23 Nisan 5776 – Stifled

(Anachronistic thoughts from this past week gathered in a single entry)

An aqueduct’s silhouette, like an ancient arched wraith, rises from the shadowed valley along bus route 480. Unpleasant odors fill the stale air, relieved by an open window above my head bringing in torrents of fresh wind.

We cruise fine and fast, when suddenly there is stalling traffic, and the encounter of bright blue lights in the opposing lane.

Highway One. 20:27. Outskirts of Jerusalem.

I hear the marriage of laughs and children’s shrill cries while Gotye wails over them all. Dim lights keep the cabin lit; too tranquil for the man in the seat next to me, who has fallen victim to sleep.

The strange outlines of beautifully endowed hills and mountains are highlighted under the purple sky and amber clouds grazing above and beyond. The massive grotto of a contoured cliff appears beside the freeway, littered with occasional markers and plaques and monuments; the Palmach fought on this hill in 1948, the Ottomans erected a citadel here, Hadrian raised a wall there.

On some days, like today, I feel like I can’t hold on. A friend had sat next to me one evening and told me “you are the most serious person I’ve ever met.” I don’t know if I can take her words as a compliment or a validation for the foreign nature of my soul’s fabric. I think too much, I have known this. I curse myself too often for it.

Jerusalem’s golden glow can be seen in the night, from the foundation of Mevaseret Tzion’s unexpectedly winding hills. Climbing to the plateau, the bus stops at Harel station, as a number of smiling faces and families anticipating Yom Tov disappear into the night.

A couple relocates in the seats in front of me. She wraps her hands around his neck, kisses him on the cheek and presses her lips into his ear. The streets below are uniquely quiet per the normal busy Jerusalem scenery; many have fled to the Kinneret (Galilee) for Passover. Feelings conflict within me. A breath of supernatural peace washes through my busy head and eases my heart. My heart would be the man arguing “it is too windy“. An infamous hazard for every human being, regardless of age.

The bus enters the garage of Central Bus Station as the crowd erupts in activity, as though we are on a plane that has just landed. Phones and conversations suddenly alive with the lights that flicker on.

A man in tan air force uniform stands in the aisle. Behind him, a man in dress clothes and tzitzit impatiently gathers his kids. A glock is holstered on his belt.

I’ve landed again.

My future I am tossing to the wind. I have made my decisions, and now I am working a plan post-IDF. Where am I being called to next? What is in my heart that I can give to the world? I am sowing my seeds here, where and how can they bloom?

I’m stifled. I’ve been stifled all my adult life, feeling unable to bloom!

I am returning to a thought that I will eventually move northwest. The mountains and trees of Washington and Oregon, the raging waters of the Pacific, the cold rain and commanding nature and tender, pale, warmly gratifying sun I equate to the region, in my memories and stays, I believe will be a good season of rest for me; deep down, I hope it gives me a chance to gather the pieces of my salvaged faith.

I run my hands along the wailing wall and bow my head; a plain-clothed Masorti thumb on the hands of black-coated Haredim. I whisper a few private petitions, gather my pledges and promise myself and Whomever is listening that I will not give up, ask for the necessary strength to carry through, and walk away. Jerusalem at night feels near freezing in a t-shirt; having been 30C in Haifa earlier today, it must be no warmer than 18C now. I covet a silk scarf a man wraps around his whole upper body

I ride the light rail back and forth across the city, waiting for a hostel to reach back to me. I refresh my phone and open an email which reads:

“Dear Brendan,

Since we do not recognize ‘conservative conversions’, we are unable to host you.

Shalom”

It is my first encounter with the ongoing strife between movements that make us all uniquely Jewish. The news stings, but does not deter me.  How could it?

I would be murdering my identity if I were to give up.  That is not the fabric of this soul, most serious.

A newer friend of mine returns to the kibbutz from basic training for the weekend.  I only know him as Ari, his real name unknown.  Perhaps he legally changed it after his conversion somewhere on the East Coast.

Standing a foot taller than me in black boots and a ruffled green General Corps uniform, himself hoping to graduate into the cobalt and black of Magav (Border Police), Ari comes from a nearly identical process of converting to Conservative Judaism, having dealt with the issue of recognition with subterfuge.  I tell him of my encounter with rejection.

“What did they say when you told the Jewish Agency that you are a convert?”
“You don’t tell them.”

And here he is, he made it, albeit with plans to formally convert to Modern Orthodoxy while in the army.

