My Journey to Zionism
When I was 10 years old, my parents took me to Mississippi to see an exhibit called “Without Sanctuary.”
I soon found out that this was not going to be just another vacation.
In a dark room of the exhibit, the first thing I noticed was that people were somber and quiet. There were pictures. At first, I couldn’t make out what they contained. But as they came into focus, I realized that I would never be the same again.
Men. Women. Hanging and dismembered.
The white crowds were gushing at the Sunday spectacle: a black man blowing in the breeze, disfigured and burnt to a crisp. All because of skin color. I saw my face in theirs, and wanted to scream.
That night, I dedicated myself to the notion that being black required that I carry myself with dignity — that sanctuary was sacrosanct; that love was essential.
That is how my journey started. …
I’m not sure when I knew that I was a Zionist.
Maybe it was when I heard James Wheldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, and saw the Jewish story wrapped up in my own — or maybe when I heard my father talk about Leon Uris. Or maybe it was when I watched Freedom Writers, a story about kids from broken homes who hated each other because they didn’t know the value of their own lives. Then they learned the story of Anne Frank, a young girl who was attacked for her identity, but still chose not to hate others. And then those kids learned to love.
It’s always the same story: An individual wrestling with imperfection or oppression or both, struggling with what it means to have a relationship with the Divine — to have a capacity to love even when that love is not always reciprocated. A person always trying to find meaning and significance and identity.
That is how my journey started.
I went to Rome for the first time last year. Rome has a way of surprising you with its grandiosity. But Rome is also fickle; it has a way of reminding you of your own mortality. I love Bernini, but when I saw his work, I was reminded that nothing good can last.
So as quickly as Rome excited my imagination, it depressed me and made me search the book of Ecclesiastes to explore Solomon’s confrontation with his own mortality.
I came across an explanation, by Ethan Dor-Shav:
“…the wisest of Israel’s kings realizes that not only good fortune and success, but also sorrow, power, jealousy, and oppression are all, in the end, fleeting. It is this realization that opens the doors to redemption. … ‘Go eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a content mind; for God has already graced your deeds. … Whatever you find in your power to do, do it. For there are no deeds, no contriving … and no wisdom in the abyss you are bound for.’ Like fleeting cherry blossoms, almost sacredly ephemeral, the transience of (life) inspires Kohelet’s existential transformation. It encapsulates the beauty of sunsets, autumn leaves, or the Impressionist’s fascination with fleeting light. For it is precisely the transience of these things that moves us.”
I share this part of my journey with you so that you’ll know that I have felt, at times, vulnerable and alienated. Even though I am a public figure, I am first and foremost a human being searching — as all human beings do — for significance and belonging. I share in this frightening and beautiful adventure with you.
After Rome, I began to read and listen voraciously. Steinbeck and Tolstoy and Shakespeare and Angelou and Baldwin and Soloveitcheik and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley and Nina Simone and Kendrick Lamar and Assaf Avidan — and all those who carry anguish and abandonment but are still brave enough to sing of redemption.
That is how my journey started.
I went to Israel for the first time in 2013. I went to South Africa for the first time this year.
Both were potent with the force of a thousand musicians playing a thousand instruments all at once.
Like when Maya Angelou sang a song in front of the Spelman class of 1992. “Look where he brought us from,” she kept singing over and over again. Over lynchings. Over disenfranchisement. Over the shortcomings of our own selves. “Look where he brought us from.”
This is the story of Israel. This is the story of South Africa. And this is my story. And this is yours, all yours.
“Look where he brought us from.”
I contain multitudes: my people’s dark and troubled past, their grace and wisdom despite it — and the Jewish story, its turmoils and triumphs, always pulling me along my search for myself.
I have sensed what Tolstoy once described as “the unutterable complexity of all living things.”
This is my Zionism.
Note: Here is a short video featuring Chloe’s recent visit to South Africa.
Chloé Valdary is the Director of Partnerships and Shillman Fellow at Jerusalem U, and a leading voice in the pro-Israel movement. Previously, she served as a Tikvah fellow at the Wall Street Journal, and was named one of the Algemeiner’s top 100 people positively affecting Jewish life today.