Quixotic in Israel
There is a windmill near our hotel here in Jerusalem. Sometime in the last 4,000 years — probably in the last century (I am making no claims of accuracy in this reportage; please offer corrections in “Comments”) — a rich Jewish guy paid for a bunch of idealistic but relatively helpless urban Jews (like me, only from Europe, I think) to start an outpost here. They had a very hard time, fighting disease, dirt, heat, and hunger. So at some point the rich guy decided to build a windmill nearby, I guess to provide wind power and maybe hope as well. The windmill still stands, overlooking the city, but doesn’t work very well, and never has — adding mechanical dysfunctionality to an already dysfunctional community.
This quixotic project seems to capture a lot of what I’m feeling in my few few days here — the desperate, intense desire for a crazy human endeavor to work somehow, while feeling, at nearly all times, that it’s not happening the way it’s supposed to. The winds blow, but not enough — and yet, instead of giving up, which would be the reasonable response, you find yourself hoping with even greater intensity.
My wife and son and I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv on Thursday at about 5:30 p.m., having departed from Berkeley on Wednesday morning. Dazed, we drifted through the Ben Gurion Airport, expecting at some point to be interrogated by intense, swarthy Israeli security personnel. Thinking of Israel, we had always imagined something of a police state, especially at the international airport. And yet we just had to wait in a short line to show our American passports to a woman in a booth, and then wait a little bit more at baggage claim. And then we just … left the airport and took a cab to the Jerusalem hotel where our Berkeley-based group was staying.
Already, reality was messing with my preconceptions of Israel: I was encountering an unexpected normality — but a compressed normality, if that makes sense: normality contained within a highly pressurized space.
There are 19 of us in our group (I think), led by Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, who has, in the two years or so I’ve known him, become a dear friend. I had approached Menachem with the idea that he train me for a bar mitzvah (which I’ve never had), and he had responded by expanding the idea into a series of public classes (held over the last several months in Berkeley) and this group tour of Israel. At the first dinner, on Thursday night, we med Jared, our tour leader here (along with Menachem). An American who found religion at 21 and has lived in Israel for a long time now, Jared is perhaps the most energetic person I have ever met; the cords in his neck stand out as he speaks, which he does a lot, and with a great and nuanced knowledge of seemingly everything regarding Israel.
My family and I, on the other hand, were operating on considerably less energy, as we had barely slept in the last two days. So it was in something of a daze that my wife and I piled into the air conditioned bus for a short ride to the “Peace Forest,” which overlooks the city. It was dark out, and beautiful. Nearby on our ridge was a group of religious Jews, most of them severely disabled and in wheelchairs; below us a young girl rolled on the spotlit grass with her even younger sister; also hanging out were a group of teenagers playing bongos, who might just have beamed themselves here from the Cal-Berkeley campus. In the distance, at first disquietingly for us, fireworks kept going off over the city; Jared explained that this was a traditional part of Arab wedding celebrations. Strangely, a fire had started not far away, and smoke quickly enveloped us and fire-engine sirens wailed. My wife and I looked at each other; our exhausted son was back at the hotel, sleeping, and we were in this strange land. Vulnerable — that’s how we felt.
And then Menachem spoke, beautifully, about us beginning our experience here together, and he offered prayers, and — though perhaps the majority of us are what you would call secular — we felt (or, speaking for myself, I felt) joined to all my fellow travelers, and to all these strangers living in this city, in a sense of heightened possibility.
On the bus back to the hotel, Jared explained to us that we would be spending the next day in the “Old City” — the most ancient, and religiously fraught, part of Jerusalem — and so we should make sure to wear clothing that covered our shoulders, elbows, and cleavage. I wondered allowed how residents of the Old City would then be able to appreciate my hairy chest and impressive collection of gold chains, but Jared seemed unmoved.
Later that night, Menachem took a small group of us on kind of a preview walk to the Old City. The weather was cool. I was running on fumes, but I really wanted to experience everything I could. After making our way through narrow, twisting streets of winding cobblestones, we went through a security checkpoint and I thought I heard Menachem say that we were about to see our hotel and that he wouldn’t try to prepare us for the experience. I wondered vaguely why viewing our hotel from another angle was going to be such a big deal — but then I saw this huge wall, spotlit, and I thought, “Well, it does look cool.” It was only after a while of staring that I realized: this was not our hotel, it was the Kotel — the Western Wall. And this was a big deal. We stood in an enormous, mostly empty square, divided by a fence from the people who were praying at the wall. Though I’d heard that men and women had to pray at different parts of the Wall, I still felt a jolt to see it: a much larger section for the davening men, fenced off from a relatively cramped space for the equally pious women. And I felt that I did not want to go right up to the Wall, because then I would have to be with only the men. But I must note that a woman in our group, who initially felt the same way, ended up going into the women’s section of the Wall and had a powerful, affirming experience there.
Here we come to the crux of the tensions I’ve felt here in Jerusalem: between those who wish to live as though they were in another time — say, a Polish village in the 1900s — and those of us who have embraced modernity. People in the garb of the Ultra-Orthodox (and maybe also the Orthodox — in my relative ignorance, I’m not sure I can always make the distinction) moved among us in the Old City, never seeming to meet my eyes. And maybe I was projecting, but I felt disapproved of, as if this was their world and I was an impurity. But also in the square were other tourists, many of them not trying very hard, if at all, to cover their shoulders, elbows, and cleavages, posing for photos in form-fitting Western clothing with the Wall as a backdrop. And I felt as though two incompatible universes were somehow overlapping, and this unsteady truce could not hold forever, or even for very long.
That was our first night — I haven’t even gotten to our very full and exhausting day yesterday! I am writing to you on Saturday, the Sabbath, which is probably violating several Jewish laws, and I really need to spend some time preparing for my bar mitzvah, which will be on Monday. I have to keep trying to memorize my parsha, which I’m finding quite difficult, and must also write out my personal response to the Torah portion I’ve been assigned. This is all making me very nervous.
But before I sign off for now, let me just add this: On Thursday, after we stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv, my wife and son and I were making our way through the airport. And I saw people walking here and there — you know, doing airport things. And I saw the huge sign, in sans-serif type, saying that this was David Ben Gurion Airport. And this is what I found myself saying, quietly: “Fuck you, Hitler!”
We are still here.