Israel at 50: Beloved Country

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Three things occurred to Naomi Weiss one sun-struck afternoon last spring on the beach in Tel Aviv:

Surprise that she could feel at home in a country so beset by jangled nerves, so angry.

Gratitude for her own good life, a miracle to thank God for.

And wonder that she was putting her own footprints on the very beach where her father and mother met, more than 50 years before, when Israel was Palestine and they were young.

Her father, Eric Weiss, was a wartime secret agent with a snap-brim, made-in-Vienna courtliness that is his trademark to this day. Gerda Feldmann, her mother, was a thin, pale Holocaust survivor with a shy smile and a look about the eyes and nose that repeats itself in her daughter.

"I see him really hustling her," Naomi says, laughing today. "He was at the beach with friends and so was she. And I think he went after her in his truest form."

Naomi Weiss first discovered in her 16th year many of the things that make her family remarkable.

It was about then she noticed the gaunt look and wispy hair that marked the old photographs of her mother in the family album.

It was then she saw her father, always unflappable, weep uncontrollably as their jet touched down in Israel and he saw Ha'aretz -- The Country -- for the first time in 25 years.

On that trip to Israel, Naomi met cousins and aunts and uncles who had the same soft eyes, the same distinctive profile, the same Biblical names that had set her apart as she was growing up in America, in the Pacific Northwest.

Naomi Weiss is 38 now, an introspective and spiritual woman.

She has the self-assurance to answer the phone at her Seattle public-relations firm with a little joke: "Naomi Weiss World Wide Communications."

But, like many in her generation, she hasn't formed a satisfactory answer yet to the biggest question of her life: What does it mean to be Jewish?

Weiss is digging hard at those roots these days.

"Because of what my family went through to survive, I have a problem with people who are cynical. I know from experience how bad life can be. I know what it's like to come from nothing."

Yet, the questions that nag at her don't seem to occur to her Israeli cousins -- to Jacob Winternitz and Ruthi Blank, who have raised four sons outside Tel Aviv, or to Ruth Or, her mother's first cousin, a judge in Jerusalem.

If it seems odd to her that they don't question, perhaps it is because they are in the homeland and she is still living outside Israel, in what Jews call the Diaspora. Perhaps it is because they have lived much of the history she has only studied.


Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company