Perhaps it all started with a bracha for a bed.
The story I’ve been told goes like this. In the fall of 1966 my parents took a road trip from Michigan to New Jersey to visit friends they had met while my father was serving in the Air Force in California. Mom and Dad were still a young couple in their 20’s, yet to have children. I’ve heard a lot about these friends, Monty and Shelly, over the years. How much fun they were, the good times they all had; the way that they were part of each other’s support network as they experienced military life so far from family. And they were Jewish.
My family is not Jewish. In the telling of this story there was always a sense that traveling to New Jersey, with a couple of side trips into Manhattan, was an exotic adventure for my parents. Monty and Shelly were generous in their hospitality. They even insisted on giving up their room for my parents. Quarters were tight, as the New Jersey couple was temporarily living with Monty’s parents. You might guess where this is leading: almost exactly nine months after my parents enjoyed Monty’s and Shelly’s gracious hospitality, I was born.
There’s a little more to the story. Upon learning of my mom’s impending motherhood, Shelly told her that something special had happened before my parents’ visit. Monty’s parents had asked their rabbi to say a blessing for fertility and marital bliss over the couple’s bed. Mom and Shelly shared a good laugh, because apparently it worked! The punch line of this story is that my parents may owe my conception to divine intervention under Jewish auspices.
So, back to the blessing. I checked this out with a rabbi. Despite her thorough research, it turns out that there is probably not a commonly used blessing for fertility or marital bliss that is recited over the marriage bed. I suppose that Monty’s and Shelly’s rabbi may have been able to improvise something meaningful for his congregants in response to their sincere request, not that it really matters very much.
Like many good stories, the details don’t matter nearly as much as the meaning. For me, this humorous anecdote gained a new life as I went through the process of converting to Judaism. Some teachings from Jewish tradition speak of the nefesh yehudi, the Jewish soul. All Jewish souls that have ever been or ever will be were present at Sinai when G-d revealed the Torah to Moses. Sometimes, for reasons that we cannot understand, Jewish souls are born in non-Jewish bodies. These souls are drawn to Jewish life, and eventually the body itself changes in order to be in harmony with its soul. For these souls, the mikvah is a gateway for coming home.
As I went through the mental and spiritual preparation for converting to Judaism, I remembered this story with a rush of excitement. Personally, I’m not particularly drawn to mysticism. However, it was validating to make this linkage, and it was the subject of a laughter-filled phone call with my mother.
A Home in the Land
If we listen and are open, our Jewish souls can lead us to new and perhaps unexpected places. I have just returned from my first visit to Israel, having the good fortune to be a part of a tour group from Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis. Thirty-three of us spent 12 days traveling from the Lebanese border to the Red Sea and from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, soaking in the history, the majesty and the spirit of Eretz Yisrael. We said a Shehecheyanu on Mount Scopus overlooking the Old City, prayed at the Kotel and sang Mi Chamocha while standing in the Red Sea. We celebrated a bar mitzvah in an ancient synagogue overlooking the Judean hills. We made mud bricks on a kibbutz, gleaned the fields by picking tomatoes to feed hungry Israeli families, met with a LGBT activist in Tel Aviv, and had dinner with an interfaith group of Jews and Palestinians. And, lest this sound overly earnest and boring, I ate schwarma, drank Goldstar beer, survived an intense security grilling by an El Al agent, and admired the lovely and handsome Israeli people.
On one of our last days in Israel, our group went to Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall, the site of the assembly at which David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Our Minnesota group joined a Birthright Israel group, which included young adults from North America accompanied by several Israeli soldiers of both sexes. We listened to the young guide as she told the story of the last days of the British Mandate and the dramatic events that led up to the final moments before Ben-Gurion’s historic speech.
And then the guide asked us all to stand as she played an amazing recording. First, was Ben-Gurion’s voice reading the Declaration of Independence which the guide interpreted simultaneously into English. Then we heard the voice of a rabbi leading a Shehecheyanu. And then we heard a small orchestra, sounding a bit tinny due to the recording technology of the time, accompanied by voices standing in the same room 63 years earlier singing Hatikvah. I wept, along with many of my companions.
The message our group received over and over again from guides and many of the Israelis we met was one of interdependence between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews: we need each other. At that moment in Independence Hall, I realized that Israel exists for all of us Jewish souls wherever, and whenever, we are.
Of course spending a dozen days in a land with thousands of years of Jewish history does not even begin to scratch the surface of what Israel means for us. And a powerful experience of Jewish Peoplehood does not erase the deep ambivalence I feel as I see a gap between the promise of Israel and the current political and human rights situation between Jews and Palestinians.
But in my heart I know that I found my way home — again. I am grateful and humbled by the enormous blessing this represents. Our souls and our hearts can lead us to great joy, if we can listen and follow.
Perhaps it all started with a bracha for a bed.