Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Nuance in the Question

5 Kislev 5780.

A really great marriage has moments over the decades of falling in love again.

There are certain things about Israel that make me fall in love with her over and over again, even after 12 years.

I needed to travel via three buses covering many kilometers and a couple of hours to make a shiva visit yesterday. My friend was here from America saying her last goodbyes to her dear mother. Without a large community of friends and family around, all of us former Baltimoreans feared she might be alone. So we did our best to take shifts.

During my travel time there and back, I met several interesting women. My new tutor, Leah, will be so proud of me: most of my conversations were necessarily in Hebrew. I heard stories of Jewish refugees from Arab and African countries. A beautiful but deeply-scarred woman gave me a first-hand account of crossing the Sudan for ultimate rescue via Operation Moses in 1984. I heard another story about a family's struggle to get from Tripoli to Tunisia -- being in a concentration camp there, fed bread with cockroaches in it, and the rescue that came just as this Libyan camp was preparing to follow the crematorium practice of Germany. Another elderly lady gave me spontaneous brachot (blessings) for the health that she herself clearly felt was slipping away. Our five minutes together were made entirely of the acknowledgement that health is everything, and mutual blessings for each other and for all our families, and of course, lots of "Amen." A young Sephardi woman spent several seconds giving me brachot and calling me "neshama," then gave up her seat to an elderly passenger. The older woman declined. "Shvi, Mahmee, shvi!" (Sit, dearie, sit!) The young woman wasn't having any of that, so they both stood for a while before the older lady finally gave in.

Once we got past the "where are you from?" part of the discussions, every one of them asked me: "Mi yesh lach po?" (Literally, "Who have you here?")

First, some background. In America in the Olden Days -- young people: "the Olden Days" refers to all time before humans were plugged into their individual cell phone worlds, sort of a pre-Matrix existence -- you could have some fascinating conversations with complete strangers on buses, trains and airplanes. Travelers might share their itineraries, and locals would politely ask things like, "So, what brings you to town?" Or perhaps, more abruptly, "Why are you here?" (They meant it in the nicest possible way, bless their hearts.)

In Israel, the fellow travelers (who dispense brachot like Tic Tac mints) most often ask, "Who is here that brings you all this way?"

I love people and I have loved traveling in different countries, immersing in other cultural styles of communication.

But my favorite, the love of my life, is this Israeli family-centric culture. Even after 12 years of living here, I never tire of the "who" of Israel that supersedes the "what."

Who brings you here, neshama? I give you brachot for health and long life and much joy from your families, those you've built or those you've adopted.

Photo credit: Elana Dressler