It started with a joke.
It wasn’t even a very funny joke. Just wordplay, really, a reference under my breath. It almost went unheard.
I was carrying my tray towards the front room and trying to find some friends in Val who I had planned to sit with – an inauspicious enough beginning to what became a year-long struggle. I had gone to far into the section and I heard my name being called from somewhere behind me, closer to the main thouroughfare of lunchtime traffic. I think it was October.
I whirled around, splashing water all over my train and turning my napkins, which had previously been so craftily scrunched under my plate, into a soggy, brown mess. “HINEINI!” I shouted gleefully. It was October and everything was beautiful and I was happy to be back at school, now a sophomore.
“What?” My friend laughed. “What did you just say?”
That was it. I just shrugged and we moved on. Not even really a joke at all, see?
Heneini. How had I forgotten, even for a moment, that no one here spoke Hebrew? It’s been just over four years since the last time I lived in Israel with any sense of permanence. I was in high school and for the most part I don’t even speak to people from that semester any more. I thought I had moved on.
How strange, then, that in a moment of easy happiness, that phrase would pop out. It was a perfect Freudian slip.
Heneini translates into English as “Here I am” but you wouldn’t exactly use it in casual conversation.
In Genesis chapters 18-22 the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah are told that despite their old age, God will give them a child. When the child is born, they name him Isaac, meaning One Who Laughs because Sarah laughed at the idea that she could conceive. In the same passage, God and Abraham argue over the destruction of Soddom and Gomorrah. God then summons Abraham once again:
And he said, “Here I am.”
God said, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt-offering…”
You know the rest of this story: Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac but and angel intervenes and provides an animal so Abraham doesn’t actually have to kill his own son. It’s sort of a weird moment in the bible. When we come to that passage in the year, I always have a lot of trouble with it. But that’s not the point of this post…
Here I am – heneini – what Abraham tells God to prove his loyalty. Abraham will sacrifice even his only son, his promised child, for God’s love. And how does he tell God? By asserting selfhood. Here. I. Am. All compacted into one word because that’s how the Hebrew language words, with a monumental idea and history and bloodline in every intonation, each syllable.
In Israel, no matter how “religious” you are, you know your bible. Hebrew is a biblical language that was only adapted to modern thought in the last century. Israel, then, both because of its religious foundation and in the very language we use in deeply embedded with biblical references. For all these reasons it wasn’t at all a clever or notable joke to cite Abraham’s assertion to God in casual conversation.
It struck me, though, when I was pulled back momentarily, instinctually, into that language. HINEINI! Here I am! Here I am at Val. Here I am making references to the ancient, the powerful, and I’m sitting in this noisy cafeteria full of… Amherst College students. All of a sudden it didn’t feel quite right anymore. I felt separate from my friends, an Other. And, despite my greatest protests and attempts to repress the urge, I felt pulled back.
I am not American and I am not Israeli. I am, like most Jews, a member of a nomadic tribe – a wanderer.
I appear to settle well: I like making my room look “me” and I like making friends. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not restless. I am a transnational, a member of two nations and condemned #constantLy to split myself between them.
So here I am, sophomore year is wrapping up and I’m getting ready to head out again. I’ve made arrangements with an absorption center at Kibbutz Ketura (a socialist agriculture community in Israel’s Negev Desert) and the biligual first aid program that Magen David Adom sponsors in Tel Aviv. The plan, at the moment, stands that I’ll come back in a semester, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’m not ruling out staying for longer…
Much love, she-bomb readers (bear with me, I’m feeling nostalgic already),