Reclaiming My Heritage: My Return to Israel
I am a Spanish-Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi-American Jew now living in Bangkok. So what is my identity? Where is home? Jewish history is also the history of my own family, my history. In traveling to Israel for the second time, I was searching for my own identity.
The Wailing Wall
My first visit to Jerusalem was in 1971, while I was still in university. I had grown up with Orthodox Judaism, and was just now starting to question my beliefs. Here I was now in 2018, and not sure what I was looking for. This time I was with my wife of less than a year, a Thai Buddhist, who knew almost nothing about Judaism. On our first day there, I insisted that we walk to the old city, even though it was already late afternoon and we could feel the November chill in the air. We entered through the tall and wide Jaffa Gate. After walking through the tunneled stone streets of the old city, we approached the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the more than 2000-year-old Hebrew temple.
Since men and women are traditionally not allowed to pray together, my wife and I had to go to separate sections of the wall. I could feel tears welling up, and wondered if I would be able to contain them. My wife, Daru, also was very emotional, never having seen a holy site that was so ancient, older than two millennia. She also realized how important this visit was to me.
Following the religious custom, I put on a skullcap before walking to the wall. I was carrying a small notebook, so I could write a prayer for the two of us and place it inside a crack in the wall, also an old tradition. I said a prayer in Hebrew and silently meditated for a few minutes. I then walked into the prayer room excavated next to the wall. I saw men of all ages, in many styles of dress, from ultra orthodox to modern, praying in groups. I recognized some of the prayers that I learned by heart as a child.
When I returned to the meeting spot where I had left Daru, I could see that she was also very moved by the scene and the atmosphere. She had never experienced anything like this before. She told me later about what had moved her so much: “I thought of how much intelligence and dedication the people must have had more than 2000 years ago to build a temple of this size. They were willing to work so hard and sacrifice so much in order to pass their culture and religion on to the following generations.” The visit to the holy city was off to a good start.
Having lived in Thailand for over six years, and having studied Buddhism for almost 40 years, I knew a lot about my wife's religion and culture. However, she knew very little about mine. I wanted her to learn more about the religion I had grown up with, and to see the Middle Eastern culture that my parents had come from. I also felt that she would learn more about me, seeing me in an environment that was more like the one I had grown up in, being raised in a Syrian neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Although I had spent most of the previous four decades studying both Buddhism and Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, I always felt a connection to Judaism and a desire to keep connection with my own culture and heritage— although I felt ambivalent about the Jewish religion, and wasn't sure how I would respond to visiting Israel after all these years. But my main desire was for Daru to have a learning experience. She was the real catalyst for this trip.
The Western Wall
touching these ancient stones
I feel the energy
of 3000 years
the heat rising out of the sunlit stones
the scent of thousands of years
I write down a blessing for my wife
place it in a crack in the wall
say the ancient prayers
in the ancient language
feel my connection
to 3000 years of ancestors
who lived and died here
and to those who survived
to allow me to return to this temple
The Old City
The underground walled city, a few hundred years old, is a fascinating maze of old hotels and restaurants, little shops, and old homes where people can still live an ancient way of life. In it you can find everything from old men selling bread, children playing in alleyways, dessert shops selling Turkish delight, stores selling religious articles, and most striking of all, people from all over the world on religious pilgrimages. Regardless of what I believe in, it is moving to see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is supposed to have been buried before his resurrection, and the Dome of the Rock, where according to legend Mohammed began his night journey. This small area is where the three great Western religions all began.
I always have mixed feelings about these holy sites. Much as I respect the original teachings of the Old Testament, and of Jesus and Mohammed—peace, love, respect for all people—I feel great sorrow and anger when I think of how organized religions have corrupted these teachings into war, hatred and violence. For Daru, however, seeing these places for the first time, it was very emotional. She only thought of the original teachings of the prophets and what they have in common with the teachings of the Buddha. She said later, “All of the religions say the same thing: you should be a good person with a good heart; you should not do anything to hurt anyone. We should respect all religions.”
What I love most about walking through the old city is finding shops and restaurants that remind me of my early years in Brooklyn. I hear Arabic spoken, the language of my parents who came from Baghdad and Aleppo. I find foods that I haven't tasted in over 30 years: Egyptian bread, Arabic candies, stuffed vegetables, authentic kebabs, Middle Eastern spices, and the strongest coffee in the world. Memories of food we ate as children are among the strongest memories we have, and bring back pleasurable memories of our family life. At the appropriately named Family Restaurant, I almost shout, “This kibbe is exactly like the one my mother used to make!” At the Mahane Yehuda market, I think I’m dreaming when I see the Iraqi-style quince candy that my father used to make, made exactly the same way. “I haven't had this in over forty years!” I remember helping my father peel the tart raw fruit, which became sweet when it was cooked. I also see traditional jewelry and knickknacks that remind me of my family’s possessions. I remember the holiday celebrations that I enjoyed as a kid. Although I left Brooklyn and the Syrian community over 40 years ago, and I am now estranged from most of my family, I still feel a nostalgia for my lost home and culture. I would never want to return to their strict, insular way of life, but I still miss some of the rituals and customs. I guess it's still in my blood. This is probably why I have always felt drawn to other people with Middle Eastern heritage, as well as other aspects of Middle Eastern culture, especially music and poetry.
