Letter from Princeton: The More Things Change…
How do you measure a country’s effect on your life?
One way is to try on the place—and the life—you left behind.
When I moved to Israel in 1983 I got a free one-way ticket from the Jewish Agency. One way was enough. Except for short trips to visit my parents, my sister and brother, I figured that I’d never come back to the States. Or at least I’d never come back the same.
In the cemetery at Kinneret, a kibbutz started almost a century ago, the older tombstones have three dates: birth, death andaliya. Sometimes the date of birth is left off because, to these pioneers, life began anew when they arrived in the Land of Israel. Many took new names. Most worked and lived in ways so different from those of Europe that they were, at first, unrecognizable, not only to the families they left behind but even to themselves.
Since the birth of modern Zionism, millions of Jews have come to Israel seeking not just to change their circumstances but also to change themselves. Ideologues talked in grand terms about creating a “new Jew,” tougher, harder working, blonder and less brainy than the “old Jew” found in Kiev, Casablanca or Chicago. To a remarkable degree, they succeeded. German accountants and Tunisian traders became farmers and day laborers. Shopkeepers learned to drive tractors. Everyone agreed that sabras were different from their parents: brash, assured and beautiful. “The crooked shall be made straight,” promised the prophet Isaiah, “and the rough places plain.” This was the promise that brought generations of Jews to a place where they were eager to see their children grow up stronger, healthier and happier than they had been—and eager to grow stronger, healthier and happier themselves.
This is what I hoped for when I packed my books into a steamer trunk destined for Haifa exactly half my life ago.
I had big ideas. My destination was Kibbutz Ketura, in the middle of the Arava desert. Weeding sandy fields, hiking the harsh terrain, speaking Hebrew and, in time, becoming a soldier; these things would make me into a different sort of person—and a different sort of Jew—than I was destined to become in America.
My future in the States was clear. I would go to graduate school, take a job in some university, marry and settle in a suburb like the one I grew up in. I would raise children who, like me, would go through life feeling not quite Jewish and not quite American. I would join a synagogue, and it would feel ersatz.
But in Israel things would be different. I would be different. All that was crooked in me would be made straight.
Twenty-two years have passed, and they have been hard times for Israel. It is no longer fashionable to see the country as exemplary, as it was when I arrived, after Camp David and before the war in Lebanon. The notion that just living in Israel will make one a better person, or even a better Jew, is now foreign. Many Israelis suffer from malaise, feeling that we’ve failed and that we are very much “old Jews” after all. In the community of nations, Israel is a pariah. British professors vote to boycott our campuses and academics. The foreign ministry advises Israelis to keep our nationality hidden when in cafés in Paris and Berlin.
In polls a great number of Israelis admit that they doubt the country will survive another generation. Israel imports itinerant workers from the Philippines and Thailand because Jews are no longer willing to do scut work like building houses or harvesting oranges.
Most kibbutzim have privatized, some selling to contractors (for indecent profit) the fields the government gave them three generations ago. The withdrawal from Gaza has stripped bare, yet again, Israel’s elemental political divisions. For some, it is too much: a criminal concession and token of the diminished fortitude of the country’s leaders. For others, it is too little: a false conciliation and a token of the unprincipled realpolitik of the country’s leaders. All that everyone agrees on is that it will solve little in the long run, and that peace is further away now than it was a generation ago. A communal sense of foreboding may be all that remains of the unity of purpose, the solidarity, that marked Israel when I first came. It sometimes seems that, despite the promising start, Israel left Jews unchanged, conflicted, insecure—and still hated.
I also didn’t turn out the way I hoped. The kibbutz bored me and I left. I passed through the Army and years of the reserves feeling fearful and out of place. In time I returned to graduate school and took a job at a university. Sometimes it seems that despite my heroic intentions, aliya left me unchanged.
This past year, on my first sabbatical, I returned to America, coming to Princeton. It has been an odd chance, as writer Norman Maclean put it, “to live both the life I chose to live and a working copy of the one I started out to live.” If I had never left, I probably would be living the sort of life I’m living this year, in the sort of place I’m living, with the sort of work I’m doing. Returning to the life that I might have chosen has taught me two things.
One: I was wrong half a life ago to dismiss what I left as “crooked,” as inadequate and inauthentic. Coming back to America, it is the vitality of being a Jew here that I notice and the many different places people find their Judaism: in shuls (Orthodox), synagogues (Conservative), temples (Reform), havurot, community centers, schools, museums, acting troupes, klezmer bands, reading groups, writing circles and summer camps.
Two: Israel did change me. The country is gruff and living there has left me coarser in manner, but it has at the same time softened me, made me raw and more porous. In Israel, it is hard to tell just where you end and where the country begins. The news, even the most abstract political news, is personal. The fury you feel at a detested politician in Israel—Ariel Sharon for some, Shimon Peres for others—is the enraged betrayal a son feels at registering his father’s frailty. The anger the secular feel for the ultra-Orthodox, and that the ultra-Orthodox feel for the secular, is the wounded anger of estranged brothers. This is why Israel is unrelentingly heartbreaking. Everything matters.
In the summer of 2004, while I watched television and saw Gal Friedman receive an Olympic gold medal for windsurfing, “Hatikva” playing in Athens, to my alarm tears streamed down my face. I looked at my wife and her face was streaked with tears, too, and she said, “Look what we have done.” She wasn’t talking only about the handsome, determined kid with the sailboard. She was talking about everything. About a hundred years of Jews who came to this place with nothing and built something. She was talking about the roads and the trees and the art and the music and the Army and the Knesset and the universities and the million Russians and half-million haredim and 60,000 Ethiopians. About loving this odd place so much and about all the heartbreak that goes with it.
When we first arrived in America, I took my 10-year-old daughter to Borders. Surveying the rows and rows of books, she said she wished that all these books were in Hebrew. I told her it wouldn’t be long before her English was good enough that she would enjoy them as much as her Hebrew books. She said, “No, Abba, it’s not the same thing and it never will be.”
Neither will we.
Noah J. Efron is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In Israel, he chairs the graduate program for history and philosophy of science at Bar-Ilan University. His last book was Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel (Basic Books).