Here and there: How New York helped me understand Jewish Israeli identity

I had come to New York with a delegation of TALI school principals who decided to spend their Hanukkah vacation getting to know the Jewish communities there.

Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017 (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017
Brooklyn. The first night of Hanukkah. Just a few hours after landing in New York, I found myself at Grand Army Plaza with the crowd of people who slowly gathered around “the largest menorah in Brooklyn.” I was among the first to arrive because I am used to people outside of Israel being punctual. However, it seems that American Jews are just like Israeli Jews in this regard, and the Jews of Brooklyn did not rush to arrive at the starting time announced in Time Out magazine. 
It was interesting to see the crowd gathering around me. I soon found the words to “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York” playing in my head – with “Israeli woman in Brooklyn” replacing “Englishman in New York”. I think the feeling was pretty much the same.
I had come to New York with a delegation of TALI school principals who decided to spend their Hanukkah vacation getting to know the Jewish communities in the place with the world’s second-largest concentration of Jews. The purpose of the trip was to become acquainted with Jewish education in the Diaspora and to ponder the question of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. I didn’t realize then that the choice to begin my visit specifically here would be a defining moment that would accompany me throughout the week.
As a tourist, but also as a journalist, my eyes darted around, absorbing what was happening between all of the activity: Lubavitchers wearing dreidel costumes bearing the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin. To be honest, the shin managed to confuse me for a minute, but its meaning underscored exactly how I felt: There is “here” and there is “there,” and it’s not the same.
The walking dreidels distributed tasteless, industrial-style latkes that were consumed eagerly by the guests, and asked everyone, including – gasp! – the women, if they had a menorah at home and if they wanted to receive a gift package consisting of a menorah, a box of candles and a dreidel. I suddenly spotted what looked like an IDF soldier chatting for a long time with a white-bearded ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The soldier wore a rucksack on his back from which an Israeli flag proudly hung. But the sight of their handshake and hearty wish of “good luck” (which was said, by the way, in Hebrew) reminded me that I was, in fact, in America and not in Israel.
As is befitting the Americans (and as I was told during conversations prior to joining the trip and by a delegate for the Jewish Agency in New York), everything needed to be grandiose, showy and attractive. The menorah was too big to be lit from the ground, and was instead lit from a boom lift carrying not just the rabbi, but also the mayor of New York himself.
THE “FAMOUS” singer Uncle Moishy performed onstage accompanied by an all-male band of musicians. But in the plaza at the foot of the stage, women and men danced together without hesitation, including women wearing wigs and men sporting beards. Moishy sang mostly in English and the audience joined in, but when he sang “Jerusalem of Gold” in Hebrew I noticed, except for a few individuals who were definitely Israeli like me, no one knew the words to the song. 
The event closed with songs of exaltation for the country, including “America the Beautiful” and the canonical “God Bless America,” as well as words of appreciative thanks to the security forces of New York for guarding the crowd. The MC thanked the participants and said that only in New York – “the greatest city in the world”, which allows for diversity, pluralism and tolerance – could they have come together to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah next to the largest menorah in Brooklyn.
It was at that moment I understood: Why would they need Israel? They are Orthodox Jews who live together, observing their Judaism among themselves and protecting it from the outside with the help of the NYPD. They appreciate the ground upon which they walk and they buy cheap goods from Walmart and Amazon. Why should they yearn for the Promised Land in which everything is expensive and full of dichotomy? Everything they need can be found right where they are and that is enough for them.
And this led me to question even further: What is Israel for them? Is there a single Jewish nation that is dispersed and diverse, or are there two main Jewish nations? Can Jews feel at home in this place with the second-largest concentration of Jews in the world? And can Christians feel at home anywhere where Christmas is being celebrated? Or is it just the Jews who are constantly searching for belonging and home? And what makes a person feel like he belongs?
I got the impression that in New York there is a different kind of Judaism, and during that evening I felt that I was not a part of it. Perhaps I am too influenced by the polarity and separatism that prevails in Israel which constantly insist on defining you or categorizing you as Orthodox or secular. Because, like many things in life, Judaism in Israel is perceived as black or white. There is no room for anyone who wants to wander in the middle and find his own place.
As soon as the largest menorah was lit (on the second attempt), I quickly returned to Manhattan to the other members of the delegation. I had only met them that day and they gathered that Sunday evening on the 4th floor of a nondescript building on 27th Street to officially begin the week of activities. And there, next to the small menorah that had been placed on a folding table in the middle of the office, to the sounds of the Hanukkah songs which accompanied me since childhood, I felt at home.
THROUGHOUT THE week we visited a number of different places: private Jewish and Zionist schools in which the Israeli flag waves proudly next to the American flag, and two clocks tick side-by-side, one on New York time and one on Jerusalem time; a variety of Jewish congregations from across the spectrum (including an amazing and cohesive congregation that rents a prayer space from a Protestant church on Fridays and uses a sound system to amplify the spiritual experience while at the same time giving the feeling that any moment a rock-star will appear and everyone will break out into collective song); and a public school in Harlem in which Hebrew is taught as a second language and where the African-American and Hispanic students consider Israel to be a hi-tech powerhouse and think Jewish education is better than secular education.
We had other experiences. We heard about Jews who won’t pray in synagogues bearing an Israeli flag, and about rabbis who were fired, some because they spoke in condemnation about Israel and others because they spoke in praise. We learned about the generational gap between grandfathers, fathers and sons who, despite their pro-Israel Jewish education, turned their backs on Judaism because they heard in university that Israel is an apartheid state, or because they discovered on Facebook or in the news that Israel is not perfect. We heard that they had reached the conclusion that if the topic of Israel was not easily swallowed, it was better avoided than argued.
We also laughed at the joke about how Israelis feel it is better for Jews to marry each other than non-Jews, while Americans actually view intermarriage as something positive. After all, if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man, then there will be two new Jewish families instead of just one Jewish family. And outside of Israel a person can feel Jewish or belong to the Jewish nation without even converting.
However, the joke continues, if a Jewish man marries an Israeli woman, he will become completely assimilated because in Israel, who lives as a Jew other than the Orthodox?  We learned that outside of Israel, Jews (even those who are not formally Jewish) choose their Jewish identity every single day and enjoy it, while in Israel, Judaism is for many an oppressive default and they are first and foremost Israelis or citizens of the world, and only after that Jews (if at all).
Between visits and shopping trips or during subway rides, the conversations between us and our individual thoughts were occupied with the similarities and differences, exactly like the difference between the Israeli dreidel and the Diaspora dreidel. Here and there, who and what are we compared to them? And what can we learn from them to make it better here? This nonstop ping-pong didn’t rest for a minute. It hasn’t stopped since I returned to Israel, and I believe that it will continue for some time.
Is the neighbor’s grass greener? Perhaps. But while Israel is undoubtedly my home, I see that we definitely have a lot to learn from the Jewish people abroad. In the meantime, I’ll start looking for a town that has a quality private school for my future children and a Conservative synagogue housed in a well-designed building and not in a temporary caravan.
The writer is director of public relations at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem.