The Old City of Jerusalem is a taut knot at the center of multiple strands of spiritual longing. It is divided into Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian “quarters” — but when you walk through the narrow old winding streets, you quickly see that the separations aren’t so neat in a place where menorahs can easily be found for sale in the Muslim quarter. In fact, it takes great energy and imagination to see the inhabitants as being unconnected to one another — the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians and the Armenians and the atheists and agnostics who maneuver among the uneven, foot-polished cobblestones, buying and selling, praying, chatting on a shady stoop, following in the footsteps of their savior or their sister or their ancestors. It takes an act of will to mentally undo the knot that binds Jerusalemites together — to insist on a counter-reality in which these are clearly different types of beings, rather than fascinating varieties of one species, a species with a compulsion for crossing over.
A guy like me might easily be lulled by the Old City into a vision of a peaceful, multicultural world — until he looks up from his sweetened Turkish coffee and sees the young Israeli soldiers standing a few feet away, submachine guns hanging at their side. And a terrible thought comes to him: They won’t shoot me — I’m a Jew.
* * *
I became a man on July 18 in the Negev Desert, nearly two months after my 52nd birthday. After a dusty, head-bumpy morning of archeological digging (at the ancient city of Beit Guvrin), an afternoon visit to the spectacularly beautiful gravesite of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife (who hated living in the desert — but when you’re married to an icon, what are you going to do?), and a glorious, splashelicious hour or so at the Ein Avdat Oasis (a side note: Jews seems to gravitate toward baptism), we arrived at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh. I’d always thought of kibbutzim as basically big, socialist farms, but in reality many — like this one — have survived into the present day by turning themselves into, essentially, hotels or holiday resorts.
After a mercifully quick dinner (don’t ask), our group headed over to a large water tower that had been painted with friendly, colorful graffiti. We climbed a metal ladder to the top, then found ourselves looking out over a dazzling desert landscape as the sun set. It felt perfect. Menachem Creditor, my friend and rabbi, with the help of our brilliant guide Jared, had gone to extraordinary lengths to make my bar mitzvah ceremony special. Menachem had borrowed a Torah from a temple in Jerusalem for us to use — and amazingly this Torah had been rescued from Vilna (also known as Vilnius), Lithuania, where the grandparents of one member of our group, Michael Tarle, had fought as partisans against the Nazis. About 265,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis — 95 percent of the population.
The previous day, at Yad Vashem, Michael had given a moving tribute to his grandparents, one that had us all in tears. The fact that the Torah at my bar mitzvah happened to come from the place where Michael’s brave grandparents had lived, and fought, was a coincidence — the kind of coincidence that reminds me of something the writer Richard Price likes to say: “God is not a second-rate novelist.”
Menachem had also borrowed a guitar, and he led us in song and prayer. Others in our group added lovely prayers and wishes for me on this occasion of my belated bar mitzvah. (As I understand it, technically I became “a bar mitzvah” — and thus a man — when I turned 13, simply by virtue of my chronological age. But here I am referring, of course, to the bar mitzvah ceremony, which I undertook later in life, by my own choice, and with the guidance and collaboration of Rabbi Creditor and numerous friends and family members and people in my community in Berkeley.)
I had intended to memorize my Torah parsha — the passage from The Book of Numbers, set to a musical “trope,” that had been assigned to me — but my middle-aged brain, outfitted with pre-Pentium processors, had proved unequal to that task. So, as permitted by Rabbi Creditor, I held a “cheat sheet” over the beautiful Torah scroll (containing a transliteration of the Hebrew, as well as my musical transcription of a recording that Menachem had made for me) and sang into the desert air. (I plan to learn Hebrew eventually as I continue my Jewish studies.) Then I read my drasha — my personal response to my Torah parsha.
Then Rabbi Creditor said a prayer, or sequence of prayers (I was quite overwhelmed emotionally, and don’t remember all the specifics), and the sun set, and a nearby peacock cried out, and Menachem wrapped a prayer shawl around me and my wife and son and I kissed them both, and even now as I write this (in a hotel room in Sheboygan, Wisconsin) my heart seems to fill up with more than blood, more than what will end, more than all that we have lost — with what might be, with what already is.
* * *
The next day we traveled by jeep over the rough terrain of the Golan Heights. It was quite bumpy. I thought, Yesterday I became a man; today I might become a eunuch.
