May 19, 2019

Wandering Israelis

If you had asked me as a child what I’d always remember from Jewish Day School, I doubt I would have counted Larry Milder’s song “Wherever You Go” among the minutiae I’d retain.

But the combination of really corny lyrics (no offense, Mr. Milder) and corresponding hand gestures really stitched them into my memory bank:

“Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish  / You’re never alone ’cause God made you a Jew / So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of new-ish / The odds are, don’t look far — ’cause they’re Jewish, too.”

Not exactly a cultural highpoint of Judaism, and yet, I confess, I find myself singing this song all the time. Partly because the melody is one of those super-catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melodies, but also because of something deeper: Whenever I travel, I always run into Jews. And I know they’re Jews not because of beards and payot, but because they’re speaking Hebrew — meaning, they’re Israelis. And they’re everywhere.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight. There is something profound and poetic about Jews returning to places where Jewish life has been destroyed, dulled or lost. But I’ve come to recognize many reasons behind the Israeli impulse to explore the Diaspora — and what it reveals about the Jewish psyche.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight.

I first noticed the phenomenon of Israelis abroad when backpacking in Southeast Asia during Passover. I signed up with Chabad for what I assumed would be a modest seder in Phuket, Thailand, and was stunned when I entered a huge banquet hall with some 500 Israelis. I found them again in Inle Lake, Myanmar, where hotels were full of discarded guidebooks in Hebrew. Or in the Yangon airport, where hearing the sound of “Yalla, kadima!” turned into a daylong caravan with Israelis around the sites of the city.

I found them again in Budapest. And in Paris. And in Spain. When I told a friend I was interested in the “El Camino de Santiago” pilgrimage, he got me a book written by an Israeli about foraging for food along the way.

The Israeli draw to the world is deep and strong, propelled in part by the archetypal Jewish condition of wandering, which characterized Jewish life for thousands of years. But it’s also motivated by varying degrees of restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo that has inspired Jewish innovation and philosophy throughout the ages.

After completing their army service, the Israeli Student Travel Association estimates that from 30,000 and 40,000 young Israelis go backpacking every year. It’s their way of escaping the chaos and life in a war zone and reclaiming individual freedom. And they’re not alone: Last year, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced that more than 2.2 million Israelis had flown abroad in just a six-month period, leading one travel agent to declare, “The people of Israel are simply going on vacation at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world.”

Into the cities where synagogues and Jewish quarters are today exoskeletons of a vibrant past, come the vivacious, boisterous, beautiful citizens of Israel, each bearing the gifts of Jewish statehood. From the sonorous sounds of the Hebrew language to the country’s economic successes that made leisure travel possible, Israelis are the roving satellite sparks of a reinvigorated Jewish nation.

We are both rooted and worldly. From the Jews who built the shtetl to those who ushered the Spanish Golden Age, Jewishness has existed and flourished on almost every continent throughout time. Note that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, does not celebrate the birthday of the Jews but the birthday of the world. We are tribal, but we have also always been universal.

Beyond Israeli tourism abroad, it is estimated that more than 1 million Israelis now live in the Diaspora — most of them in the United States. While it has undoubtedly expanded the reach and impact of Israeli culture, and been a significant political asset, it also may be compromising Israeli innovation, contributing to a so-called “brain drain,” and diminishing the Israeli census.

From 2012 and 2015, Israel lost more people to the United States (18,000) than it gained through American aliyah (13,000), according to the Department of Homeland Security. This prompted Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry to launch the campaign “Returning at 70,” to draw Israeli expats back home. Their presence is needed.

But, of course, it’s the security of having a homeland that allows Israelis to wander and still feel safe.