Sunday, May 20, 2012

Earthly Jerusalem

This morning, I took B.A. to the Old City to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall. Today was Yom Yerushalayim, the day Jerusalem was liberated in 1967 from Jordanian rule and returned to Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 2,000 years.

B.A. will turn three next month. He is not old enough to understand much about the holiday. But his gan was closed for the morning, and he is old enough, finally, to appreciate a long outing with his mother. So we rode the train to city hall and walked, hand in hand, from the train stop to the Old City walls, through the arab shuk, down the stairs to the Kotel plaza.

Before we left, we had a brief argument about whether people may bring large sticks to the holiest site in Judaism. After we reached the plaza and went through security, running my purse and his small knapsack through the x-ray machine, I couldn’t resist pointing out, “Good thing you didn’t bring your stick.”

We washed our hands and headed towards the Wall, gripping small change to give to charity as we made our way down the plaza. B.A. gripped my pinky as I leaned my head against the Wall and thanked God for the opportunity to pray at this fragment of the ruined mighty Temple. I thanked God for the beautiful children I was never sure I would have, and asked Him for guidance in parenting them. B.A. fiddled with the rolled up prayer notes that had fallen to the floor from the cracks in the Wall.

I sat down on a plastic chair and held B.A. on my lap. I directed his gaze to the top of the wall, “Up up to the sky.” It may as well be up to the sky when you are that little. I showed him the flowering plants growing out of the wall, and the pigeons taking shelter in its crevices.

We walked to the underground synagogue that faces a part of the Wall uncovered by excavations. We stood in the women’s balcony and watched men and boys dance exuberantly with flags. Their joy was thrilling and contagious. I was too shy to ask the women around me to dance, and B.A. was too shy to dance with me, so we left to have lunch.

At the bagel shop in the Jewish Quarter, B.A. began to melt down. “I WANT MY BAGEL NOOOOOOOWWWW!” he screamed. I gritted my teeth as I waited in line and placed our order. Fellow patrons tried to distract B.A. and pacify him. He gave them the death glare and kept screaming. “Chazak,” someone commented. Strong. Indeed.

We sat and finished our bagels in the courtyard of the beautifully reconstructed Hurva Synagogue.  I remembered when I came to Israel for the first time at 19, when a stone arch was all that remained of it.

“Eat the rest of your bagel while I say thank you to Hashem,” I instructed B.A. I chanted the Birkat Hamazon prayer quietly. I meditated on the words of the classical text:

“Have mercy, God, on Israel, Your people; on Jerusalem, Your city; on Zion, the home of Your glory . . . and rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, quickly, in our days.”

My ancestors said those words for 2,000 years every time they thanked God for a bagel. These were dream words. Jerusalem was a dream city for them, a city of the imagination and the past.

My own father-in-law visited Israel in the 1950s and couldn’t visit the Kotel. Jerusalem was a divided city, with the Old City, the Temple Mount and the Temple’s sacred remnant part of the newly-created kingdom of Jordan.

And now I have the privilege to live in a unified Jerusalem. I can go anywhere in this city. I can go to the Kotel whenever I want. (I can’t pray at the site of the Temple itself, by decree of the Muslim Religious Authority, but that’s another story). I can sit in a courtyard and eat a bagel with my little boy, and pray these words, “Rebuild Jerusalem,” almost casually, as the rebuilding unfolds before my eyes.

* * *

My husband and I lived in Jerusalem for two years as students before we had kids. We went back to America to tie up some loose ends, and so five years passed quickly by. Coming back was always our vision, though.

While we lived in the States, I couldn’t bear the smug entreaties of our friends in Israel. They thought they were so great, so noble, those American Jews who’d chosen to live in Israel. I couldn’t stand to have them ask me when we were coming back. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that I loathed their self-satisfaction. I felt sorely my own sense of inadequacy. I felt guilty for staying in my comfortable native land, however temporarily.

And  then, in a matter of months, our dream materialized. We moved here in 2010 with our three little kids, and we made Jerusalem our home. And I think that I must have misunderstood those smug immigrants all along.

When I reflect on my life here and think about my friends who still live in America, I feel lucky and I feel sad for them that they aren’t here yet. Life in Israel seems both exalted and more real. I don’t feel self-righteous about my “sacrifice” in coming to live here. I feel extremely fortunate and I want that for my friends, too.

“With God’s returning of the Zion captivity, we were like dreamers.” That’s a prophecy from the Psalms that we say all the time. I’ve seen that verse explained two opposite ways—that the redemption will make the exile seem like a dream, or that redemption itself will feel like a dream.

Both interpretations seem true to my experience. Now that I am in Israel, everything else that came before seems like I was living in a fog. This existence seems more palpable, somehow, richer and more essential. And it is also a dream itself, like reality, but more heightened and colorful.

But I’m not smug about it, not at all. Just very, very grateful to be living here.


pam opper said...

How special to be able to be sharing this with your children and to be able to provide for them such a rich and fruitful life.

Vickie Fife said...

I have so enjoyed reading your blog. You are a gifted writer, an amazing mother, and inspiring woman of faith.

Post a Comment

Hi! I love comments. Please choose a name to comment, anything but Anonymous.