“You Are Different in Israel”
“Joe, your behavior here is not the same as it is when we’re in Thailand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in Thailand you behave like other foreigners there. Here you’re behaving more like the Israelis.”
“In Thailand you’re quieter, more polite, more easy-going. Here you are talking faster and louder. You want to decide where we should go and what we should do. You are also happier, more excited, and proud of your heritage. In Thailand you mostly talk about Buddhism and Zen. Here we mostly talk about Judaism.”
“I guess it's because I feel like I'm back in my own culture. In New York, I lived in a Syrian Jewish neighborhood, and everyone in New York talks fast and loud. Of course I'm excited to be in Israel for the first time in so many years, and I am proud of my heritage. I want to go to the places where I’ll learn more about my history and culture. I think everyone in the world should be proud of their heritage. You are proud of your Chinese heritage. And you also act differently when we are in Asia.”
“What do you mean?”
“Daru, when we traveled to other countries like Bali and Cambodia, you didn't seem so interested in learning about their cultures. You only got excited when we went to Taiwan because it was your first trip to China and you could see your own culture. Now you’re also more excited and curious, seeing a completely different culture for the first time. In Bangkok you’re usually shy with strangers, but here you’re also talking more, and trying things that you usually wouldn’t do. We are different people in different environments and different cultures. We’re both seeing things we haven't seen before in each other. Maybe we are also seeing new things about ourselves.”
The Tower of David
Although our lives were steeped in the Jewish religion while I was growing up, we learned almost nothing about Jewish history. While we knew about the more recent tragedies of the Holocaust in Europe and the wars in the Middle East, I knew very little about the 3000 year history of Jews in Israel. I had no idea how much there was for me to learn until we visited the Tower of David. Although it was actually built about 1000 years after King David’s lifetime, as a palace and citadel for Herod the Great, it has now been converted into a historical museum. We learned about 2500 years’ worth of conquests, holy wars, invasions, exile and return, with Jews having lived in Jerusalem almost continuously throughout the millennia. However, most Jewish people had to disperse throughout the world to find new homes—like my family, the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who lived in Spain during the Golden Age of religious tolerance during the early centuries of the last millennium, until they were exiled in 1492.
Most of them then moved to Turkey, where my last name originated, Sekerji in Turkish, literally “sugar seller.” My father theorized that we had ancestors who were candy makers in Istanbul; maybe this is why everyone in my family has a sweet tooth. With the expansion of the Ottoman Empire my mother's family settled in Syria and my father's family in Iraq. In the 1930s, both families moved to New York where my parents met. Mysteriously, neither of them said very much about their lives in the “old countries,” usually idealizing their lives there. It wasn't until I met other Sephardic Jews many years later that I learned about the difficulties and discrimination—sometimes including violence— they faced in Muslim countries, so it was fortunate that my families left before things got even worse during and after World War II. Otherwise I wouldn't be here to tell this story.
So I am now a Spanish-Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi-American-Thai Jew living in Bangkok, where many Israelis have also made their new home. I have spent a good deal of my life trying to uncover and understand these different layers, these different parts of my identity.
Outside the Walls
Like many of my contemporaries, I first started to question the religious beliefs I was brought up with when I was in university studying philosophy. After a loss of faith in God and traditional religion, I started to explore other spiritual philosophies, including Jewish mysticism, which I was easily able to find in San Francisco. I also studied Zen Buddhism and Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The Sufi tradition that includes the poet Rumi, who began the sect of Whirling Dervishes, emphasizes seeing God in everyone, practicing universal love, and praying as a celebration, dancing and spinning while chanting and playing music. I found this more attractive than endlessly reciting Hebrew prayers I didn't understand. Of course Buddhism emphasizes meditation and studying the dharma in order to understand oneself and live a more harmonious life. I was also relieved to find that in Buddhism, I no longer needed to believe in any gods. Never completely satisfied by one spiritual path, I decided to combine them. (Maybe I am never completely satisfied by anything.)
