by Norma Smith

The ingathering of the exiles to their ancestral homeland is the raison d’etre of the State of Israel. Aliya (literally ascending) is the Hebrew word for immigration to the Land of Israel. The meaning of ascent in this context is spiritual as well as physical; all Jews are educated in the belief that this ascent is an essential part of Judaism. It is the ultimate form of identification with one’s people, the Jewish people, whose life and destiny are inextricably tied to the Land of Israel. —Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs


My first lover was Middle Eastern. Amir and I met in the cramped hallway of a university dormitory in Eastern France the first day I moved into Room 76 on the third floor.

It was late August. I had arrived early, well before the fall semester began, and only two of the six high-rise dormitories were open while most of the students were still away from school. These two buildings were co-ed, to save costs of maintaining separate buildings during the summer break. The dorms, part of a recently built annex far from the original stone university buildings in the center of town, were set at the top of a steep incline above the outer edge of the old city. They towered over the fields and smaller hills below. Amir, a graduate student in one of the health science programs, was staying in a room down the hall from mine while his regular dormitory was closed for the summer.

At my first glance I found his face intensely attractive. His body was compact and graceful. We made eye contact immediately, and that look bound us to a trajectory that is a common one for people our age. We were two healthy young animals, unimpeded by nearby family or obstacles of any kind. We quickly joined forces and became lovers, without much discussion. Once he introduced me to his friends, they encouraged us. We made a handsome couple.

My room was a long narrow cell, the only furniture a cot-like bed, a small dresser beyond it, and a desk at the end of the room under the window overlooking an open field occupied by a herd of dairy cows that drifted uneasily each day from the path in the center of the field to the fence and back. Amir and I would meet in my room after most of the lights of the building were out. The concierge did not prowl the halls the way she would in the following months, when she was more explicitly charged with overseeing the virtue of the young women who flocked to the university from around the region, the country, and beyond.

Amir and I were both living worlds from our homes. For both of us, France represented something rich and historical, but we had different relationships to its wealth and to its history. I was in the land of the foreign language studied by the privileged. Amir was in the land of the colonizers. I was 19. Amir was three or four years older. His circle of friends—all foreign students in the university’s professional schools—formed the backdrop of our affair. It would be impossible for the other students at the university—French or foreign—not to know that he was an Arab. I identified myself as a Jew to Amir’s small cluster of compatriots, and they accepted me as one of their group.

The city of Besançon was a provincial capital, complete with Roman aqueduct and ancient stone buildings, a place that had for centuries regularly become home to a steady stream of peoples, one after another, crossing each other’s paths, bumping into one another, lying down together in the bushes and among the stones by the side of the sharp curve of the old Doubs River. In 1965, when I was a student in Besançon, there were Vietnamese, North Africans, Central Africans, and Middle Easterners, come to the colonial mother country for a university education, to become doctors and dentists and return to their homes, or to stay.

The main value for me of that time away from California was that it was time away from home, from America, from a war I did not understand as mine. Being away from my family meant being in a place where no one knew what I was doing with my time and my body; no one knew what I was becoming. I was free, for once, to experiment, to become a self I was too constrained to explore at home. For a number of years after, I considered that as my year of education. That year, beginning with learning a new language among people my age from all over the globe, was a time of learning to make what you might call love. At home, I conversed with no one. I was a girl in a large family dominated by my grandmother, a strong, smart, woman-loathing matriarch. I could see my mother struggling to be herself. There was certainly no room in the air of that familiar house for my voice, much less for contradicting what I saw around me. I could barely breathe, much less talk, much less question freely. So in France, my work—spiritual as well as physical—was to learn to speak. I held long conversations with foreigners, in a land where I was a foreigner.

The school year began. I enrolled in classes in Twentieth Century French literature; French popular culture—with very snide commentary on provincial customs and architecture by the Parisian professor; and a history course that included the development of French jurisprudence. At the end of each school day, I would walk back up the hill to the dormitory. Amir and I would meet for the evening meal with his friends in the cafeteria, and then drive in his deux-chevaux out into the countryside, where we could be together, alone.

