I have been thinking a lot lately about what a home is. Is it a room with four walls? Is it where we share stories and eat and drink? Is it where we feel most comfortable, or is it where we are surrounded by others who think and speak the same language as we do? And if so, in what language? Is it the language of our bodies, or is it the language of our mother tongues and the ability to transmit and understand information? Is it the language of our shared history, of the story of Moses, or is it the language of cultural fads, with a list ticking in our head of all the recent winners of Israel Master Chef?
For thousands of years, the Jewish People have called this triangular sliver we call Israel – where I now sit – home. But in light of the changing dynamics of the Jewish landscape, I now believe that this is only part of a larger story. Instead, I think the Jewish home is no longer exclusively about the place but rather, about the people.
I sit writing in a tucked away corner café on a hazy afternoon, surrounded by “my people” in all directions. Across from me, a Russian man stands with a cigarette, his bald head shining as he talks animatedly to his younger friend across the street. On the other side of the corner, a young Ethiopian teenager swings his way around and through a street sign post, walking to a happy beat of his own; while down the hill three old women bicker so loudly I can hear them over the constant droning of cars as they pass. Then, there’s me, the New Yorker, with her fashionable skirt and MacBook, sitting and writing at a wobbly table that tilts down a hill. I sit surrounded by the rhythm and color of the microcosm of Israeli society that fills the tiny street corner, and I think to myself, these people: they represent the substance of home.
Here in the land of Israel, every time someone new learns that I am a recent Olah, or immigrant, I am told that this place, here, is my real home. In those instances I find myself thinking, no, this is not my real home. There can be more than one real home and if you insist, then my real home is New York. And then I sit and ponder if that’s really true, and if not, where my real home now truly is. I think about how I have changed here; how I now mix words to make funny sentences like “Ma ata think al zeh?” to mean “what do you think about that,” and how I have adapted myself to Israeli clicks of the tongue and eh’s instead of um’s. Will I sound and look different to my friends back in New York when I visit? Will things seem strange to me after being away for so many months? It reminds me again about what a home really is. Can home be a place that was once familiar and is now slightly foreign?
Hundreds before me have searched for their new home in the land of Israel. They sought to build and nurture a homeland where they could be safe and free. But now, things have shifted. We blessedly co-exist in a pocket of relative peace, and to me, the influence of the international Jewish community is more important than ever before. It is important because with each gathering of Jews from different backgrounds comes an opportunity to redefine who we are. With each meeting, we can learn, grow, create, and recreate, and it is important because we, as a cohesive people, can seek to work together to support one another as a whole. It is important because we are no longer reliant on a safe haven but rather, have the potential to create new patterns of society, faith, and understanding. And it is important because links between people of different views and insights truly create things of beauty.
I have had the privilege to interact with Jews from all different backgrounds and places through my work at Haifa Hillel. We speak different languages and have different cultural approaches, understandings, and outlooks on what it means to be a Jew and to build a new home in Haifa. Through our diverse lenses, we are working towards the same thing – to build a community where we can learn and share with one another and refashion our own roots in this place. I have come to understand through these interactions that home isn’t a place or a common language or even a common approach. Home is where the people you love are, the people who will laugh and cry with you, and the people who will take a chance and see you—not just look at you—and it is the people who take the time to really listen. This real connection is the goal of my work as Peoplehood Coordinator. It is our mission to help people find that feeling of home, by providing them with different opportunities to put down a foundation, have new experiences with one another, and to honestly and deeply connect through the common love of the Jewish People.
So, with all the questions still wrangling in my head, I have decided to “make my bayit po,” (make my home here) for now. I do not believe that Israel is the only home for the Jewish People. I believe it is the people who make a place a home. And if we all come together and connect over our rainbow of views about who the Jewish People are, then it will make for a more vibrant, dynamic, and exciting bayit for us all.
The author, Sivanne Mass, pictured front right.
Guest blogger Sivanne Mass is in her first year as Peoplehood Coordinator at Haifa Hillel and The Young Adult Center of Haifa. She is a proud Teach For America 2005 NYC Corps Alumna and former JSC Fellow with JDC in Jerusalem. She is also working on her first novel which deals with issues of identity, Judaism, and the Holocaust.