Given the Jewish tradition of open mindedness and curiosity, it was no surprise to find Sufism and Zen present in Israel. We spent three days in Tel Aviv visiting our friend Gil, an Israeli Zen teacher who often leads seminars in Bangkok. My wife was especially pleased to be able to discuss Buddhism with him in the Thai language. We also visited the Jerusalem Zen Center, where we met Daniel, a Canadian expat who leads a small group of meditators and gives the lectures. I later had long discussions with him about the philosophical similarities between Judaism and Buddhism, and why so many Jews turn to the Dharma.
Of course Islam is closer to Judaism, and Daru was familiar with it through her Muslim friends in Bangkok. In fact, after we met, she asked me if I was a Muslim. I explained to her that Jews and Muslims often looked similar because we came from the same part of the world, plus I had Middle Eastern parents, and my family may have been in Turkey for hundreds of years. When I visited Istanbul, people kept speaking to me in Turkish and were surprised when I told them I was American, but then explained my ancestry. Even in Bangkok, I have had total strangers from Arabic countries look at me and ask, “Are you Turkish? When Daru kept asking me, month after a month, “Are you really a Muslim?” I realized she had no idea what Judaism was. So I told her a little about the Old Testament and Jewish history. Then I asked her why she was so concerned about whether I was Muslim. She replied, “Three reasons: if we get married, maybe you will have three other wives; maybe you will ask me to wear black from head to toe; worst of all, you will not allow me to eat pork anymore.”
We were happy to find an integrated Jewish/Muslim Sufi group in Jaffa, one of the oldest cities in the world, continuously populated for about 11,000 years. It is headed by a couple, Ihab and Ora, who lead meditation in the tradition of Rumi. (They have also started a grade school to bring Jewish and Muslim children together). A little synchronicity: they had just returned from Turkey where they studied with a teacher that I had also met with both in Turkey and San Francisco. Jelaluddin Loras, who was raised in the city of Konya that Rumi spent most of his life in, visited California many times and started the first dervish community to include women. Fortunately for many of us, in America you did not have to be a Muslim to become a Sufi.
Sufi meditation is called zikr, which means “remembrance.” In the tradition of Rumi, you spin around in order to achieve a state of ecstasy where you remember your true nature, that God is inside you and everybody else, and that we are all one. As we were doing “the turn” while chanting along with the musicians, my wife, who is usually very shy, surprised me by joining in. It is very unusual for a devout Buddhist to join in a Muslim ritual. I realized at that moment that we truly were one.
Beginning in San Francisco in my 30’s, much of my life had been focused on my spiritual search. Now that I was able to combine Judaism, Buddhism and Sufism in Israel, with my new wife, I was feeling that the circle was complete.
Western Wall Tunnels
Ancient history lies covered in layers. Only the Western Wall remains of the second Hebrew temple that was built in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago, and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. It is also known as the Wailing Wall, partly because of all the grief and suffering associated with Jewish history, and partly because many people, like me, burst into tears the first time they visit. It is the symbol of the homeland of Israel, and considered the holiest place in the world for religious Jews.
While the western wall remained above ground for all these years, the ancient streets and corridors lying underground were only discovered and excavated over the last 30 years. There are several levels of streets, as every new conquerer built their city on top of the last one. On a guided tour you can walk through all of these levels. You are walking beside the walls of the original second temple. Some people pray inside the tunnels so they can be closer to what was once the inside of the temple. As you walk through each level, you are seeing a different part of history. You end up on the original street that was built over 2000 years ago, and was first used by the Jews and the Roman conquerers in the decades just before and after the birth of Jesus.
I had read many years ago that Christian pilgrims were going to visit these tunnels so they could walk on the same street as Jesus and his disciples. I was thinking about this as I walked on the oldest street on the bottom level. When we came out at the end of the tour, I asked the group leader, a British Jew, “Is it true that Jesus and his friends walked on the street that we were just walking on?” He looked at me sternly, and said emphatically, “Our ancestors walked on those streets.”
This was my epiphany. I realized that my own ancestors had been here more than 2000 years ago. I was tied genetically to the Jewish people and their history. This is where my ancestry had begun, where my own people had been. I would not be here now if it were not for them, and for their ability to continue to survive— mostly in exile— for the last 2000 years. I realized also that this was what I had come to Israel to learn: what was important to me, and what kept me connected to Judaism for all these years, was not whether or not I practiced the religion; was not whether or not I believed in God, or what sort of God I believed in; was not my orthodox traditional family upbringing. What was important was my connection to my people, to my history, to my ancestry. All the questions and conflicts about my Jewish identity fell away, and I could just rest in this connection to my own people’s history.
For all my life, even when immersed in Sufism or Zen, I would find myself going back to Jewish groups or temples once or twice a year, and asking myself, “What am I doing here? What is my need to stay connected to a religion I no longer believe in?” I now realized there was a part of myself that had been lost, but what was lost can often be found again. I found this part of myself in Jerusalem.