This past summer, I was bat mitzvahed on a mountaintop at dawn.
Now, I need you to understand just how strange that statement sounds coming from me. First, I’m 20 years old. Second, I’m an incorrigible
night owl, so, for me, doing anything “at dawn” is unprecedented. Third, my appreciation for the great outdoors is limited to Planet Earth reruns. But perhaps the strangest thing about my bat mitzvah is this: I’m not Jewish.
Or, at least, that’s what I would have said if you’d asked me a few months ago—what I did say repeatedly to the nice young men in button-down shirts who knocked on my door one February evening with clipboards and fliers offering a “free trip to Israel” through the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Still, they went onto insist that I was qualified despite my undying protests.
True, I have some distant blood connection to Zion, and I did grow up in a Massachusetts suburb affectionately nicknamed “Jewton,” so I’ve played my fair share of Coke and Pepsi at bar and bat mitzvahs. But when it came to me—myself— I couldn’t help but scoff, unconvinced that a matrilineal great-grandmother who eventually converted gave me the right to claim membership to someone else’s heritage.
“You don’t want me,” I yelled into the phone. “I’m not Jewish enough”—but eventually, the patient gentleman at the other end hit home: “Look. Let me put it this way: If it was good enough for the Nazis, it’s good enough for us.”
“Alright,” I sighed, “but if they turn me back at the border, you’re still paying for my plane ticket.” And, with that, I was off.
For the ten days I was batted around the Israeli countryside, a period of time at once instantaneous and interminable, words poured from my ever-scribbling hand to the small purple notebook I carried with me. There, stories of new friends and drunken nights mingled with accounts of army graveyards and the children’s memorial at Yad VaShem, as I was flung from agony to ecstasy and back again, stained at once with incomparable tahini sauce and hot, indignant tears.
Indeed, despite the many bright spots, in those ten days, I came to understand how easy it is to succumb to despair. As I let my fingertips graze the Western Wall, I couldn’t help but break down in the face of its literalness. “It’s bricks, it’s bricks,” I wrote again and again, as I wept and wrung my hands for the millions slaughtered over the symbol it’s become. Touching history didn’t make it real—it made it small.
This disconnect between the spiritual and the actual is what I ultimately found most arresting in my time in Israel— the relentlessness with which ancient prophecy is being brought to bear on contemporary politics. Take, for example, the simple goal of retaining a Jewish majority—a clash of the scriptural and the brutally mathematical, which can’t help but jar an atheist raised with a passionate belief in the separation of church and state.
It goes without saying that any insight I may have gleaned represents but a sliver of a molecule of a sand grain in this unyielding desert struggle. Still, the one thing I can say with confidence that I learned in my ten fraught days, while swapping snack food and slang words with Israeli soldiers, is that nothing is simple. Witnessing so polarizing a conflict made clear to me what it means to wear the blinders of an individual skull, and in that way, how no one perspective can be cast aside, each person’s heartstrings twisted just as tight around this world as mine. No answer comes without consequence—nothing is not gray.
I soon saw that my free trip didn’t come without its costs. At every turn, I was bombarded with a fiercely Zionist message—chants of “Down with the Dome!” ringing across our bus’s speaker system as we passed the Temple Mount and long, cajoling conversations with trip organizers prodding, pleading with me to move “back” to this land: my birthright.
I began to understand my resistance even better as I observed and appreciated the acceptance and charity inherent in Jewish values, which seemed to me at odds with the exclusionism that colors the current practice of Zionist politics. One story told during my first official Shabbat service particularly touched me: that of the Rabbi who was challenged to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot and accepted, answering simply, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The rest is commentary.”
I experienced that generosity firsthand when I was welcomed without pretense into the home of a Jerusalem family the following Saturday. There, we shared food, traded stories—even ended up harmonizing to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I felt, for the first time that trip, a kind of holiness— my kind: cynical, profane, human—echo off the yellow walls of their living room, as our voices twined together in the late afternoon.
It was in this way that I felt able to claim some small part of Judaism—that I, staunch atheist and critic, stood on top of Masada at dawn and accepted a Jewish name: Miriam, sister of Moses, leader of women, famous for shaking her tambourine and singing as her people crossed the Red Sea to freedom. I can’t help but love that—not only because tambourines are shiny and loud, much like myself—but more so because, with the ten plagues just on her heels and an interminable stretch of desert before her, Miriam still chose joy over despair.
And so, of this incredible journey—one that chewed me up, spit me out, and returned me home swathed in stale sunscreen and so much new to say—I can only hum: And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.