These experiences have raised so many questions within, mostly regarding the state of my commitment.  I love this land, and the choices I have made.  I know who I am, but with this I know what I have come to hate.

Legalities and lies.

Advertisements

26 Cheshvan 5776 – Covenant

MOSES DISTANCES himself from the throngs of Hebrews gathering on the shore while he begins an uncertain conversation in the Holy Presence.

During the wait, the Chieftan of Judah feels the shifty waters of the intimidating Sea of Reeds on his feet. His tribe gathers behind him, vulnerable, mortal, panicked; his spiritual and martial commander arguing with G-d even at this vital moment, the faint contour of Moses’ staff angrily waving in the air toward a rageful sky, from where in the distance a stanchion of flames stretches downward; the uncomfortably close thin line epitomizing the nearness of a vengeful Egyptian cavalry to nomadic, fragile life.

I choose You to choose me.

The Chieftan silently, impulsively, hurls his body into the waters. The motherly screams of women on the shore, the silence of disbelief overtaking a once boisterous, stormy crowd, and the shouts of a few indecisive men erupt. The dark waves of the Sea of Reeds pulls at the Chieftan’s robes as he sinks lower beneath the burning salt lido churning around him. The deep, black indigo bathes his chest, his neck, his nose and ears, until he is gone.

I reach out my hands along the Mikvah’s walls to keep my naked body submerged. Resurface. Too hasty I think to myself while the Beit Din, the House of Judgement consisting of my Rabbi, my synagogue’s cantor, and its director, stands waiting for me to immerse again.

The warm water softly beckons on my shoulders and breasts. Going under again, flare of the nostrils, assault on the eyes, the lifting pressure in my head, and… peace. The change. The transformation, the will actualized by the commitment of my heart.

Years of desire and shouting out, I choose You to choose me.

Resurface.

“One more time” I hear my Rabbi softly speak.

I remember the long road that has led upward to this moment. The questioning, the depression, the confusion, the anger, the tears… the silent glimpses of joy like sunlight grinning through cloud shade.

I remember asking myself who the fuck am I, walking dozens of miles from my parents’ home in the middle of night, feet soaked in slush and snow, wondering about the state of my soul after a shouting match with my parents in which I had cursed them with colorful insults and slammed my boots on the floor.

I remember the comfort of a woman holding my hand with a glass of wine in the other, asking me why, then warning me, warning me until my eyes could no longer comfortably look at hers, and finally, not surrendering, not breaking, she began to console me with intoxicating words of how she has not opted from the faith, that we are a tribe, that I am taking on an ancient and heavy commitment, that I cannot opt out either.

I remember the shame of pulling out my active phone during a communal gathering of singing during a Shabbat service in a soldiers’ hostel in Tel Aviv, a gross violation of the Shabbat laws, that caught the attention of a young reservist with leathery skin and a knitted kippah. He eyed me with a sort of stare nixing a brief shock and disdain with an understanding that whispered it is okay, he will get there one day.

I remember forgetting how to pray, and learning again, because of my primitive understanding of Hebrew, and having always prayed to Jesus, until the revelation came one night in 2011 while gazing into the maze of Chicago’s skyscrapers from a hotel room, going through a messy breakup, that I need to stop worshipping a man and my crumbling relationship; that evening I found a sliver of G-d, reaching down into the cold ruins of my consciousness from the starry lights of the many windows, like glimpses of warmth in the sea of black concrete during a chilly downtown night:

Shema Israel Ad-nai Eloheinu, Ad-nai Echad.

was the first prayer I had prayed, battling a massive headache, strangling loneliness, questioning my future and my willingness to stay alive for it.

“Stretch out your hand, Moishe.”

The words penetrate the chosen leader’s focus as the clouds grow darker, a harbinger for night.

Wood smacks stone. The waters flee in furor, light obliterating darkness. Two majestic curtains of sea stretch into the brewing clouds, opening a passage for the Hebrews. The nearly-drowned Chieftan is regaining composure, having been swept under his feet by the power of the parting.

The Hebrews start forward, abandoning carts and deadweight, led by an astonished Moses and Aaron. Trembling with fear, awed in the Presence.

The Chieftan is named Nachshon, son of Aminadav and directly descended from Judah, son of Jacob. His namesake, allusive to the Hebrew word nachshol, “waves”, is the name I am taking on as a Jew.

Reading from a framed prayer, in Hebrew, at the poolside, wet hair covering my eyes from the third immersion in the mikvah, I begin:

Blessed are You, Ad-nai
Ruler of the Universe
Who has sanctified us with the mitzvot
and has commanded us concerning immersion.

