If I was planning my farewell visit to Israel, where would I go and why? Since 1972, many visits and two year-long stays have provided ample opportunities to select my favorite places. My choices, I realized, were determined by the Jew I was not.
I grew up, as did everyone I knew, with grandparents who were immigrants from Eastern Europe and parents who were assimilated Jews with little expression of their Jewish identity. Baseball games were far more alluring to me than Shabbat candle-lighting or synagogue services, which were never part of my boyhood. Only Hanukkah penetrated my Jewish indifference, largely because I enjoyed the nightly flickering candle-lights and the gifts I received from my parents. I intuited that my bar mitzvah would mark my exit from Judaism. So it did.
Nothing changed until I was in my mid-30s, when I crossed paths with a former colleague who had just returned from a trip to Israel for disaffected Jewish academics. I instantly knew that I qualified for such a trip and I made my first visit to Israel in 1973. Unexpectedly fascinated, and eager for more time for exploration and discovery, I applied for and received a Fulbright professorship at Tel Aviv University. I commuted weekly from Jerusalem, my newly chosen home away from home.
During the decades that followed, many visits to Israel and another year in Jerusalem transformed my life. My years as an assimilated Jew faded away as my time in Israel increased. But not everywhere in Israel. The noisy bustle of Tel Aviv had little appeal. But Jerusalem, especially the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Sha’arei Hesed, were another story. I was fascinated by the Jews who were least like me. They lived in self-enclosed communities, seemingly oblivious to the world beyond their borders.
In the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I was immediately drawn to the Western Wall. Whether outside on the plaza or inside the chamber, I watched and listened as Jews prayed at the site of the ancient Jewish Temples, as they had millennia before the appearance of conquering Muslims who replaced the Temples with the Dome of the Rock. Although I occasionally followed the practice of wedging a note between the stones, I remained an observer, not a participant.
Inside the high-ceilinged chamber, the echoing sound of prayer was inspirational and soothing. I was intrigued by elderly bearded men who leaned against the Wall as they prayed silently and by young Orthodox boys whose teachers led them in circles of joyful song. So had religious observance passed from generation to generation.
Long before Jerusalem became a Jewish holy site and capital city, Hebron—less than 20 miles south—was embedded in Jewish history. There, according to the biblical narrative, Abraham purchased a burial cave, the first Jewish-owned site in the Promised Land, for Sarah. The Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs who followed were entombed there and King David ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.
I caught a glimpse of Hebron during my first visit to Israel. As we passed the towering Machpelah burial site, my interest was sparked. I was eager to return and learn more about the place of Hebron in Jewish history and the Israelis who had been determined to restore the Jewish community that was decimated during Arab riots in 1929.
Over time, as my fascination with Hebron deepened, I met with the leaders of the return of Jews following the Six-Day War. They taught me about Hebron history and the obstacles they confronted: Hostile, at times murderous Arabs; an Israeli government that had little interest in supporting their effort; and Israelis on the left who yearned for “peace now” and blamed settlers for obstructing it. As a historian and a Jew, I was captivated.
So it was that my years of indifference toward and distance from Judaism and the Jewish state were finally erased by my time in the ancient holy cities of Jerusalem and Hebron. There, I finally discovered my Jewish self.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books including Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).