Sunday, July 29, 2007

Shabbat in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

The last few days have been so very full. Friday morning, the last tour of the Ulpan took us to Jerusalem. Three groups of us did the quickie tour of the Old City. As with Tzfat, Friday afternoon is probably not the ideal time to go, but not quite as crowded. We began with the walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel—a tunnel built to save the Jews during a siege. Walking through the tunnel was the high point of the visit, oddly enough. The trip begins with a walk down into fairly large, lighted tunnels. After ten minutes or so, we descended into thigh-high water in a very narrow, very dark tunnel. We kept going, single-file. This was not a place for anyone with any tendency whatsoever to claustrophobia (and we did lose a few that way). After a few minutes, the guide suggested we do the tunnel in complete dark and silence. Lights off, although we were never completely silent. For twenty minutes, we walked with one hand on the wall, one on our forehead (in case the ceiling got low suddenly) and we walked. It was quite effective as a way to progress. The darkness was odd—I kept seeing phantom light—but not frightening. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. It felt welcoming, as though the earth itself was cradling me. Without sight, too, I found that I smelled and heard more keenly. Even my sense of touch felt sharper. My one regret is that I couldn’t see the shape of the tunnel as we went through it.

We emerged into very bright, hot sun. Again, a day to stay inside but we were outside in the heat. Unlike at Nahal Amud, though, there were lots of places to buy food and drink. Which gave me a chance to practice my “no lines” skills. This is hard for me. I am used to lines and waiting my turn. I forget that this attitude doesn’t exist in Israel. So, after emerging from the dark, cool tunnel and climbing up a long road in the hot sun, I was absolutely set on a slurpee. There was a line. I waited. The group is about to leave. I’m still waiting. Two yeshiva boys cut in front of me and the seller starts to wait on them. At which I burst out in very bad Hebrew: “I was here first! Why is he waiting on them?” Immediately, another guy asked me what I wanted, got it for me, and apologized. Man, did I feel empowered! And much cooler as I sipped the slurpee.

Then onto the Kotel, the Western Wall. I did not expect much from it—when so much symbolism accumulated around something tangible, it’s tough for that object to live up to the reputation. But my feelings around the visit were more complicated than I expected. First of all, the Israeli Orthodox are simply obnoxious. Their sense of entitlement and ownership of the places is just rude. If the essence of Judaism is to treat each person as though he or she is made in the image of God, these people are no Jews—they miss the entire point of the mitzvot. A young mother with three children and a stroller stood behind me and kept bumping me with the stroller, even after I pointed out she was doing it. Then she pushed her way ahead of me. Had she even come close to acknowledging me as a person, I would have moved aside for her. But her rudeness just made me mad.

Second, the portioning of the wall—I had been told that the men’s and women’s sections were different, but I really wasn’t prepared for the reality of a space for women that is only about a quarter the size of that of the men; that has much fewer places for real prayer. I felt so deeply disenfranchised (if that word can be used in this context…). More on Orthodoxy later… However, there is the religion and there are the authorities and one thing that has been clear to me ever since I was informed by the Reform authorities that I couldn’t be a rabbi is that the two are different, that the authorities are not God and don’t even have a more direct line to God than I do. So here as well. I forced myself to go the wall and find a spot where I could simply touch it. That was very moving, much more than I expected. The stone was warm in the sun, almost alive like bread dough. Obviously, I don’t mean that it felt soft as bread dough, but somehow it felt alive in the same way. And the smoothness of the rock, polished with thousands of women’s hands, sweat, oil. The rock and the people, irrespective of the rules around the people—yes, that meant something.

From the wall, we went to get lunch, and I found a place to buy a map of the city so that I could with comfort get to the sherut station and find a way to get to Tel Aviv. We had a bit more wandering around the city and discussion by the guide, and then I said goodbye to the guide and the accompanying madrich and walked down to find the sherut. This was not a huge problem—while I wasn’t entirely sure which street to take, the minute I hesitated, someone asked if he could help and directed me to the right street. (This is apparently the flip side of the “no lines”—people notice if you need help and insist on helping. Not a bad thing, actually.) Ten minutes later I was on the sherut and had discussed where I was going with the driver, who complimented my Hebrew—lovely to hear.

