Monday, February 4, 2008

Going Back Home, To See Mom and Dad

Yom sheni, 28 Shevat 5768/3 February 2008, Monday.

My friend, Neil Gillman, reminds me that the 'blog has been quiet for a while, and challenges me, suggesting that I have already lost inspiration... Knowing Neil, I understand this throwing of the gauntlet, and return same. (Uh, Neil... point me to YOUR 'blog, buddy?) He is almost right... I have not lost inspiration, but TIME. Life is incredibly full. But, I appreciate that someone is reading this thing; so I will fill in with something I wrote five years ago. It is still metakein the cheit of the meraglim, our zaidies, which is the humble goal of this 'blog... And it is in honor of Kobi Mor, hero; unnamed doctor, hero; and in memory of the as-yet-unnamed murder victim in Dimona, hy"d.

“Don’t worry. It’s fine. Come on in.” Her voice has that slightly annoyed edge that tells me she is a little tired of reassuring people.
Shelli Karzen and I are not friends; in fact, we’ve never met. But she is an important point-of-contact. She is my compromise between those who say, “You’re crazy, right? You’re not going into Hevron?!” and those who say, “What’s the problem? It’s perfectly safe here.” Calling Shelli before I go into Ma’arat Hamachpela each year is why my husband let’s me go.
Today it is raining (Baruch Hashem!) in Kiryat Arba. The rain makes me as joyful as any other Jew; the cold I could do without. Gam zeh ya’avor… My son and I are waiting at the bus stop. He is right; we should have just taken the 160 straight in. But I had to make my phone call first, to be sure…
We finally get tired of waiting for the bus. It has started to hail. Struggling through my poor Hebrew comprehension, we take the advice of the pizza shop proprietor. “Take a tremp. Everybody driving by is going to Hevron.” The soldiers in the pizza shop agree. “It’s the best way to get there.” I have been raised on terrifying tales of American wackos who pick up hitchhikers, and don’t put them back in the same shape in which they found them. I am skeptical about whether or not my husband will be thrilled with this decision. But, as is often the case for me in Israel, I decide to put our safety into the hands of Hashem, and trust my “family” to have my best interests at heart. We stand by the corner curb for about four seconds. A kind rabbi, already with one passenger, pulls over and offers us a ride. The passenger is a woman whose English is a tonic to me. “I’m getting off just after you. I’ll show you where.”
I don’t really need her to tell me. As soon as we get into the neighborhood, the old familiar feeling begins to wash over me. It is a kind of mental tunnel vision. My senses become very acute, and I focus on each sensation and memory as if they are distinct living beings. I am going home to Mom and Dad, and these memories and feelings are my dear friends. Soon, Herod’s façade thrusts itself into view. The weather has cleared up, and Ma’arat Hamachpela looks majestic against the blue sky. As we step out of the car, thanking our driver, I am overwhelmed with a desire to say Sheyechianu. But I don’t know if it is appropriate; and Rabbi Goldberger is too many thousands of miles away to ask. So I speak to Hashem in my own words: “Thank you, Ribono shel Olam, for bringing me home again. Thank you for knocking down all the roadblocks so I could bring my son to this special place.” I am slightly out of breath. I look at my tall son. He is 16, and this is his first trip to Israel. We are geirim, and I feel such intense pride as I take him up the steep path to visit Avraham and Sara, truly Avinu and Emainu. If I analyzed my feelings with the rationalistic viewpoint I had just 15 years ago, this would all seem very odd to me, I am sure. But I have learned to trust these feelings. I am taking my dear son to show him off; and I am as excited as if there were two people with kindly eyes waiting for us at the top of the hill, waiting to see how well I’ve done so far, in this most important venture…
At the top of the hill are soldiers. As in previous years, I am painfully aware of how young and beautiful they are. Does the IDF select these kids to guard the major tourist attractions based on diversity and beauty, or are they all like this? Remembering the photos of the sweet-faced young soldiers we have lost to this evil Oslo war, I answer myself. Of course there is no political design here. Jewish soldiers just really are this beautiful. There is an Ethopian youth, and a dark-haired girl. There are two young men joking in rapid Hebrew with each other. I begin to divest myself of all the junk I carry all over Israel. Our soldiers are amazingly patient. “Weapons?” asks the girl. (She doesn’t even attempt to communicate with me in Hebrew. I wryly wonder to myself how long I will need to live in Israel before my body stops screaming “American tourist” wherever I go.) “No. Just a Swiss Army knife,” I answer. She shrugs, and waves me through. (I remember the guard at BWI Airport taking my twelve-year-old son’s round-tipped safety scissors away from him before our flight last year. Israeli caution always makes American fear seem comical.) The male guards are a bit more thorough with Yehoshua. I wonder what about him triggers their particular profile awareness. His age, his short black hair, his black leather jacket and jeans? In any case, it ends soon, and we thank them for being there. “We are sorry you have to be here, and we are glad you are here.” It is my family’s mantra to every soldier we meet pulling guard-the-Jews duty.
