Against the Cult of Place

I didn’t have a blog when I wrote this, but that’s what it is–an essay that begs to be a blog post. And I still feel just as strongly about these issues as I did two years ago when I came back from a summer in Jerusalem. I live in a new place now, and I think I have new things to add, but I’ll save that for another time…


August 22, 2009

Whatever I write, no one is going to like it.

There is nothing I can say that will please everyone. Probably there is nothing I can say that will please anyone except myself, if after hard work I am lucky enough to put my experiences into words well enough to capture something fleeting under a glass slide, for future examination, for the sake of memory.

Why? Because I have no beautiful statements to make about peace, or politics, or culture.

I have nothing new or profound to say about the Middle East. I went to a different place and I met a lot of incredible people.

They were very different from the incredible people I have met in other places, because this place was very different from any place I have ever been.

But I did not find a homeland. I did not find a new identity. I did not connect to a heritage or a community. If I found a community at all, it was a global one—the network of friendly young people who travel and learn languages and meet people and smile and laugh and offer you a smoke with the subtitle What’s mine is yours! *

In 2008, I went to Israel to discover more about Judaism; to discover what it meant, to me, to be a Jew.

I’m no longer interested. This summer, when I went back there to learn a new language and have an adventure and find out whether I still had questions about my identity, I learned what it means, to me, to be a person—to be a woman—to be a citizen of the world—to be a lover—to be a friend. All of that is more interesting to me than what it means to belong to a particular ancient tribe, simply because of my ancestors.

Let me be very clear. I am happy that I was born a Jew. I love Jewish culture and I appreciate the struggles my forefathers went through to preserve things like the hora and the Torah. I say this lightly because I have a self-deprecating sense of humor, which is very Jewish. I enjoy making stereotypes like that. It’s fun when it’s not meant very seriously.

But I don’t see how we’ll ever stop killing each other if we continue to identify ourselves along the lines of race and heritage. Or if we deny that pronoun “we,” if we deny responsibility, simply because we have not personally lobbed a bomb at anyone. Violence against any member of humanity is a problem that belongs to all of humanity. Because if we believe we are alone and isolated in our actions, we lose the only meaningful and constructive aspect of the tribal instinct.

Race, heritage—all of that is interesting, meaningful, and worthy of our deepest respect and humility. I don’t deny it. But there’s something more important, and that’s the way two people from opposite sides of the globe, who don’t speak the same language, who grew up in totally different worlds, can laugh at the same joke or play with the same kitten; can lift each other over waves, in the vast and indifferent ocean, under the same sun that generously rises over every single city in the world every single day; can enjoy a meal in a café where dozens of other people, each from their own individual place, are meeting and talking and laughing and fighting; can enjoy their bodies together, in a small bed, by the light of a single candle.

And I can’t figure out what a place means, anyway.

This is where it happened.

If you add a personal pronoun, this type of sentence gains emotional relevance:

This is where they fought.

This is where we come from.

This is where she was born.

But only the present tense has any real significance, for me:

This is where I live—today.

This is where he lost his leg—the place where he became one-legged, as he is today.

And as for a sentence like This is where my great-grandfather once walked—no. I never knew my great-grandfather. More importantly, he never knew me. Did he carry out the daily tasks of life for me? No.

This is where my great-grandfather worked, laughed, cried. He lived for himself, and for the vague concept of me and my sister and our children and our children’s children. Perhaps he did brave things there, where he walked and worked and lived. I thank his memory for it. But I do not need to hold onto the place where he did those things. I can hold onto his memory in my memory, and that is sufficient.

Why hold onto a place after someone is no longer walking or working there?

Why hold onto a place in the past tense, why lay claim to it as your own from afar, when other people are making sentences there in their own present tense?

Why hold onto something that essentially serves the same function as a golden calf? Is it idol worship? And does it offend similarly? I think so.

I can’t imagine that God (wherever, whomever, whichever) holds the land we live on more sacred than our living, breathing, loving (and hating, hurting, make-mistaking) selves. So why should we? Why should we let it come between us?

A place is nothing. Only the people who live there give it meaning, with what they think, feel, say, and do. And meaning is not inherited. Meaning is created collectively and individually with each new generation, decade to decade, year to year, day to day. Moment to moment.

A moment can be a millennium.

A moment can be a religion.

A moment is the only place I understand and accept as a homeland.


*And this idea is a core belief of Couchsurfing, an organization I joined and became very active in the year after my return.


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