Thanks to my parents, my Jewish schools, my synagogues, and my various Jewish communities in America, I always felt 100% Jewish when I lived in the United States. The same was not the case with my relationship with my American identity. I had been led to believe that in America it is good and praiseworthy to be a religious person. But my life as a religious Jewish person constantly estranged me from my fellow Americans. There were simply too many touchstones of American culture that were off-limits to me as a traditional religious Jew (for starters, take bacon-and-eggs, Christmas, and the fact that Saturday is clearly not America’s day of rest). Paradoxically, when I made aliyah in 1997, I discovered something astounding: I was now living in a country, far though it is from the United States, where my Jewish identity is always in complete harmony with my American identity—only in Israel do I feel 100% American and 100% Jewish.
What does it mean to feel 100% American? Well, it helps to be born in America and/or to have lived in America for many years, but more than that, it’s to feel intimately connected to one’s society, to feel like you and your neighbor are creating something great and noble, to feel that you have an integral part to play in a marvelous whole.
Perhaps what I’m describing here is nothing more than nationalism? After all, I imagine that the French person feels one with the French people and the Spanish person feels one with the Spanish people in a way that I yearned to feel one with the American people. Ay but there’s the rub—because only in America can the Jew assert that ab initio the condition of the Jew is one of equality. In Europe ab initio the Jew does not have citizenship rights, and has to rely upon emancipation for the bestowal of these rights, and in Muslim countries Jews are dhimmi—effectively, second-class citizens. In America, the Jew can point out that from the beginning, the very fabric of American society gave equal rights to people of all religions. And so only in America can religious Jews imagine that they are part of the whole in an equal way. This is true from an official legal sense, but I’m afraid that from an experiential point of view, the religious American Jew sometimes feels like an outsider.
The sense of oneness-with-country that because of my birth and upbringing I have come to think of as Americanness, I experience in Israel. The touchstones of Israeli culture all gel with the Jewish religion. Yes there are Israelis who do not keep kosher and who do not observe the Sabbath, but shrimp is not a classic Israeli food (falafel is), nor is going to the movies on Friday night the typical Israeli activity for Shabbat eve (a family meal is). There is nothing that “real” Israelis experience that I cannot because I am a religious Jew. I am thankful for this not just on Shabbat and Jewish holidays (which in Israel are national vacation days), but also on regular weekdays throughout the whole year.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.