I arrived in the United States early this morning, passing a team of Israeli shlichim from the same flight as me. Carrying my heavy luggage with me, I boarded a bus down the East Coast toward Washington, DC. I fell asleep instantly, and I woke up in the middle of the bus ride.
The bus was whizzing by green grass, tall trees siding the highway, and glimpses of furrowed fields beyond the hedge.
We stopped at the Walt Whitman Rest Area, in Cherry Hill. At this point we had been driving for more than an hour, past a pastoral painting of rural land. I recalled the long drive that took me, just yesterday, out of Israel – the taxi from Jerusalem up the highway to the airport, passing bush, shrub, bits of desert, bits of farmland.
This bus ride felt different. I felt relaxed about abundance of water on the farms surrounding me. I felt like I had regained my bearings.
The day before I left, I had a conversation with the man who comes once a month to clean our apartment building, Ahmed, a Palestinian Muslim. The conversation began with our understanding that true apricots - the really good, natural ones - cost four times as much.
The cheap ones are grown with the help of plastic, covering the tree, sprayed as chemicals on the fruit. We discussed the ethic of do-it-yourself. Today, he complains, lots of things are made in China.
What about using the pits of apricots to string a necklace for yourself, the way he and his friends used to do when they were little, before computers and prefabricated goods had come to the region?
Then Ahmed commented on how he doesn't like the apartment buildings he sees in Jewish Israeli cities. He lives down by Armon ha-Natsiv, at the bottom of the Tayelet, with several thousand olive trees surrounding his house. “That's how to do it,” he explained: "don't build high, and surround yourself with trees."
I agree with him. In fact, sometimes I wonder if we Jewish people have a natural aversion to connecting with any land. It would be understandable – we were forbidden from owning land in most places that we lived for most of our history. In Poland around the First World War, some 4/5ths of the country's population were rural, yet only 4% of the Jews were.
I have loved my time in Israel. I ache and cry at my departure – and there are still more tears in me that will only come out over the course of the next several weeks. I have deepened my Jewish learning and identity, met new Jewish friends, met local Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and learned a lot. Israel is a home of mine. But it's not my homeland.
Passing now, on the bus, the deepest depths of green, continuing for hours along the Eastern seaboard, I suddenly feel more at ease, like my soul is singing.
bell hooks writes about this feeling of returing home in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place. For her, home is the southern United States, specifically Kentucky. For me, it's the Midwest and the Northeast. The pine trees that the Jewish National Fund has planted in Israel just give off a different smell – a smell of confusion, of attempting to adapt to a place where they're not fully acculturated.
I appreciate Israel for what it is. Israel, I believe, is essential to the liberation of Jewish people from oppression. It is a safe haven where those facing discrimination can come, can be safe, can be loved.
It is a “next step” in the war against anti-Semitism. Yet it is not the end of that war, as Herzl and later Ben Gurion thought it would be. For me, the ultimate goal is different. I claim, as a Jewish person, the right to know deeply the smells of the country of my birth, the plants, the agriculture, the climate. I claim the right to live in that, to dwell in it, to delve deeply into green.