In response to “Never Again: Netanyahu’s Holocaust Cliché,” a recent post of mine on Good Letters, an old girlfriend messaged me on Facebook. “It was the first time in a while,” she wrote, “I felt proud to be an American…I wonder why the writers of our times don’t instead write about the speeches of some of the truly worrisome leaders of Iran, ISIS, Hamas, North Korea, etc.”
Then, this: “Self-hatred is so destructive.”
Am I self-hating Jew?
For a few months in late summer of 1976, I spent five hours a day, six days a week in kitah aleph, beginner’s level Hebrew class. Along with seventy other volunteers in Sherut La’am (service to the people), I was learning Hebrew and preparing for my placement in a development town somewhere in Israel.
I had grown up as an assimilated middle class Jew in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Until ’76, I had assumed that my Jewish education was over on Sunday morning, December 11, 1966, the day after I became a bar mitzvah.
The teacher who had helped me learn enough Hebrew to become a bar mitzvah urged me to continue studying Hebrew after my bar mitzvah because I was good at it. I listened to her politely, then walked out of the synagogue and into the mall.
I smoked pot, developed my own black and white film and printed artsy photographs in the darkroom I built in my home, played lead guitar in the Village Gates, read Kafka, and ached for oral sex. I fell in love with D. Then she broke my heart. I fell in love with T. Then she broke my heart.
A decade later, I fell in love with a language—and a people and a place: Kiryat Shimona, a working-class town near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where what I thought would be my year in Israel began. Around the time I was there, an occasional bomb lobbed over the Lebanese border landed in Kiryat Shimona. But I wasn’t afraid. I was in love.
In love with the hike up hill into the Naftali mountains to the sanctuary-in-a-school where we welcomed Shabbat prayers and watched the sky explode into pastels as the sun, not visible, burned its way into the Mediterranean sea to the west of us. In love with the mercaz, the town center, where, on Saturday night after the end of Sabbath, male friends walked hand-in-hand with each other cruising for women, where kids with their parents enjoyed glida, ice cream, where Saturday night festivities ended not-too-late so everyone could get enough sleep to be ready the next day for work, school, morning prayers.
That’s where it begins, the story of this people, the Jews, my people. God commands Avram to go forth from his land and from his birthplace and from his father’s house to the land God will show him.
Unlike the other Sherut La’am volunteers in my group, I hadn’t been involved in a Jewish youth group as a teen, I hadn’t been active in Hillel while I was in college, and I’d never before been to Israel. I wondered, as I sat during our orientation in the chapel at JFK airport across from the El Al terminal: What am I doing here in this place, with these people?
I didn’t have to listen deeply to hear it again, the voice within (my voice?) that had led me this far, the voice commanding me to leave my bi-coastal life (LA born, South Jersey raised), to leave my father’s plastic-wood sconces and paper work and my mother’s canned wax beans and her Temple Emanuel.
To leave and fly to Torah, to Genesis 12:1, to a government-issue mattress, sheet, pillow, blanket, and towel in an immigrant absorption center in Kiryat Shimona, to the modest apartment of my local “adoptive” family and to the east-facing balcony where my Israeli, temporary “father” described how on Yom Kippur 1973 he watched Syrian planes fly across the lush Hula Valley to deliver its bombs to his home town.
When my cohort of Sherut La’am volunteers arrived at the absorption center, we were asked to fill out an information card before we received the keys to our rooms. One question stumped me: profession. Profession? I had just graduated from what was then called Glassboro State College. My major: communications. My interests: creative writing, poetry in particular. Could I put down poet? Nah. So what should I say? I hesitated.
Then I realized that no one—not another volunteer in my group, not our group leaders, and certainly not the staff at the absorption center where I would spend the next three months learning Hebrew, getting acclimated to the Israel of the mid-to-late 1970s, making new friends, exploring the Galilee, attending for the first time in my life traditional Orthodox services—no one there knew me.
I was free. Free to invent myself anew! I put down this: educator. Little did I know then what I would stumble into (where I would be led?) just a few years from then.
Lekh lekha: “Go to yourself, to know yourself, to refine yourself.” That’s how the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, reads the phrase. Seeking self-hatred, I found love. So I’ll look again; I’ll look deeper. If I find it, I’ll refine it. But, dear readers, dear friends, you and I both will have to wait for a future post for that search to begin.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.