After a week in London, we returned to the second day of Pesach in Jerusalem. People take the holiday very, very seriously here. Half the shelves in the grocery story are papered over, lest anyone accidentally buy non-kosher for Passover food. Piles of ashes and embers show where religious folks burned chametz last week, erasing any trace of leavened food from their homes. All Israel is on vacation, the parks full of throngs of picnicking, barbequing families. And there are so many tourists on the streets and the buses; it makes me nostalgic for the freezing, rainy days of January when we had “our” city all to ourselves.

All this festivity is making me feel strange. We were not invited to anyone’s seder. Of course, we would have had to decline as we were still in London, not to mention that Hannah and Margaret do not exactly excel at long, formal meals. But it’s the principle that’s bugging me. I anticipated gaining more understanding and appreciation for Jewish practice this year, but that’s not really working out. On the other hand, I am learning about how it feels to be in the minority. I told a Jewish friend about my Passover regrets and she said that’s how Christmas often feels to her. Christians don’t tend to invite non-Christians to celebrate with them, for whatever reason. Maybe privacy, or fear of overstepping a line, or a sense that the “other” would not be interested or comfortable.

Issues of religious otherness feel especially loaded in this place. I’m hardly an expert, but Jewish practice seems more stringent and exclusive in here than back home, at least among my primarily Reform and sometimes Conservative friends. After all, many people make aliyah explicitly to connect with their Jewish roots and to be among fellow Jews, day in and day out. To be Captain Obvious, they are not moving here to hang out with me. (Of course, it’s also true that there’s all kinds of “intra-group diversity”: different levels and kinds of observance, different interpretations of what it means to be Jewish and how Judaism, religion and nationalism intersect. I can’t get too deep into all that here).

And so I’m cycling through a full spectrum of feelings, all of which might be familiar to anyone with minority status anywhere in the world. Because my otherness is not immediately apparent, sometimes I “pass” as Jewish but I imagine (and at times have discovered) that once my identity is known, I will be less warmly received. I am curious to learn more and witness, if not participate, in Jewish practice, but am afraid to take the first step. Many synagogues and congregations here are small; I still don’t speak Hebrew; my presence might be misconstrued. Most of the time, we are not shunned by Jews so much as ignored. Social networks and extracurricular options rely heavily on religious community, and thus are not available to us. All kinds of day-to-day messages prioritize Jews, just exactly as you would expect:

(Again, I’m not making a political statement about this, just relating how it feels when you are not part of the “target group”).




All this leads to an excess of self consciousness. Terence is sick so I went to the supermarket to get cough drops (just in time, as it turns out. I didn’t realize the last day of Pesach would be like a Shabbat, and stores would close at 2 p.m.). It turns out cough drops are not kosher for Passover, and I didn’t have the guts to lift the curtain.

In my role as minority, my own religious practices have become more guarded and yet stronger. I am a New England Episcopalian, perhaps the most private of religious groups. I keep my beliefs close to my chest and would be horrified if anyone thought I was imposing them. Hannah wanted to do an Easter egg hunt in the park next door; I counter-proposed a friend’s house. And yet Terence and I have joined a church for the first time in our lives and our entire family loves the 9 a.m. English service at the Church of the Redeemer in the Old City and the support and friendship we have found there. On a visceral level, I sometimes have the longing to be with people like me — although do I really have more in common with, say, a Finnish missionary than a Jewish-American oleh? Indeed we do not identify as strongly as Christians as some acquaintances at church assume.

This isn’t my first experience being in a minority. In my early-20s I was one of five female teachers at an all-boys’ school, and I remember some of the same dynamics: feeling excluded from male networks, seeking out the support of other women, resenting inconveniences like a long walk to a ladies’ restroom, being cast as more of a “feminist” than I (at that time, anyway) felt myself to be, and ending the year more confused about the male psyche than I began it. In some ways, though, that experience was more straightforward because both at school and in the world, I was in the less-advantaged group. Here, it’s all about context. Although Christians are in the minority here, we are still the dominant group worldwide, and the oppressive or evangelizing or otherwise problematic history of Christianity in Israel is never too far from the surface.

Considering that my “identity group” holds the power worldwide, that I am only here for ten months, that none of this has any impact on my professional or life prospects…I am amazed at how intense the feelings of being in the minority still can be. I need to remember all of this next year.

About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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5 Responses to Minority

  1. natecrimmins says:

    Rich reflections! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Suzanne says:

    Your reflections take me back a long way — more than twenty years, to these very discoveries in my own life. I realized that it was salutary for a WASP to understand exclusion and the position of outsider, and yet…and yet…it took me ages to connect what I was feeling with the feelings of Jews all over the Diaspora, all these years. I wanted to belong, but I never would. Even if I had wanted to stay in Israel, I wouldn’t have been able to obtain even a resident visa, most likely, let alone citizenship. Being in a country that doesn’t want you — or doesn’t care whether you’re there or not. My musings were helped and hurt by a visit to the museum of the Disapora in Tel Aviv (Bet HaTefutsoth, I think–) where my eyes were opened still further. Surely it’s these kinds of things, realizations that steer our lives, that explain our “sabbaticals” and explorations.

    • hilarymead says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Suzanne. That museum has been on my list for a while; you’re inspiring me to make a trip up to Ramat Gan and check it out!

  3. very moving to me Hils. I usually feel desolate on Christmas Day — especially when we lived in Cambridge and absolutely everything was closed! Reminded me of when I was in grad school and spent the Christmas vacation with an African-American friend and her family in Kansas. I was the only white person in social and church settings. We invited your Mom for seder but she was still in the air coming back from London! One day you’ll have to come to our seder in Lexington. Sam brought 4 (non-Jewish) friends to ours and we have many of our own N-Jsh friends who have joined us over the years. It’s probably a good experience for you to be having though I would have thought that even in Jerusalem you could find some welcoming congregations to attend. Enjoy your last month!

    • hilarymead says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Helen. I have enjoyed attending seders “back home” and would love to come to yours sometime! re: finding a welcoming congregation, I am sure I could be trying harder (see “excess of self consciousness”…) but I have a lead on a possibility to visit. Living here is such an incredible, rich learning experience, perhaps especially when it feels so complicated!

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