Recently, I’ve come to realize that there is a flip side to an issue very dear to me. That is the issue of freedom of movement. Literally – freedom…of…movement. One thing I love about living in America versus Israel; in America it’s an absolute given that you’re free to travel where you want, when you want. Even in some of the worst neighborhoods here, there is no comparison whatsoever to the limitation on freedom of movement in Israel, whether for logistical reasons for those on the periphery or safety concerns particularly for those living in Judea / Samaria.
For me personally, the ability to move around freely, to hit the road and stretch my wheels with the windows down and radio up if only to clear my mind is essential, therapeutic, even spiritual to some degree. That’s just me. It’s also the simple things in life; I love being able to pull out of the driveway, turn whichever way, get on the highway, get off in any town for gas, for shopping, to go antiquing, to check out some local backwoods bar, or for no reason whatsoever…without the fear of being descended upon by a Jew-killing lynch mob. You may not think this is such an important part of life, to the same degree or even at all, but I’ve always had a special appreciation for the freedom of the open road and for me this is a huge plus to living in the US. I can’t express the feeling of disgust when passing the large red stone signs along the roads, basically warning that entry by a Jew will result in near-certain death. The problem is obviously not as acute and safety concerns play a far lesser role outside the heartland of Judea / Samaria. I know when I’ve vacationed along the coastline or the “mercaz”, the fear wasn’t as ever-present and death by wrong turn wasn’t as certain. Still, there are high traffic, main roads well within the boundaries of the green line; roads upon which you do not want to be stuck in evening traffic, as they’re surrounded by Arab villages with opportunists known to take pot shots at sitting duck Jews.
I’ve been well aware of this for years already. Nothing new there. Nothing I didn’t “sign on to,” so to speak. That awareness, however, and eventual acceptance as a fact of life in the Jewish homeland did not make things easier over time; quite the opposite. Over the years, the limited freedom of movement, has led me to feel often isolated, trapped even claustrophobic to some degree. Over the years, I’ve also become increasingly resentful, maybe even a tad bitter about not being able to move freely and safely through my own country.
But the chidush here for me, is that there is actually another side to this coin, a side which I’ve only become aware of after some time once again living in America. The very fences and boundaries -physical, political and psychological – which restrict our freedom of movement in HaAretz also serve to strengthen and enhance the quality of life of those communities within them. It’s a bit ironic given a couple millennia of Jewish history in the Galut, that one should actually now prefer living within the walls of the Jewish “ghetto,” but that is basically the conclusion I’ve reached.
I always imagined were I to ever move back to the United States, I would buy a country home with a nice large piece of land. Nothing too isolated or too far outside the suburbs, but just far enough up in the hills to have a long, tree-lined driveway and a good couple acres of pristine wooded land. Maybe even a stream flowing through my property where I could take my kids fishing. That used to be a large part of my American dream. And believe me, dreams like that are hard to let go. But now, I’d give up the wooded acreage in order to be surrounded by neighbors I know and trust. I’d give up the relatively cheaper 3,500 sq ft country cabin-like home within walking distance of the local reservoir or lake for a small, relatively more expensive house within walking distance of the local beit knesset. I’d gladly trade the quiet privacy of the home in the hills for the beautifully chaotic noise of my children playing with their friends in the street and in our small, cookie-cutter front yard. In short, I’d give up all I’ve dreamt of having in America for what I already have in Israel.
This is the flip side of all that freedom; America can be a big, open, scary place. Want to buy a home in Israel? Close your eyes, throw a dart at the map and chances are you’ll end up in a uniquely flavored, close-knit community; a place you can belong, a place with tremendous support networks, a place you and you’re children’s children can call home for generations to come. Not so here in America. Outside of those small Jewish enclaves, you’re pretty much on your own. And that may be fine if being able to walk to shul is not a high priority. Or if you don’t mind your kids mostly playing indoors after school rather than going down the street to play with their friends or walking to the corner store to buy some fresh rugelach and barad. If you’re fine with the idea of very possibly living somewhere for 30 years without ever knowing your neighbors. If dead bolts and home alarm systems seem normal to you. But that’s America. That’s the private, impersonal anonymity which comes naturally to living in a country of 320,000,000 people.
But, if that’s not quite your thing and you happen to be or strive to be a Torah-observant Jew, well then, you have two options: the first is living in Israel and the second is living in one of the very far and few between American Jewish enclaves. Ironically, just as in pre-haskala Europe, it’s not always the ghetto walls that confine, but sometimes the ghetto walls that liberate.
This realization, for a proud American as myself is a very bitter pill to swallow. But it is the post-golden-era American Jewish reality. Sure as the universe continues to expand, the bonds of American Jewish communal life will continue to trend towards dissipation in the long run, save for the occasional star cluster here and there. As the younger generations increasingly view aliyah not only as a viable option but actually a step towards an enhanced quality of life for themselves and their children, America will unfortunately become a larger, colder, lonelier place for a Jew to live.