My Rabbi begins a beautiful Hebrew prayer, the most beautiful prayer, and I hear him speak my name as though it were written in a book. My identity rose out of the water that day. My desire, my current life, and my future, family, children, home, I will go with G-d and mend the world in an everlasting covenant; I will speak of these words to my children, speak of these words while I sit at home, when I walk along the way, and when I lie down and rise up. I will bind these as a sign upon my hands, between my eyes. I will hang them on my doorposts and upon my gates.

The waters are open, blown back by a strong Eastern wind; my life’s Egypt behind. I am free. I belong. And the journey has only begun… although I am still imperfect, although I still, like a child, continue to learn from misunderstandings and petty mistakes, I am untouched by regret, rather, yolked by delight that I am going where I am meant to go.

And it has not been effortless, this choice will not be without complication. My identity was once scarred by a controlling, aggressive darkness, unconfident and insecure. Difficulties in the road ahead are surely waiting for me. The future is uncertain for all of us, no matter where we are in life.

Stretch out your hand, Moishe, take a breath, go with faith.

Go.

25 Tishrei 5776 – Defense, Deterrence, Depravity

SHOMRON 18 TISHREI 5776 – SAMARIA, 1 OCTOBER 2015

A white Subaru hatchback drives over the pacifying sound of gravel as it slows to a stop, making a turn onto another winding road to reach Highway 60, toward the Neria settlement in the west. The driver and the front passenger, Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, are returning from a class reunion as their four children in the backseats begin to quietly wink off to the scenery of somnolent hills in Samaria, from where the sun had cast its final honeyed light hours earlier.

Another vehicle suddenly unsheathes itself from the camouflaging dark, driving into the lit intersection, blocking the passage of the Henkins. Two men jump out from the doors, masked in balaclavas, and fire their small arms into the front windows of the Subaru.

The children’s silence is likely what spares them from further gunfire; the eldest, nine year-old Matan Henkin, takes control and urges his younger siblings to be silent as he watches his parents’ bodies rip apart by the sudden hail of bullets. Just as quickly as the attack began, it was over; the critical silence and quiet murmuring of confused children grotesquely steals away the normalcy of a family returning home, on holiday, with no expectation of what violent execution has just taken place.

Minutes later, the children now flashing brights and honking on the horn for attention, an off-duty medic and soldier arrives at the strange scene. The soldier immediately whips out his M-16 and checks the shadowed hills for any signs of terrorists. The medic, Tzvi Goren, is horrified to find that behind the blood-stained doors, two limp bodies sit placid while children scream and panic in the backseats; the youngest, a four month-old, cries unconsolably while bound in a carrier.

Tzvi’s worst fears, while examining and comforting the children, realizes they are now orphans; he brokenly attempts to follow procedure, averting the traumatized youth’s attention from their parents, while waiting for the army to come.

A day later, Matan reads mourner’s Kaddish for his parents over the wailing of friends and family, an intrepid voice among a sea of people with no comfort, wounds raw, still searching for the faintest glimmer of hope in a stifling valley of shadows. The two well-known, well-loved parents, who made Aliyah from the United States, are escorted to their final resting place before Shabbat begins, thousands of mourners in attendance. The attacks that orphaned the four children are but the beginning of a wave of attacks that will claim the lives of two more Israelis, and injure dozens more, with no end in immediate sight.

HA’IR HA’ATIKAH 20 TISHREI 5776 – THE OLD CITY, 3 OCTOBER 2015

Among the crowds inside the Lion’s Gate, a Palestinian law student makes his way through the throngs of prayer gatherers and tourists on this often-troubled road in the Old City, locked between the Arab quarter and Temple Mount.

In recent weeks, this site has been a nest of trouble between Arab dwellers on the Temple Mount and Jewish worshippers observing Rosh HaShanah; the local Arabs, carrying the perception that the Mount from where sits their Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques, are under threat by the recent large pilgrimage of Jews. Because of this, the Arab masses have been actively rioting from the Mount by use of lethal stones and firebombs, even a failed grenade, on the unarmed worshippers.

Due to this escalation, the Israeli border patrol division of the IDF, unique for their grey uniforms and black combat equipment contrary to standard olive green dress, have been deployed on high alert.

