It seems like I have always wanted to live in Israel, but that's not really an accurate assessment. The truth is, the itch to settle in the Holy Land started with my first reading of Leon Uris' Exodus. Today, that book seems hokey to me, but back then, when I was 8, Uris' words excited something in my blood and lit my soul. I knew I would some day come to Israel and plunk down roots.
After that, my life had a certain temporary quality, as if I were just passing time until it would be possible to get on the plane and make it happen. Once I finished high school that was it--I got on that plane and never really came back to the States except for occasional visits. But something funny happened along the way: I began to yearn for the city of my birth.
Part of this was about the people I loved and had forsaken in moving to my adopted home. But it was more than just missing my loved ones: Pittsburgh has a funny name and a reputation as a backwater filled with rednecks, but in truth it's a beautiful city, full of history, culture and friendly folk.
I never stopped loving Israel, but somehow began appreciating, "da Burgh." I tell people I'm like that awful Mary MacGregor song, "Torn Between Two Lovers," ripped apart by my strong feelings for both Israel and Pittsburgh.
Tickets to the States don't come cheap, so somehow, a full 16 years passed without my seeing the city of my birth. Six maternal relatives died during this time, and each time I thought, "One more person I'll never see again. One more person to whom I'll never get to say goodbye." Whereas my blood had itched for Israel, my heart ached for the city of my birth and to see my loved ones.
When I got to Pittsburgh I really felt I had come home. There I was sitting at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport baggage claim and a nearby family was discussing something inconsequential IN A PITTSBURGH ACCENT. (see: http://www.pittsburghspeech.com/index.html) Yes! That terrible wonderful accent that is something against which I fought an active fight during drama classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (see: http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/default.aspx?id=3978). I couldn't suppress a smile. Yay! I was home!
My teacher, Don Wadsworth (see: http://www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama/people/faculty/wadswrth.html) worked hard to teach us yayhoo Pittsburgh teens the Basic American Accent. I did my durndest, which I guess was pretty good. During my visit, my friend Judi kept saying, "You don't sound like I remember."
Still, there are two words that give away my origins and always will: "towel" and "iron." They each come out as one syllable, no matter how hard I try.
The whole time I was in Pittsburgh this past August, I felt complete happiness just drinking in the sights, the weather, the smells, and the friendly people. It was nice to be in Pittsburgh. I kept thinking what a great place this is, and feeling a bit bittersweet about the fact that I would be returning home to Israel, which I love, but which just isn't Pittsburgh.
Back in my teen years, alongside with my urgent desire to live in Israel, religious zeal blossomed and grew. Those who knew me back in the day find this surprising: I was kind of wild. But the truth is, I always had a strong God-consciousness.
My parents sent me to Hillel Academy in 1972 (see: http://www.hillelpgh.org/), in part to ensure my escape from the integration-related violence erupting in the public schools--my first cousin had been knifed in the back at his public high school. My parents were pretty freaked out. A lot of middle class Jewish Pittsburghers had followed suit, since Hillel was a great deal less expensive than private schools like Ellis (see: http://www.theellisschool.org/) and Winchester Thurston (see: http://www.winchesterthurston.org/).
At some point, I began to hold up my parents' brand of Conservative Judaism against the Orthodox version taught at Hillel and started to wonder: who's right? But I wondered about religion in general--how do we know that Judaism is right? Everyone thinks their religion is the one true religion.
So, at the tender age of 11, I began taking books out of the library on the major religions. This was interesting stuff, but after a few months I realized I could never cover it all. This was not the way I was going to find the answer or the solution to the right way to believe and serve.
One day, I had an epiphany, which just seemed self-evident, still does: I was born Jewish and the body of literature connected to this religion is vast. I decided that I had no right to go shopping for a different religion when I had my own to study and hadn't covered everything and never could. How could I pass judgment from a state of ignorance?
The more I did learn, the more uncomfortable I felt with Conservative Judaism. I came to a place where I viewed this type of Judaism as something that was less about religion and God than about making it really easy for American Jews to fit into American society. The more I thought about this, the less I understood the desire for conformity. I cared only about doing what was right, that which was mandated by God. Everyone else could kiss off. Perhaps this was my teenaged braggadocio (gosh, I always wanted to use that word) speaking, but today, with all of my 48 plus years safe behind me, I still feel that way.
I mean no offense. I don't think people choose Conservative Judaism with the intention of fitting into society, but rather because they already DO fit into society, and Conservative Judaism just suits them. But I stepped back a bit and felt it was for me to reject that, and to strive harder even if it marked me as odd man out, to observe the most classic form of Judaism possible. This seemed to me the purest form of Judaism, the kind of observance God must have intended for the Jews.
At any rate, being in Pittsburgh this past summer had my head and heart working double time, trying to come to terms with my history and turning my back on things and people I loved in favor of Israel. I felt sad and happy at each turn. It was very difficult.
On the ninth day of my visit, I attended services at a little Pittsburgh shtiebl (small synagogue) called Kesser Torah. This is not the place of worship I would normally frequent, but my time for visiting friends and relatives was so short, and my sister in-law Judy, and her sister Betty, would be davening (praying) there, so I agreed to attend services with them.
Somewhere in the middle of services, all of a sudden I had this strange feeling of emptiness. There was nothing wrong with the services, and I loved being with Judy and Betty. The emptiness emanated from something else. It hit me then: Pittsburgh is the most wonderful place imaginable, but it just isn't Israel. That special holy something was missing.
I whispered something to Judy, because I knew she would understand and she nodded. Judy feels the same itch for Israel in her own soul, but as a blind woman would have to undergo many more deprivations than I to move her life halfway across the world.
I knew then, that while I would always love Pittsburgh, I was not sad that I had chosen to make my home in Israel. There is an energy I feel in Israel that is missing in Pittsburgh. I know many people don't experience that energy and would never think of making their home in Israel.
I'm not a crusader and don't try to persuade people to drop everything and come to the Holy Land. It's not my style. Furthermore, I don't think settling in Israel works for anyone but for those who have no choice due to persecution, or for those who burn in their souls to be in Israel. If you don't have that sensation, that need, it's probably not going to work.
Of course, none of this helps make me feel better about leaving my dear mother, whom I love, back in Da Burgh. I can only hope I'll be blessed with future opportunities to make the trip back to be with her again.