We climb some steps, and meet a second set of guards. I cannot remember there being a second set last year. Is it my memory, or have we gotten even more careful? This time, the young female soldier is not as comfortable with my knife as was her counterpart.
She takes it out of my pack. “You can pick it up here later,” she says, putting it into a lock box behind her. We continue walking, and now my breathless feeling returns as we enter the main sanctuary. I lean a bit forward, remembering my way. There are several rooms off of this main room, each designating the small sanctuary devoted to a pair of emahot and avot. I wait with Yehoshua for a moment, savoring the sweetness of just being here. I show him the giant ner tamid, remembering aloud the explanation I was given a couple of years ago. The Arabs do not allow us to keep anything inside that is a permanent fixture. Sure enough, as one looks around, everything Jewish has a sense of impermanence, as if it could be hustled out within a few moments. Except for that ner tamid. It is also portable, if you happen to be Shimshon. But who else would want to lift it? It is an ironic punch in the nose to our recalcitrant hosts. It makes me smile as I tell it over to my son, who also appreciates the humor. We light candles. My hands are shaking, and my son helps me. All of the Baltimore cool has left him. He is tender, and does not seem to see my emotionalism as foolish. I am grateful.
We take a sharp right, and gingerly enter Avraham and Sara’s room. The little shteibel has a Yiddishen ta’am, due to the heartfelt davening of a Jew in the far right corner. Yehoshua asks if it is inappropriate to take pictures. He asks why the gates behind the names of the patriarchs are locked. I tell him to look closely, and he will see that there is nothing Jewish behind those locked gates. “Jews aren’t allowed to go in there. They are places where only Moslems can pray.” As his jaw sets in a very familiar way, I tell him not to worry. “Our Abba and Ema are buried very far under this building. What’s going on up here cannot touch them. But our prayers will reach Hashem, and He knows we are visiting them.” He is only mildly appeased. Like me, like every Jew I know, it doesn’t sit well with him that we are told how and when we can visit our holy sites. I brush these thoughts aside, and go to my old familiar position on the right side of Avraham’s gate. I press my face against the marble. “Hi, Tatte. It’s good to be home. Look who I brought!” I sit for a long time in the plastic chair, thinking and saying Tehillim. I pray to Hashem that I should have guidance in raising these special boys. I pray that my husband and I should be good Jews, and that our family should resist the impulse to procrastinate in fulfilling our individual missions. I pray that all of my children, and their parents, will see Moshiach.
After a bit, I get up and join Yehoshua. He has been wandering around, exploring all of the rooms. We find a young man out in the main area, and ask him how we can get to the Yeshiva of Ma’arat Hamachpela. We explain that we have promised a friend in the States that we will bring tzedaka from her to the yeshiva. “The yeshiva is right here,” he says, indicating one of the larger rooms. “Would you like a bracha from my rebbe?” he asks. “Oh, yes, for my son! And for the woman I represent.” I push Yehoshua ahead of me into the chamber. There are several students learning, and a rebbe at the front of the room. The boy interrupts the rebbe, who calls Yehoshua across to him. I give the young man the name of my friend. “For you, too?” he asks. Inexplicably, I am flustered. “No, just for my son, thank you, and my friend, that she should find her bashert.” He asks my name anyway, and goes back to the rebbe.
When Yehoshua and I meet again in the main room, another young man, older than the first, joins us. I anticipate why he is there. “I have tzedaka for the yeshiva, and a rather odd request,” I tell him. “My friend would like a receipt, just so that she can have something with ‘Ma’arat Hamachpela’ on it. She just wants to feel connected to this place, to have something she can hold in her hand.” For some reason, it is important to me to not give this Yid the impression that we want a receipt for mundane tax or proof-of-purchase reasons. “Wait here just a moment,” he says, and disappears. His face is so kind, and the experience has been so comforting and intense. Yehoshua puts his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Ema. I can wait for him. Go back in, if you want to.” I did not even realize that I was looking longingly toward Avraham and Sara’s chamber. “Go ahead, Ema,” he repeats softly. I walk back into the room, and this time I sit down by Sara’s gate. I realize that this is the first time I have ever sat here, and the tears begin to flow with surprising warmth and force.
“Dearest Sara Emainu. Before my mama passed away in September, it would have seemed disrespectful to her for me to be here. You understand. Please put in a good word that Hashem should take extra special care of her, won’t you?” The crying is cleansing, and unleashes a torrent of prayer, for those who have lost children and parents in this evil Oslo war, for those who cannot have children, for those who are desperately searching for their mates. I cry for several minutes for all of my siblings who need refua shelaima, parnassa tova, yeshua ruchani… There is so much to cry over and to pray for.
