Skip to main content

Integrating My Identities in Israel

My mother is an Italian Catholic from the immigrant enclave of lower Manhattan. My father, a Jew of Eastern European descent, grew up in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. From a young age, I was exposed to two radically different families with an equally strong sense of cultural and religious identity. I traveled to Israel this past winter to gain a renewed sense of Jewish memory and pride, but also went with lingering questions about how my unique upbringing would affect my visit.

My first impression of Israel was of the land; it gave me an appreciation for the complexity of the country. Within minutes of leaving the airport I could see massive high-speed freeways, large glass office buildings, fashionable condominium high rises, lush green farmland and the dusty hills of Judea, where the Maccabees once hid from the Syrians.

I was fascinated by Israel’s vibrant and emerging culture. For a few days of our trip, several Israeli soldiers, all my age, traveled with us on the bus, stayed with us in the hotels, and joined us during our sightseeing. Like most American Jews, each of them had a story: grandparents emigrating in search of a better life, family members struggling with memories of the Holocaust, and Soviet-block immigrants rekindling their Judaism after generations of antisemitism. While the stories were similar to those of American Jews, there was an essential distinction: Israelis were living in a country founded to defend an identity their ancestors faced such hardship over.

The country is a fascinating combination of the old and the new. Elderly women dressed in the style of European shtetles, Arab men in kaffiyehs, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, teenagers in tight-fitting jeans and designer outfits, and young adults in crisp military uniforms. Breakfast restaurants served Mediterranean olives and Arab-style hummus with bagels, lox, pickled herring and Fruit Loops.

I swam in the Dead Sea, saw Lake Knerret, toured the Golan Heights, celebrated New Year’s Eve in an Israeli nightclub, spent Shabbat (Sabbath) at the Kotel (Western Wall), walked amidst the ruins of King David’s ancient city of Dan, toured a secret munitions factory from Israel’s War of Independence, spent a night in a Bedouin tent, talked politics with Israeli soldiers, ate lunch at a café overlooking the mountains in Safed (where Kabbalah was conceived), stood in Independence Hall (where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel), watched the sunset over the Old City of Jerusalem and ate falafel at a shopping mall in a Tel Aviv suburb.

For the first time in my life, I felt like Judaism was everywhere. People eating in restaurants, working in the fields we passed, driving buses and blasting music from their car radios–of every race, both the religious and the secular–identified themselves as Jews and considered me one, also. There was a mezuzah at the entrances to hotel room doors. The Burger King served kosher food. The graffiti was in Hebrew. Strangers wished you “good shabbos” on Friday afternoon. Menorahs and kippas (head coverings) were sold next to cell phones and computer games in shopping malls. I was thousands of miles from the United States, but I felt at home. The American students I traveled with and the Israelis around me seemed like family.

As the child of interfaith parents, I’ve often struggled with issues of cultural and religious identity. How can I embrace Judaism while also celebrating my Italian heritage? Both aspects of my background are important to me, but when I was young, I considered them mutually exclusive. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve realized that being Jewish does not prevent me from being Italian. Visiting Israel, seeing Jews from across the world, reminded me of this.

When I was in Israel I met Jews from the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Uruguay, England, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco and Ethiopia. Each of these Israelis came from such different backgrounds; many spoke different languages and celebrated unique customs. Yet despite their differing perspectives, they had pride in being Jewish.

In the same way I was juggling my Italian and Jewish identities, these Israelis were also blending their own cultures with their Judaism. Visiting Israel and interacting with such a diverse group of Jewish people gave me a unique chance to simultaneously strengthen my Jewish identity and my sense of attachment to Italian culture.

In English, the word “Israel” literally means “struggle with God.” In the past, the more I had examined my Jewish identity, the more confused I would become. Years of personal questioning made me think about what it meant to be a Jew. But it took a visit to Israel, standing in a nation that for centuries was nothing more than a dream, surrounded by a culture I could call my own, to appreciate the strength of my Jewish identity.

Equally important, the visit also kindled a renewed sense of my Italian culture. After visiting Israel, I have a new desire to see the Napolitano countryside, which my mother’s family left almost a century ago. When I visit, I will take pride in being of Italian descent, and my visit to Israel will allow me to identify as Jewish at the same time.

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser wrote for 18Doors while an undergraduate at Harvard. Working in the first Obama presidential campaign, he organized an impromptu Passover seder on the campaign trail that then-candidate Obama attended; working in the administration as David Axelrod’s assistant, he helped organize the first official White House Seders. He later graduated from Harvard Law School and served as a Massachusetts State Senator for a district in the Springfield, MA area.


Author: Eric Lesser