One foot in

How I came to live in Israel, fall in love and work at The Report

The writer in Jerusalem (photo credit: COURTESY TERRANCE MINTNER)
The writer in Jerusalem
“SO WHEN did you make aliya?” It’s a question I get often. Sometimes I’m asked, “Where were you born?” When I reply, “In the exotic land of milk and cheese – Wisconsin,” I am met with a perplexed look as if my new acquaintance wants to say, “Not too many Jews there!” Why else would an Ashkenazi-looking guy like myself live and work in Israel? “Well, ah, actually, I’m not Jewish,” I say.
Then, I usually have to tell a story about why I’m here. So, here it goes.
I first came to Israel in 2011 on a year-long exchange program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was nearing the end of my time as a PhD student in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and figured Jerusalem would be a lovely place to write my dissertation. I applied to the George L.
Mosse program, named after a prolific historian who taught at both institutions and was world-renowned for his work on Nazi Germany, and received a fellowship.
The first few weeks in Jerusalem were blissful. I stayed in a hotel until I could find my own accommodation. It was above the Lev Smadar movie theater in the German Colony. At night, I would meander down Emek Refaim Street, grab a bite to eat, and make it back in time for a cold beer and film (every cinema should be intimately attached to a bar).
By day, I would pass through the Hinnom Valley and hike up the snake path through the Old City walls. My first impressions centered on the massive and countless blocks of Jerusalem stone. Bathed in a bright pastel light, these silent witnesses to history induced a drowsy state, as they radiated the day’s heat and relayed the sounds of chirping birds. What do these walls and stones think about all this strife? How do they feel about the human beings fighting for them? Hoping to live among the Palestinians, I fell in with some NGO people and journalists who knew about apartments for rent in Sheikh Jarrah. I found a place and a roommate and soon I was spending most of my time in east Jerusalem and at the university.
The Palestinians I met were friendly and curious. “Welcome,” they would say at every opportunity. At night, they sat around a hookah and would always invite me for a puff or two before I returned to my apartment.
“Ah, the conflict,” they would say, nodding wearily. I wanted to talk about it all the time. But they just seemed exhausted before we even started. They were more interested in sports, my life in the US or telling me about some uncle or other relative who lives in Florida or Michigan.
One day, not long after my arrival, I attended a “peace conference” in Ramallah.
Tourists, mostly European, were bussed in from the various hotels in east Jerusalem.
We sat in a large auditorium as high-ranking members of the Palestinian Authority (minus President Mahmoud Abbas) gave animated speeches and entertained questions from the audience. In hindsight, I realized it was a staged event for tourists rather than a serious peace-making effort – “conflict tourism,” if you will.
What became apparent through these and other experiences was that foreigners like myself who chose to live among the Palestinians were mostly uninterested in learning about the other side. We were content to point out Israeli injustices from the comfort of our ideological bubble.
Where did this pro-Palestinian stance come from and what informed it? Strangely, I don’t even know for sure. It probably grew out of my academic milieu, and I adopted it through osmosis.
For many in the Palestinian camp, the Israelis are guilty and less worthy of curiosity simply because they are the stronger party.
We were eager to gloss over an inconvenient truth: Israel has no other choice but to be strong. How can it be weak when terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic State target the country, and many in the Islamic world openly call for its destruction? Politics aside, I began to pick up on a more philosophical point. If you believe we are all thrown into the world without our input (dear God, let me be born a Buddhist or even the 15th Dalai Lama!), then why not take an interest in everyone who inhabits this land, regardless of culture or creed? This idea hit home as I conducted my first interview for The Jerusalem Report. I was speaking to Palestinian philosopher and former president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh. He was discussing the need to see beyond ideology and religious identity.
If you can look at yourself from a bird’s-eye view, he explained, and entertain second thoughts, “you can get a long way toward bringing people who belong to different contexts and crucibles closer together.” The aim, he added, is “to look beyond the scarf, or kippa or whatever, to see the human being.”
But I skipped a few steps in the story. Another thing pulling me into the other side’s orbit was love. Such forms of gravity are hard to resist.
For the last semester of the exchange program, I moved into an apartment closer to the university. After spending too much time in a monk’s cell, laboring away on my dissertation, I thought it was time for a little nightlife. There were only a few months left before my time in Israel was over. I called up a sidekick and we went out for a drink.
I still claim she craned her neck; she claims I did a 180 to get a better look. In any case, we quickly fell in love and I married Maa’yan (yes, she’s particular about the apostrophe) three years ago.
I WOULD have preferred a ceremony in Israel, but without a civil marriage option we chose Cyprus, the island of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Mom and dad flew in from afar and her family joined us from Israel. We arrived at Larnaca’s municipality building and were surprised to find many couples, mainly from Israel and Lebanon, waiting to give their vows. The presiding judge unexpectedly churned out some words of wisdom and concluded the ceremony by presenting us with a heavy ornament in the shape of a pomegranate.
Turning to her he said, “And if he acts up, hit him over the head with it.”
We took pictures around the city – next to an old Roman aqueduct, along the boardwalk and from inside the city’s medieval fortress. Afterward, we headed to a Greek taverna for grilled lamb and shots of ouzo.
It was a pleasant entry into marriage.
Back in Israel, I began planning for a longer stay and hoped to get my career in order. My disillusionment with the academic study of the humanities only grew.
I feared a life of more and more specialization.
I once heard a critic remark that if you walk into a history department at a major US university you may very well find students hunched over their books and engaged in an engaging topic: crop rotation in the Middle Ages. If you object and demand a course on the meaning of life, the professors would likely show you the door and call a psychiatrist on your behalf.
Sure, this has not been everyone’s experience, but it has been mine.
It was my passion for wide-ranging topics and potentially life-changing ideas that pushed me out of academia and toward The Report. Over a year ago, I started working for The Jerusalem Post and lent an editorial hand when needed at The Report. Now, I am excited about working as deputy editor with Steve. I know I will learn a lot.
My story, I hope, hints at my passion for our publication. Its focus is on Israel and the rich culture of the Jewish world. And though I am not a member of the Jewish tribe, I feel like I now have one foot in.
It’s a great culture full of intriguing stories waiting to be told, and The Report aims to do so for our readers. It also seeks to get behind the news with in-depth stories and analysis.
At the same time, our magazine concerns itself with the broader situation in the Middle East. On this front, I believe that as the most prestigious news magazine in Israel we should strive for a bird’s-eye view of life in this region, as Nusseibeh taught me.
And so, with a career and family to attend to, it looks like I will spend more time in Israel than planned. It’s strange how life takes hold of the reins and steers you onto unforeseen pathways.
Just four months ago, Maa’yan and I were blessed with the birth of our beautiful daughter, Roni, a name that means “my happiness” in Hebrew. 