The nineteen year-old Arab law student, Al Bireh, weaves in between the crowds of worshippers sauntering their way to the Western Wall as he lays eyes on his target: a married orthodox couple carrying with them an infant. With a few quick swings, he fatally stabs the father, Rabbi Nehemia Lavie, while severely injuring the Rabbi’s wife and daughter. The crowds of people begin to flee through the narrow streets as the fourth victim, IDF reservist Aharon Benita, is mortally wounded and his rifle confiscated. The terrorist then begins to fire wildly, vainly, into the fleeing crowd before he is almost immediately neutralized by a Border Patrol officer.

Damascus_Gate

All of these acts occurring in unusual unison surround the bold announcement last Wednesday of President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in front of a cheering United Nations General Assembly, that the Palestinian people “will no longer continue to be bound” to the 1993 Oslo Accords, a failed attempt at mutual recognition by Israel and Palestine, laying grounds for Palestinian statehood, and peace.

I remember watching the televised speech, in shock, followed by the raising of the Palestinian flag at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I was not in shock because of the lack of desire for a consolidated peace between Israel and Palestine, not because I do not believe that Palestinians have the very basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor because I do not believe that Palestinians should have access to the founding of their own sovereign state.

But under these threats? These conditions?

The chilling voice of a woman buzzes on my phone, tzeva adom, tzeva adom, tzeva adom… “code red, code red, code red”… At that moment, an untamed rocket was screaming into the night sky, bound to strike down on Israeli soil.

This warning system, found on smartphones, is designed for Israelis in the event of these frequent, often unpredictable launches. If a rocket is tracked in the airspace over a specific town, its residents will receive a personal alert; being abroad, I can receive alerts for any region under fire.

The weight of the situation has prompted a lot of personal thoughts, especially as I plan to make this beautiful, complex country my home in the next year. What can prevent further attacks on my people? What measures do we need to take as a collective, as a fighting force? My motto breathes deep, interminable, defend life. Defend the life of my people, defend their rights, their happiness, defend the youth until they are ready to live under the helmet and carry the flame of that mantra.

But when will defense become depravity? Deterrence, the long-embraced strategy of the IDF, is condemned by the world. I have always believed that it is necessary to discourage terrorism, by means of the home demolitions, the night arrests, the brutally long prison sentences for convicted terrorists… who can complain about demolished homes, an active, violent convict being stolen away in the night, and living in custody, when we have to bury our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters? These strategies, in spite of repeated acts of terror and inevitably uncontrollable violence, has been effective in keeping Israel safe. But is deterrence effective in solving the Palestinian problem?

The stabbing sprees are becoming wildfire. From last weekend, a mounting figure of incidents are spreading from the West Bank, to Jerusalem; whose mayor, Nir Barkat, has just urged its citizens to carry firearms; and in the last day, to Tel Aviv and Yaffa.

Today in Israel, a list of incidents grow:

05:00 Men throw stones at a bus near Um al-Fahm
11:56 Rocks are thrown at a car driving past Afula
12:19 A Haredi man is stabbed and seriously injured in Jerusalem, his assailant shot and killed
13:02 Palestinians throw stones at vehicles passing Gush Etzion
13:22 Palestinians throw rocks at non-governmental organization vehicles near Halhul
15:00 A terrorist stabs five people with a screwdriver in Tel Aviv, and is killed
15:28 A glass bottle is thrown at a passerby in Jerusalem
15:54 A young man is seriously injured in a stabbing near Hebron
17:15 A soldier is lightly wounded by stones during a protest in Halamish
17:20 A Palestinian minister is wounded after stones are thrown at a vehicle passing Nablus
18:20 A Palestinian is killed and 9 police officers are wounded in clashes at Shuafat refugee camp
19:06 A soldier is critically wounded in a stabbing in Afula

The situation’s urgency mirrors a minor Intifada, a Shaking, an uprising, and various newspapers and journalists are assessing the beginning of the third such uprising.

As these acts unfold, six-thousand miles away, I urgently watch and wish I were not so helpless. I want to be there now, protecting my country and my people.

But this time is also a reflection, a spiritual question I need to mold into an answer; Defense, Deterrence, Depravity. I cannot stoop to savagery; I need to guard my heart. And at the same time, lives are being lost, and I need to defend life, a priority I hold over my conflict and muse.

The gray skies of this Minnesota autumn are quiet, soothing, maddening; life here in Minneapolis passes with a simple fury and joy, making infant steps toward its true manifestation in the gloriously bright Tel Aviv, where people appreciated life with every step, every waking breath, because we had no choice, because the present day could be our last, because we have a history that did not have to spare us, because we don’t have to be here, and we are; I wonder how I could not only preserve this deep appreciation for free Jews in our Holy Land, but for our Palestinian neighbors, who, despite their negative and often hostile perception of us, are facing a crisis deeper than any act of knife-wielding viciousness could bring about; with our army on the high-guard, it is inevitable that they should act when enough is finally enough, and no one really wants to acknowledge what will happen next.