* * *
There is a McDonald’s at Masada. This is not something I expected to find at the site where Jewish Zealots once committed suicide rather than be taken into slavery by Roman conquerors. I resisted the urge to wander over to the counter and order a Very, Very Unhappy Meal.
Like so many of the places we visited in Israel, Masada raised feelings of incredible, and perplexing, complexity. Were we meant to celebrate zealotry, or suicide? Was the Israeli sense of being constantly besieged a vestige from earlier times, or a very accurate perception of present circumstances? An Israeli man who heard me asking a long question, along these lines, of our guide later approached me and tried to explain how it feels to live one’s entire life with the daily threat of extinction; his tone was friendly, not combative — he was reaching out to me, trying to convey what life was like for him. And in that brief encounter I felt a challenge to my self-protective attempts to separate myself from all this painful history, and the confusing present, and the terrifyingly unknowable future.
Dig down into Israel’s past and you find multiple, quite often contradictory layers of conquest and victimization. You think you know where you stand, but you don’t: there are always more layers to uncover. From Herod’s splashy palaces to the Golden Arches of today, dominant cultures try to make their mark — but eventually someone else ends up walking all over you. Perhaps the best we can do is to hold hands and share the moment.
* * *
The Dead Sea is a place where people willingly inflict pain and discomfort upon themselves, then agree that they had a wonderful time. It was hotter than Hell when we got there. We rode in a little trolley pulled by a tractor that was driven by a guy who hated his job, hated his life, hated us. We covered parts of ourselves in legendary mud that was, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, boilingly hot. We rinsed off that mud in showers of hot, sulphurous water. We then stepped gingerly over hot sand to the rapidly receding waters of the Dead Sea itself — which turned out to be, yes, incredibly hot (though a bit cooler as you waded in deeper). We then did the thing you do in the Dead Sea — which is to lean back and float, on the salt-choked water, and marvel at how buoyant you have become. This is a little bit fun until you try to stand up again — and realize that this isn’t so easy: your buoyancy seems to prevent you from shifting your weight in such a way that your feet will go back down. So you panic a bit, and start splashing around, and get saltwater in your eyes — so that now your eyes sting (along with any portions of your skin that have been recently shaved, or scratched). You rinse out your eyes under yet another hot shower, then stagger back to the trolley driven by the sullen, bitter man on the tractor. In the humid, sulphur-smelling locker room, you change out of your salt-encrusted swimming suit back into your regular clothes. You order a slushie at the little cafeteria. You make a mental note never to visit the Dead Sea again (and perhaps to be wary of all tourist attractions that have the word “dead” in their name). You gratefully pile into your air-conditioned tour bus, murmuring, along with everyone else, that yes, you did have a wonderful time.
* * *
One day we met Avraham and Ibrahim — in other words, two guys named Abraham, one a Jew from Michigan and the other a Christian Arab who has, for many decades, lived in a kind of exile from his village.
Avraham Loewenthal is a remarkable artist who does paintings inspired by the mystical Jewish writings of the Kabbala. (The Kabbala was, of course, originally the creation of the singer-songwriter Madonna, but since then centuries of Jewish mystics have made it their own.) Avraham was a dude in the Detroit area when he read a book called Jewish Meditation, by Aryeh Kaplan, and his mind was blown. It’s still blowing — he moved to the spiritual city of Tzefat and for the past 10 years has been studying Kabbala and making art. He has a wispy beard, and says “Awesome!” a lot, with such enthusiasm that you find yourself saying “Awesome!” a lot yourself, and smiling. Avraham believes that nothing is coincidence, and that the highest purpose of humanity is to be altruistic. I would imagine that he’d be a terrible poker player.
Much of Tzefat has seemingly attained the mystical status of a tourist trap, but Jared (as usual, the consummate guide) led a few of us to a lovely café, where we watched a woman do some weaving and sipped fruit shakes.
