August 21, 2003
Moonstruck in Israel
The moon doesn't usually make me cry. I've been struck by the amber beauty of a harvest moon low on the horizon or by the tantilizing grace of a silver sliver dangling high in the sky.
But this moon -- rising at dusk over the walls of Jerusalem's Old City in perfect pinkish equanimity, framed to the right by David's Citadel and to the left by three or four soaring kites tethered somewhere below to the hand of an Arab or Jewish or Christian or Armenian child -- brought a flow of tears that just wouldn't stop.
I knew why I was crying. It was my last night in Israel, and I didn't know when I would be back. And I knew that once I got back to Los Angeles, it wouldn't be long before that unspeakable power of connection would begin to slip away, just as it had -- subconsciously, almost imperceptibly -- since my last visit.
It had been seven years since I was last in Israel. I was back this summer courtesy of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, culminating a two-year program in Jewish leadership with a week in Israel, during which 180 members and spouses -- about 50 of us from Los Angeles -- had VIP access to people and places shaping today's Israel.
It was a week intensely packed with emotion and information. One of our first stops was at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic Judaic think tank, where the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman set the tone for the week: Do not come to Israel on a shiva visit. Do not come just to do bikur cholim, visiting the terror victims and the families of victims. Add to your itinerary the kind of stops that will remind you that Israel is alive, Israel is vibrant, Israel needs Americans to tour and shop and eat in Israel.
The cease-fire and the ever-present phalanx of wired and weaponed Israeli security guards gave us the illusion of safety that made it easy to heed that charge, despite the overlay of terror precautions and reminders that are a part of Israeli life. I passed Sbarro pizzeria at the corner of King George and Jaffa roads with a mournful sense of disbelief, knowing this is where my high school classmate, Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum, was murdered by a suicide bomber.
But more than the terror, more than the conflict, what I saw was Israel close up, where day-to-day life fills all the time before and after the three minutes of evening news we get each day.
Consider the quality of art in Jerusalem. Kitschy souvenirs have been supplemented (thought not supplanted) by top-quality art, jewelry and Judaica crafted by people whose inspiration is the magic that results when a people and religion can flourish on a land they love.
Religious life in Israel is thriving, despite news of pluralism wars and dogmatic secularism. Liberal services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Shabbat were packed not just with Wexnerites but with Israelis. An Orthodox feminist conference in June attracted 1,500 Israelis; a new shul that pushes halacha to its limits to include women just opened in Jerusalem. At the Jerusalem College of Technology, Charedi women and men are studying to be engineers, even as they keep up an average birth rate of seven-point-something kids per family, in generations that are about 20 years apart, rather than the usual 30 years.
On our visit to the Golan, we talked with Ramona Bar Lev, head of the Golan settlers movement, and she talked less about Syria than about the griffins that catch wind currents to glide over rocky ravines laced with streams and wildflowers. It is not that she is oblivious to the political reality of her world. It is that she is living in the moment, loving the land she has always loved in the only way she knows how.
And that is what I know my seven-year absence from Israel has cost me. I, and I imagine many American Jews, have let Israel the cause eclipse Israel the land that I love. I have spent money at the Israeli merchant fairs, I have sung "Hatikvah" on Yom Ha'atzmaut, I have been part of adopting the family of a terror victim, I have kept up with -- cried with -- the news.
But seven years is a long time, and that visceral tug has weakened. I don't know if I'll ever live in Israel, as I once was so sure I would. But I know I, with my husband and children, will be back soon, despite the prohibitive cost and the grueling travel time, despite the perceived danger. I need to feel the physicality of that emotional surge that can only happen with my feet on Israeli soil.
I need to press my forehead into the warm stones of the Kotel, standing shoulder to shoulder with women from everywhere. I need to breathe in that endearing olfactory combination of freshly baked rolls and bus exhaust, to sit at the Kadosh Cafe and walk on Rambam Street. I need to let the Mediterranean sun bounce off the Kinneret and burn my skin and to let the moon make me cry.