Heart in the East

Before coming to Israel, I would have identified myself as a Jewish American rather than an American Jew. I used to feel more connected to my nationality because I didn’t really understand how much my ancestors fought to remain Jewish and allow for me to be Jewish today. The Jews were constantly fighting Hellenism, both its culture and its reign. In Kislev during the year 165, the Jews reclaimed The Temple after fighting for it for many years. They won despite the odds and the candles of the menorah symbolize this miraculous military victory. The candles represent the Jewish people and the oil represents the Jewish energy that somehow managed to persist.

Despite the odds, the Jews have remained a nation and have continued to have that Jewish energy. I think it’s truly incredible that despite persecution, the Jews have somehow managed to remain unified and continue. The light still shines and I am part of that light.

When I visited the Kotel, I thought about the generations of Jewish energy and spirit from around the world that was directed at that one spot. When I experienced that energy, it felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself. It was from that moment on where I started to think of myself as an American Jew. I identified with Judaism more than “Hellenism” which is essentially modern day American culture. My Jewish pride also formed while learning the stories of both the revolts and Masada. It’s true that the Jews were divided, and that their baseless hatred caused them to lose the Great Revolt. What is so inspiring to me is that the Jews learned from their mistakes and were able to unite in the Bar Kochva Revolt. They gathered ammunition and built caves and tunnels. They even defeated a Roman legion. They realized that they needed to fight for Judaism and that the only way to do so was to unite.

After the destruction of the First Temple, someone carved in the wall a verse from Isaiah, “And you will see and your heart will rejoice, and your bones will flourish like grass.” Although the message was cut off, it really stuck with me. Here I was in Jerusalem peering up at those words, with my bones flourishing like grass. Just by being there, I was proving that man right. After the destruction with the piles of dead Jews on the streets and Jerusalem burning to the ground, hope must have been impossible. But, someone hoped for a day when Jews would return there. Jerusalem is now almost rebuilt, and having the opportunity to come here and learn about Judaism has allowed me to feel more connected to Judaism than I could possible feel with America.

On Masada, the Jews refused to kill the Jewish slaves that were building the ramp up the fortified mountain even though it meant that they would be massacred or captured by the Romans. They refused to kill them because it is not what Judaism stands for. The Jews on Masada felt like just being up there was continuing the revolt. The Masada story provides me with more Jewish pride. Rather than being enslaved or murdered by the Romans, the Jews decided to kill themselves (with the inspirational speech of Eliezer Ben Yair). Although mass suicide can be seen as a terrible tragedy, it can also be seen as a source of pride. Those Jews fought to be Jewish. They went to Masada because it was the only place they could be independent, and they were so proud that they refused to be killed by foreign hands. The Jews of Masada who died for their beliefs, the inscription of Isaiah on the wall, and the image of the candles of the menorah have allowed me to connect with Judaism.
Of course the pleasures of American cultures are tempting, just as the pleasures of Hellenism were tempting to the ancient Kohenim. Although I may indulge myself in some American pleasures, I know my connection is with Judaism and with Israel and when I return home, I will be in the west but my heart will stay in the east.

Ivy Bernstein is a recent AMHSI alumna