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The Homelamnd I’ve Never Seen

By David Haldane

May 9, 2024



My late Uncle Joe had a saying he liked to use. “Scratch a goy,” he’d say, “you got a fascist.”

“Surely you don’t believe all non-Jews are bad, do you?” I’d wonder.

He would just smile sagely and repeat his dictum. “Scratch a goy, you got a fascist.”

Though I never shared that belief, I understood where it came from. Uncle Joe was a survivor of the Holocaust, in which much of his family had perished. So it wasn’t surprising that he bore no love towards those he perceived as accomplices in their murder.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Joe lately, considering the ongoing war in Gaza and the recent rise of antisemitism worldwide. I grew up in America, where being Jewish was never an issue. I always knew, of course, that my mother was a German Jew who’d survived something horrible in Europe. But the closest it ever came to affecting me was when I arrived home late from school to find her weeping in panic.

“Where have you been?” she’d demand, practically crushing my head between her hands. “Oh my God, I thought you were dead!”

Later, after calming down, she’d try to explain her extreme reaction. “When I was young,” my mother would say, “if someone came home late, we’d assume they’d been taken by the Nazis.”

Eventually, of course, someone was.

And yet—bolstered by her obsession with erecting blazing Christmas trees in our living room every December to fit in—I hardly even knew we were Jewish. For a while, my brother and I attended a Jewish Sunday school, learning a bit of the history and customs. And later, as Mom grew more relaxed about it all, we even lit a few Hanukah candles now and again.

But I never had a Bar Mitzvah. And, by the time I got to college, I wasn’t thinking much about Judaism at all. Until one day, Uncle Joe asked a simple question that caught me off guard.

“Do you believe in Israel?” he wanted to know and, for the life of me, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d heard about the troubles in the Middle East, of course, as had everyone I knew. But how I felt about them was something I just couldn’t say.

“Well,” I tentatively began, “my feelings about Israel are mixed.”

“Mixed?” he shot back. “Whada hell does that mean, mixed? You’re either vit Israel, or you’re not.”

“For me, it’s more complicated than that,” I offered.

“Vat’s complicated?” Joe shot back.

“The point,” I ventured, “is that there are two sides to the thing. I think we need to ask ourselves what the other side wants.”

“Vants?” my uncle practically roared. “Who gives a damn vat they vant?” And so we were off to the races.

Those races haunted me for many of the ensuing years. As I grew older, matured, and settled into my life, I often thought of that conversation as I read news dispatches from and about the Holy Land. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in some ways, it tormented me, made me ponder what was right and wrong and why I was stuck in this dark chasm of indecision.

Then last year, I learned that I have relatives I never knew existed who live in Germany, descendants of Holocaust survivors I’d thought had died. And so my grown daughter, Adina, and I made the trip to Chemnitz, my mother’s hometown, to meet some of them and take part in the somber laying of stolpersteine—stumble stones—in memory of our long-lost family.

It was those stones that finally broke loose the tears. Small brass bricks embedded in an obscure German sidewalk on which I’d never trod. Now they bore the weight, not only of the multitudes, but of the years, as a lone bassoonist poured a musical salve into our sadly ringing ears. Then came Oct. 7, and all the clouds cleared.

It is strange embracing a homeland you’ve never seen. And yet Israel is my homeland as sure as any place could be. If the events of Oct. 7 and their aftermath have taught me anything, it is this: that I and my loved ones would not feel at home in a world without Israel. That such a world, for us at least, would not be safe. And that, had Israel existed in the 1930s, some of my dearly departed ancestors might well have survived.

Recently I read an Epoch Times essay by one of my favorite American writers, Roger L. Simon. “I feel hated by a good percentage of my countrymen and women, not to mention the world, because I am Jewish,” Simon wrote. “The more I am irrationally hated, the more I want to affirm who I am. I was born Jewish and led a secular life, but no longer.”

Simon’s antidote to his daily discomfort is reciting the morning prayer, Modeh Ani, “in English and highly imperfect Hebrew. It goes like this: I give thanks to you, Adonai, living and eternal, for You have returned with me my soul with compassion. Abundant is Your faithfulness.”

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, recently concurred. “I am a Zionist not only because I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” he wrote. “I am also a Zionist for the most personal of reasons: because I see Israel as an insurance policy for every Jewish family, including mine, which has endured persecution and exile in the past and understands that we may not be safe in our host countries…That kind of insurance is one Jews can’t afford to lose.”

I do not pray each morning, either in English or in Hebrew, because I don’t know how. If I could, I would. I promise you this, though: if I were a much-younger man, I’d be in Israel right now fighting with the IDF. And one day, God willing, I will finally set foot in the long-lost Jewish homeland I have never seen.


David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where he writes a weekly column for The Manila Times. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer whose fifth book is scheduled for publication next year. This essay appeared originally in the Times of Israel.

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