Writing this feels like a “coming out” of sorts; I’m admitting something that I’ve kept hidden all my life. This is a forbidden topic at family gatherings, the thing I must refrain from mentioning. But, lately, as I’ve been following the relentless negativity of British politics, I realise that many people, most of them outside our community, view Jewishness as one distinct thing, with one distinct opinion. It’s not. We are individuals with unique experience and knowledge. And, yet, as a community, we tend to follow convention. We do what’s right. Or, more specifically, we do what our parents and their parents think is right.
Well, this is what I think is right: I don’t feel any particular connection with Israel, certainly nothing spiritual. It doesn’t make me a “bad Jew”. I still have deep respect and appreciation for the country, but it’s not, in any way, my home, nor somewhere that I feel I belong. My Jewishness is not to be found there.
I’m not without the Feeling. It is a rich and beautiful thing, and as promised, I recognised it straight away. It makes me proud to be Jewish, and excited to learn about my heritage and my community. But for me, it’s not to be found in Israel, and I want to shout it loud: that’s OK.