December 10, 2019

Impressions from Jerusalem

This is my 15th sojourn in Israel since my first trip 38 years ago, and as much as Israel has changed in that time it is still the most fascinating and inspiring place I know.

Today I met an old friend for lunch who made aliyah from South Africa in 1970, and he shared with me how difficult life has become for Israelis noting that the mood of the country is very similar to that immediately following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That war shattered the illusions and optimism that Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Days War had inspired. In those heady six short years between the wars Israelis felt impenetrable, like modern-day Maccabees, capable of overcoming every challenge and believing that at last they were fulfilling Jewish destiny.

Today, in light of last summer’s massive social justice rallies, the current government’s extremist nationalistic policies and the existential threat posed by Iran, it should not come as a surprise that Israelis are disheartened and distressed.

I am here for two weeks to study Hebrew on Ulpan (an accelerated language immersion program), and though my speaking approaches fluency at times it isn’t good enough for me. I am finding it increasingly difficult to understand many Israelis under the age of 45 who speak a mile a minute, far quicker than I remember 20 and 30 years ago. I figure that if I ever hope to engage with them in our common language, I have to do better, enhance my speaking and listening, and meet them where they live.

I asked my Ulpan teacher about why she thinks so many speak so fast all the time. She is a smart and sophisticated young woman younger than my eldest son, and she confessed that she didn’t know, but acknowledged that Israelis today live with exceptional tension, and perhaps that pressured life-style has affected their communication patterns.

That being said, there is no place like this place!

The day after I arrived, last Friday morning, I walked from my hotel in the chilly 45 degree sunshine to Machaneh Yehudah, Jerusalem’s famed open-air market, to buy food for my room and a fine bottle of Israeli Cabernet for my Erev Shabbat hosts. En route I wandered through old neighborhoods and narrow alleyways. Two elderly religious women hauling food carts were talking excitedly about their children and grandchildren who were coming from a Jerusalem suburb to their homes for Shabbat. Children ran by laughing and yelling. Hip looking 20-somethings passed me as well. Other than these human voices the streets were quiet as few cars were about. I entered the market and barkers were shouting the price of dried fruit for Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees and one of Israel’s favorite holidays, that comes Tuesday night and Wednesday.

So much happens here. On Shabbat evening I prayed with my friends at the Reform synagogue, Kehillat Mevasseret Zion. In the morning, I attended services at Congregation Shira Chadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue where women co-lead services with men. The singing of P’sukei D’zimra (a section of the service filled with Psalms and praises of God) especially was moving, melodic and beautiful. Kol isha (“the voice of the woman”) was clear, feminine and strong despite the Talmudic prohibition against men having to listen to a woman’s voice out of fear that they (the men) will become sexually aroused and distracted from their prayers. I was happy to hear these feminine voices and especially here, in the holiest of cities, for they along with the men were filled with love and Godliness, the essence of holiness.

And then, on Motzei Shabbat kol isha again! It is now an annual tradition on the Saturday night after Shabbat Shira celebrating the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus 15) that HUC’s cantorial students celebrate the life, music and spirit of Debbie Friedman (z’l) who is responsible for initiating the transformation of liturgical music for Reform Jews and many Conservative Jews around the world. Hundreds sang Debbie’s songs, laughed, cried, and expressed gratitude to her for what she gave to us and the Jewish people, again in this holiest of cities.

I have two homes – one in Los Angeles and one here. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Shalom mi-Y’rushalayim.