American, Zionist, Jew: A (sometimes) great divide 

March 8, 2016  

When I was born, my grandmother gifted my mother with a tiny emblem of the state of Israel rendered in gold. Some years ago, my mother passed it along to me, together with its origin story. This tiny piece of jewelry attracts a lot of comments, especially when Israelis discover my American accent. 

My grandmother, Yehudit Alcalay (nee Levy) was among the early residents of Ohel Moshe in Jerusalem. Her portrait as a young woman, together with her parents, Leah and Yitzchak Levy, and several of their other children, is embedded in the walls of what today is better known as the Nachlaot neighborhood. For as long as I can remember, I knew my mother’s mother was Israeli but I did not know much more about her during my childhood in the reclaimed desert of Southern California. 

While a student in Israel, my grandmother, whose long suffering from Parkinson’s made travel impossible, shared with me the remarkable story of her own grandmother and mother. They made aliya by donkey in a journey that took three (!) years. DNA tests confirm my grandmother’s ancestry. My only–and closest–matches are Sephardic women of Bulgarian descent living in Israel. 

More of my grandmother revealed itself a decade after her passing. In 2009, while traipsing around the historic neighborhood sandwiched between Mahane Yehuda and the heart of downtown Jerusalem, I was shocked to discover that the family portrait I had featured on page 175 of my book, Cool Jew, had recently become part of Jerusalem lore. In a series of photos that highlight early residents of the historic neighborhoods outside the Old City, the Levys once again inhabit Jerusalem. Just past the community center, near Rav Aryeh Levine Street, their picture faces the Great Synagogue of Ohel Moshe. 

That I can write these words from California and anyone reading this article can readily call to mind this iconic Jerusalem neighborhood, is a modern-day phenomenon. Compared to most of Jewish history, this anecdote speaks not only to the unprecedented ease of travel to and from the Holy Land. More importantly, it also evokes the deep connection Jews around the world today easily forge with, what was for millennia, a distant, near-mythical destination for our prayers. Today, “Hatikva” is real. It is manifest. And yet, for those of us who remain in the Diaspora, some aspect of this age-old longing surrounds ‘our Israel.’ 

That was true for me in my childhood. But for decades now, ‘my Israel,’ is more real than imagined. When I was invited to write this piece, I explained that I have spent more time over the past year in Israel than in the U.S. Perhaps that is part of being an American Jew… or at least this American Jew. 

A little more than a year ago, on the 16th of Sivan, or as I now think of it, on “6/13/14,” my beloved father passed to the next world. Within days, I buried him on Har Menuchot. My father was a Holocaust survivor who had long dreamt of retiring in Israel, joining a brother and sister who had escaped Nazi Europe for Palestine during the 1930s, served in the Jewish Brigade and the Palmach, respectively, and helped found kibbutzim. Illness prevented the realization of my father’s dream. But his burial in holy ground, overlooking the Jerusalem forest, represents a personal redemption: his reunification with both the people of Israel and the land of Israel. His love of both is etched into his epitaph. 

After the shiva, I was not ready to leave Jerusalem. Soon after that fateful transitional walk around the block arm in arm with two dear friends, the Gaza War erupted. I stayed and stayed and stayed. Six months later, it was time to leave. Another five months passed and it was already time to return for the first yahrzeit. I remained almost two more months. And as always, it was difficult to leave. 

Long before, and ever since, the ongoing expression of my family legacy is much more than a piece of jewelry. For decades now, I straddle two worlds, spending so much time in Israel that friends think I live there… and so little time in my native California that upon my return, acquaintances ask, “What are you doing here?” My response, “I live here,” feels as odd to say as it must be to hear. 

For me, for now, and for who knows how long, being an American Jew means straddling two universes, two cultures, two economies, ‘two of’ so many things. I’m far from alone. This dichotomy is well known to all Zionist Diaspora Jews spending extended periods of time in the womb of ‘the mothership.’ 

And so, my being an American Jew means wearing my precious heirloom, a symbol of personal and national connection, near my heart. It means pondering when, whether and how to shift my physical base to match my spiritual base, and how, meanwhile, to infuse a sense of home to everywhere I am. It means wrestling with myself, with long-held dreams, and even with some of what is sent from the Master of the Universe. You might say, I’m simply maintaining the tradition of our people. Our forefather Jacob wrestled. So do I. 

Identity is about fundamentals. What is inscribed upon your soul is more significant than any seal imprinted on your passport. I am a bat Yisrael. This is what it means to be a daughter of the one who wrestled.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is a widely published journalist, the author of Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, a member of the JFNA and JNF speakers bureaus and a direct descendant of one of the first ‘Chovevei Zion,’ Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay.

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