by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)
I resisted the idea of visiting Israel for most of my adult life. I was afraid I would feel nothing holy, nothing spiritual, nothing to connect me to the land of our forefathers. The Pesach cry “Next Year in Jerusalem!” never resonated with me. Why in Jerusalem? Why not in Berlin or Los Angeles, Moscow or Nairobi? How could spending Passover in Jerusalem make a difference in my life, enhance my Jewish identity, or connect me to world Jewry?
I spent my first Passover in Israel this year and returned with a twisted knot of emotions that will take some time to unravel. My greatest joy was in the daily gifts to my senses: the sweet smell of jasmine, the inviting warmth of the limestone architecture, the abundant sunshine, and the rich tastes of hummus and falafel. Each day the land and the people drew me in, but not without moments when my buttons were pushed and I drew back. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the gazelle-unicorn whose two heads try to go in opposite directions whenever it moves.
The greatest challenge was trying to make sense of the ultra-orthdox Jews whose demeanor and conduct sent a loud message that said “keep away — you are not one of us.” Driving through the Mea She’arim area and provoking the rage of its residents was probably a bad idea, but even worse was the feeling we had while walking around Jerusalem of being invisible in the eyes of those who are a part of our history but who reject us as Jews. Why wouldn’t they look at us? And why were they always in such a hurry, rushing along the streets in their big hats and black suits as if late for a pressing business appointment?
We did not travel with a group or attend any religious services so we had no interaction with more modern Jews. Stepping into one of Jerusalem’s major hotels to use the facilities, we saw huge signs for upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs. One elaborate display welcomed Gaby Schwartz and her bat mitzvah guests. I became obsessed with Gaby Schwartz and how she felt about having her bat mitzvah at a fancy hotel in Jerusalem. Did Gaby miss her friends who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem to celebrate with her? Why leave your local Jewish community for such an important rite of passage? What did it mean to Gaby’s parents to celebrate the twin occasions of Pesach and their daughter’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem?
The cultural and earthly pleasures of Israel will pull me back one day, but I look forward to spending next Passover in Berlin. The phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” isn’t just about our physical presence on the land; it also reflects our aspirations for unity among the world’s Jews, for world peace and spiritual fulfillment. But are these the best words to end a seder for the many Jews like me who struggle to find their connection with Judaism and who tire of being associated with Israeli policies with which we disagree?
Building Jewish community in the place where I live, a place where Jewish life came close to extinction, has meaning for me. Berlin has a growing Jewish population, and although it is quite fragmented and rife with conflicts, it is also rich and vibrant, a reflection of our resilience. In Israel I was just a tourist, but in Berlin I am part of a Jewish community where my presence has significance for building a better future.