June 19, 2019

Gifts From Jerusalem

I arrived in Jerusalem on Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Despite the day’s somberness, little Israeli flags waved cheerfully from the side mirrors of thousands of cars and fluttered from thousands of apartment building windows in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, which immediately follows Yom HaZikaron. 

I had jumped at the opportunity to return to Israel and teach at a writers’ seminar. Since my last visit with my husband two years earlier, Israel had claimed ever-growing space in my heart and mind. Rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad makes Israel feel, more than ever, the place that we should call home. 

The shuttle van driver from the airport fit a classic Israeli stereotype: reckless and rude. His sudden, screeching brake action kept me praying hard, my stomach lurching. Welcome back to Israel! I thought.

My relief upon arriving in one piece at the home of my friend Maya and her husband, Eliezer, was immense. Maya and I had been the best of friends at UC Berkeley, both active in Jewish campus leadership. After graduation, I cried as she left for a year’s stay in Israel. How would I get along without her? 

Her letters revealed her love of the land and the people. The friend I knew as Marcia became Maya, declared herself an olah chadasha (new Israeli citizen) and became a special education teacher. She and Eliezer, another oleh, have raised a beautiful family in Jerusalem. I always admired Maya’s decision, sometimes wishing I had shared her boldness and vision. Long gaps between our visits or other communication don’t matter. Whenever we reconnect, it’s as natural and dynamic as when we were young.

That first night, Maya and Eliezer took me to an outdoor prayer and song celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I was swept up in the joyous spirit of more than 1,000 other Jews celebrating Israel’s birthday. Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. Despite the huge crowd, I even bumped into several friends from Los Angeles. Only in Israel!   

I also spent several days at the home of a woman I had met through an online Jewish writers’ network. With five of her nine children still at home, Libby’s daughters graciously slept on futons in the dining room while I commandeered their room. 

“Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. “

Libby made aliyah 17 years ago and became an accomplished writer. We carved out time to talk about our work and professional goals, identifying how our complementary skills could help each other. But our conversations transcended work and merged into the personal. We shared confidences. When I expressed some surprise at how much I found we had in common given that she is Charedi and speaks Yiddish much of the time with her children, she observed, “Beneath all the labels, categories and dress codes, we are all human beings, with hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs. It was neither Orthodoxy or Chasidus that brought us together, but our shared humanity.”

Every day in Israel felt like a gift, an opportunity to breathe in the holiness of Jerusalem, to feel the imprint of Jewish history, the comfort of being among so many Jews. Israel, a land of miracles, offered up some for me. Plagued with chronic headaches, I never seem to get them there. And despite all the walking, even on hard stone surfaces, my finicky right knee always behaves. 

The evening I left, I was still packing in scattershot fashion when Libby called to me, “Come look at the sunset!” We gazed together from her fourth-floor apartment windows at the extraordinary beauty of Jerusalem’s twilight, bathing the Judean hills in pinkish-orange and then dusky purple as the sun eased itself below the horizon. 

“Jerusalem of gold,” I said, and Libby smiled and echoed the sentiment.  

On the street below, my heart was full and tears spilled from my eyes. Libby and I hugged each other tightly before I slid into the back seat of a taxi. I had come to Israel mainly for professional opportunities, but I left with so much more. I was nourished with the reassuring bond of a cherished and longstanding friendship, and discovered an unexpected channel for a brand-new and special friendship
to blossom.


Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”