HomeNovember 2011Larger Then Myself

Larger Then Myself

I grew up thinking that my identity as an observant Jew was perfectly compatible with my identity as an American.  The wide spectrum of Americanness seemed easily to encompass my identity as an observant Jew.  After all, there are all kinds of Americans — Irish, Italian, Hispanic — and just as the level of religiosity in each of these groups does not impinge on their Americanness, so I understood as a child that my being an observant Jew did not make me less American than anyone else.  I knew that different Americans have their different customs and traditions but that they are united in wanting to contribute to the flourishing of the “grand experiment” that is America.
This longing to play an integral part in my larger society was a formative component in my education as an American.  Yet I ultimately came to feel that I as a religiously observant Jew would have to move to Israel in order to satisfy this American desire.
Yes, a key reason for my aliyah was my Americanness — I had been taught to yearn to be part of something larger than myself, and I concluded that this had to be in Israel.  Something ostensibly trivial was a key factor for me in reaching this conclusion:  Because I am a Sabbath observer, I could not play in Columbia University’s Marching Band at my college’s football games.  I did play clarinet for Columbia’s Wind Ensemble, and I played saxophone at some basketball games, but since all regularly scheduled college football games are on Saturdays, my religious observance prevented me from experiencing this crucial part of college life.  Perhaps what truly affected me was the fact that a large portion of the marching band was composed of Jewish students.  I eventually came to believe that a trade-off needed to take place in order for a Jew to really experience America.  Though, thankfully, America is a country that allows for complete religious freedom, I came to believe that traditional observance of Jewish customs is incompatible with full participation in American society.
On one day a year I felt that I was able to fully embrace both my Jewish and my American identities: Thanksgiving.  The day, by definition — the fourth Thursday in November — never conflicts with any Jewish religious practices.  The traditional reason for the day (an ecumenical feast) openly encourages different religious faiths.  And the main ritual of the day, Thanksgiving dinner, offers one the opportunity to partake of all the traditional foods and fixings in a Jewish way — by making sure that the turkey is kosher and that the cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie are made only with pareve ingredients.  On Thanksgiving I could be fully Jewish and fully American.  I could be one with America.  And that felt good.  Very good.  But this was just one day of the year.
I yearned for more.  I yearned for more precisely because I was a good American.  I yearned to be part of a country where my being an observant Jew would not prevent me from the key cultural moments, foods and traditions of my society.
Every single Friday night I experience in Israel what I experienced in America once a year on Thanksgiving day.  Because every Friday night throughout Israel most families — secular and religious — gather together for a meal.  When I sit down with my family to my Shabbat dinner on Friday night, there is thus a union of my Jewishness and my Israeliness — and this feels just perfect to my Americanness.  One can say, therefore, that as far as the importance of living in a country that fully embraces who I am, America made the sale and Israel supplied the goods.
Happy Thanksgiving!


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