If Jerusalem was hot and dry, Tel Aviv was hot and wet. The air conditioning at Nurit and Colin’s was a fine and lovely thing. Because of the weather, we mostly stayed in and talked, but it was wonderful to catch up. I used some Hebrew, but speaking English with people that you are used to speaking English with does feel more comfortable, so mostly that is what we spoke. I haven’t really seen Nurit and Colin since they left Livermore around twelve years ago. (They were back once about six years ago, but my memory of that is hazy—too much else was going on, perhaps.) I know it was twelve years, because Ma’ayin, their youngest daughter was all of two months when they left and she is now twelve and just celebrated her Bat Mitzvah (a very different kind of event than in the States, but that’s another story). It’s really funny, but somehow time doesn’t matter with some people. Both Nurit and Colin are down-to-earth, open people, interested in life, warm and welcoming. The time that had passed mattered not at all, something I find incredibly reassuring, though I can’t say why. Their daughters were very much teens, but very solid and grounded. Lily (Lior), who is fifteen, was full of giggles and a few eye-rolls here and there, but also did her summer homework without one bicker or word of complaint. Avital, in the Army but near home so she visits often, clearly enjoys and respects her parents and they her. Ma’ayin, all long legs and arms, is just growing into being a teen, just peering into what it means to leave childhood. All are very sweet, but clearly very much their own people, a tribute to Israel and their parents, as well as to their own individuality (that sounds trite, but I don’t know how else to say it).

All was kol b'seder until I noticed that there were several missed calls from an unknown number--no messages though. When the phone rang again, I answered to find my favorite madrich on the phone, wondering where I was. Now, I had signed a list saying I would not be returning to Haifa. I had told the madrich (not the same one) and the guide I was with that I was leaving and even gotten directions to the sherut station. So I don't know how poor Erez slipped through the communication cracks, but I will say that I'm really ready to do some travel on my own! Good grief, what does it take?

We had a fine time catching up on the past. Shabbat dinner was at Colin’s brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are architects and potters, with a mother-in-law visiting and a daughter about Lior’s age. So there was all kind of cousinly shrieks and giggles, lots of family talk, and much teasing as well as serious conversation. Made me miss home and those family conversations around my table, while at the same time feeling so cared for and welcome. A wonderful night.

The next day we simply talked some more—somehow the day vanished with talking. I wasn’t terribly interested in going out in the heat and I think (I hope) they were relieved as well. Colin is working on global warming models, so that was very interesting to discuss. In addition, I think we covered community, education, jobs, and children. All good fun. Around five, I made it to the sherut station and two hours later was in my dorm room doing homework.

Bits and pieces: One of the readings in our book was a completely untranslatable poem by Yehuda Amichai on Jerusalem. There is a suffix in Hebrew that makes a duo: feet are reglAYIM; hands are yadAYIM, and so on. Well, Jerusalem is YerushalAYIM. Amichai plays on that duality, on Jerusalem being two, not one, in a lovely lament. Amichai writes so beautifully, but because he uses word plays so effectively, I don’t see how anyone can translate him effectively. (Yes, I know there are translations; I even know the people who have done those translations. Nevertheless, my statement stands.)

Looks like I’ll be staying with a couple of people in Jerusalem and then at Nurit’s and Colin’s for the last week. I’m hoping to have one night at Masada—I’ve been talked into it, despite the heat.

And finally, I was informed that a fifteen-year-old boy died of heat exhaustion yesterday at Nahal Amud.

Here’s the information from

(Menachem Shlomo Shapira, 15, a student at Bnei Brak’s Ponovezh yeshiva, died after fainting of dehydration and falling down a steep incline while hiking in Nahal Amud in the Galilee. He was rescued within minutes and treated for hours in a hospital intensive care unit. Nonetheless, he succumbed to his wounds.)

What is there to say other that “zichrono livracha”?

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