Sarah and I returned from a wonderful trip abroad this week. We went first to Manchester, UK, to visit Sarah’s aunt, uncle, and a few extended family, and also to see the childhood home where her father grew up (her aunt lives there now). I had been a bit nervous about that portion of the trip – the rioting in the UK fortunately had calmed down before we went, and also this was a family visit to family I don’t know all that well. Fortunately, it was delightful – that part of the family isn’t religious, but they went way out of their way to accommodate both kashrut and shabbat. The synagogue, the Heaton Park Hebrew Congregation was lovely, and I got to have a long chat with the (very good) Hazzan about meticulousness in prayer. Also, the JS Restaurant was thoroughly fabulous: I had a meat pie which was phenomenal, and we got to spend time with some of Sarah’s more distant relatives whom we had never met before.
And then we went to Israel. Surprisingly, the duty free in Paris actually had some Royal Lochnagar scotch, which I remember as being my favorite scotch ever. We landed after midnight, so by the time we had gotten through passport control to the rental car and into Tel Aviv, it was almost 3AM. Note: the GPS that the rental car places will sell you is exactly like the ones in the US, and its map of Tel Aviv is hideously out of date (it couldn’t get us to the Marriott, which has been near the waterfront for decades…)
So the following day, we meandered around the craft fair downtown, and got a couple of neat things (e.g. a diorama of an Elvis (!) scene, a different and very nice Seder plate, etc), and we started looking for a place to eat. We found several which weren’t kosher, several that were but were unsuitable for glutards, and then had our choice between three (!) suitable places, all within the same walking area. We drove from there to Haifa, where we intended to visit the Bahá’í Gardens the following day. Unfortunately, when the website says that there are no tours on Wednesday, what it really means is that the gardens are closed on Wednesday. Bummer. So we headed out to Zikhron Ya’akov, where I had a yen to visit the Tishbi winery and restaurant, and there I was not only able to buy a bottle of their amazing brandy – we had what we both agree was the finest meal on our trip. Note: for any visitor to Israel, it’s worth going out of your way to eat there.
From there, we headed on to Jerusalem. We switched our reservation from Bakah to Ra’anana, based on some hunches and advice from friends, and fortunately the hotel was cool about it.
So then there was Israel: in addition to the happiness of our very long-time Efrat’s wedding, we got to see our friends from Zurich (who are trying aliyah for a year), Sarah’s childhood friend Yedida (whom I met on our last trip), and several other friends whom we’ve known from DC, most of whom now live in or around Jerusalem. More than that, Sarah got to go to Shira Hadasha, and I got to find a whole bunch of different shuls (and of course the Kotel), and we could wander through neighborhoods and say “it’s time for lunch; at which of the four kosher restaurants on this block would we like to eat?”
More than all that (not that that wasn’t a lot), the powerful experience for me was one of belonging – that the rhythm of life there really matches my own. Friday is a half-day, and shops start closing around one-ish, and the pace of the city gets even more frenetic than usual, until shabbat comes in, at which point it is suddenly calm. By “calm” I mean that streets which were carrying hundreds of cars per minute would now have three or four in the same span. Shops were closed – Emek Refaim had morphed from a monumentally busy shopping and restaurant street into a deserted strip – the only people on it were either going to or coming from services. The Mamilla mall and street were shut down, and that was a particularly visceral example of the difference in lifestyle. My mom tells me that this is how Bethesda, Md was in the 60’s (except on Sunday rather than Saturday), but I wasn’t there.
Last time Sarah and I went to Israel, we thought it was great, and told ourselves, “we should visit here more often;” on this trip, the question became “why precisely don’t we live here?”
There is a minyan on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Of course there is. When we were walking through the neighborhoods, mostly on shabbat but also at other times, there were little neighborhood parks in which oodles of children were playing, and their parents appeared (stereotyping by dress) to be of substantially different ideologies. This is exactly the sort of urbanism I support: because nobody there can afford a lawn, everyone is in the parks – this is both more efficient and also community-building. Even more, the idea that the synagogue isn’t the center of the community is, to my American mind, wholly revolutionary. In fact, the non-centrality of the synagogue to daily life means that innovation in prayer services becomes optional and even welcome, instead of being an existential threat to the survival of the community, as it is in the diaspora.
For me, this has opened a floodgate of emotion about the idea of making Aliyah. I know that Nefesh b’Nefesh does all sorts of stuff to help make this possible, so it’s good to know that there is a professional organization which is trying to help. I had said many times that [they] would take me out of my Georgetown house in a box; now perhaps that box would be a container.
I don’t know if this is in our near or far future – it’s just amazing to me that it’s gone from something which was beyond the pale to a real possibility. We have a lot of research and thinking to do – I imagine that it’s hard to move away from family, and hard to leave a community of friends, but the call of a place where I am normal is strong. Until then, I’m left with Yehuda haLevi, who wrote the title to this post.