Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Good Jew"

I had an interesting conversation one night of my Israel trip with our Israeli guard that came with our group to "protect" us. Let's call him Sam. Sam was recently released from the army and was potently disgusted by religious intrusions into his life. He mentioned that while he was in the army the rules were strict in terms of keeping the soldiers eating only kosher food. Soldiers could get punished, he said, for going out and eating a cheeseburger.

We also discussed the Gaza withdrawal. He was definitely for it. Did you know that about a quarter of the standing Israeli army was stationed in the Gaza area? He was clearly a political leftist as he was very much sympathetic with the Palestinians as he said that the majority just wanted peace (though recent election results would appear to undermine that statement). He also described the extremists on either side of the conflict in equal terms, though he acknowledged that there were more of them on the Palestinian side.

The part of the discussion that I found most interesting was however on the subject of the place of tradition in Jewish life and the future of the Jewish people. He had said that living your life in a certain way just because that's how people have lived in the past is a form of slavery. That we should each find our own path in life and live it.

Well, alright, I said, but what about the future of Jewish life and the Jewish people? How can we hope to survive as a cohesive body if we don't respect tradition and keep it alive? His response to this was very telling. "I don't care," he said. "I don't care."

Wow. Well then. It would appear that being so anti-tradition is not so much a factor of being against "slavery" but actually a simple instance of selfishness.

The question then is, can we fault such an individual for that kind of viewpoint? Does being a "good Jew" require working for (or at least caring about) the future of the Jewish people? Or does his virtue as an individual overrule any consideration on a Jewish value scale?

Are those who have a different vision for the future of Jewish life, which others may see as subversive, being good Jews?

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Kotel

I went to the Kotel for the first time on a Friday night. It was thrilling. We walked down the steps and I saw the Kotel with my own eyes as I had seen it countless times on pictures and movies my entire life. I felt a kind of tugging in my heart to get closer to the Wall.

Now, I'm not too enamored by the Temple. Sure it was an incredible structure of its time and meant very much to the Jews as a monument to God and Jewish independence, but I do not feel any desire to see it rebuilt, nor do I feel a need for the Temple Mount to be reclaimed. It's not as if I'm specifically against such activities, but that I simply do not see it as important. What then is the reason for my emotional connection to the Wall?

The Kotel, like so many other things in Judaism, is a symbol. Some may take it as simply a remnant of the Second Temple, which it is. Others may see it as a place where God is nearest, though that's not exactly my cup of tea. I see it as a symbol of the centuries of Jewish oppression. As a symbol of the unrelenting yearning and wailing that Jews have directed toward it for the return to the glory of the days of old. Jews don't pray to the Kotel but many, as they stand before it, feel as if they are saying, "We are back again. We've been pushed down for so long, but we've come back. They thought that they could destroy us, but here we are standing in this place before this Wall once again."

I stopped in the middle of the plaza just taking the sight in, building up my own suspense for when I would eventually come to the Wall and touch it. Then we began saying Kabbalat Shabbat and soon afterwards Maariv. I was davening but I couldn't keep my eyes off the great stone monument before me. It was a Lubavitch group so there was plenty of singing and dancing. That was fine enough but I was really just waiting for a few moments of my own time so I could go meet the Wall.

With Maariv finishing up I made my way through the crowd towards the Kotel. I stopped just a few feet away and I looked up. It's really big from down there. Then I stepped forward and I touched it with the fingertips from one hand. Stone. Smooth. Smooth from the thousands upon thousands of other fingertips that brushed that Stone before me. I pressed my palm against it and then I brought my other hand against the Wall. Cold stone, yet in a way also warm. I looked up again then I took my hands off. I said my silent goodbyes and turned away.

We were supposed to visit again on Sunday and my roommate was preparing his little note to push into a crack in the Wall. I wasn't planning on writing a note myself as I didn't see much of a point, but after talking to my roommate I thought, "Hell, why not?" Good and well meant prayers are, of course, never wish lists but directives truly pointed at oneself for goals to succeed or for principles to live up to. And, again, it is symbolic.

Right now, if it hasn't fallen out yet, there is a tiny scrap of paper in a tiny crevice on the left side of the Kotel which has my message written on it. I wrote it in Hebrew, though I'm not sure why, and it is also probably also mostly grammatically incorrect. My Hebrew skills are far from perfect. I slipped it in without fanfare but with some thumping of the heart.

It was a simple message. I wasn't asking for anything fancy. All it said, in fair Hebrew translation, was:

"Let me be a good Jew."

Even I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it certainly felt meaningful.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


How can I explain Israel but to say that it felt like I was coming home for the first time. Israel is the motherland, the historical land of the Jews and Jewish tradition holds a connection to the land in a relationship which is arguably the strongest in the world between a People and a Land. What other people or nation of this world do you find such yearning and identity with their land?

It was an incredible honor to be able to fly in just a few hours to the places where my ancestors might have willingly walked for months had they been able to make the trip. I saw the sights that my ancestors have wailed to be rebuilt for millennia and I freely walked through the streets of Jerusalem in a way which my ancestors of so many centuries could only dream of doing.

It was really an amazing experience and yet in a way oddly familiar. It wasn't like I was feeling deja vu, but I felt so comfortable wherever I went and in things that I did that I could have almost have passed for a native had my Hebrew been up to par. The guide on my Birthright trip asked me at least three times if I had ever been to Israel before and expressed surprise when I answered that I hadn't. I don't know what it was exactly, but going to Israel was a lot like going home.

Maybe it was the whole accommodating environment for Jewish observance. Hotel door locks were manufactured for both card swipers and mechanical keys. Kosher food was the rule and not kosher food the exception. Or maybe it was the solid feeling of Jewish brotherhood that pervaded the air. Of course there were many different kinds of Jews from all over the religious, political, and geographical map, but still one would call to the other, "Achi." I felt a kind of security that I just don't feel anywhere else.

But more than anything else, I think it was my deep feeling of historical connection to the land and to the Jewish events which transpired there. Every inch of Israel is smothered in history and walking through it following the paths of Abraham, of David, of Isaiah, of the Chashmonaim, of Ben-Gurion, of the IDF troops who liberated the land and all the rest leaves me feeling breathless. Our story is long and seeing the Jews strong again in their land tells me that it is far from over.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I'm Back!

I'm back from my first trip to Israel. It was a real blast. I went with Birthright and got to see all over the country. Then I stayed awhile afterwards and met a mess of family. Israel is great! I'll post a few interesting stories from my trip later on when I get settled back into daily life but for now this is just a heads up to any and all of my readers who were wondering what happened to me.