Before I left Los Angeles, a couple of folks handed me dollar bills. See, when flying, it’s customary in the Jewish world to give the traveler a dollar to donate upon arrival. This practice comes from a teaching that a person in the midst of doing a mitzvah cannot be harmed. So, in giving me this holy task, they also protected me, in my travels, from harm.
Along the same vein, my extraordinary girlfriends also wanted to look out for me. But instead of dollar bills, they gave me tasks, actual good deeds to perform:
~”When you get off the plane, smile at the first person you see,” Cathy said.
~”Go to the Kotel (Western Wall) every week; remember where you are!” Barb added.
~”For at least the first three days, when you wake up – stand, connect to Hashem and say the Shma with total concentration…even if it’s just the first line.” Anna offered.
Holy women. True friends. They’re my ladybugs and they’ve taught me so much about friendship and life and Judaism—and much of what they love about the aforementioned came from Rabbi David Aaron, founder of Isralight. At their referral, I’d read “Endless Light,” a brilliant book that resonated deeply inside and affirmed that this was a teacher I needed in my life. So, being in Jerusalem, of course I couldn’t pass up the chance to study with this special rabbi. (Though between us, I nearly flaked after realizing the potentially irrecoverable damage missing an entire week of progress at Ulpan Morasha could cause…eeeek! Nevertheless! Halachti! (I went!))
For 10 days I lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Did you get that?
That couldn’t have happened even 50 years ago.
How did I merit that?
Suffice it to say, it was completely surreal.
Each morning, I’d slip slide on the smooth Jerusalem stone to class, my sandals unable to grasp the well-worn stones. The golden tones of the city’s rocks created my daily wall paper. Yiddish and Hebrew conversations dotted in the streets, and I overheard talk of Talmud and halacha in shops and cafes. Thursday night, the smell of Shabbat-food cooking already filled old, windy, streets named, “Ha-Talmid,” (the student) or “Or Ha-Hayim,” (light of life).
Let me give you a taste, tireh (check it out):
Friday night, dressed up in my long-skirt and gypsy bells (every outfit needs a splash of fun, after all) I headed with a friend toward Kabbalat Shabbat through the rova (quarter) square. There in front of the stunning Horva Synagogue, clusters of children ran and played - tzitzit flying behind the boys; girls carefreely, twirling in their dresses.
One such girl was Nechama, a 4-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed moppet, who we recognized as the daughter of one of our Isralight rabbis.
”Can you help us find Isralight?” my friend and I asked her.
”Ok, c’mon,” she said as she led us, skipping all the way. “You go in here,” she said, pointing at the stairs upon arrival.
”Aren’t you coming too?” we asked.
She shook her head. “I’m going back!” she replied and danced her way back to the square, knowing the area like every child knows their local playground.
Such a simple story, but quite emotional for me. See, she’s the dream, folks.
The prophecy goes: “One day, men and women will rest on their walking sticks from old age and children will play in the streets of Jerusalem.” This was no prophecy. This was reality. Nechama was proof. Here was a Shabbat-loving, Hebrew-speaking sabra, skipping in the footsteps of her ancestors, living in the land of her soul among brothers and sisters, playing without a care in the world.
And then I got it. I was doing that too. My long skirt, brushing against the ground, a brightly colored scarf wrapping my shoulders; if I ran into Avraham Avinu that night, we could speak to each other in the same language (thanks to my ulpan).
And it started happening, as it always happens on Friday night, I became much bigger than myself. My little body just couldn’t contain all the goodness that I felt. And so, at the Kotel with a crew of other women –sisters disguised as strangers – we saaaaaang! And we blessssssed each other! And we daaaaaanced! And we cryyyyyed! And it was magical and moving and magnificent.
It was happening to Sara too. And to Vanessa. And to all my new friends from Isralight. I’d seen it before on Birthright: Jews with hardly any Jewish education or connection, who’d been fed a strict diet of cock-eyed media suddenly moved to tears inexplicably at the Kotel on Shabbat…what can I say? It’s a soul thing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you simply cannot ignore your self in the Old City, especially on Friday night. There’s a swell that happens inside that bubbles up and out – it’s the sense of being fully connected to who you are and learning, if you didn’t know before, how beautiful you are and how special your family is. Recognizing that your connection to everything is real and that the driving force within is divine. It’s about being present to the blessing of the moment and knowing that these gifts have always been and will always be – yours.
Rabbi David Aaron only strengthened this organic outpouring of connection. He filled in the blanks and filled out truths I’d arrived at intuitively. Now, it wasn’t simple – he challenged me and my mind felt stretched out after a class with him! But in the end, I landed with strong affirmation. Judaism is spiritual and rich and wise – that’s not my version of it, that’s what the sages and the Torah and texts have always said – that’s what it IS.
Passing the ancient ruins built by conquerors in the Old City of Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think, for all their pomp and circumstance, I was the one standing there, not them. A child, like you are, of the generation that gets to live the prophecy!