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A murky homeland is hard to stand by

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I must have been 9 or 10 the summer I read Seymour, the Formerly Fearful, by Eve Feldman, about a boy who dreads sports, swimming, and summer camp—in other words, my literary doppelganger—until Pesach, his older Israeli cousin fresh out of the army, comes for a visit.

Until then, I knew Israel only through the cousins who came to town for my brother’s bar mitzvah—they wore sweatpants to the party and required kosher food—and what little my father had told me about his childhood. Born in Czechoslovakia, my dad moved with his parents to Israel as a baby in May of 1948, the month it became an official state. He’s shared sun-soaked memories about raising chickens and growing vegetables, but never exactly explained why they left eight years later. How could anyone trade a farm for a one-bedroom apartment in Queens?

My father hasn’t been back to Israel since, and only recently have I started considering going there, as I inch closer to the age cutoff for a free trip. And while I’ve met more Israelis over the years—the paratrooper-turned-Hebrew school teacher who called one student “too fat already,” a college-age couple I drank sangria with in Madrid—what I know about the place itself remains limited more or less to what I’ve gathered from newspapers, books, television, and film.

So when it comes to disengagement, I find myself arguing in favor, yet push me and I’ll quickly add the caveat that I don’t know enough about Israel to take a strong stance. It’s not ambivalence but insecurity. I know, deep down, that my opinions are founded less in a concrete understanding of the nuances of history than in a kind of personal politics, my conception of myself as open-minded. Even when I try to imagine Gaza, or what a settlement looks like, or what it means to remove 8,000 people from their homes, I struggle for comparisons, only to realize how far from the settlers I really feel, how hard it is for me to imagine I might have a divine duty to be anywhere. Israel does not quite exist for me as a real place, only as a land of seldom-told stories, the stop my father’s family took on their trip from their homeland to mine.

Maybe how I feel about Israel is how I feel about my own distant cousins—I’m interested to know they’re there, and I would be upset if anything ever happened to one of them. Still, I don’t ask about them often, and I’m not rushing to visit anytime soon. They are both family and not family, me and not me. And as much as I might want to forge a connection, as much as I feel I should, I can’t help but see the ocean in between.

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A murky homeland is hard to stand by

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