Growing up, if my family had taken a vote on the member most likely to end up moving to Israel, I would have come in last – after our dog, Barney, who considered chewing on dried pig’s ears life’s ultimate pleasure.
Indeed, to my mother’s horror, when I was a boy I spent more time in my Hebrew school’s principal’s office for insubordination than in the classroom, and had to be physically forced to attend services on any given Shabbat or holiday, let alone my bar mitzva (which in retrospect, was something of a miracle, on par with Balaam’s talking donkey).
Furthermore, when my family got together to observe the High Holy Days, I was infamous for staging epic meltdowns in defiance, resulting in me being quarantined in my room until I could bring myself to behave like a quasi-human being, which sometimes just didn’t happen.
This, of course, doesn’t take into account my once relative apathy for Israel, which in my ignorance, I dismissed as little more than a chronic headache inhabited by “difficult” people, portrayed in the media as trouble-making zealots – who, if they were smart, would move away.
In short, I was to Jewish tradition and pride what Mike Tyson is to pronouncing the letter S, and Kim Kardashian is to Mensa. (Just kidding, “Iron” Mike. Not so much with you, Kim.)
So, clearly, when I made aliya in July 2010, there was enough perplexed headshaking going on in the mishpucha to induce mild whiplash, and possibly a couple fainting spells.
MY REFORMATION from a apathetic Jew to a proud Jew, Zionist and Israeli citizen living in the country’s capital, is entirely the result of my beloved grandmother, Carola Iserowski Greenspan, a Holocaust survivor, who did something unprecedented: helped me finally connect my heart with my mind.
This, in turn, recalibrated and jump-started my soul, which up to that point felt like it was stuck in neutral, languishing in a rat-race-infested purgatory, with an overpriced New York City backdrop.
To be sure, just a few years ago, my heart and mind worked in decidedly different directions, and in many ways, were mutually exclusive.
In my heart, like most people, I always thought it would be “nice” to dedicate my life to a meaningful cause that inspired me far more than the soulless jobs I worked at ever could, but intellectually considered such a pursuit impractical and foolish.
In my mind, activism, while fulfilling, would undoubtedly necessitate a dramatic pay cut, which in turn would preclude me from living “the good life” – which at the time I believed was defined by my fancy apartment, corporate expense account, European vacations and dinner reservations at the best restaurants in Manhattan.
Therefore, leaving a relatively lucrative job that I didn’t have passion for, but gave me this “good life,” to instead listen to my heart and give it all up to live a modest and challenging material existence to improve my soul, felt like a sucker’s bet – especially in a culture that prizes wealth and grandeur above all else.
It wasn’t until I was faced with Carola’s delicate mortality several years ago, following a stroke, and her request for me to embrace my Jewish identity and move to Israel to contribute any way I could, that I was forced to reconsider my cynical logic.
I simply couldn’t say no to the person I respected and loved so profoundly.
DESPITE THE initial fear I felt when the time came for me to follow through on my promise to her, and some difficult struggles as a stranger adjusting to a strange land, I have come to realize that she did me the biggest favor of my life.
This is because she helped me combine the two most powerful things I know, which I never thought of putting together: My love and admiration for her and her legacy, and my intellectual reverence for the written word.
Over two years after immigrating to the country that made my grandmother so happy and proud – and having the privilege to write about the experience in a world-class newspaper – I have never felt more alive and connected to her and the history she desperately wanted me to embrace.
All this, with virtually none of the material bells and whistles I once thought defined “the good life” that I was so vacuously and self-defeatingly striving for.
And while I still don’t keep kosher, don’t like to wear yarmulkas unless absolutely necessary, and frequently feel stupid at services fumbling through basic prayers that I never bothered to learn when I was a child, I can say unequivocally that I’m a reformed Jew.
I’M REFORMED in the sense that a country and tradition I once thought of as a nuisance are now things I would give my life to honor, protect and support.
Initially, this was because Israel became a metaphor for Carola. However, now that I have lived and worked here as a citizen, and fallen in love with its people and culture, I would fight for it even without her – a miracle that dwarfs my bar mitzva.
Indeed, when my mom and I have one of our regular conversations over Skype, we both can’t help but laugh when rhetorically asking one another what my grandparents would say if they could see me now. Usually the words “pass out” or “shocked” suffice as the most realistic answers.
Of course, none of this would have happened without Carola’s influence, and what she stood for, which occupies my heart more than any other memory – and taught me that true meaning in life could only be achieved by combining that love with my mind.
THIS ROSH Hashana, as I joined one of the two special families that “adopted” me in a country where I initially didn’t know a soul, but now feel profoundly connected to on every level, I thought quite a bit about my grandmother, who passed away on March 26 at the age of 90, too afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease to fully grasp what I have done in her name.
Most importantly, as I reflected on her beautiful life, and the awe-inspiring legacy she left behind, I thanked her for teaching me that the only life worth living – or legacy worth leaving – is one that infuses what I once thought were mutually exclusive entities: the heart and mind.
My greatest hope for all of you this New Year is that they come together for you as well, and inspire you in ways you never thought possible.
May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.