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September 22, 2014 | 27th Elul 5774

Homecoming I

Galilee Diary #289, June 11, 2006

Marc J. Rosenstein

'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'

'I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'

-Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

When we first came to live in the Galilee sixteen years ago, and I was very much taken with the physical beauty of the land here (as I still am), I became fascinated by the question of what causes us to develop an attachment to a particular landscape. Obviously, many places are beautiful, each in its own unique way – whether the majesty of the desert or the refreshing green of rolling meadows or the deep tranquility of the forest. The Galilee is beautiful, but not “objectively” more so than, say, the Alps, or Hawaii, or lots of other places in the world – including places I have lived at various times in my life. Why, then, did I so quickly develop a kind of visceral attachment to the view from Shorashim? And what is the meaning of this attachment to place? Is it a force for good, or a destructive component of human nature?

Often, when groups of teenagers come to us for encounters with Arab teens during the summer, we start the program with a short activity for the Jewish kids alone, under a carob tree part way up Mt. Gilon, with a view out across the olive groves toward the sea. We ask the kids to interview each other about their homes: physical appearance, surroundings, memories, degree of attachment. We discuss definitions of “home” (where you feel comfortable, where you can walk around in the dark, where you can always go, where there are people you love...). And we read some texts that help us understand the difference between our own modern, western relationship to land as a commodity, as a resource – and the attachment of the pre-modern farmer to his soil, in which he may have been rooted for many generations. In other words, for some people, their land is a central part of their identity (“you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy”). The Bible presents the inheritances of the various families of Israel as a sacred assignment that can never be relinquished or lost. But through centuries of exile, when we could not put down roots anywhere, when it made sense to keep one’s assets liquid and portable, we became outsiders to the notion of attachment to the landscape of our residence. The landscape that figured in our identity was the one never actually seen, but only collectively remembered through the Jewish calendar and in the Biblical narrative: Eretz Yisrael.

The Zionist revolution sought to restore the “days of old,” when Jews were rooted in the soil. It rejected our existence as homeless luftmenschen (“air people”) and idealized the earthy peasants of Russia – and later of Palestine; they were our role models. If 20th century Europe was organizing itself around the concept of ethnic homelands, then so should we – after all, we were carrying around the deed to our own homeland, a document far older and more authoritative than any modern declaration of statehood among the nations that arose out of the collapse of the Old Europe. There was something seductively simple about redefining our identity in ethnic national terms, in seeing Jewishness as parallel to Frenchness, or Hungarianness, or Germanness. No more halachic nit-picking, no more tortured identity conflicts. Land and language and culture would be integrated into a seamless identity. We would – all of us – pack up and leave our precarious, temporary perches, and return, finally, home.

Hence the language of the Balfour Declaration in 1917: “His majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

A hundred years have gone by, and for the vision of European nationalism it has been a rough century. And we too are left with troubling questions… Among them - just what is a “national home?”

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