May 06

Leaving Homeland

Sara Sherbill

I am back in the place that I wanted to get away from, with its self-styled citizenry; its self-proclaimed superiority; its forest of buildings that make you feel small. New York City: the place of superlatives, where anyone who’s made it here wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I am back, even if I’m not exactly sure why.

Raised in America, I have spent the past seven years ¬- just about my entire adult life - living in Israel. Now I have decided to move back, and to make a new life here. Walking down Broadway, riding the subway, shopping at Fairway, I could be mistaken for a lifetime New Yorker, but I feel like a foreigner. This isn’t really home. But then, Israel wasn’t entirely home, either.

I never planned to move to Israel; it just happened. I was living in Boston and working at a school, so I had the summer off. My sister, who was studying at Hebrew University for the year, called me and said, why don’t you come for the summer? I sublet my place, left some stuff with some friends, and went with a duffle bag. I told myself, maybe you’ll just go for the summer. I told myself, maybe if you’re really happy, you’ll stay.

I didn’t come with a specific ideology, or thinking that this is the land God gave us. I came because my sister had an apartment on a little street in Jerusalem, and because it turned out the apartment had a little yard in the back with a little grass and some big overhanging trees that brushed against the open windows at night (there were no screens and the mosquitoes came in), and the upstairs neighbor was a crazy old man who yelled at us every time we opened the back door (he said it blocked his view), and we complained to our landlords, an elderly couple, who said, mamales, don’t let him upset you; you’re young, go out! And what I found in Jerusalem was a sun so hot that almost every time I went out I had to come right back home and take a shower. And I discovered a little café in a back alley near the center of town that served almond tea steeped in milk and served with honey and I bought tomatoes and cucumbers at the shuk that were so good that I ate them just with olive oil and salt and that was a whole meal, and I found a cabdriver who didn’t charge me when he got lost, and the beach was only a bus ride away. And when I went to synagogue on Friday nights, for the first time in years, I heard new tunes to the familiar prayers, and strangers smiled at me, and nobody cared what I was wearing.

So I decided to stay - not forever, just for the next foreseeable piece of it. My sister went back to the States, and I moved into another apartment. I enrolled in Ulpan and began looking for a job. I was amazed by so many things, especially by how easy it was to meet people, how quickly strangers or friends of friends became friends. I did things I had never done before: I took a meditation class, I volunteered at a religious-secular dialogue group, I went to a three-day music festival at the Dead Sea during Passover and slept under the salty stars, I danced at weddings of people I had just met. I felt more at home than I had ever felt before: in America I had felt Jewish; in Israel, I felt like myself. I suppose it’s a cliché, but it never felt like one.

It was all very different than the life I had lived. Raised in a traditional Jewish household in Chicago, I went to Jewish day school through 12th grade, did a year of requisite study at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem, and went to college in New York, where, true to my upbringing, I was active in Jewish life on campus and never dated a non-Jew nor went to loud parties. I was doing my best, but it just didn’t feel right. I went to Shabbat services, but increasingly felt it was nothing more than a spectacle: hundreds of young people dressed in designer suits looking to see and be seen. The local synagogues offered more of the same: high-end social clubs, high-heels required. I saw this most acutely in my experience with the so-called “modern Orthodox” world, but it was a theme that ran across the spectrum of New York Jewish life - religious, secular, or somewhere in between. Where I was looking for spiritual liveliness and meaning, I found an empty void or worse, a self-satisfied materialism.

By the time I was in my senior year of college, I was pretty certain that the Jewish scene in New York was not for me. There was something about the fast-paced, get-ahead, make-money ethos of the surrounding culture that seemed to get mixed in with Judaism, making it feel like a competitive sport. I thought I would feel more at home in a smaller, more low-key Jewish community, and that was one of the reasons I moved to Boston. But there wasn’t very much I was connected to there. Living there felt random, as if I'd picked a place on a map with my eyes closed and put a thumbtack there.

While the actual packing-a-bag-and-getting-on-a-plane felt spontaneous, moving to Israel was probably a long time coming. My parents met as hippie volunteers on a kibbutz in the seventies, and I was born in Jerusalem a few years later. Although we moved back to the States when I was nine months old, before I could learn a word of Hebrew, and although I never visited until I was a teenager, Israel was part of my growing up. In school and summer camp, my teachers and counselors told stories of the Jewish people returning to their ancient homeland after two thousand years, irrigating the desert to make it bloom. But I also learned the stories my parents told – meeting in the grapefruit orchards, my mom falling in love with my dad when he offered her almonds and looked at her with his blue eyes, eating Shabbat meals at their friends’ homes in the Old City, bathing me in a sink in the bathroom of the King David Hotel when the hot water in their apartment ran out. It was a fabled, fantastic reality that existed just beyond the looking glass, and was part of the story I told myself about myself.

* * *

It’s not easy being a Jewish woman in America. The pilloried, parodied Jewish woman has been a fact of American popular culture since at least the end of World War II. Woody Allen, Phillip Roth and their progeny have made careers lampooning the Jewish American woman, portraying her as either a stuck-up “JAP” beholden to her parents or as a smothering, guilt-inducing “Jewish mother,” all the while holding up the effortlessly graceful non-Jewish woman as the feminine ideal. More often than not, female Jewish characters in television, movies, and novels are portrayed as loud, demanding, and altogether shallow. Yet one rarely hears much real concern about this situation. Is there some tacit agreement among viewers that these characters are dead-on? Have we all grown so accustomed to seeing this stereotype that we don’t expect anything more nuanced or complex?

As part of my “re-acculturation” program to New York, I have allowed myself the luxury of catching up on some TV shows I have missed, and I admit a certain fondness for Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I also admit to being somewhat horrified by it. David’s eponymous character is explicitly Jewish while his TV wife, Cheryl, is explicitly Not. Where Cheryl is sweet, attractive and even-tempered, the Jewish wives of Larry’s (Jewish) friends are so obnoxious as to be almost unwatchable. Where Cheryl is a balancing force for Larry’s antics, the Jewish wives do nothing but harangue.

Top image: Ellen Wineberg, Opportunities
Lower image: Ellen Wineberg, Dogwood Series-Fern
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