I arrived in Israel Thursday afternoon — I think it was Thursday, hard to tell with a ten hour difference — and almost immediately took a walk along the Tel Aviv beach to clear my brain.
It didn’t. But Sheryl, Madeleine, and I pushed on, anxious to acclimate ourselves to Israeli time. It was their fist trips to Israel and my first since 1993. I had spent most of the fifteen hour flight from L.A. reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, a fantastic book I had promised myself for years, and had images of Jeremiah and the other prophets swimming in my head. Jetlagged, I was already a prime prospect for the Jerusalem Syndrome, that peculiar problem that develops when people visit the Holy Land and start to over-identify. This seems to happen especially to agnostic types like me. If I start to sound or act messianic, just laugh or put me away.
Fortunately, we were met soon by Barry Rubin and his family who walked with us south down the boardwalk to Jaffa, passing along the way the ancient/modern Etzel Museum to the Stern Gang who fought for Israeli independence over a half a century ago, on our way to dinner at Dr. Shakshuka — a (what else?) shakshuka joint in an Ottoman courtyard.
As we walked, I queried Barry about something I had always meant to ask him, why he had made aliyah — “ascended” and moved to Israel — decades ago. I will leave it to Barry to explain his reasons, which were naturally interesting. I was really asking the question about me. Like many American Jews, I have always had a “counter life,” as Phillip Roth called it in his novel of the same name, an imaginary Israeli version of me.
I had thought about moving here in the eighties, though I doubt very seriously. I had almost no Hebrew, for one thing (have even less now), but that was the least of it. I assumed I could learn. But I am American to the core. I believe more than ever in American exceptionalism, how necessary it is for the world. Still, I am confused. Am I here or am I there?