What Does It Mean To Be Free

“I would like to live in Israel so I could be free!” Asher said.

“But we are free,” I replied softly. “The great thing about living in the United States is that we can observe the way we want, you can wear a kippah in public, we can keep Shabbat and go to Jewish schools.”

Yes, but in Israel, there’s kosher food everywhere, Jewish schools are free or subsidized heavily by government monies, and even shoe stores have a mezuzah on the lintel. Life in Israel is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, of course. Forget about the ongoing political strife, the marginalized peoples on all ends of the spectrum, and constant threats for its destruction by, oh, a ton of neighboring countries.

In Israel, my friends tell me, when you sign on for one way of Jewish living, you’re in that track forever. Choose a modern Orthodox Zionist school, and that’s where you are for life. I’m not kidding. Of course, I don’t know this first-hand – but sometimes I’m tempted to find out.

I’ve never been one of those aliyah-crazed Jews. (Aliyah is when a Jew moves to Israel and is granted automatic, immediate citizenship just because she’s Jewish. It is Hebrew for to go up, to rise.) But sometimes, I think about what it would be like to live in Israel most of the time. Every climate, every terrain, fresh food across the spectrum all grown locally, and so much Jewish-living infrastructure, you forget that you’re a minority.

Which may numb the journey a bit.

The other night, Asher and I stepped onto an elevator at The Max, the home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We numbered a dozen in the lift, which lurched when the last person got on, just before the doors closed. My stomach dropped, but I didn’t listen to the voice in my head that urged, get off NOW.

The doors closed and the elevator jolted. It went up, then STOPPED. Asher, squeezed into the corner by the buttons, me standing behind him. In the back of the elevator, against the rear doors, half a dozen developmentally disabled individuals whimpered.

“Oh, they’ll get us out soon,” said a woman standing beside me, her head high, her voice clear and unwavering. “Does anybody want gum?” She dug into her purse, then passed around a thick pack.

A half-hour later, a bold Israeli man in the middle of the crowd pried open the rear doors and we filed out, shaken, silent, relieved. We stood at the top of stairs in the back of the main floor. It was dark and on the stage, students from Hillel Day School sang the national anthem.

Asher and I walked down to an usher. “We’ve been stuck in an elevator for a half-hour,” I said, my stomach shaking. “Please, just tell us where to sit.”

He led us down the center aisle to row K, pointed wordlessly to two empty seats. Our tickets were for the balcony but no matter. We settled in to listen.

For an hour and a half, we watched Noa, a beautiful, gleaming Israeli performer, sing alongside the DSO. In Hebrew, English, and Yemenite, she tantalized all of us with stories of her multinational upbringing and her fierce Israeli pride.

The next day, my children and I celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day and its 60th anniversary as a nation of strong Jews. Asher pulled on a Bedouin vest in the lobby of his school and danced around with a drum. Eliana climbed atop a plastic camel. They baked balls of dough into pita on an outdoor stove and ate it dripping with olive oil and zatar, the spice of the Middle East.

I am so proud to be a Jew. We are strange and different and we don’t believe in things that the rest of the world does. But our tradition is rich and multilayered, colorful and full of song.

I live the easy life in America but sometimes it’s not so easy to be a Jew among Gentiles. I, personally, compromise my observance sometimes because it is so hard to be so very different. And I’m comfortable here.

I don’t know what God intends for all of us nor what the absolute truth is – or if there even is one. What I do know is that I’ve been handed a tradition from the ages and though I may have tried in the past to shake it off, it will never leave me. Just as I will never leave this path of Jewish faith.

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