Posted on February 22, 2017 by Scarlet Michaelson
This blog was originally published in The Jewish Journal.
I raised my cup of wine as the rabbi recited Kiddush in a space that was filled with young adults. My plan had been to stay in Jerusalem for five months, but this was my sixth.
The city had compelled me to stay. The sounds of Hebrew and Arabic, both familiar and mysterious, were a musical mingling of speech and prayer. The scent of Middle Eastern delicacies wafted through the air. I lived close to train tracks, but the train no longer ran. Its tracks were paved over into a walking path, and on that summer’s evening, I saw my name etched into that path, urging me to stay even longer.
A California native, I had moved back home after attending college. My sister was a full-time student immersed in her studies; my father had begun a separate chapter in life with his new wife and daughter; and I was engaged in a frustrating job search.
Then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I shuttled her to appointments, picked up her medications, did grocery shopping and laundry, and sat with her so she wouldn’t be alone.
I knew she had a life-threatening condition, but I didn’t believe she would die. She made improvements, then worsened, then recovered again. I was convinced that the radiation and radioactive iodine treatments would work. That somehow the tumors in her head and spine would shrink and disappear.
Toward the end, a medical professional told me how sick she was. I still couldn’t believe it. My mom had never believed it either. It wasn’t like a Hallmark movie, where we held hands and cried. We fought until the end, which is why the end was so devastating. I couldn’t imagine a future without her. My mom had always loved me warmly and wholeheartedly. Now that she was gone, where would I find love?
After my mother’s death, my father and his new family moved across the country. Staggered, I turned to my sister. Born several years apart, we’d lived separate lives. She was precocious, whereas I was the more obedient daughter, the overly responsible sibling. I assumed that, despite our differences, we would be there for each other now. Instead, she informed me that she wanted her space. I had to move on.
I found a room in an apartment. My new roommate was Israeli and had been living in the States for years. I got to know his friends, most of whom were Israeli ex-pats. They hung out in groups, speaking Hebrew and sharing stories. The language, which I’d learned in elementary school, came back to me.
Finally, I went to visit Israel. It was my first time traveling alone. I stayed in hostels in Jerusalem, and rented a room in Tel Aviv. I had an amazing time navigating around in Hebrew and English, meeting people, and falling in love with a place I’d only heard about.
When I went back to the States, I moved to be near my mother’s mother. I loved being with my grandmother. She was sweet and funny; we cheered each other up and found joy in small things together. But my grandmother’s health was failing, and after a short time, she, too, passed away.
Her death brought back the broken feeling I had after my mother’s death. I moved again, wanting to be near relatives, but couldn’t integrate into their nuclear families. I didn’t feel like I belonged.
And so I returned to Israel — this time it was work-related. I discovered people who took Jewish learning seriously and saw that I could study to enhance my life. The idea appealed to me so much that, after going back to the States and working overtime for six months, I put my belongings in storage and returned to Israel to learn.
During this time, I realized that Judaism is more than a religion — it is a way to live. I met people who were different from my secular Israeli roommate and his friends, people who observed Shabbat, ate strictly kosher and prayed every day. Many of them were progressive and open-minded. I didn’t know religious people could be that way.
I quickly took on the practice of Shabbat. Without television, the internet or shopping, my new community and I were present for each other. Keeping kosher was relatively easy for me, because I had been a vegetarian since college. And I found myself enjoying prayer — connecting with something greater than myself, an eternal something that also connected me with my mother and grandmother. When I prayed, I felt embraced by love.
My year in Jerusalem changed me. There, among the olive trees and pale limestone, I felt whole again. Jerusalem, the holy city, gave me a sense of being part of a type of family that I had never known. This family was not biological. Instead, its members connected by practicing ancient traditions in a modern world. This family had faith and hope in the future.
Finally, so did I.
Scarlet Michaelson studied at Pardes in Summer ’11 and Spring-Fall’12. She is a writer living in Pico-Robertson.