“He’s back, Ema.” Yehoshua is waiting for me at the door. I marvel at how mature he seems. I hope his time here has been as productive as mine.
The young man from the yeshiva is holding a picture of Ma’arat Hamachpela in his hands. There is a beautiful prayer written above the picture. With this, he gives me a receipt for my friend’s tzedaka. “I hope she will like this,” he says humbly. (Yehoshua and I figure out later that he has slipped downstairs to purchase a picture for her. How great is the understanding in the heart of a Jew for the longings of a fellow Jew!) He gives me two small booklets with specific Tehillim. “Your friend and your son should recite the whole book every day for thirty days,” he says, with deep seriousness. We find out his name is Menachem, and we give him a bracha for his children to be successful in Torah, and that they should be able to remain in Israel.
I pick up my knife, and thank the soldiers for being so careful. On the way down the steps, we laugh to see tens of Jews from the States coming up to visit the Holy Patriarchs. “It’s really sad about the reduced tourism in Israel,” I say to Yehoshua. He laughs. “Yeah, really. People sure seem scared.” (True, they are not coming in droves the way they used to; but I am proud of these Jews.) We even see some friends from Baltimore. Only moments ago, we were pilgrims on a solitary spiritual quest. Suddenly, we are surrounded by fellow tourists, enjoying the fun and lightheartedness of a community outing.
I buy Yehoshua a sweatshirt in the gift shop. “Hevron…me’az v’l’tamid!” it cries. I ask a soldier how we get to Hevron. “You’re in Hevron,” he says. “I mean the Jewish community,” I say, not sure of why I am not being understood. “Avraham Avinu?” he asks. At first, I am confused, as I have just left Avraham Avinu. Then I remember that “Avraham Avinu” is the name of the tiny Jewish neighborhood. He says, “Just walk around the corner and down the street. You are there.” Our friend Menachem appears. (I am convinced that he is a malach.) He directs us through our confusion. “Go that way,” he points. “Ask the soldiers. There is a curfew today, so it is safe.” We thank him, and begin walking down what appears to be an alley. Every door has a black spray-painted Magen David on it. There are soldiers in full battle dress at intervals along the way. The walk is eerie, because Yehoshua and I are the only travelers, and because I am struggling with so many conflicting emotions. The sensation of mental tunnel vision is so strong, I can feel my brain. It is not a headache; rather, it is a sense of intensity, as if awareness were a physical sensation, rather than an emotional or intellectual state of being.
With the guidance of our guards, we wend our way into a beautiful little courtyard. The creamy white buildings are tall, and close together. There is a not-unpleasant feeling of being closed in. People come and go, and greet us pleasantly. At first, no one stops to speak to us, and we are a bit at a loss. We see a poster on one wall. “Shalhevet Pass was murdered here.” Yehoshua allows me to take his picture here. (“What do I think I am doing?” I scream inside myself.) I wrestle with my conscience for a few seconds before I pose him near the poster. His expression is a mixture of mourning for little 10-month-old Shalhevet, and defiance. I snap the shutter, and my son and I make our quiet protest.
We wander for a few minutes more, not really sure of where to go. (Later, when I find a map to consult, I see where I will walk next time I come. But now the area seems too private for us to explore without a guide.) Finally, I stop a gentleman and ask him if there is a place to get a bite to eat. He looks puzzled, and then tells me that the cafeteria in the hospitality center at Ma’arat Hamachpela is pretty much it. I ask him if he can direct me to someone to whom I can give tzedaka for needy families in the area, or for security needs in the community. “Is there a rabbi or someone?” He tries to think of who might be able to help me. “Can you make sure it gets to the right places?” I ask. (Yehoshua, child of America, later asks me how I could trust this stranger. Somehow I have a hard time imagining a resident of Hevron being short on integrity. When you are one of 250 families in the eye of the storm of a spiritual battleground, you probably don’t pocket your community’s tzedaka.) “I? Well… I am a kohen. Is that good enough?” He asks this with a kind smile. We give him the tzedaka, and find out his name. He is Misha’el. We give him a bracha, and he gives us one back. (All this bracha-bestowing on my part comes as a gift from the gadol, Rav Michel Twerski. I approached him at a wedding several years ago, asking for a bracha for my sons. “I will give you a bracha only on the condition that you can accept a bracha from a plain Jew,” he said. “I accost cleaning ladies for blessings for my children, Rabbi,” I answered him, whereupon he laughed, and gave me my bracha. Since then, it occurred to me that I certainly fit the description of a plain Jew. Holding firmly to the conviction that if I feel a need for something, I certainly should make sure my fellow Jew doesn’t go without it, I liberally dispense brachot whenever it seems responsible to do so.)
