It happened at shacharis, the morning prayers. I was beginning the first prayer and trying to focus, but I kept noticing something I couldn’t put my finger on. Something that had caught my attention the night before, when I had been at the night prayers on my first day in Israel.
The clothes. Everyone was wearing the same clothes as me. Or, I suppose, I was wearing the same clothes as them.
I was in Bat Ayin, about to start shooting a documentary. At first, when I came, it was because I wanted to create a human portrait of the people I had remembered as being one of the more unique settlements in Israel. Since practically the moment I had started studying in Israel in 2008, I had been fascinated by the settlement community, realizing there was a complex dynamic there that most people in the United States simply didn’t understand. It was my dream to tell that story, if only a small slice of it.
But that moment during prayer began a new line of thinking, a new and different reason for my work there.
After all, it’s now been 7 years since I last covered the settlements. It’s been 9 years since I started reexploring my Judaism. Sitting in that shul, it became blindingly clear that this would be a different experience, a different message, a different vision, than when I first dreamt up this idea.
But I could feel it even at the beginning: the key was in the clothes.
After filming Purim in Bat Ayin, we spent a few days in Nachlaot, a funky hippie-ish diverse community in Jerusalem (a place I lived with my wife for about 2 years), where they were celebrating Shushan Purim. In Nachlaot, as well, I felt that weird connection, that weird voice telling me there was a bigger story here to tell.
In a funny way, being surrounded by people dressed in costumes helped me to look past our similar way of dressing and into what connected us. Our kinship.
It was the way they lived. The way they acted.
The way they hugged each other just for the simple fact that they were friends. The way the Lesters let us into our home for the whole time without batting an eye. The way wearing your emotions on your sleeve wasn’t weird, it was normal.
It was walking through the shuk at full party mode that night and seeing a chassid dancing with 20-something secular Israelis like it was no big deal. Talking to a couple who said they were religious and they came here every year because this wasn’t about divisions.
It was running into my creative soul-matches all over the city just because we were walking around. From Alex Clare to Moishe Feiglin to my rabbis from Mayanot, it was like the city was dripping with something, something, something that was so essentially me.
Back to Bat Ayin we went again, where everyone dressed like me, where they prayed like I wish I prayed, where there was something screaming, “In here you will find your truth.”
And as we filmed and spoke to our subjects, as we got to know them intimately in recorded conversations that could last as long as three hours, the truth began emerging.
That this was my home.
Not my physical home, not where I would settle my roots.
It was their independence; their way of approaching creativity, not as an artistic pursuit but as a way of thinking; their inner fire to fight for what they believed in. Their utter lack of worry about how the other dressed, or in creating uniformity.
It was my home just like Nachlaot was my home. Just like Jerusalem was my home. Just like Israel was my home. Just like my Chabad house in Arizona was my home.
Homes where freedom is the breath flowing in the air, what we suck in just by being there. Home where the freedom doesn’t impose itself on us, it’s a reality of life.
The home that I had been trying to understand for so long while I was in America, away from home, away from that inner freedom. Away from the Israel inside of me.
This all came clear to me because it was in such utter contrast to my state of mind before I left. The forgetting in America. The homelessness I felt.
The moments before I left for Bat Ayin, I had been getting caught up in so many frustrations. I was in Galut.
“Why isn’t it more creative here?!”
“Why does everyone expect us to just fit in?!”
“Why are they covering up abuse, why is no one protesting, why is everyone so complacent?!”
Frustration after frustration eating me up. And with each frustration, I shook my cage harder and harder, thinking that was they way to capture freedom, the way to escape Galut.
When we stay in one place (spiritually, physically) for too long, the problem becomes that this place turns into the “reality” we accept. If we let it.
But my wife and I had come here to Crown Heights specifically because we knew that it wasn’t our home, specifically because it was our mission to be here, to transform it.
But being here now, being here longer, we allowed it to become our home, we allowed Galut to suck us into its intoxicating, frustrating, ether of “this is the default.”
And when you start to accept that a place, that a frame of mind, is the default, and you don’t like that default, then you are homeless. You are alone. You are in a cage.
Coming to Israel was the key to the cage. It was the reminder that there is a place, there are places, that do not live this way. Where so many of my frustrations about creativity, complacency, emptiness are not really even issues. They are, in fact, a fabric of the reality.
When you realize that such places exist, it’s like realizing Moshiach can actually come. Or that he is already here, and all we need to do is reveal him.
Because the frustration I felt before I left was from a deep-seated fear that because this was reality, reality cannot actually change and I will forever be screaming into the wind, my voice being erased no matter how loud it gets.
My actions were becoming vain yells. More of an attempt to say, “I will do this anyway, even though it will make no difference!” than to truly make change, to truly believe my mission mattered.
Israel reminded me the change isn’t just possible, it exists. There’s a place where it is alive and well. It’s not a fantasy. All I need to do is open its door.
It bothered me, bothers me, that I do not dress like the people in my community. It feels like having a giant target on my back. It feels like this. Is. Not. My. Home.
When people treat me like that for that reason, it’s even more the case. When they try to do kiruv on me like I’m not religious. When they look at me funny as I walk into shul. When they get drunk on Purim and tell me I’m worse than an abuser for not wearing a kapota.
Multiply that by a million and you can get an idea of what it feels like to be someone trying to do the same thing on the internet. The people who tell me that I’m like Failed Messiah. People who tell me that I am going off the derech. People who send me emails telling me I’m too liberal, too conservative, too religious, not religious enough.
Wandering the streets of Crown Heights, homeless.
Wandering the internet, getting a drink of water from beautiful people, while the harsh sun of unhinged critical voices beats down.
This is the life of someone who does not feel like he has a home. This is the life of a person who has no center. Who expects the world around him to give him one.
Then he visits Israel. The Israel that exists in physicality. Or the Israel that lives in his heart, the one that lives in him just like it always did for his ancestors. The Israel that’s also named Yaakov, the forefather that was exiled from his home, and created a new one in Egypt.
That Israel, that Israel is a reminder that a Jew is never homeless. That the world can beat on you all it wants. That even other Jews can do that. That you can be walking through the valley of death.
And you’ll still be at home.
Because you’re walking with Israel in you, the home that God has promised you, the home where He sits and knits with us as we warm ourselves by the fire, protected by the cold of judgment and the heat of anger.
That’s what it means for a Jew to have a home. A promised land inside his heart that is his alone.
A place where you dress differently than the world, they mock you, attack you, and you proudly still wear it because you know you are wearing the clothes of your home. A place where you are living the life you dreamed of, the creative one, the loud one, the outside-the-box one, because you are home and because at home you’re allowed to be who you are.
Your only concern now becomes how to welcome other people home. The way a Chabad house does. The way Israel does. The way Bat Ayin did.
Not saying, “This isn’t the way home should be! We need to change our home! Ugh, it’s the worst here.” The voice of Galut, the voice of homelessness.
Instead saying, “Home is right here. The exact home you need. A home built just for you. Just look.
“And those people getting angry? They’re not home, or else they wouldn’t think it was their job to peer into everyone else’s. Focus. Find your home. And when you do, make sure you tell other people the same thing.”
The memory of my trip is fading. I’m already becoming homesick, and soon I’ll forget to be sick at all.
But when I put on my clothes, and I walk into shul or onto the street, I’ll remember Bat Ayin. I’ll remember the place where everyone dressed like me. I’ll remember that I’m not weird, rather that the physical world I inhabit does not reflect my spiritual reality.
And hopefully, as I forget my trip, I will remember Israel.