On the Crisis in Israel/Gaza and Finding Comfort in Jewish Strangers
I am an American Jew in France. I do not fully comprehend the attrocity and heartache that has played out in Israel/Gaza over the last eight days. I don't honestly think that anyone who does not reside in Israel/Gaza can make any true claims at understanding. But I have many family friends who call Israel home and I do
understand that my heart skips a beat for them each time I refresh the Haaretz (an Israeli newspaper) webpage and read that yet another rocket has landed in Israel. I understand that my stomach lurches up into my throat when I see another American facebook friend post polemics in the name of Gaza, damning the occupying Israelis, utterly neglecting the hundreds of rockets that have landed in Israel in the last eight days. My French is suddenly rapid-fire fluent when it comes to defending the people I love in the face of a classmate claiming that Israel is a country of violent, massacring, oppressors. I whisper Hebrew to myself on the Paris metro, praying for that crazy thing called peace in a land I hardly know. It is from this place of extreme over-exposure to the news, maddening social media saturation, and above all, crippling helplessness (pragmatically and ideologically) that I write--please bear with me if my thoughts are not clear or appear more politicized than I intend.
At this point you're probably terribly confused at where I'm going; did I forget there was a prompt? Where are the strangers in the above described moment of cultural homogeneity? I do in fact realize that this post is meant to be on the comfort of strangers in travel. On the deep sigh of relief wrought by the smallest trace of the familiar in a sea of the foreign. On that comforting moment when you see an unknown other reflect a part of yourself you thought that no one else could see. On that calming breath that comes when you realize you're a little less alone in a place that's not quite home.
I am not particularly religious, but I feel safer when I see a man with a kippah and remember that I am not the only Jew in Paris. I do not keep kosher but I go out of my way to walk down rue de Rosiers past the bakeries with challah in the window and Hebrew on the door. I haven't been to Shabbat Services in a very long time but I cling to the professor who's offered to bring me to her synagogue. I've never met my landlord, but I feel personally connected to her via the mezuzahs on every door of our apartment.
I do not understand this phenomenon in myself. To some extent, I am troubled by it As a general life philosophy, I try to see the humanity in everyone, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, etc. I don't believe this philosophy to be particularly exceptional, nor am I pointing it out as a matter of self-merit. It should be obvious that an innocent civilian death in Gaza is every bit as heartbreaking as one in Israel and I do not think I am unique in grieving them both. Yet amongst my peers (other American college students), am I unique in seeing a visibly Jewish family walking down the street and taking comfort in a sighting of my proverbial people? Is this gut reaction of comfort in the presence of a selective group of strangers a gateway to ideological violence? Does it mean I'm taking a side and thereby diminishing my capacity to see past social constructions into that amorphous ideal of universal humanity?
I think not. I think, rather, that it is inevitable to be drawn to certain strangers more than others. And as thanksgiving approaches, I take a moment to be thankful to be a part of a community of strangers that gives me comfort in the streets of Paris. Thankful to know that though the sky may fall and I cannot comprehend it, though my loved ones may suffer and I am utterly helpless to end it, a professor, a would-be stranger, has given me a place to go for Shabbos, and that has made all the difference.
(the photo is my own. It is of a very old synagogue I happened to stumble upon while wandering in the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter of Paris)