I ask you, reader, to pray for the Peace of Yerushalayim, for its precious namesake, for those who are dying in her, and for those who endanger their own people from within her.

I refuse to believe that this is how it will end.

14 Tishrei 5776 – Atonement

All I remember from that day was walking into the deep end; all other pigmented fragments surrounding that blue memory is a lost haze, burned long ago like some forgotten nitrate film cache.

I remember watching the roundel of the glowing bulb closely, attentively.  The burning sensation in my nostrils; the hard buoyancy in my head fighting upward, my tiny body dragging it down.  My feet kept moving, toward the light.  Wavy tails of brown hair quivered against the current of my steps toward the pool’s furthest trench.  Calm, curious initiative.

I lost consciousness.

I next remember being stood up with cotton swabs stabbing my ears, bleeding with chlorine water.  Coughing tremors that made my eyes burn, belching up water from nauseous lungs.  I remember being blind; was it my eyes refusing to open, or some temporary reaction?  I made out the wet, shifting shadows of people standing around me on the rugged stone floor.  My mother continued to wrench the swabs deeper into my ears as I rubbed my eyes dry with a towel coating my cold, wet body like a blanket.  A strange menagerie of sensations that resembled salvation played themselves within and around me.

This girl saved you, they told me.

According to my family, she was the only one who saw me, who pulled me out of the pool in time after I silently slipped below the water.

The waves are hard, warm, good. I see Daniel swimming meters away, shouting as each new emerald curl rises for its final smash toward the populated shoreline.

Did you see that! he would shout too often, in a thick, amused Australian twang.

His wild crop of black hair, which reminds me of a burning bush, disappears beneath the currents, and torpedoes far away toward the Mediterranean horizon. Less experienced, but high on confidence, I determinedly dash beneath the frothy blue, tasting the vindicating sensation of sea salt in my mouth and nose, scissoring through the hard tides, and following the slipstream like wings through air.

The magnificent lido of Tel Aviv-Yafo is an emotional, invigorating way to spend a weekend resting and connecting to the land.

These currents are where Jonah was swallowed by the whale. It was these waters that have seen thousands of years of trade and fishing in the levant. Near this coastline a civil war among Jews was being ignited, the Irgun’s ship Altalena being the flint, and the newly formed Israel Defense Forces the steel.

My eyes follow the white monoliths of luxury hotels, the distant sapphire parhelion of the Azrieli district’s business skyscrapers, to the near olive-skinned bodies that are the blood of this city. My white flesh is my fading identity; fresh from the diaspora, waiting to be minted by the sun toward true physical Israeli personhood.

Do I feel self-conscious as my friends remark with curses and jeers how pale I am? Perhaps a little, but I laugh with them. It is truly a funny sight.

I swim to a stop, and cry out in joy as the hot rays of light bathe my friends and I like myrrh; heart full of passion, each summer breath full of the life I’ve prayed on, the spent nights curled and destroyed in the diaspora of my once ruined life, waiting, mumbling petitions between hoarse breaths of deluded hopes for this salvation that is now real, vivid, green like the lush foliage on shore, and dulcet, flowing, like the natural mikvah us Jews freely roam.

We end the evening smoking hookah on a street café, and converse with women soldiers we have our hearts locked on. I walk into the bunk room of my hostel, shirtless. I have passed the burn stage, a nice tan coat runs down my chest and midriff; Daniel and Yair are marked by crimson streaks down their faces and back.

Did you see that? I shout, unable to quench my laughter.

Yom Kippur was difficult to stand through. Not because of the hunger and thirst of fasting, not because of the repentant state we are in during those twenty-five hours, but because of the affliction we bring upon our souls as we mourn our sins and petition to G-d and people in our lives, who we have wronged, for forgiveness.

I had gone through multiple stages of mourning throughout the day, at one point, getting into my car, I remember shouting in a brief fury, have I not afflicted my soul enough for the past five years!

I drive on a bleak highway 35W to my Minneapolis apartment and creep lifelessly into the thick cool duvet of my bed, with iron-weight thoughts, praying a little to G-d, a little to myself, stifle my soliloquy with a self-doubting thought, this is vacuous, be a mensch, stop being so down on yourself, live like any other day, continue on with your life, commit to your dreams, kfotze! [jump!]