In the late autumn, I became ill with a gastro-intestinal infection and was admitted suddenly to the town hospital. There, for ten days, I was surrounded by nuns, bustling around my bed, ministering to and officiating over my malady. When the university communicated with my parents about my illness, my mother quickly located a connection to Jews in the region. With the rabbi’s wife as point person, the local Jewish congregation found me, and, once I recovered and was released from the hospital, I was invited to join the shul’s youth group. The synagogue, it turned out, was one of the buildings I had passed on my daily ascent from my classes in the center of town to the new campus in the outskirts, where the dormitories stood.

Jews, it turns out, had been in the city since at least the year 1245. Pogroms came and went—waves of mob violence that were unleashed repeatedly against Jews and other minorities from the early years of Christian dominance. Families fled during the bloody 15th century and regrouped only after the French Revolution, when Jews were offered citizenship as individuals in return for losing group privileges they had enjoyed as a state-recognized but separate people. The Jewish community reestablished itself. Their leaders hired a local architect to design the grand synagogue, a graceful, solid edifice, borrowing freely from the Moorish style.

At the beginning of the 20th century, after more troubles and some occasions for hope, there were about 170 Jewish families living in the city. By the time of the Nazi occupation, in 1940, there were 2500 Jews in the town. The community was destroyed—killed and dispersed—during the four years of the Nazi regime. By 1969 (a few years after my sojourn there), it had grown again to over 200 families, largely as a result of Jewish immigration from North Africa during that region’s anti-colonial struggles.

But in 1965, in the Jewish youth group and among the adults of the congregation, I recognized the same Ashkenazi faces that I knew at home, the same voices, even in a different language, with different accents but the same tone, the same body language, the same relationships between elders and youth. Home, but not home. The judgment about my consorting with Arabs descended on me in the form of sour, sidelong glances that threatened me with ostracism from a tribe of consummate outsiders.

Being Israel: a Plot of Land, a Plot of Time

It turned out that two of the young men whom I had identified as Algerians, on the outskirts of my group of Arab friends, were Jews, after all. Their families had come to Europe with the first wave of pieds noirs—French Algerians—leaving that country during its war of independence from France in the 1950s and early 60s. These Algerian Jews, whose creamy brown skin my untrained eye could not distinguish from the skin of my Arab friends, were shocked to discover that the white girl in the group of Arabs was one of theirs, and they must have gossiped about me to the youth group they belonged to.

The only students I had identified as Jews were the Israelis, Ashkenazis who walked around as if they owned the place. They embarrassed and infuriated me. Their arrogant demeanor repulsed me. And perhaps it frightened me, as a Jew, alone in a strange land, how they called attention to themselves.

In those days, I articulated in a very flip way the feeling that I was, myself, like the land of Israel, fought over. But I was not fought over. I was accepted by the Arabs and torn at by the Jews’ newly acquired sense of ownership of this strangely Jewish girl. Did I belong to them? What was I? What kind of Jew had no instinctive understanding of the filthiness of Arabs?

Amir’s family was not, in fact, Arab. He was ethnically Lebanese, and his family was not Muslim but Christian. Yet culturally, he was from an Arabic-speaking region. Just as, culturally, with assimilation a generation behind me and speaking English, I appeared as Anglo-American, he was Arab. From an outside view, I was assumed to be Christian, as he was taken for Muslim.

