Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are
born and reborn again.”
Upon departure, I felt the cinch around my heart pull tighter with each passing mile, each breathtaking view stealing my hiccuping gasps and leaving them in the valleys, a part of me desperate to stay.
How many times have I heard someone describe leaving Israel in exactly this way? Except I wasn’t leaving Israel — I was driving southbound out of the Sautee-Nacoochee valley of the North Georgia mountains.
Even though I grew up in the suburban hub of Gainesville, Georgia, about 40 minutes away, the mountains have always felt like my home. Whether camping with my dad or wrangling kids at Camp Coleman, or exploring street festivals, hole-in-the-wall museums, ancient waterfalls or scrubby fields, when it came time to leave those mountains it always felt like I was leaving a bit of myself behind.
I wanted to feel this way in Israel. I tried to love the alien shrubbery, the cream-colored rock faces and limestone buildings. But I never quite got that much-coveted, clichéd declaration deep within my gut that I, as a Diasporic Jew, was presumably meant to feel—the belief that being in Israel is “Like Coming Home.” I picture that quote on a banner hanging from a second-story window in the middle of a town square. But the square is not at a traffic circle outside my apartment in Jerusalem; it is on the balcony of the Northeast Georgia Welcome Center as a bluegrass band finger-picks ditties below.
There are similarities between my mountains and Israel. Each land is ancient and lovely and unforgiving. There have been triumphs and atrocities involving people whom I do not know whether to weep for or exult. The reigning faiths in both places have a ghostly familiarity and an off-putting otherness about them.
It’s not just that Israel is not my home, and never will be. It’s that the North Georgia mountains are my homeland. This is where I am spiritual and contemplative and discontent with the facts of politics and blissfully comfortable with the way everything feels like it’s just the way things have always been, all at once. When I’ve been away for months, I could fall to the ground to kiss the rusty red clay.
What makes this land holy for me in a way that Israel is not?
It is because I am returning to myself– to the bruised-knee, tangle-haired, missing-toothed curiosity of my youth. Like the Sabbath, time stands still as I shift from checking my phone to admiring steers ankle-deep in a muddy pond. I embrace the inevitable bug bites and barbed hitchhikers clinging to my jeans as I push through tall grasses in search of one more glimpse of the mountain face, and then one more after that, humming songs older than memory in a language that vaguely resembles my own.
It’s simpler in the mountains, because mountains don’t care about my age or my era or my faith. They don’t notice how I mark a map or build a fence; they move at their own eternal pace with a patience I cannot comprehend, and will continue long after I have returned as dust and ashes in their midst. Until then, I will treat every arrival as a departure, savoring the wordless rush of peace and awe sustained in that holy land.