As a self-identified Jewish musician, pop culture nerd/aficionado, getting in touch with my cultural heritage in creative ways is extremely important to me. This past year I traveled to Israel for the first time and it was life changing.
I traveled with close friends from my undergraduate days at UCLA. We had bonded and formed a friendship through the blood, sweat, and tears shed in a Hebrew class.
As a Jew in the United States I realized that I was conforming to social standards without even knowing it. Coming home to Israel, this became very clear. For instance, many of my friends have very curly hair – we call it the “Jewfro” – and they remedy this problem with the ever so popular Brazilian Blowout, which definitely makes one look less “ethnic.” I have BIG hair, which I maintain by getting it razored or thinned out; if I don’t, I end up looking like Einstein. In Tel Aviv there were big heads of curly hair that were flowing with pride. My friends and I commented that we didn’t even realize how much of our Jewish identity we hid with simple hair products. Something as innocuous as our hairstyles made me step back from the manner in which we alter ourselves to fit into society here in the United States.
During our trip we mainly stayed in Tel Aviv, but also went to Jerusalem, prayed at the Kotel (Western Wall), and visited Haifa. However, Tel Aviv is where my heart is. What New York City is to Woody Allen is what Tel Aviv is for me. At first it was unsettling. I kept thinking, “How could I feel this attached to someplace I have never been?” But the answer was obvious. I saw other Jews who looked like me – tattooed, alternative, artists who embraced their heritage without conforming. Israelis who live outside of Tel Aviv believe the city exists in its own bubble, and I tend to agree with that statement. Tel Aviv is like no other city in Israel.
Growing up my family was not religious. We prayed, we believe in God, but it was not until I began my search to understand my heritage, both religious and secular, that my family began to observe Shabbat and other holidays. When I was in Tel Aviv I found that it was much easier to be Jew in a way that was comfortable for me.
As I previously stated I love pop culture. Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism edited by Rabbi Danya Rutenberg was one of the most influential and eye opening books I had read. Danya collected women’s stories from all facets of Judaism. There were experiences that a particular rabbi encountered when members of her congregation made comments on her appearance as a “sexy rabbi,” to those of a transgendered woman who faced problems when she wanted to go to the mikvah. A mikvah is a ritual bath that both women and men immerse themselves in. It is more prevalent amongst Orthodox women who immerse after their monthly cycle. But what stood out for me was the realization that I too was seeking my own access point regarding what it meant to be a Jew.
In this book and in Tel Aviv I saw representations of myself. Reading the book was powerful and emotional because it gave me a connection to my religion. However, when I was in Tel Aviv I experienced inclusivity that I have never experienced before.
There was a tangible feeling of a weight being lifted off my chest. For the first time in my life it was not assumed I was Christian. Granted, there are many people that are not Jewish living in Tel Aviv, but the inclusivity that I previously spoke about was just a given. I was amongst my tribe.
Tel Aviv is a very cosmopolitan city–from the Bauhaus architecture to the way the city comes alive at night. For me all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit together. I could combine my “alternative,” for lack of a better word, and Jewish identities without having to feel the need to explain myself. I saw other Jews who look like me in having tattoos or not conforming to what society has embedded into our culture of what a “nice Jewish girl” is. Also Tel Aviv has a large gay and lesbian population and having that visibility was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced.
Within the last six months I have been to Israel twice. When I went back the second time at the end of May I wondered if I had romanticized my first experience. Once I landed at Ben Gurion airport, again, I felt that same weight being lifted. This time I was able to recommend to my traveling companions my favorite restaurants, or a bar to get a great micro-brewed beer. I did not feel like a tourist but more like I was returning home to my family and friends. The energy that Tel Aviv exudes is captivating for me. It can be a tough city and for some, and it might take a while to get used to the mannerisms of Israelis.
During my first trip I was fortunate enough to schedule a meeting with Shira Geffen. Geffen and her husband, the author Etgar Keret, made the movie Jellyfish or as it is called in Hebrew, Meduzot. During my interview with Shira I got a glimpse of what life in Tel Aviv is like from a woman who is a native. We spoke about the women in her film and the multi-layers of the lives of these complex women, and how together they could be one person. In short, that is how I see Tel Aviv. There is such a diversity of people that not one thing could define the city, and in retrospect I can apply that to myself. I cannot be defined by one characteristic, but at the center of who I am remains the fact that I am a Jew and I love love Tel Aviv.
Laurie-Ann Cota is in her last year of of a masters program at Claremont Graduate University in Critical Comparative Scriptures with a major in Bible and a minor in theory. Her research will focus on the ways in which women change God language in rituals and liturgy and how language influences social structures in relation to gender roles within organized religion. She is a musician, an avid reader and lover of pop culture.