Israel: From Imagination to Reality

For the past 25 or so years, since that first near miss when I considered spending three months in Tzfat but wound up in Mexico instead through American Jewish World Service, Israel has loomed large in my imagination and dreams. There were other aborted trips -- the Nathan Cummings Board trip I organized as Rabbi Rachel Cowan's assistant in 1996, canceled due to bombings, the Birthright trip I was asked to lead as a Hillel Director that I turned down, the summer of free study at Pardes I also declined the summer before I got pregnant with Aviva, opting instead to stay closer to home.

I have looked back many times on those moments -- some choices made for me and others very much actively my own -- and trusted that it was not yet my time. As I said to V in Tzfat, had I gone there in my early 20s, she and Pearl would probably not be here. I think something in me knew, throughout that decade, that if I set foot in Israel, I might not come back. The same was true, 20 years ago, of exploring rabbinical school; I couldn't figure out how it would "fit" with my life, because so much of who I needed to become was still hidden.

Now, my life has deeper roots -- children growing up, a business I love, a marriage that feels deeply secure. I needed this, before I could travel to this country of my ancestors and dreams, in order to have a sturdy enough sense of my life that I would be ready to meet Israel.

When my parents asked me last fall if I would want to join them for a trip with Aviva, I said I needed to think about it. Was I still too afraid to go -- not for my physical safety, but for my ability to hold myself steady and trust that I would return?

After a week, I called them back and said yes. I was ready.

I have only barely begun to explore the implications of having visited in "real life," beginning with this piece I wrote yesterday and shared last night with my newsletter peeps. It barely scratches the surface, and who knows, may become part of something larger. In any case, I will likely continue to share as the writing unfolds.

In Israel, my sense of belonging was palpable. I loved the heat, the salt air of Tel Aviv, the crowded markets and vast open desert spaces. The Russian-speaking taxi drivers and the Georgian khachapuri maker in Jerusalem who taught my mother his wedding dance. The jaded one who called Holocaust Memorial Day his "hol"iday, since he did, after all, survive as a child before finding his way to this tiny slice of land so far from his hometown, which was obliterated along with most of his family. This year he will turn 80. I belonged with the hagglers in the Jaffa market and the ring-maker in Tzfat, with "this too shall pass" and the blue doorways and potted flowers and feral cats. The little boys with their tzitzit flying behind them as they played in the alley and the girls in their white dresses giggling before the wedding in the hotel courtyard. I belonged in the Old City as the muezzin cried the call to prayer, the sound piercing me. I belonged even amidst the soldiers, babies really, prepared to protect their country at all costs. I belonged to the Druze in their BMWs and the hotel receptionists whose first names revealed everything and nothing about their origins and the hippies at the hostel with their bare feet and old couches and guitars. I belonged with the black birds at Masada who stood sentry as if guardians of time, and with the Christian tourists at the Carmelite Monastery who passed under a silk threshold and sang, with the stone, the stone, the stone, each and every stone containing a story, a slice of history, a hand print, warm from years of weather and engraved by wind and rain and sun.

I belonged at the Kotel (Western Wall). Maybe more than anywhere else, I belonged at the Wall. I did not have a preconception or expectation as I approached; for all I knew, it would be one of those utterly anti-climactic moments. But no. There was nothing anti-climactic about it. I don't even remember the tears falling, only that my cheeks were were wet, soaked, as a leaned my face against the wall, pressed my body, my heart, my belly close, and whispered. Only that standing there was perhaps the greatest relief of my life, and that "coming home" is too shallow a phrase to capture it. I wept quietly, "I missed you, I missed you, I missed you." Leaving felt more like a tearing away. How could I leave? How could I ever leave again? "I will be back soon," I promised, my mother and daughter waiting for me. Thought there were many people around me, I felt utterly and completely intimate with the experience; words don't do it justice. We snaked our way through the crowd; I opted out of the tour of underground tunnels afterwards, seeing that my daughter also needed some space. Our guide, my mother's old friend, led us out to the Jewish Quarter to a place where we could get a cold drink and something to eat. A Judaica store caught my eye and we wandered in. I tried on a tallit with birds and pomegranates and bought it for myself, fresh with the energy of the Wall. A book sat open on a stand near the cash register. A thick book, thousand of pages perhaps. In tiny letters, page after page after page after page: "Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew." My daughter knew immediately: Six million Jews. The entire book. A book of death in a place of living.


Meanwhile, we drove through the West Bank. Our guide said, within 20 minutes of picking us up, that he "had a problem in the backseat," meaning me with my questions, my eyes, my ability to read some Hebrew and spot a Palestinian flag far off the the distance. I did not want to look away nor only get the proud sabra/Zionist story of the country's history, though over our five days together I also came to respect and understand how little I knew and how many layers there are to this place, these people, this power imbalance, this glaring contrast between the lush, cultivated farms of the settlements and the neglected, poverty-stricken, abandoned-looking greenhouses in the Palestinian towns. I learned about Zones A, B, and C. I learned about the Valley of Tears and the Golan Heights and the Island of Peace in the Jordan River Valley, about the Lebanese border and the peaceful towns just there and the Hezbollah rockets ready to go, about the mine fields they are slowly clearing, about planting a rose bush at the beginning of every row of grapes, a kind of beautiful canary in the coal mine alerting sickness in the soil, about the Dead Sea shrinking and the Sea of Galilee and the concerns about water and about the wildly different versions of the same stories about economic development and human rights abuses. I listened to all of it, rapt, attentive, a sponge, ears open, heart open, receptive, learning, discerning, knowing that we would have a completely different experience with a different guide, a different perspective and history.

What is true? It is one of those painful koans, where the answer is "yes." Where the most challenging and necessary thing is to hold utterly contradictory things in the same heart.

I kept my passport close the whole trip. I wanted to go to the places I could not go, and also respected that those are not my places. What is our place? Where do we get to claim home and where does home simply claim us?