Last night, midway through my one and only drink of the evening, a gin martini from which I am recovering today, I got into a discussion with a couple friends about the state of liberal Zionism. It was two against one (and despite my contrarian tendencies, I was with the majority) that any self-identification as any kind of Zionist these days means you've announced yourself to be a Newt-loving, universal-health-care-fearing, DADT-repeal-opposing, sweater-vest-wearing, you get the idea.
As a traveler, I am not a particularly choosy person. I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime. Wander on horseback into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan? Why not? Spend the night in a sketchy Burmese border town? Sure! Eat my way through Bridgeport, Conn.? Loved it. Once, I even spent four consecutive Sunday nights in Geneva — in midwinter — an ordeal to which no rational adventurer would willingly submit.
In fact, of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one — besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) — that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.
This surprised friends and mildly annoyed my parents, who had visited quite happily. As a Jew, especially one who travels constantly, I was expected at least to have the Jewish state on my radar, if not to be planning a pilgrimage in the very near future. Tel Aviv, they’d say, has wonderful food!
But to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden. For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible, and the idea that I was supposed to feel some connection to my ostensible homeland seemed ridiculous. Give me Montenegro, Chiapas, Iran even. But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do.Readers, resist the (inevitable) urge to psychoanalyze. To bring up terms like "Portnoy's Complaint" or "Jewish self-hatred" or "oy the neurosis." Take note, if you're up for a digression, of this prime piece of evidence for Jewishness-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas. Gross is so ambivalent about his Jewish identity that he, a travel writer for the NYT who can go anywhere and wants to go anywhere, a Jew who's not merely secular but deeply so, refuses Christmas. Those new to questions of Jewish identity, if you can make sense of the stance of this author, you move straight to the advanced class.
But mostly, don't be thrown off by the fact that Gross presents his uneasiness about Israel as something that separates him not only from his parents, but also his own friends - it's very much a thing for American Jews critical-to-the-point-of-skeptical of Israel to present themselves as utterly alone in this regard. That this self-presentation is so common certainly gives the illusion that there's this large and influential group of secular American Jews who are rah-rah Israel, who make life uncomfortable for the lone dissenters. But where is this majority? There's... me, there's David Schraub, and we have some British fellow travelers. The "iffy burden" contingent, meanwhile, is made up of virtually every secular American Jew under, what age shall we give here, 60?
Like a good Birthright participant, albeit not on that program, Gross, we'll be relieved to know, learns that Israel is a real place, with real-life people, who do things like drink beer and listen to music. He even has a "here, we're the WASPs"-type revelation: " Here I was, being seen not as a Jew or as a non-Jew, an American or a tourist, but as a mensch: a good and honorable man."