Just about a year ago, I was on my way to spend a year in Jerusalem to begin my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. During my year in Israel, I had the opportunity to travel the country from top to bottom and across the middle to see the history and the present-day sociology and anthropology of Israel up close. I improved my Hebrew, read the Bible and rabbinic texts, learned about Jewish prayer, and prayed in synagogues that are of different traditions than mine. I celebrated holidays, ate wonderful Israeli food, listened to Israeli music, and lived on Jewish time.
This summer I will return to Shir Tikvah, my home congregation, as a rabbinic intern. I will be diving back into my Jewish life here in the Twin cities, and have the opportunity to serve the congregation that nurtured me and helped me become the person I am today. Yet, as I write this, I have been home for only two days and Israel still feels a part of me.
Israel is a complex, fascinating, infuriating, invigorating, and beautiful land. Despite its beauty, Israel is also a deeply troubled country. During the year I experienced first-hand what it means to live in a place where the possibility of violence casts a long shadow on daily life. I was marching with friends in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade when the festive and empowered atmosphere dissolved into chaos and horror as a deranged man with a knife plunged into the crowd and stabbed six people, one fatally. A few months later, as a wave of “lone-wolf” terror attacks began in Jerusalem and elsewhere, I had the experience of my world becoming smaller as I avoided riding buses and going to certain parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City.
The daily reality of living in a country that is an occupying power, engaged in a conflict that seems intractable, can be very sobering. Yet, most Israelis I met were vibrant, full of life, and focused on the matters of everyday living. As I look back at my time in Israel, it is these relationships that stir my heart.
Tuvia owns the makolet (convenience store) in my building. As I was on my way out to explore the neighborhood on my full first day in Israel, he called me into his store, offered me a cup of coffee, and invited me to sit with him to get acquainted. The funny thing was that our competence in each other’s language was minimal. So, we talked with our hands a lot, and punctuated our sentences with our limited English/Hebrew vocabulary. I learned that he was the gabbi of the neighborhood Sephardic synagogue, and he insisted that I come and daven there one Shabbat. Over the course of the year Tuvia helped me with small problems, sold me countless liters of milk, and was a solid
presence that I could count on. On my last day in Israel, I stopped into the makolet to say goodbye. When I asked if I could take his picture, he told me to make sure I was able to get the photo of him taken with Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) that was hanging behind the counter in the shot. I was happy to comply.
Tziporah has seen the entire history of the state of Israel as well a good chunk of the British Mandate period. That’s because she’s 98 years old and immigrated to Palestine (as it was then known) in the early 1930’s from Poland. Her first language was Yiddish, her second language Polish, her third language was Hebrew, and she learned to speak perfect English while attending a British-administered school. She spent her working years as nurse and a teacher of nurses. I met Tziporah in the beit avot (nursing home) where she had lived for several years. I visited her most Thursday afternoons as a volunteer chaplaincy intern. At first, we
intentionally split our conversation 50/50 between Hebrew and English, and she was very patient with my limited language skills. Tziporah would calmly correct my mistakes, or fill in a word that I couldn’t find. When we both grew tired of my spoken Hebrew, we switched to English and she would tell me stories of her youth and share her philosophy on life. She was passionate in her insistence that I tell the people that I would meet in my future rabbinate that Israel is a real place, with real people living real lives, and not just a news headline or a chapter out of a history book. To me, Tziporah represented the Israel I was growing to love: cultured, passionate about living, and a strong survivor who had lost much in her life.
Chetzi runs the laundry where I dropped off my clothes every Thursday to be washed and folded. Whenever I came into the shop he would stop what he was doing, say “Mah nishmah (how are you doing?),” and we’d play a little game. He would weigh my laundry bag and ask me to guess to the weight. I was always off by half a kilo or so. Then, he would price out my order based on weight, announcing the price and then grandly discount it about 20 shekels or so to my “cheverim” rate. Sometimes I’d come to pick up my clothes in the evening, when we were alone, we would chat and I learned about his life. He was born India to a Jewish mother and a Muslim father from Saudi Arabia. He told me his father had several other wives and that as a result he had 26 siblings. He was the only Jewish offspring in the entire family and spent his childhood in India and Saudi Arabia, eventually immigrating to Israel (aliyah) as an adult. Chetzi showed me pictures of his wife and children, and told me about each of them. When I picked up my laundry for the last time before leaving Israel, he gave me his WhatsApp number, asked me to stay in touch, and told me he will miss me.
I felt sad because I’ll miss him, and Israelis, and Israel.
Meir Bargeron will be co-facilitating iEngage: Engaging Israel, a series of in-depth conversations about the beauty and the challenges of Israel that includes video lectures from the leading scholars of the Shalom Hartman Institute, as well as text study. The first session starts June 6th. For more information and to register: http://shirtikvah.net/event-2246624 or call (612) 822-1440.