These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Hello to Israel—Notes from a First Time Visitor

Posted on October 30, 2011 by Suzi

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Here’s something I wrote on my first day in Israel, standing at the Kotel, my hand pressed against the stones and clutching my steno pad.  I couldn’t seem to let go of the ancient wall.  I thought I’d publish this on These&Those, and challenge y’all to share your own first impressions of the country.

On Sunday, June 1, 2008, I left Atlanta for my first trip to Israel.  The initial half of the trip is to be a media fact finding trip to the South—Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheva, days and  nights filled with speeches, tours, visits to schools, municipalities, places to make us comprehend the constant threat the residents live under.  Perhaps we can come back home and describe their plight in a way to make people in the States take notice that the Palestinians are not the only ones suffering in this miserable conflict. We landed.  The airport could have been in any big city. But the road to Jerusalem—arid hills laced with ancient stone terraces, olive trees and other bits of greenery, sudden Arab towns, a security wall to keep Palestinians from shooting at cars, Israeli soldiers, guns slung over their backs and of course the signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic.  I’m determined to improve my reading ability in this old and new language.  My driver, Ron, pointed out which areas were Jewish, which Arab.  That is, when he wasn’t trying to drive his van into some other car’s trunk as he fished in his pocket for a notebook or talked on the phone or found some other reason not to pay attention to his driving.  Who worries about Kassams or Grad missiles when they’ve got Israeli drivers to contend with?

 Suddenly he pointed ahead and said, Look, Jerusalem.  And there it was, sprinkled across the landscape, not the picture postcard of the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, but a mass of ecru buildings seemingly tossed at random across the hills. Seeing so many Israeli flags flying caused a thrill I never expected to feel—today is Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the date Israel reunited Jerusalem and reclaimed the Western Wall, which had been in Arab hands since 1948.  It’s a big day.    Will the tears of joy ever stop?  Walking down to the Kotel surrounded by tourists from the US and many other countries, with Africans in tribal garb, Haredi Jews, some religious men in knee pants and long socks, some in every shape of fur hat, and marching students and soldiers, I, the rationalist, the one who still balks at the faith that is trying to creep into my spirit, cried and pressed my hands, my lips and my forehead to the ancient stones, echoing the memories and hopes and prayers and devotion and despair of centuries of Jews before me.  Is this how Christian pilgrims felt at Canterbury, or crawling up cathedral steps in Mexico on their knees?  I don’t think I’ve ever before truly contemplated the effect of place on human reactions.   I marveled at the fervor of women young and old as their prayers poured out to the silent stones.  I looked at a tiny girl tucking a carefully folded sheet of paper with a prayer written on it into crevice after crevice until she found a sticking place for her words to God.  I saw the old women begging and I remembered the homeless on Atlanta’s city streets, people crying for a pittance from those of us who have so much.  And I, who disdained those who beg instead of working to support themselves, found myself pulling out my wallet.  How much did they need compared to what I have?  I don’t face the possibility of bombs every time I enter a market or a restaurant.  My only fear in boarding a bus is the driver’s skill. People have told me I’d have a hard time leaving here after a week, that I’d be changed by my visit.  It’s happening already, and the woman who used to be angry when a Jewish organization dared suggest dual loyalty by opening a meeting with Hatikvah finds herself wishing she could transport all Jews, especially the skeptics, here for one day, one afternoon, one Yom Yerushalayim—to see the flags proudly waving, the soldiers sauntering along, tall and strong and confident, the students vibrant with the anticipation of life yet to come, not focusing on the possibility of death or injury, and the rest of the people of this glorious land taking for granted what I hold so newly and gently in my heart, a precious gift of love and dedication and belonging, not just to the land, but to all it stands for—history and faith and blood and hope and even death. And perhaps most of all, continuity, a people that has survived against all odds, persevered and thrived on less than nothing in this world, but everything possible in the world of the spirit. That one person would die for this hot, dusty desert is incredible.  That an entire nation gives its beautiful, hopeful youths for it is just a fact of life.

This land is mine.  God gave this land to me.  Not to someone else, not just to some anonymous Middle Eastern Jew with curly hair and dark eyes and a guttural language spilling from his or her lips, but to ME, to every Jew who has ever lived or who ever will live. Would I fight for Israel?  That’s a tough question.  I feel a strong national allegiance to the United States of America.  Always has been that way for this Navy brat with veins brimming with saltwater. But Israel’s claim on my heart is different.  Not my country in the same contemporary political sense, but mine by right of birth, by rite of history, by write of Torah.  Not just my blood, my physical heritage, but the peoplehood in my very DNA, in every fiber of my physical, spiritual and emotional being says if I am a Jew, if I define myself by this millennia-old tradition, then I accept Israel as part and parcel of that, as the core of my belief and faith system, of myself. Will this feeling last?  I can’t know.  But I do know that Israel has made an indelible impression on me.   Walking where our patriarchs walked, feeling the golden glow, the holy aura of Jerusalem, seeing places memorialized in the Bible, just being in the land so many of my ancestors were willing to die for, has created in me a yearning to return, to be a part of this endless continuum of Jewish life and Jewish history.  I begin to understand the prayer we repeat every year during Pesach, “Next year in Jerusalem.”