A Gathering of Diasporas
An Israeli in New York contemplates her homeland
Shelly Oria is an Israeli expatriate living in Manhattan’s East Village. A twenty-nine-year-old graduate student in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, she is working on her thesis collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, and beginning to get stories published here in the United States. In Israel she was involved in theater, wrote plays, and did some freelance writing. I met Shelly when she audited a class I was teaching a couple of years ago; she was one of the more outspoken and engaged people in the group. Her husband, Ariel Steinlauf, is launching Newkio, a technology company that aims to help young musicians promote their work online. They moved to New York together five years ago, and plan to return to Israel eventually.
I grew up in a Jewish family that questioned Zionism and was politically critical of Israel. As an adult, my feelings have morphed countless times. Talking to people for this column, I have learned that it’s nearly impossible to discuss faith without the topic of Jewish identity creeping in; it’s also nearly impossible to talk about Jewish identity without Israel entering the mix.
Both of your parents are Israeli, yet you were born here. How did that come about?
My dad, Avi Oria, is an actor. When he was a kid, he heard—God knows how—of RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and he decided that he was going to go. My parents moved to London after they got married so that he could go to RADA. They spent a few years there, and then they moved to New York, and then L.A. I was born when they were in California. But they went back to Israel immediately. I was just seven weeks old.
Why did they move back to Israel?
My dad knew his career as an actor was just going to go more smoothly there. He had promising offers waiting for him in Israel. And in Israel they had extended family. My mom’s mother really sort of raised me the first years when they returned.
How long had your parents’ families been in Israel?
My mom is eleventh generation, so I can’t even trace it back. From my dad’s side it’s Poland on both sides. His parents left there just in time. They came to Israel in 1933, I believe—really last minute. Most of my grandmother’s extended family died in the Holocaust.
What was your childhood like?
We went everywhere Dad got an acting offer: Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Haifa. Then we went back to Tel Aviv, but to a different neighborhood than before. We stayed there for six years and then, when I was ten, when my mom was pregnant with my sister, we moved to Givatayim, a small town right next to Tel Aviv. And that’s where I grew up, more than any other place. That’s where I went to high school.
Several of the people I’ve talked to for this column have been to Israel—either as kids on a kind of enforced pilgrimage, or as adults as part of a deep spiritual quest. I’ve known many people who’ve traveled there expecting to find that elusive and mysterious sense of belonging, to find their homeland; some have found it, others have been miserably disappointed. Obviously, it’s where you’re from, so it’s your home. Do you also experience it as a Jewish homeland?
I don’t think that it is a Jewish homeland. It is a homeland in the sense that Ariel, my husband, is a homeland. My parents are a homeland. It’s an Israeli homeland—if that means something. I just feel that to say that it’s a Jewish homeland sort of presupposes that I’m in need of a Jewish homeland, that I necessarily feel Jewish, and that “Jewish” means the same thing here and there.
What do you think is the difference between what Jewish means here and what Jewish means there?
The perception here, for whatever reason, even of well-educated people whom I admire, is that Jewish equals Eastern European Jewish. But there are Jews all over the world in every place; there are black Jews and there are white Jews and there are brown Jews. There are Jews from pretty much every place in the universe. In Israel it is very apparent. It is sort of, you know, “kibbutz galuyot.” It literally means something like “the gathering of Diasporas,” but it means, “People—well, Jews, really—from all over the world that have come here.” And a lot of them have married each other and have created this different Jew who is a really interesting mixture and, maybe ironically, includes Arabic cultures that make it, I think, cooler and more interesting. It’s a more complex identity.
Also, people here just have this twisted view that Israel’s a religious place, when it’s not. The fact is that religious people are really a minority. They’re a very powerful minority, but a minority. Most people are secular. I guess that maybe I, too, have a twisted idea because I grew up mainly in Tel Aviv. And Tel Aviv is a bubble in many ways—sort of like New York is. It is like New York in terms of nightlife and coffee shops and bars, and that becomes a religion in its own right. It’s where people sort of go to hide from both religion and from, you know, the situation. Tel Aviv is really a wonderful escape because you can be happy and not think about any kind of war.
Were you raised with a religious upbringing at all?
No. Though I guess for people here, some of my background would be religious. My mother did grow up in a religious home until she was fourteen and her father died. He was really the religious person in that household.
What does the word “religious” mean to you?
My mother’s family observed Shabbat. And my grandfather used to go to the synagogue, to the Beit Knesset. I think they kept kosher at home. Shabbat, in Israel, is where you draw the line between religious and non-religious for most people. There are a lot of customs that many people do, and that’s why I said that I might be considered religious here. If I say I fast on Yom Kippur, people here are like, “Oh, you’re religious.” I think that in Israel a lot of people fast on Yom Kippur. Pretty much everyone does something on Pesach. But most people that I know are secular, so Passover is just a family dinner thing with matzos. The big trend among secular people in Israel is only doing the first part of the Haggadah. And there are crazy raves on that night in Tel Aviv. So people want to rush through Seder to get to the parties. In my family they actually do the whole Haggadah. And we are considered freaks by other secular people; we don’t have any religious friends. They ask, “Why do you do that?” For us it’s just fun.
Why does everybody go to raves and parties on Passover?
Mainly I think it’s just an occasion where everyone has time off work.
So it’s not some kind of symbolic liberation?
I can claim that it is. It would make my people look better.
Did you believe in God growing up?
The short answer is no. My mom definitely believes in God. She doesn’t do a whole lot about it. She chooses not to be religious. My dad sort of believes; I remember asking him when I was a little girl. And he said, “I believe in some kind of power that’s out there. I don’t think it’s God, but there’s something.” As a kid I sort of was more toward my mom’s end of the spectrum: “Yeah, there’s a God-ish entity.” And as I grew up, I started to feel like, it’s something but it’s more of an energy, creative energy, energy that people put out. That’s what I believe in.
So you feel that this energy comes from people, it’s not outside of people?
I think that might not be a contradiction. I think it can be both. I think that when people all around the world are putting out this energy, it becomes something that is bigger than what we are. One and one doesn’t equal two; it equals more than that.
Synchronicity is a sign of that energy, of God in that context. For my thesis I was working on this story. It’s called “Freedom,” and it’s about this character who is making a documentary in Gaza. One of the major problems of the story was that I don’t know anything about this subject. Not only am I not comfortable discussing this documentary in Gaza, but just making a documentary film in general. It’s one of the major problems in the story. The last time I worked on it was probably two months ago. The other day I was reading the story again and thinking I should just let it go because of this problem. (I have a hard time letting stories go—I feel like my job is to help them, like they’re kids.) The next day I get this email from my friend Melissa, saying that she and her boyfriend—who is a documentary filmmaker—are going to shoot in Gaza, and she wanted to talk to me and get advice before they go. I hadn’t looked at the story in months.
That’s the presence of the kind of God that I want to believe in, the kind of God who believes in your creativity, everyone’s creativity. The kind of God that wants people to love each other. It’s not the God of organized religion; it is the God of good deeds. Every time I see I can help someone to get unblocked, to feel better about a certain issue, a certain pain, and every time someone does that for me, that’s God for me.