Reflections From a Balcony in Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Tel Aviv, early morning traffic and a soft Mediterranean breeze providing background music. A few surfers have ventured into the sea, getting their bearings on the still-gentle waves, while others are navigating the water in kayaks. On the beach, an impromptu yoga session is taking form. Walkers, joggers and bikers are making their way along the tayelet – the seaside boardwalk from Tel Aviv to the Port of Jaffa, linking the modern with the ancient.

I had trepidations coming here, as I have on each previous trip to this land. I get dissuaded by images in the paper and on TV, serving as warnings to keep my distance from this land where danger looms on every corner. But here I am, and, as with each past trip, my fears are unfounded. It’s not that I get here and gradually relax – It’s that the fear never presents itself while I stand on this soil.

My trepidation was also fueled by the structure of this trip – a community-wide mission of 237 members of the Minneapolis Jewish community. I generally prefer to travel in more intimate groups, with the freedom to wander at will, unencumbered by agendas, either logistic or ideological.

But those concerns were also unfounded, partly because with age comes wisdom. I remembered that individual connections can take root in large groups and that my convictions can withstand the challenge of other ideas – in fact, they are often strengthened by them.

In addition, this was a diverse group, if one can say such a thing about a group consisting solely of members of the Minneapolis Jewish community (okay, there were a few from the St. Paul Jewish community as well.)  Our youngest traveler was 21, our oldest was 92. We had participants from many points on our community spectrum: from Orthodox to secular, from conservative to liberal, from staunchly pro-Israel to conflicted.

Unlike other community missions I’ve been on, this one offered different tracks for experiencing this complicated land.  Participants chose activities based on their personal preferences:  from cultural to physical, from geopolitical to culinary, from secular to religious.   And so, on our elective days, I visited a goat farm in the desert, hiked along a crater among the majestic ibex, visited an innovation museum in Tel Aviv (coolest thing I’ve seen since EPCOT opened at Disney World,) and spent time in Abu Ghosh, a shining example of Arab/Jewish coexistence. While there, we visited a language learning center that connects Arabic-speaking teachers with non-Arabic-speaking learners, allowing for bonds to be created through the sharing of language and culture. Since I’m a person who believes that shared language can solve, well, almost everything, I envisioned the sparks that this type of program could ignite, sending reverberations that could pave new pathways to peace.

While we were in Jerusalem, the Orthodox Christians were celebrating Easter, Muslims were observing the last few days of Ramadan, and Jews observed Yom Ha’shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Each year on Yom Ha’shoah a siren sounds at 10 a.m, as the country comes to a halt. Drivers pull off the road, get out of their cars and stand to honor the memory of the 6 million lives extinguished in the Holocaust. The residual sounds of the siren, the Adhan (Muslim call to worship) and church bells linger in the air, co-mingling, ascending to the heavens in a hauntingly beautiful melody.

This is Jerusalem.

In Tel Aviv, my husband Steve and I joined the demonstrators, reportedly over 150,000 strong, to protest the Israeli government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system. These protests have taken place throughout the country for the past six weeks and, according to many with whom we’ve spoken, have been largely effective in giving this government sufficient reason to pause, and hopefully reconsider their path forward.  I feel no obligation to be unequivocally supportive of Israel. In fact, I think it’s unauthentic and detrimental to offer any country (or person) unconditional support, which is fundamentally different than unconditional love. But, damn, to witness 150,000 individuals from many walks of Israeli life take to the streets in open defiance of their government, without a trace of violence or government take-downs, proves to me that this is still a working democracy.

Other moments here have found me doing my favorite thing…meandering through the winding streets, finding hidden treasures like the shop in Neve Tzedek, a collective venture that benefits African asylum-seeking women here in Israel.  All products are designed and created by these women, and are breathtaking reflections of their African culture.

I made a strange analogy yesterday, linking my love of meandering to my love of skiing in deep powder. When skiing in powder, I cannot anticipate bumps or moguls – I just encounter one and learn to react accordingly. Likewise, when walking aimlessly around an unfamiliar city, I find myself unencumbered by other people’s suggestions of which areas to enjoy and which to avoid.  I make those calls on my own, and in doing so, find myself avoiding almost nothing.

Well, Tel Aviv is now fully awake, the bright sun sparkling on the sea, with throngs of people crowding the beaches, streets, cafes and shops. But in a few hours, a hush will come over the city, heralded by the sound of another siren, this one announcing the beginning of Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day. The collective grief will loom large for the next twenty-four hours, as the country will remember her fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In a country just approaching her 75th year, there is literally no one here who has does not have a personal story of loss.

The solemn tone will linger through sunset Tuesday, when, almost ironically, Israel will celebrate her independence. The abrupt transition from grief to celebration is understandably jarring for many Israelis. I asked the young man who just served me a delicious grapefruit juice and vodka concoction if it’s by design that these two holidays fall in this close proximity.

“Yes” he answered.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because of God. God wants us to be not sad for so long. God wants us to be happy.”

And this is Israel. Grief, Joy, Resilience.

L’hitraot….until next time.

The post originally ran on the author’s blog.