Tomorrow is election day here in Israel. It’s a legal holiday, so government buildings are closed, public transport is free, and there is a general vibe of enjoying the day off after exercising your civic duty; but this election day is different. For the first time in Israeli history (which admittedly is only 71 years long), there will be a second election in the span of just a year after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government and dissolved the last Knesset. Since then, a temporary government holds the country together, but no major legislation has passed and nothing has really happened for months here as we grapple with the political deadlock. Polls indicate that tomorrow may not fare any better than last time, and we will have to wrestle again with neither the left or the right having enough mandates to hobble together to form a coalition. Two major political parties, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu, are pushing for a secular unity government, the haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are prophesying that this may be the end of religious life here in Israel, some going so far as to call members of the left Amalek, the people that G-d commanded the Jewish people to obliterate from the earth, and to the Nazis.
It’s not any less heated in the streets. At Ikea today, I saw a Shas billboard that advertised in Hebrew, showing a Shas ballot, “Your ticket on the Day of Judgement.” Everyone can palpably feel the tension in the air. Lacking a functioning government, or at least one without any real mandate from the public, is something I used to think was consigned to third-world dictatorships and the contentious democracies recovering from the Soviets or severe corruption. I ask different people, religious, secular, Jewish, not Jewish, what they think; and they’re all fed up. They’re fed up with political parties that hate them, or that they perceive to hate them, and they can’t understand how someone can have a different point of view. Either you’re a right-wing religious settler, a leftist terrorist-apologist, or you’re an Arab (a group that all of our parties, outside the Arab parties themselves see as at best a possible source of a few votes, or at worst a fifth column). No one wanted this election, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of shekels preparing for it (and it will really cost even more), and we’ve torn our country apart because a few men at the very top can’t come to an agreement; albeit, on an issue that strikes to the very core of what it means to live in a Jewish and democratic state.
So, given all of this tumult, why am I here?
It’s a good question, one that you have to preface with a lot of information and begs only more questions. It’s not just, why are you here? It’s:
Why are you there?
Why would you leave your home?
Why leave a good life?
Why would you leave your friends and family and journey across the ocean to a land you only know a week at a time?
How could you put yourself, and your wife, in danger of physical harm, financial turmoil, and the tumult of complete alienation in a world you have never known? Don’t you see the news about the rocket attacks? Don’t you remember the suicide bombings? The car rammings? The stabbings?
They said to us, “trust us, we’ve been there, we’ve lived there, why would you go when we fled?”
You don’t know the language. You don’t know how rude the people can be, how frustrating the bureaucracy is, how much you have to struggle to just stay afloat. You will never make as much money, you will never own a home; you may make it, but you will never belong.
So why am I here?
It’s easy to articulate the reasons why I should have stayed, but it’s near impossible to describe the reason I am here. It’s true, life here is hard, there is no getting around it. I live in the Middle East, in the middle of one of the most fought over areas of land in the entire history of the world. This place has been traded been back and forth between empires over epochs, it’s seen invaders and colonisers from every corner of the world. It’s still a scary place to live in, when you stop to think about it. The rail station right next to my ulpan, the school where Golda and I learn Hebrew, is named after eight victims of a nearby Hezbollah rocket attack from the 2006 Lebanon War. I can go on a tour to any major city in Israel and point to a spot where a Jew was murdered in our lifetimes because he or she was a Jew living in the State of Israel. As safe as you feel with all of the soldiers around, M16s or Tavors slinged on their shoulders, it doesn’t take away the fact that there’s a reason that they’re omnipresent, along with the armed guards at the malls, the museums, and even the bus stops.
I’m blessed to have found an apartment for a decent price in a neighbourhood that I love, but it’s not objectively the best place to live. I live in an apartment built with hundreds of others to rapidly absorb olim, immigrants from around the world. I can hear them speaking in Russian, Amharic, Spanish, and more when I go shopping at the grocery store. Food is cheaper for me, because I kept kosher back in the US, but life is more expensive here and salaries are lower. My building is old, there’s no elevator (I feel its absence every time I have to carry up a week’s worth of groceries up five flights of stairs), and I can generally feel the decades of its life as I walk around it.
Then there’s the language barrier. Nothing has been more frustrating and debilitating than not being able to express yourself. You completely take it for granted when you grow up in a place with only one language required and are forced to try and survive in a place with a tongue completely alien to your own. Sure, I knew how to read the prayers from the siddur, I knew enough phrases to keep up with a dvar torah in English, and I knew enough Hebrew phrases to spice up conversations whenever I travelled to Israel, but I never had to speak Hebrew. Part of what’s made me successful has been my ability to communicate, either as an attorney arguing in court, talking with clients, or networking; but it’s also the way that I’ve been able to really and intimately connect with people. I always thought that I could connect to someone because I really knew how to use my words, and I knew how to time it perfectly and make every word count in just the right way. Now, I have the Hebrew proficiency of a well-developed grade school student. I can engage in basic conversation and navigate the system, but it’s difficult to have more in-depth conversations. I thrive on complex and dynamic relationships, but those require a level of Hebrew I just don’t have yet. I used to measure my successes in conversation whenever I really changed someone’s life, now I feel great if I can give someone correct directions or answer everything clearly without the other person having to resort to broken English.
