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Why Can’t Our Trip to Israel Be Jewish?

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

I Want My Trip to Israel to Be a Distinctly Jewish Experience

I’m a spiritual but not exactly religious Jew with a strong cultural Jewish identity. My husband is a spiritual man too, who was raised Catholic but practices it no more. We have never been to Israel and are currently looking into different tour options and have found ourselves in disagreement. I want to go on something geared towards Jews, because this is a unique opportunity for me to fully immerse myself in Jewish life, from ritual to history to food. He wants to take an interfaith tour that would show us the Christian sites too. Seesaw, we have traveled around Europe and Latin America and visited so many churches and cathedrals and pilgrimage sites together. Is it really asking so much that this time we have a distinctly Jewish experience? —Journeying to the Jewish Home

There Are Many Israels, Jewish and Otherwise

JAMES PONET: I honor your yearning to “fully immerse myself in Jewish life, from ritual to history to food.” It was precisely that yearning which led me to become a rabbi, to live with my wife in Israel for 8 years, and to serve in the IDF. I longed for Hebrew poetry to live inside me at a depth comparable to the lyrics of Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones.

In Israel I came to understand how American I am, how wildly diverse the Jewish people is, and just how sharply divergent Jewish lives, rituals, histories and cuisines actually are. The greatest common denominator, perhaps the greatest achievement of the State of Israel, is the rebirth of Hebrew as a living language, a modern culture-generating vernacular. And Israeli Hebrew, while closer to Biblical Hebrew than American English is to Shakespearean lyric, is not pure but rather a highly adaptive, absorptive language that lives messily, as do Jews, open to the world.

Israel is the country of Jewish questioning par excellence. Not the answer to the famous “Jewish Question,” nor a resolution of the challenges of being a Jew, Israel, it turns out, like America, is an experiment being performed in the laboratory of geo-politics. Lincoln gave clear words to this experiment: whether this “nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

Hire your own tour guide and plan with her or him a trip that will allow you to see and taste both Jewish and Christian Israelis, their divergences and overlappings. Use your trip to deepen your self-understandings and your marital love; travel as a spiritual couple who yearn to live with integrity in a conflictual yet beautiful world.

James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 5 grandchildren.

You Want This Trip to Mean Something More

HAROLD BERMAN: Having led numerous trips to Israel and now living here, I know of several ways you could structure your trip to accommodate both of your goals. Most Jewish tours include free time where your husband can explore Christian sites. Or, as many people do, you can extend your trip by a few days to see Christian sites (primarily in Jerusalem and the north) not covered on the tour. Or, you can do what my wife and I did on our first trip to Israel – plan your own itinerary for maximum flexibility.

However, massaging the itinerary won’t really solve your issue. You say you are simply “spiritual”, and you’ve been open to visiting Christian sites on previous trips. Yet, that’s not how you want to experience Israel. You may sense that, although Israel is significant to several faiths, it has a particular meaning to you as a Jew. You want to see Israel through your Jewish — not just spiritual or interfaith — eyes. Religious or not, Israel touches your Jewish soul.

But your husband has no need to see Israel only through a Jewish lens, and may be understandably confused why you want to, given your willingness to explore Christian sites on previous trips. It is imperative that you and he discuss what Israel means to each of you. He may not fully understand your need to explore Israel on Jewish terms. And his desire to see Christian sites may touch on his own Catholic upbringing, even if he no longer practices it. Identifying and conveying these underlying feelings will take effort and may even be uncomfortable. But it is essential. Only then can you decide which trip format will truly meet both your needs.

Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”

Focusing Just on the Jewish Sites Is Missing Half of Israel’s Story

JANE LARKIN: You’re right, going to Israel is an opportunity to immerse yourself in Jewish life, history and practices, and strengthen your bonds with the Jewish people. But if you don’t visit major non-Jewish sites, you will have a one-dimensional experience.

Israel’s location, where three continents and two seas meet, makes it a rich tapestry of various cultures, customs and traditions that have mixed for centuries.

Getting to know all of Israel will help you better understand the world around you. Learning about Christianity in the birthplace of Jesus, Islam in the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven, and Judaism in the land of our patriarchs and matriarchs will give you insight into the three major faiths. This will challenge you to think differently, consider other perspectives and contemplate life’s complexities.

For these reasons, even Jewish trips include experiences with or stops at sites important to other faiths. If your tour doesn’t include non-Jewish sites as part of the official itinerary, I encourage you to explore them during free time so you can have a fuller, more vibrant Israel experience. I also recommend that before traveling to Europe, Latin America, or other parts of the world, that you research Jewish heritage spots and include them in your plans. Visiting synagogues, Jewish museums, and other venues will make your travels feel less one-sided and show you that Jewish life and history exist the world over.

Jane Larkin is the author of “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She writes about interfaith relationships and Jewish living for Interfaithfamily and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @JaneLarkin6.

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