A couple of months ago, while participating in “United by Music,” a Portland State University event co-sponsored by the Jewish Student Union and the Arab-Persian Student Organization, I learned something that has changed my perception about growing up in the Jewish state. Despite the interesting and positive nature of this gathering, it had little to do with the event itself. On that night, one of the Jewish students was celebrating her 21st birthday and was asked by the emcee to step up. After the birthday song, the emcee said: “And now, according to Jewish tradition, we will lift her on a chair!” This sounded very odd to me. What’s Jewish about lifting a birthday chair? As far as I knew, it was as Jewish as a birthday cake or candle blowing. After asking around, I found out this is considered a Jewish tradition, and that non-Jews rarely do it on their birthdays.
Living in Portland over the past year, I’ve learned that many little things are considered “Jewish,” but this was the most shocking one. I simply had no clue. When I asked my family and friends in Israel, not one knew this was a Jewish tradition. In the English Wikipedia, an article on “birthday customs and celebrations” mentions in Israel there is a tradition of birthday chair lifting.
Growing up in Israel, you don’t really know what is considered international tradition, Jewish tradition or Israeli tradition. You just do it. When I was in high school, I found out that not everyone in the world eats vegetables and cottage cheese for breakfast.
By the time you read this, I will be back home after a year serving as Portland’s first shaliach (emissary) in more than 30 years. During that year I talked to teens about the diversity in Israel, taught college students Israeli Hanukkah songs and planted trees with young adults in North Portland to celebrate Tu B’Shevat the Israeli way. But, while my mission was to educate about Israel and to strengthen this community’s connection to it, this anecdote shows that I, too, have learned much about Jewish community, Israel and myself.
During this year I had the chance to become part of a community, a home away from home. I found here a small (well, depends who you ask) yet vibrant Jewish community. A community that itself is composed of many faces, colors and ideas. Above all, I met people who care deeply, emotionally and personally about Israel. For me, as an Israeli, this meant the world, and I feel lucky to have experienced those connections firsthand.
The shaliach program for Portland is a journey, and it doesn’t end with the first step. That is why I am so happy the community has decided to continue this program and Natalie Nahome is your new shaliach. I believe she is lucky to be in Portland and wish her the best of luck. I had an amazing year here and I am thankful for it, but being away from Israel this year was also the longest year I can remember. Israel is not just my homeland, it is my home. I don’t see myself as living in Israel but as being part of it; I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else on earth. When I was at JFK a few weeks ago and was boarding a plane back to Portland, I saw an El Al airplane and felt the strongest urge to board it instead. For me it was a clear sign – it’s time to go home.
Amos has been the Israeli shaliach (emissary) to the Jewish community of Portland for the past year. For those who wish to contact Amos in Israel, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.