Different Jewish narratives in relation to place

Wednesday, April 21, 2021 | 24th day of the omer – tiferet she’b’netzach


Dear All,

Tomorrow is Earth Day, and there’s lots happening. I hope you will attend some of the many events that are taking place, including our second annual #SoundTheCall. And tune in this Friday for the first episode of a new 6-part series that we’ve produced with EarthX – Jewish Life & Planet Earth.

I wrote two weeks ago about Earth Day as a “secular chag.” My point was that it makes sense for us to use ritual, and to leverage the calendar, to really think about how we live on this planet – and how we change how we live upon it.

Last week at our staff meeting I took this in a different direction. There are essentially three different contemporary narratives for someone who (for instance) is Jewish and thinking about relationships to ha’aretz – to the earth. I want to sketch these out, for us all to think about.

One is Israel – the land of Israel, and nowadays the state of Israel. It’s where we entered human history. Our synagogues face towards it. Three times a day, we point ourselves in its direction – and for twenty centuries, in those prayers, day after day, year after year, we have prayed for a Jewish return to Zion, for the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the land. The early Zionists – most of them – were secular, yet their passion for return drew directly from those ancient and enduring roots.

The second is “the wandering Jew.” Where did your great-grandparents live? What languages did they speak? What food did they eat? And their parents, and their parents’ parents? They will have been in – variously – Amsterdam, Baghdad, Berlin, Casablanca, Constantinople, Isfahan, Kabul, Lublin, Krakow, Salonika, Warsaw – plus also London and Manchester, Galveston and New York, and Hebron, Jerusalem, and Tiberias. The story of our family wanderings is a central part of history, memory, tradition – and relation to place.

And then the third is the contemporary recommitment to localism. Local as a value. Eating locally. Understanding the watershed, the foodshed, the ecological specificity of where you are. Understanding the damage that so much travel does to the world – and learning also about the harm that western communities have inflicted on the many different peoples who lived, centuries ago, on the lands we now think of as ours. The Cherokee, the Navajo, the Sioux… not to mention the Lenape, who named the island I sit on today – Manahatta.

Earth Day is a fine day to think about how we put these jigsaw pieces together. How do they impact who we are, who we think of ourselves as, the values that are important to us?

This for me, as for many of us, is personal. Since college, I have lived in three great cities – London, Jerusalem, and New York. I feel at home in all three. I have close friends in all three. Though I have not, thus far, availed myself of the opportunity, I could at least theoretically become a citizen of all three countries.

The year of covid, in which I traveled so much less than usual, put this further into relief. My sister and I went back and rented a house in Cornwall (in southern England) so that, after due isolation, our 80-something mother could join us. We were there four weeks, and that was the longest continuous period of time I’ve spent in England since 1994. And, conversely, last year was the first year in which I didn’t set foot in Israel since 1984. That felt really hard. There is no occasion I have ever landed in Israel and not been happy to be there; there is no time I have ever looked out the window, when taking off from Ben Gurion in the other direction, that I have not been sad to leave.

These are real and complex issues, if not for all of us, then certainly for many of us. My family, on my mother’s side, has been in England six generations; my great-great-great grandfather, whose name I bear, was a Hebrew teacher in Edinburgh in the 1850s. (One can hardly begin to imagine how dark a place Edinburgh must have been 170 years ago.) Yet I remember, aged 16 or 17, at school lunchtime, out at the local pub, arguing about the causes of the English Civil War with Dominic Carman, a dear friend and form-mate. And as we were talking it hit me that the Jews had been expelled from England in July 1290. They were re-admitted, partly because of the English Civil War, in the 1650s. So although I had no clue where my umpteen-times great-grandparents were living, in the early 17th century (i.e. in the lead-up to the war), almost the only thing of which I could be sure was that they were not then living in England. And in and of itself, this realization disconnected me from a certain piece of English identity. Yes, I was legally British, and yes, I loved the English language and Hamlet and the Beatles and Manchester United; but I was part of the Jewish people. And my family had been here for six generations, but what is six generations in the history of the Jewish people?

So… I am an Englishman in New York. A British Jew. A United supporter (despite their shenanigans in joining what turned out to be a very short-lived idea, these last 72 hours (It occurs to me only now that, actually, the eruption of, and then opposition to, the ill-fated “European Super League” is also a story about relationship to place. “We Want Our Cold Nights In Stoke” – superb! –  is a fine thing to think about on Earth Day).

At the end, for me, Israel, and indeed Jerusalem itself, feels most deeply like home. When I came to New York to found Hazon, I came from Jerusalem, and I imagine that when I leave, it will be to Jerusalem that I return. But what is true for me will not be true for you. Each of us put these pieces together in different ways: our family story, our national story, our religious story, our personal story, our ideologies, our instincts, our beliefs – all of these cross, criss-cross, and interweave in different ways.

We are lucky to have these choices. Many of our ancestors did not. Many people in the world today do not. Some are in Tibet; some are Uighers; some are on the US border right now; some are Palestinians. This beautiful and messy planet of ours is a work in progress, and we with it. May we be blessed, this Earth Day, to connect and reconnect to the place that is home; and from that place to reach out to help to leave this beautiful world, if we possibly can, in better shape than we found it. If you’d like to give shape and commitment to that sentiment, please commit to the Brit Hazon. The first 180 people have now signed up to it, and we hope that you will join them.

Chag sameach, shabbat shalom,

Nigel Signature


PS In other (related) news, Jewish Plays Project is highlighting the top 10 plays out of 255 submissions! Check out Aristaeus – “the bee play” –  about a young urban bee-keeper and his friend Devora…

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