I had pretty much everything you could ask for back in the States. I had a car (G-d I miss my pickup truck), my wife and I had good jobs, and we never had to worry about where our next rent check was going to come from. I had enough money to put a down payment on a good home. More so, I had an amazing community. I lived in Fondren Southwest for 7 good years before I made aliyah. Slowly, I formed a really amazing core group of friends that I knew that I could count on. After my bipolar diagnosis, and after I went through some really horrible times, I had people that could support me, hold me up, and that I could talk with openly and freely. Almost all of my family is in the States, and I could always just get in my truck and start driving if I needed to. Now, I have to play WhatsApp tag with my dad because of a nine-hour time difference. I found out today that it’s easier for me to get to the southernmost point of Africa than it is for me to get back to my family.
So why the f**k am I here?
Strangely enough, it’s because of tomorrow. For all of the insanity, the balagan, it’s going to be tomorrow and the weeks to come, I came here to this country for tomorrow. I left behind my old life, my family, my friends, the country I was born in and still love because tomorrow I get to vote in the elections for the twenty-second Knesset of the State of Israel. After shacharit, morning prayers, I will walk down the street to a yeshiva, go into the voting booth, pick my little piece of paper, put it in the envelope, and put in a box with the rest of the votes of my neighbours.
You’re probably asking yourself, what the hell is so special about putting a piece of paper in a box that made you give up your prosperous life in America for a risky, slightly dangerous, expensive, crazy, dysfunctional, almost-insane place like Israel. Well, to me, it’s obviously more than just a tiny piece of paper.
In America, I was the Jewish guy, the one guy who kept kosher. If I saw another guy with a kippah on his head, I immediately tried to figure out if I knew him from somewhere. I knew every kosher restaurant, and their owners too. We had a handful of Orthodox synagogues in a city of millions, and I knew where each one was and when they had prayers. Now, I live in a city with so many kosher restaurants I am constantly learning about new ones, and that is just in my city. It’s not just me that wears a kippah, it’s the guy working at the grocery store, the janitor, the policeman, the bus driver, the soldier, the guy at the post office, the government minister. It’s the Prime Minister of my country wearing a kippah at the Kotel, at a synagogue, and wearing it openly and proudly. There are more synagogues within walking distance of my apartment than there are in the entire city of Houston, and I would guess that there are more in a 30 minute driving radius than in the entire state of Texas
It’s more than just than the external though. When I was living in chutz l’aretz, outside the Land of Israel, when I was in my synagogue, and I was praying, I prayed for the reestablishment of the Kingdom of David. I prayed for the Ingathering of the Exiles. I prayed for the resumption of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. I still pray for those things, but now I pray for my government to become the Kingdom of David. I pray that those in galut, in exile, join me in Israel. When I pray for the State, I pray for a Jewish State and that my brothers and sisters should come home. I used to pray that I could be in Israel, and now I’m actually here. For two thousand years, Jews have yearned to be here. They have prayed to return to Zion, countless numbers of our people died praying and hoping that they would one day see this place; and if not for them, then that their children would one day merit to see a Jewish state. After seeing Jewish life in America, I knew that the future of the Jewish people was in Israel, and not anywhere else. Generations have been lost to intermarriage, assimilation, and untold numbers of people don’t even know that they are Jews. Worse, sectors of American Jewry are eating themselves alive, either by demonising Israel and their connection to the land, or they openly embrace the path towards the dissolution of Jewish life in America. The story of Jewish life and the Jewish future is being written here, everywhere else I sadly believe is nearing the end of their chapters.
Here, you can live completely Jewishly without reservation. This is a place where we are on the forefront of everything to do with Jewish progress. We are asking here, for this first time in millennia, fundamental questions about what it means to be a completely independent Jew living in a Jewish state. It’s not always easy or clean, but it is the only place where these kinds of conversations can take place. You cannot talk about what it means to have a government that observes Shabbat in the United States. You cannot try to figure out how to deal with a mixing of Jews from around the world in the United Kingdom. You cannot deal with the implications of Jewish ethics and the army in France. Only here can we fully and unabashedly work out what it means to live in a completely Jewish society, while also respecting the rights of minorities here.
So tomorrow, when I vote, I will don my Shabbat clothing and say a Shehecheyanu, a blessing of thanks for an auspicious and special time. It’s worth writing it here in English to fully grasp what I mean. The blessing is: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustains us, and enabled us to reach this occasion. I have but one life to live, and I want to live it to its maximum potential. I know that I can only do that here, in the State of Israel, and live my life Jewishly and without compromise. I can only explore my faith, my nationality, and my peoplehood to its fullest here. So, I will thank G-d tomorrow as I cast my vote, knowing that I will help shape the Jewish future, and the future of the world, with it.
At the end of the day, I want to be able to tell my, G-d willing, children and grandchildren that I gave up a golden land for this place. I will tell them that even though it was hard, and I missed my old life, there was no other place I would have rather lived. The only place that I could be was here, because here is the only place I can truly call home.
That is why I am here.