Our encounter with the other “Abraham” — Ibrahim Issa — came later in the day, and was a moving highlight of our trip. We met him in what remains of his village, Bar’am. When he was a boy, he and all the other Christian Arabs who had lived, he says, peacefully with everyone (including Jews) to that point, were evacuated by the Israeli military. Since then Ibrahim — now 77 “and a half” years old — and the others in his community have repeatedly been told (by the Army chief, by a series of Israeli prime ministers, and even by Israel’s Supreme Court) that they have every right to return; and yet, they have not been allowed to do so, other than in occasional gatherings at their old church, which has recently been rebuilt. His people — Maronite Christians — have lived in this region for 1,600 years. He has been waiting 63 years to be allowed to move back. In the meantime, his village (most of it leveled by Israeli bombardment, in some vague action of supposed retaliation) has been turned into an Israeli “national park,” where there is virtually nothing to indicate to visitors that they are walking in, and on, his ancestral land. The public bathrooms, which we used, are located in the structure that used to be Ibrahim’s childhood home.
And yet he’s hopeful! As Ibrahim spoke — in Hebrew, with Jared translating for us — we saw the pain that he still feels at the enforced diaspora of his community. But when one of our group asked him whether he still expects to be allowed to return home — after 63 years! — without hesitation he says, “Yes!” I felt this “yes” as kind of an antidote to the terse “no” I’d gotten from Barbara, the Jewish settler who’d had us in her home in the West Bank, when I’d asked her if there was anything we Americans could do to help move her region towards peace. At the same time, Ibrahim seemed to share with Barbara a sense that it is not the vast majority of people who are causing the difficulties, but rather their leaders. “It is perfectly reasonable that Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live together peacefully,” he said, “but the politicians cause all the problems.”
I asked Ibrahim whether he felt the irony (though that seemed a rather weak word) of his community being treated by Jews much as the Jews have been treated throughout our history. His answer was poignant: “It definitely happened to the Jews — that was their disaster. And now they’re doing it to us — that’s the pain!” Later he said, “I don’t have a relationship to the State of Israel; I love the people of Israel!” Indeed, many of his children have served in the Israeli army. Other children of the former inhabitants of Bar’am have become lawyers, and are working assiduously to win their cause in the Israeli legal system. (Though one has to wonder, since the Israeli Supreme Court already told them that they could return, only to be “overruled” by the military, how much they might actually achieve this way.)
Ibrahim walked us back towards the parking lot. He said, indicating a now-barren stretch of land, “I played right here when I was a boy. That’s why it still burns. I see with my own eyes every single friend I played with here.” He said, “We can’t take up guns; the power of words is the best we can do.” He urged us to write to the Israeli leaders with a simple message: “What’s up with Bar’am?” He said, “I’ll pay for the stamp!”
Michael Tarle, the member of our group whose grandparents fought the Nazis as partisans, went up to Ibrahim and told him that, in the story of Bar’am, there were so many similarities to what Michael’s grandparents had experienced in Vilna. The two men embraced. We trudged past a sign that said, “Bar’Am National Park: Enjoy Your Visit! — Israel Nature & Parks Authority.” As we boarded our bus, I looked over and saw an old man, still standing erect, walk slowly to his car.
* * *
On Friday, the day before we were due to return home, we visited the ancient city of Tzippori, which is being painstakingly excavated, and where, we were told, Jews and Romans once lived together in relative peace. As at earlier stops on our trip, we considered the complicated and often porous membrane that has separated Jews from other cultures, and simultaneously connected them to those other cultures as well. As Monty Python trenchantly notes in The Life of Brian, the answer to the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is quite lengthy, actually.
Later, on a pluralistic Masorti (a.k.a. “Conservative”) Jewish kibbutz, a woman rabbi from the States proudly showed us the mikvah — purifying ritual pool — that she has rebuilt, and now maintains, where men and women and same-sex couples are welcome at any time. We heard from another rabbi on the kibbutz of a new generation of Israelis who are “drifting away from Judaism, because they feel it’s not theirs.”
In the evening, back in Jerusalem, we attended a shabbat service with a local Masorti congregation. We walked through an alley, over broken glass, to get there. The service was held in what had been built as a bomb shelter. Rabbi Creditor and members of the local congregation led the celebration, in which we welcomed shabbat, inviting the spirit of this holy day of rest and reflection to enter us. Beautiful children played on the floor. Menachem led the congregation in soaring, joyful song, and even a lively dance around the room.
Welcoming shabbat in a bomb shelter — that seemed to encapsulate our Israeli experience. The people in this room were seeking a home within a homeland that frequently makes them feel like outsiders, even as the Jewish nation struggles to find a way to feel at home itself. Amid the songs and the prayers, I wished for a world that feels like home for all of us, and for a pluralistic Israel that can help show us the way.