Pacific Northwest Zionism: Healing Through Connection to the Land

I grew up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the indigenous homeland of the Kalapuya people. Salmon, longhouses, Cedar trees and stories of Coyote, the trickster, ran throughout my childhood imagination. This civilization ran alongside the stories, images and symbols of my Jewish people. Growing up close to Indigenous people in America provided me with a constant awareness of their unique connection to the land. This was the place of their ancestors, not my own. Everything around me, the natural world I lived in, reflected the wisdom of their people, not my own. They belonged to the green, fertile valley between the old and new Cascade mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest.

On the other hand, I belong to a tribe, a people, a nation whose land was far away. I honored and practiced the ways of my tribe within my home and at the synagogue. We prayed towards Israel. We ate according to the ancient customs of our tribe; we honored the holy days according to our particular spiritual cycle. The moon guided us. Stories spanning thousands of years guided us. We were, we are, a tribe living among other tribes. A displaced and pushed-around tribe. Making it wherever we can find a safe and stable place to call home — in my case, Eugene, Ore.

I had a dream more than 30 years ago that my father and I were dancing with the Torah, wearing our tallitot (prayer shawls) in a longhouse — a traditional communal sacred structure of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. We danced and sang with the Torah, and Hebrew words spilled out of our mouths as hundreds of native people sat along the long walls and watched us pray and dance with our scroll. We were the remnant left of our people, culture and indigenous ways. We were the remnant of our people after 2,000 years of expulsion, massacre, oppression and forced assimilation.

We, too, are an endangered tribe. Like the Kapapuya people of the Willamette Valley or the Nisqually people of the Puget Sound, among whom I live today in Washington State. We, too, struggle to hold onto our culture and practices within dominant cultures that seek to do harm or erase us. And the connection to the land has kept us, saved us and moved us forward.

“My father turned three times a day towards Jerusalem in prayer. It was turning towards Israel in prayer that kept our hope alive.” This was what my mother, a Moroccan Jew, taught me about being a Zionist.

Zionism was not modern or new to my ancestors or my family. It was a thread that ran through everything — from eating a pomegranate at Rosh Hashanah to daily praying for return to our land to stories of ancestors visiting places that hold those same names today. The knowledge that there was a home, a place for our people to return and come together again, was life-giving. Zionism is life. It is what pulls us towards life.

I learned from my friends in the Native American Student Union at the University of Oregon that the healing of indigenous trauma comes from the ancient wisdom of their people. The ways of the white people were not nurturing or sustaining for their wounds — those inherited and experienced, the wounds of colonialism, invasion and genocide. From my university days forward, I saw that this is also true for my tribe, the Jewish people. Our healing is in our indigenous ways, our restoration of the land and our connection to it. That is why I became a rabbi.

“It was turning towards Israel in prayer that kept our hope alive,” my mother, a Moroccan Jew, taught me about being a Zionist.

Who has honor? The one who honors others. This ancient teaching directed my Jewish community in Oregon to seek opportunities to celebrate and learn from the indigenous people that the times and tides of history drew us towards. It is a blessing today to live among the Coast Salish people. Dwell on their ancestral land, and be allies to them in maintaining their heritage and place. And by honoring them, I keep my people. I also stand up for the Jewish people. Our connection to the environment in which we established ourselves and where places, high and low places, hold sacred connections.

I frequent a park in Redmond, Wash., with my dogs. In the middle of this vast park, alongside a river, is an archaeological site marked and preserved by the University of Washington. This site dates to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. The site is considered prehistoric. But when I walk along this site on a clear Shabbat afternoon, having just chanted Psalm 92 — the song for the day of Shabbat with my community, which we have been singing together since the Temple — I know it is not prehistory. Both peoples are alive. We live! The people of that ancient site and my tribe still exist. We are still rooted in our land.

When I stand on the Salish site in the park, I imagine the indigenous people summering along the beautiful river running through the park, knowing that the herons above and the waters coming through from the mountains have been there all along. The natural world keeps flowing, as do our tribes. We are witnessing the evolving human civilization of the land. Adapting. So, too, in Israel, the olive trees and the rocks bear witness. The land and people adapt. Tribes battle for resources; in so many ways, we are not different from our ancestors, our tribal leaders of antiquity. We keep holding on.

Zionism is my thread of hope. It is the restoration of the assaulted Jewish spirit. It is healing. It is my gratitude to those who came before me. It is my prayer for those who come after me. It is my honor for the earth. It is the integrity, the strength of our people.

And yet, our ultimate Jewish vision is that a world filled with God’s presence is a world at peace, in which Israel is quiet, safe and relaxed amongst her neighbors. Our tribe, in repose, among the other tribes of the world, resting together as in the messianic vision of the lion and the lamb. Or, in the Pacific Northwest, we might imagine an eagle and a salmon together in peace.

Peace is older than war. It is the origin. We are indigenous to peace as human beings, not war. This I know as a mother, a life-giver. We are all indigenous to peace. And every human can lead humanity towards the reality of world peace by connecting to their own inherited and inherent wisdom and rootedness in this earth. It is our connection to the Earth that will ultimately redeem us from the ways of war and destruction. Making all places, not just Zion, fit for Her Majesty.

4 Responses

  1. Yohanna,
    Your words are so poignant and paint a vision of peace that Jews across this nation are hoping for every day. Here in Rockaway, NY, as I walk along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, I too reflect on the how our tribe is struggling to exist and what we must do as American Jews to redeem us from the ways of war and destruction. The beauty of the waves washing over the sand provides a calmness that brings me closer to God, Israel and inner peace. Todah Rabah🇮🇱

  2. I knew your parents. I am so happy to read your words and see you carrying on the important work. In the days of my outspoken feminism (not that I don’t still talk) I questioned our tradition of G-d’s masculinity . Your father said, “God doesn’t have a body.” He was the first, and one of the only people, who I believed did not picture an old white man with a bear.d.
    Alixe in Roseburg

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