Growing up in the United States, I certainly felt proud to be an American.
Raised on a steady diet of the Pledge of Allegiance, 4th of July celebrations, and the national anthem at baseball games, it was hard not to have a feeling of national pride. Independence, freedom from persecution, a Bill of Rights – these were things to take pride in.
But like so many Jews in America, my real backstory occurred somewhere else, in a faraway land an ocean away, the Land of Israel. I didn’t understand anything about the Holy Land as a child, but somehow, I still felt somewhat out of place in Louisiana. While being bred on a history of Indians and pilgrims sharing corn and turkey at the first Thanksgiving feast, I knew deep down that this wasn’t really my story.
My mother, whose parents were born in the Azores, emigrated to America from the Portuguese colony of Angola some 15 years before I was born. And while my father grew up in the USA, his ancestors had come from other parts of the world just a generation or two earlier. That said, it seemed like most of those around me shared a similar dissonance; America was the great melting pot; it was the place where all those who don’t belong, belong.
But when I moved to Israel in my twenties, I discovered something that I had never known: connecting to the place where you truly belong is a wonderful, visceral experience. It’s almost like falling in love.
Now in Israel, I unearth secrets of our nation’s history just by walking through the land. Visiting the places where Jews lived and died, thousands of years ago, I connect to our people. Here, I can open a window to the past, in the form of underground caves, carved out by Bar Kochba rebels 2000 years ago, or a 1st Temple town, sitting on hilltop near Jerusalem.
Even a simple walk around my own community helps me understand and experience our nation’s history firsthand. On the Path of the Patriarchs, I can enter a ritual bath from thousands of years ago – go in one entrance for the ritually impure, and out the other for the ritually pure. I can explore an aqueduct carved to carry water to Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. Or climb inside the multilayered palace at Herodion, through different layers of our national history.
Beyond historical artifacts, there’s something magnificent about experiencing the actual land that the Jewish people called home, where our holy men and great leaders lived out their lives. Here in Israel, we get to know the weather patterns, the natural phenomena, the plants, and the animals that are so frequently referenced in biblical texts. Growing up, my visions of abundance were of a cornucopia filled with sweet potatoes, flowers, and corn. Nowadays, I relate to prophetic visions about a time of plenty referenced in our own texts, “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree…”
Grapes and figs, which grow along mountain trails near Jerusalem, are the very symbol of bounty in this land, one that I connect to each time I take a morning walk in the summertime. The rich fragrance of ripe figs greet me, with juicy sweetness I can almost taste (and sometimes do!) Vineyards are heavy with ripening grapes. This is our vision of plenty.
Israel, my land, is my home. And I know it in a way that I never could have before I lived here. I now feel something that I could not have imagined back “home” in New Orleans, Louisiana: a true sense of belonging, an intense love for the land, and a sense of national pride that has its roots in something much, much deeper.