I was born in 1946, in Amsterdam, and moved to the United States before I was a year old. In the next two years, I moved to Israel, and then back to the United States. I remember none of this.
But in 1958, when I was 12, I visited Israel again for an entire summer and fell in love with everything—the smells of the farms within the moshav, the heat, the adventures, and a handsome boy who actually told me he loved me in Hebrew! I spoke Hebrew poorly but enthusiastically.
I came back to New Jersey where I was growing up, now with a ever prouder Jewish identity because of my connection to an exotic, erotic other place—Israel. In the ensuing two years, while I was wending my way through junior high, Otto Preminger was on the West Coast creating the movie Exodus. When it was released, my mother, a woman who rarely went to the movies, took me into The City (i.e. New York), to see it. As the schmaltzy music soared and the gorgeous Paul Newman played his part beneath the blue skies, I began to sob uncontrollably. I sobbed so much that I put my head down on my mother’s lap and saw very little of the actual movie. (Only 40 years later, when I got the video version, did I sit through an entire showing and realize that the film is very problematic—but that’s another story.)
I can’t fully explain why I cried so hard. Was it for something I had lost when I left Israel after that magical summer? Perhaps. What I think those tears more accurately represented was a sense of being found. Here I was, a young Jewish girl who never saw herself reflected in popular culture, watching a movie that expressed how I felt. Someone understood who I was, what I loved. My romantic image of Israel was shared by someone I didn’t even know. At that moment, in the dark movie theater, I felt that my being was made clear. I was a Jewish Zionist female, and I would try to find other people who understood and appreciated what that meant.
A few months later, a young Israeli boy—the first one I had ever met in the U.S.—moved to my town and came to the high school in which I had just started 10th grade. On his very first day at my school, I walked up to him and said hello, in still broken Hebrew. He became my boyfriend immediately. A few years later we married. My Zionist and female identities have shaped my life continuously. Although as an academic, my attitude toward Israel is more nuanced than emotional, my recent book [with Mark Raider], American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise, can be read on one level as a continuation of the early stories of my life. But perhaps even more significant, my latest book (with Penina Adelman and All Feldman), The JGirl’s Guide, is the book I wish I could have read when I was a young girl. Although seeing Exodus was an overwhelming experience, its significance stemmed, in part, from the fact that there was nothing else out there. I wonder what films are shaping Jewish grils; identities today.
Otto, wherever you are, you should know what a great service you provided!
Shulamit Reinharz is a professor of sociology at Brandeis. She led its Women’s Studies Program, created the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and founded Brandeis’s Women’s Studies Research Center.