In the summer after my freshman year, I participated in the Maccabiah games, which is a worldwide gathering of Jews, in an Olympic style competition, that happens every four years. It was a three week experience in Israel, in which we traveled, and then went to the competitions, which in my case was Track and Field. Even though I came in order to compete, the actual track meet was just another addition to my experience.
My first year of highschool was a rocky period in my life. I really had no identity. I felt ashamed at times of my Jewish heritage, and maybe left out. Soon after I embarked on my Maccabiah journey, something hit me strongly as I realized that everyone around me had all one common bond — we were all Jewish. A minority turned into a majority, it gave me a feeling of belonging. It was suddenly cool to be Jewish.
A part of the trip was a visit to Yad Vashem, which is the holocaust museum in Israel. Walking through the museum, I felt newfound feelings of anger, and unending sorrow. After this experience I began to get involved in holocaust studies, reading Elie Weisel, reading Anne Frank and entrenching myself in Judaic studies. I listened to Hebrew music, read Hebrew lyrics, taught myself to read and write, and really absorbed everything I could.
As the trip progressed we kept doing things that were unique to only the state of Israel. We went to the Dead Sea, the lowest sea in the world, where one can float on the water, and also it is said that the Dead Sea mud is the best skin treatment there is. We went to Masada, the place where the Jews withstood the Romans for years. We danced to Hebrew songs, belly danced with Bedouins, met Drews and kayaked down the Jordan River. We then ended our journey at the Western Wall. It was a strange sensation being at such a holy, world-renowned place. I didn’t know how I should have felt, but I did feel like I was at the heart of the world.
As the competitions began, we had an opening ceremony. And if I wasn’t feeling like a proud Jew before this, this experience sealed the deal. The USA team walked in and we were immediately met with a loud uproar of a 60,000 plus crowd, including the prime minister of Israel. I suddenly realized, “wow, this is a big deal.” I felt like I was home, I felt like the people in the crowd knew us already, as if it was the gathering of a people separated and then reunited. On the ground level, all the nations mingled, trading pins. I noticed Mexican Jews, Brazilian Jews, British Jews, etc. — any country, you name it. It didn’t even occur to me that they were even Jewish, but thinking back on it I now do realize that the people I befriended all had one common bond. Then came that one magical moment that I was expecting, the national anthem. Thousands upon thousands singing the national anthem, one harmonious sound. A sound of pride, yet sorrow. A sound of hope, yet pain. I no longer cared if people made fun of my Judaism. Nothing mattered anymore, the only thing in the world right there was Jews and our sense of victory.
In the actual track events, my relay team won a gold medal, beating out Venezuela and Great Britain, and defeating Israel because of a baton passing error. I had no idea a gold medal was such a big deal but when I went to my family in Israel, they treated me in awe.
When I got home, I was a different person. I can’t say this experience made me a totally different person, but I can say that it gave me so much confidence. I fell in love with my Jewish culture, and people fell in love with it as well. I embraced it, and followed it. And people actually respected me.
Everytime someone calls “the Jew,” I smile and say “that’s me.”
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