Now it is time to go and catch our bus. We go back the way we came. As we walk, I try to figure out the mix of emotions I feel in the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. They do not go well together, and I must unravel them. I am enraged and afraid; I am proud and joyful and defiant. I untangle the threads. I am afraid to walk in this place, because my enemies have vowed to kill me for being here. What does it feel like to be shot in the head? I am enraged that they dare to frighten my people and me in our holy land, the land given to us by G-d. What if they kill my son? How will I face his father? How dare they make me afraid here! I am enraged that the world thinks it is acceptable for Jews to die like this. If a Catholic were targeted at the Vatican, would the Pope be this understanding of the sniper’s feelings? Would the world be silent? Would the UN chastise the Church for holding land someone else coveted? I am angry at America and the West for allowing this, and for excusing it. Will they search so hard to understand the angst of the murderers when it is their children at play, their young soldiers sleeping, their grandmothers shopping, their simple folk immersed in prayers for peace? I feel pride that I am able to rise above my fear, and come here with my children to this place. I am overjoyed at being here, at still being able to be here, in spite of the impossible situation. The feeling of defiance, the childish “You can’t tell me where I can walk in my land!” is shouting in my head against everyone who would give away our Hevron. My head feels heavy with so much thought and feeling. It is good to get back out into the familiar area in front of Ma’arat Hamachpela.
“Are you going to Yerushalayim?” Menachem the Malach is right there. “If you aren’t afraid to travel by car, I can get you a ride. It’s faster than the bus.” I assure him that we are not afraid. (As an important aside, I am not crazy. I believe that if G-d has decided that I am supposed to be killed by an Arab, chas v’chalila, and I decide that I can hide from this by staying in Baltimore, the Arab will come find me in Upper Park Heights. So, while I do take certain precautions, I don’t see any point in living as if I can hide from whatever plan G-d may have for me. I do believe in trying to avoid a harsh decree, however; and take whatever spiritual measures I can to avoid danger.)
As we stand waiting for our ride, I tell Menachem about our pilgrimage. “Because we are converts, and Sara and Avraham are halachically our mother and father, it is important to me that we visit their kevorim.” He nods understanding. He asks respectfully if he may ask how I became Jewish. I only get so far as to tell him that my father was a Jew, and his face lights up. “This is truly hashgacha pratit,” he says, with a calm excitement I recognize. (People who believe strongly in a concept are excited, but not surprised, whenever they encounter yet another proof.) “We were learning in kolel just this morning about geirim who are children of Jewish fathers,” he continues. “Do you have any siblings?” I realize that he means “of the Jewish father,” so I tell him I have a sister. “Is she Jewish?” he asks. When I tell him that she is not interested, he says, “Nu? And why not? According to what we were learning today, you had a Jewish neshama in a gilgul she’avar… You know what it is? I don’t know it in English…” I am quietly ecstatic to be able to help. “A past life,” I tell him. “Yes, yes, a ‘past life.’ You did something not right…” -- he says this in a very humble way, which is endearing-- “and you had to do a tikun by being born as a goy. And when your tikun was complete, you were permitted to rejoin your People. Your sister, not. Anyway, maybe not…” He fairly acknowledges that her story is not yet over, and anything is possible. I tell him how special it is to a ger to hear these small divrei Torah. “Your child knows that you love him, yes? But he needs to hear you say it every day any way. We converts know intellectually that we are Jews. But often the yeitzer hara plays with our minds, and tries to convince us that we are at best unworthy, and at worst, inauthentic. When a Jew takes the time to tell us that we are part of the family, and that we are appreciated, it is very special. Thank you.”
He seems to understand, and now our ride has arrived. Yehoshua, who has been alternately listening and interviewing soldiers, rejoins us. We climb into the small car, and see that our driver is none other than our other malach, the Kohen Misha’el. “Of course,” I think to myself. Hashem has orchestrated this entire visit, as He always does. The two melachim speak to one another briefly. Misha’el asks, “You are going to Yerushalayim?”
“Actually, we are going to Efrat; but I assume the only way to get there is to go to Yerushalayim and take a bus from there.” The roads are always uncertain out in this area, I have been told; and I do not wish to go back the way we came, as the wait could be very long. The weather is good now, but the sky has been darkening again. I marvel at how Hashem has allowed us to have pleasant weather during our stay here. More conversation in the front seat, and Misha’el says, “I will take you into Efrat. It is halfway there, anyway.”
Hodu la’Hashem, ki tov! Ki le’olam chasdo!!!
Ruth Eastman, 11 Adar I, 5763.