Israel is not the Middle East to me. The Middle East to me is Arab or Muslim culture. My association with Israel in the Middle East is my horror at the biblical stories of brutal Hebrew conquest, which I studied in detail for the first time some years later as an adult, in a literary Bible class. My sense of Israel from the years of my childhood Jewish education was of a European culture. What I knew as Jewish—even what was written of and taught to me in Sunday school as an ancient pre-European tribe—I projected from my sense of Jewishness, which was connected to Russia, not to Zion; to my maternal grandfather’s shtetl in Mogilev, the Ukraine, not to Jerusalem. Mogilev flourished in a time when some Eastern European towns and cities like it were half-Jewish, something we can only imagine today.*

According to the entry in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site, “[A]ll Jews are educated in the belief that [aliya] is an essential part of Judaism.” Yet I was not educated in this belief. Does that mean that I am not a Jew? Does Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs speak for me? For the rest of us? Is this supposed attachment truly “the ultimate form of identification with … [my] people?”

I do not have a personal or familial attachment to Israel. I am a Jew, an Ashkenazi Jew from a line of Jews who do not value or even recognize aliya. I ascend by other well-established paths for being a Jew, asking questions. Where is justice? I love being a Jew. I love the sense of solidarity, among ourselves and toward others, and the history of justice-seeking, of demanding that things be put right—words and action, personal and in the world. When I read or hear of Israel and the acts of the Israeli government—its attempts to destroy a culture that, incidentally, welcomed me when the Jews could not—I do not want to go up to the land of Israel. I have tried to place myself there, but it is a wasteland for me.

I have no sense of Zion as a promised land. That land was not promised to me. It might have been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promised to a tiny, self-built clan of men come together around an idea for patriarchal unity. One god, created in the image of their times’ requirements, turned these men into a powerful conquering army that once marched forcefully into a new land, but later in history found itself dispersed, small and embattled again on every side. From my standpoint, that promise of Zion—that guarantee—was like a real estate agent in Florida promising a plot of steaming swampland to a New Jersey family snowed in. This is not my land. If Jeremiah is my uncle, the prophet who loved his people so intensely that he protested their mistaken path, berating them, warning them that their daily choices would damage irrevocably their most important relationships and would block them from virtue forever after, then Cassandra of Troy may be my sister, punished for rejecting a match made by her clan: forced, forever after, up against a vision of war and bloodshed that she could not avert. Don’t blame me. I name what I see. Isolation is a furious punishment, and I am helpless to seek an embrace that does not fit me. And I know, now, that I am not alone.

Go up into the land of Israel and find your home? Your landsmen are exiles there, where, in this century, villages are being burned and bulldozed. Where a thick-fisted Sabra-Cossack wears a mogendavid. Find love there?

Amir never knew that he was my first lover, yet our lives are inextricably tied to one another’s. One speaks of raison d’être, raison d’aimer. Reason for being; reason to love. But my encounter with Amir occurred before any age of reason for me. I was far from home for exactly those reasons—to learn how to hear my own history, whose meaning did not depend on a new-made language of blooming desert rhetoric.

I’d traveled thousands of miles from my cultivated valley of milk and honey to learn something important. I was not yet able to articulate it, but I could feel myself learning. I watched that herd of large uneasy domesticated beasts grazing the field outside my frozen winter window. They were not undone by the new falling snow. They reached their tongues through the cold to find the slivers of tender nourishment.

*A generation after my grandfather left, Mogilev was used by the Nazis, during their 1941-44 occupation, as an assembly place for Jews and others—a total of 100,000 Soviet citizens were collected there—on their way to detention and death in Austria and Germany.
This essay was originally prepared for a writing group entitled, “An Exploration of Being a Jew Today.” The class, offered by a progressive synagogue, contemplated our positions as American Jews, in the context of the conflict in Palestine-Israel. The prompt for the final session was: “Write about your personal relationships with the Middle East.”


Norma Smith was born in Detroit, grew up in Fresno, California, and has lived in Oakland since the late 1960s. She worked for many years in hospitals and has also worked as a journalist, a translator, an educator, and as an editor and writing coach. Her work has been published in academic, political, and literary journals. She has served recently as a writer-in-residence and event organizer at Liminal: a Feminist/Womanist Writing Space. Home Remedy, Smith’s first book of poems, was published in 2017 by Nomadic Press.