I just published a collection of my essays in English. Each time I am asked if I am also releasing the volume in Hebrew I feel a pain deep inside me when I answer that no, right now, my publisher is only interested in an English edition. Indeed it is a shame because I wrote most of the essays in Hebrew as well.
Writing in Hebrew is a qualitatively different experience than writing in English. Hebrew is a more compact language than English. It has fewer words and the words it has are denser and more flexible than English words. A 1,200-word essay in Hebrew will be 1,800 words in English.
This is a mechanical difference. But there are deeper distinctions as well. One level beyond the mechanics is the multiple meanings of Hebrew words. The density of meaning in Hebrew is a writer’s dream. Nearly anyone can imbue a seemingly simple sentence with multiple, generally complementary meanings simply by choosing a specific verb, verb form, noun or adjective. These double, triple and even quadruple meanings of one word are a source of unbounded joy for a writer. To take just one example, the Hebrew word “shevet” means returning and it also means sitting. And it is also a homonym for club – as in billy club – and for tribe.
In 2005, the IDF named the operation expelling the Israeli residents of Gaza and Northern Samaria “Shevet achim,” or returning or sitting with brothers. But it also sounded like it was making a distinction between tribesmen and brothers. And it also sounded like “clubbing brothers.”
As this one example demonstrates, one joyful consequence of the unique density of the Hebrew language is that satirical irony comes easily to even the most dour and unpoetic writers.
For a Jew, knowing, speaking and writing Hebrew is an intimate experience. This is particularly so for those of us whose mother tongue is not Hebrew – because as the secrets of the language slowly reveal themselves to us we feel we are discovering ourselves.
Hebrew encapsulates the entirety of the Jewish story. Modern Hebrew in particular is an eclectic amalgamation of classical Hebrew, Yiddishisms, and expressions from the Sephardic Diaspora experience. Greek, Roman, Aramaic, Turkish, Arabic and English expressions meld seamlessly into the stream of words. It is not simply that it is the language of the Bible. Hebrew is also an expression of the unique culture of a small, proud, often besieged, often conquered and permeable people.
Its power to explain that cultural experience and that historical baggage is something that often leaves a newly initiated member of the Hebrew-speaking world gasping in a mixture of disbelief and relief. It is unbelievable that a language can be so immediately and unselfconsciously expressive of feelings that have traversed millennia. Understanding its power as a tool of expressing the Jewish condition is one of the most gratifying discoveries a Jew can make.
But the experience of speaking in Hebrew and of living in Hebrew is incomplete when it is not experienced in Israel. It is one thing to pray in a synagogue in Hebrew or even to speak regular Hebrew outside of Israel. The former is a spiritual duty and a communal experience. The latter is a social or educational experience. But speaking Hebrew in Israel is a complete experience. Hebrew localizes Jewishness, Judaism and Jews. It anchors us to the Land of Israel. Taken together, the Hebrew language and the Land of Israel stabilize a tradition and make the Jewish people whole.
I write all of this as a means of explaining why a Jew in the Diaspora, particularly the United States, would want to live in Israel. Leaving America is difficult on several levels. In my own experience, it involved physically separating from my entire family. It also involved cutting myself off from my language – English – and immersing myself completely in a tongue I had yet to master. Beyond that, it meant leaving a country that had done only good for me and for the generations of my family who fled to America from the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.
As someone who loves me told me 17 years ago as I packed my bags for an unknowable future, “People don’t emigrate away from America. They beg to come to its shores.”
But would it be right to characterize leaving America as an act of ingratitude? Do Jews have to reject America in order to go to Israel? No, we don’t.
Coming to Israel is not rejecting America. It is embracing a choice to become whole in a way that life outside of Israel cannot provide. That doesn’t mean life cannot be fulfilling for a Jew outside of Israel. Millions of Jews can attest to the fact. It certainly doesn’t mean that life in Israel is easier or safer or more lucrative than life is elsewhere.
Israel is a troublesome, hard, often irritating place. It is a young country that belongs to an ancient, eternal people who are all imperfect. Some Israelis, particularly those who today occupy the seats of power, are weak and irresponsible and often corrupt and self-serving.
Israelis have quick fuses. Among other things, this distinctively Israeli rush to anger makes being stuck in rush hour traffic a bit like dancing a waltz in the middle of a shooting range. Then too, service is not a concept that most Israelis – particularly in service professions – are even vaguely familiar with.
Beyond the general fallibility of Israelis, there are the wars and the hatred and the terror that make up so much of life in Israel. Being surrounded by enemies and living in the midst of jihad-crazed Arab states is like sitting on the edge of a volcano. And rather than acknowledge the danger and contend with it, Israelis – frustratingly and dangerously – more often than not blame one another for the heat while ignoring its source.
Yet once a Jew catches the Zionist bug, none of that is important. Once a Jew allows himself or herself to feel the pull of our heritage, of our language and our land, the frustration, danger and hardship of living in Israel seems like second nature – as natural as breathing in and out.
I recently moved to a home on the edge of a valley filled with forests and carpeted by wildflowers. Every day I hike for an hour or two along the trails below. A few days ago, as I walked late at night, I considered the dark and silent hills surrounding me and felt safe. They were liberated in 1948.
As I stood for a moment, I thought to myself, “These hills have already been conquered for you, by people better than yourself. Now it is your job to keep them safe for the next generation. And it will be the next generation’s responsibility to keep them safe for the following one.”
The thought filled me with a sense of privilege and peace.
People ask me all the time why I insist on living in Israel. Usually I just shrug my shoulders and smile. I, a woman who makes my living from words, find myself speechless when challenged with this simple question.
I spend several months a year away from Israel working. But every time I go away on a long trip, inevitably after three weeks or so, I begin to feel incomplete. I start to long for the smells of Israel. My ears ache to hear Hebrew all around me. I wa
nt to go back so I can walk down the streets on Friday afternoons and smile at perfect strangers as we bid each other Shabbat Shalom.
Why do I live in Israel? Because Israel lives in me, as it lives in all Jews. It is who we are. And those of us lucky enough to recognize this truth and embrace it in all its fullness and depth are the luckiest Jews in the world.
Originally published in The Jewish Press.