Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Epilogue: A Letter to Myself

Dear future self,

I see the sprawling lights of Los Angeles fading into the distance from the airplane window, and I wonder when I'll see them next. I have no way to know. The closest thing to seeing through time is this letter I'm writing. I want to document my thoughts and feelings now, because I know there will come a day, sooner or later, when I will ask myself "what was I thinking?"

Now all I can see from my window is a deep, empty darkness. There will be times in the near future when that darkness will be all I am able to see. It's those times that this letter is for. I know the challenges ahead. Leaving the places I've called home for my entire life and leaving my family. Acclimating to a new home, and learning a new language. Willingly giving up my freedom to the army for two years. These things will not be easy.

I wish there was a better way to be there for you, future Brian. But these words without paper in letters without envelopes will have to suffice. Read these letters, and try to recreate my current state of mind. The home you left was your place of sojourning for decades; where you are returning to has been your homeland for millenia. The language you miss is the language of others; the language you are struggling to learn is truly your own. Your immediate family is across an ocean (for now), but you are here with your entire people. The causes and institutions for which you are putting your own needs aside are good and just.

When things get hard, rely on your Garin. I haven't known them for very long, but I can already tell that they are awesome, and they will be there when you need them. Be patient, and give yourself time to adjust. Stand up for yourself, but take things in stride. Keep your idealism and your sense of humor. Forgive people, especially yourself.

You may eventually conclude that this step was a mistake. You might blame, correctly, your naive youthful idealism. If that comes to pass, I'll accept a trans-temporal "I told you so." I hope you at least understand what I was looking for, but I really hope you do find it.

It's been a bittersweet sleepless night. As we glide over the sleeping Mediterranean Sea, I see the lights of Tel Aviv ahead in the distance. And on the horizon, the dawn begins to rise. I feel like those pink and orange rays are shining just for me.

Good morning, Israel, I'm home.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Don't Forget the Dream

Dear Israel,

In my final days in the states before my aliya flight, my thoughts turn increasingly to you. The last few months have been about the past, about finishing unfinished business, and about saying goodbyes. But now, it's time to think about the future, and about why I'm making this step.

Many American Jewish thinkers lament the decline of Zionism among young American Jews. This worries me, but not nearly as much as its decline among Israelis. The Zionism of American Jewry will always be, at best, secondary. One step removed from tangible reality. But in Israel, if Zionism is thought to be finished or no longer relevant, the very heart of the Zionist project is at stake.

The root of the misunderstanding can be found in the popular but incomplete definition of Zionism: the quest for a Jewish state, a place where the Jews can be secure. If that was all Zionism was about, I would stay here in the comfort of southern California and relegate Herzl to the history books.

To be sure, Israel, your very existence is indeed a miracle, for which we should be proud and thankful. But is it enough? The great Zionist leaders didn't think so.

Zionism is about a national renaissance for the Jewish people. An attempt to reverse a historical narrative that for thousands of years made us a diaspora people, without a living culture or national consciousness. The Zionists believed that it was time to return the Jews to the land of Israel. Coming home was the first step.

But what about the next steps? Some believed that our renaissance would be based on a return to living on the land and a return to the Hebrew language. Others focused on changing the character of the Jew from a crippled sage into a strong, confident, modern man. Still others believed that Zionism was about building in Israel a cultural center, where Jewish values and moral ideas could flourish and spread outwards to the world.

That conversation is the one which is still relevant, which is still going on today. The state of Israel is only the canvas; the masterpiece of Zionism is not complete.

Today in Israel, many are asking the important questions for the Jewish people in our era: What does Jewish faith and practice look like when returned to a national, political context? How do the Jewish people move forward while preserving tradition in the modern era? How can the state of Israel enrich Jewish life in the diaspora? These individuals are doing amazing work, and they are an inspiration to me.

But many are not asking these questions. They are not what we hear about in the news. The popular issues are party politics and power struggles, the conflicts with the Arabs, and economic policy. Not that those are unimportant issues. The fact that we have built a state in which there are normal conflicts, over normal things, is a measure of our success. We wanted to be restored to a normal national existence? We got it.

Israel has surely brought us new challenges. It has put the secular and the Haredi literally next door to each other. It has given us the questions of war, peace, taxes, and politics to deal with. But these are challenges which enrich us. They are opportunities to find Jewish answers to these questions, instead of living by the answers of others.

I see so many Israelis who are disillusioned with or disinterested in the Zionist project, and it troubles me. They feel like we have nowhere left to go, or believe that our problems are insurmountable. They no longer want to ask the important questions, or to take the challenges as opportunities instead of obstacles.

That's why I'm making aliya. I'm coming to remind you about the dream.

Do you know, Israel, that you are a tremendous source of pride for American Jews? For many of them, you are their strongest tie to Judaism and to the Jewish people. Even to many of us who have never set foot on the your soil, the sight of your waving flag and the solemn melody of Hatikvah bring a tear to our eyes. Just because of what you represent.

It may be a little vain and a little silly. For us to be attached so deeply to something we barely know. We don't live under the threat of rocket fire. We don't have to put up with the frustrating politics. But those very weaknesses are also our greatest strengths. Since we don't have to deal with the day to day realities, we are able to maintain the dream. We remember who you are, why you are, and what you can and will become.

I have so much respect for the Israeli citizens who get up every morning and make the Jewish state a reality, instead of just a dream. I have so much admiration for the Israeli soldiers who get up every morning and make sure that the state will still be here tomorrow. One day, I will be like them.

But I won't be an Israeli yet when I get off that plane. I'll still be an American Jew. And maybe in that capacity, I can bring a little of something you don't have enough of. Maybe I can bring just a little bit of inspiration, to remind you to be thankful for what you have, and to be proud of what you have accomplished, and always to strive to make it better. Don't forget the dream.