Omaha to Tel Aviv: Thoughts from a Dual Citizen on Identity & Responsibility

An Israeli flag waves in the wind against a dark sunset.
Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

A little over two years ago, I packed two clunky suitcases full of clothes and books, slung my yoga mat over my shoulder, and got on a plane to Israel, a brand-spanking-new immigrant visa stuck in my passport.

Having already lived in South Korea for nearly three years, I was no stranger to living abroad. This time, though, felt different. When I hugged my parents goodbye, trying hard to blink back prickly tears — because, dammit, I should’ve been used to it by then — something in my stomach tightened. I knew that as soon as I stepped foot through the immigration offices at Ben Gurion Airport, I’d no longer be just my American self. I’d be my Israeli American self, a dual citizen.

And for someone with non-Jewish parents, that’s a pretty weird feeling.

My journey with Judaism has been a long and strange one, but also incredibly beautiful. The details are for another time, but the bottom line is that one Reform and one Orthodox conversion later, here I am — a dual American-Israeli citizen. I had counted down the days until I left Nebraska, just sure that my life would come together in Israel. No more would I have to worry about frantically asking off work for the holidays or bemoaning a lack of single Jewish men (let’s face it — Lincoln, Nebraska isn’t exactly Crown Heights). Kosher restaurants would be a dime a dozen, and shops with elbow-length layering shells would be on every corner. The puzzle pieces would fit in the Holy Land.

Ha. Oh, boy.

Now, I know you’re probably chuckling to yourself about how naive I must have been, and trust me — I am, too. There are days when I shake my head at myself in the mirror and say, “Emily. For the love of G-d, you should have known this wouldn’t be easy. ”

Whether I should have seen it coming or not, living in Israel has not been smooth sailing. Aside from the fact that renting an apartment in Tel Aviv will cost you your soul on an altar of unicorn blood, I’ve had to face some uncomfortable truths about the political situation in my new country, as well as what it means to practice Judaism in Israeli society.

I’ve had to stop and acknowledge how unfair it is that I, a descendant of Swedish and German immigrants to Midwestern America, have been granted Israeli citizenship solely on the basis of my religious conversion to Judaism. My ancestors have no claim to this land, but somehow I am afforded the privileges that many Palestinians, whose ancestors have lived here for generations, are denied. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely support a state for the Jewish people. However, I support the push for a Palestinian state, too. At times, I feel that my identity as a Jew does not give me the right to also identify as an Israeli, but then another gunman storms a synagogue in the West and I am grateful for this country that we as Jews can find refuge in.

Finding my place as a dual citizen in Israel has been a challenge, both on a political level, but also on a religious level. Because there are so few Jews in Nebraska, there’s quite a close-knit community, even between the highly religious and the not-so-religious congregations. I guess I assumed that, since the majority of Israelis are Jewish, finding a Jewish community wouldn’t be a problem. I mean, how hard can it be to find a synagogue to attend when there’s one on every corner, right? Answer: pretty difficult.

While it’s clearly much easier now to make it to prayer services than it was living in Lincoln, it’s also a lot lonelier. In fact, most of the time, I end up staying home. I often think how ironic it is that, although most of the people around me are Jewish, I have struggled to find a Jewish community I can really feel at home in. Sure, part of this has to do with the city I live in, but it’s also partially due to this jarring reality I’ve had come to terms with: Israeli Jewish identity is complicated, and often even divisive. The constant rift between the religious and secular parts of the population puts the more moderately-minded among us in a difficult position. Truth be told, I often feel that my jeans-wearing, kosher-keeping, Shabbat-yoga-doing self will always stick out like a splinter in a thumb here.

It’s been tough. Some days, I wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if I’ll stay.

And then I remember — I have a job to do. I have claimed this responsibility, even on the days I don’t feel like owning up to it.

I’m Israeli now, and it’s up to me — just as much as it’s up to my coworkers and friends whose ancestors have been here for ages — to make this a country to be proud of, a country worth living in. Whether that means being more open about my struggle to find a Jewish identity in Israel, voting in our elections for leaders who will move the country in a more progressive direction, or volunteering in my local community, I’m not sure yet.

What I do know is this: I have married myself to this faith, this people, and now, this nation.

Like with any relationship, this is going to take some work. I’m not going to love it every day. There will be things I need to sort out. We may even need a break from each other from time to time.

As Rabbi Noah Weinberg put it:

“People often avoid making decisions out of fear of making a mistake. Actually, the failure to make decisions is one of life’s biggest mistakes.”

I’m glad I didn’t know in 2017 how difficult this was going to be; I’m glad I was able to jump in, uninhibited. But some days, when I crave the juicy crunch of Nebraska sweet corn and all I want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Mrs. Doubtfire with my family, I wonder if I made the right decision. It’ll always be a journey, but it’s one I’m very lucky to be on.

We’re in this for the long haul— Israel and I.
For better or for worse.

Word loving. Language learning. Vibration raising. www.emilyjudds.com

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Emily Judds

Emily Judds

Word loving. Language learning. Vibration raising. www.emilyjudds.com

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