I arrived in the contrite halls of a darkened Temple of Aaron to join my community for a Ma’ariv and prayer. I was disconnected from the depths of the holy day as various congregants ascended to the podium to recite prayers while the community read responsively, yet I didn’t feel it; standing in the furthest seats away from the altar, I couldn’t connect, stubborn and destroyed, I tried to gain my strength back to fight the haunting dreariness of my unbearable past.

I was tired of afflicting myself. I asked G-d for something new, as I continue to. A revelation I had in my mind was that G-d gives us the tools to make our lives what our hearts desire for them to be, and, knowing that I will have my mikvah in a month, and having chosen my Hebrew name which I have yet to reveal, and, applying for the Ulpan kibbutz classes somehow confirmed that G-d was giving me something not just new, but completely transformative. And it was because of my initiative.

My Rabbi calls out the final shofar call, and incorporeally, with hairs rising on my neck and eyes welling up with tears, I find myself standing at the base of Mount Sinai, every generation of Jewish man and woman standing with me; King David, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Golda Meir, Maimonides, my Rabbi Fine, Channah Shenesh, all repentant, all afflicted, all crying out in their souls for something new, something good, final, and freeing; a chance to escape the past, to walk on salvation’s shores, to repair the world, be a mensch, and kfotze!

I cannot examine this hole in my heart no more than I can examine the absence of a person, a place nor a calling. This is more of a deep emotional absence and I know it can only be filled by the G-d I chose to embrace after several years of wandering, committing, and fall out. This G-d of mine, the G-d of Ruth and David and Abraham, is missing. And His covenant I am failing to understand. And His people I am not with, His plans, far misunderstood and abused, I am not accepting out of failure to see.

I am choosing my own path, hoping one day to look at my reflection some-decades on, sit on the foot of my bed to speak my nightly reminder (“G-d is One”), and see a man made in His image rather than a man discouraged. That this hole may be filled with self-forgiveness, forgiving others, and not worrying about things past nor coming, but focusing on committing to an oath bigger than myself in this present. This practice cannot begin now, or then, but continues, even by revenant mistakes we all make and of all of the times we fail ourselves and others.

Unless I quit focusing on myself, and the more I come to terms with what love and life are truly about, I will be just as empty tomorrow as I am now. This is not a depression I have to climb out of, but a bank on the sea, waters parted, a restless cavalry behind; we all must cross.

I experienced my first case of Israeli stubbornness. Contacting the Ulpan kibbutz proved more challenging than I thought; it required a greater effort than I initially expected, but one I am willing to give.

I had sent out a few emails inquiring for information regarding the program; no response. I found a few members of the kibbutz on facebook, sending kind messages asking for more details; no response. I then found phone numbers belonging to the kibbutz.

After listening to a series of long Israeli drones contrast to American rings, I ended the call, aggravated. I tried back another day, when miraculously, a man answered.

“Allo?
“Shalom, Iftach?”
“…Allo?”
Shit, don’t hang up…
“Allo, atah m’daber anglit?”
“…ken.”
Relief.

I spoke with an animated man, half-expecting to hear some native English speaker, but to my pleasant surprise, found a man whose English was difficult to understand. As though surprised at the lengths I went through to reach him, Iftach enthusiastically laid out the basic syllabus of the course and asked me for a few contact details to forward an application.

I could feel my cheeks flushed with excitement as I wished the man Shalom, anticipating yet another advance toward my dream.

As Sukkot begins, marked by a crimson lunar eclipse, I am beginning to feel a deep connectivity to my future, as well as my people, and this holiday, this harvest season and resounding Atonement; a divine forgiveness that states all will be well with my soul; cleared obstacles past and mountains on the horizon, brambles, thistles; more challenges that I live for, and less the emotional traumas that once convinced me that my life was meaningless, retrograde; taking two marches forward and years of steps in regression; not anymore.

I walk with confidence, the fire of the 6th of Sivan still burning, eternally, enticingly, deep down.

25 Av 5775 – The End

The hands of my kibbutz-made watch move slowly, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I tiredly work the math in my head as I pace forward in patient blinks at customs; it is sometime past seven here, and mid-afternoon in Israel.

I notice a lone suitcase ahead of me, two women behind me ask if it is mine. We wave down a security guard and he promptly takes it into his custody. A kerchiefed middle-aged woman ahead of me startlingly asks “where did my bag go?” as I try to make contact with the fleeting security guard. She distressfully pursues him, abandoning her post, despite the droves of travelers she gives up her place for; the line is too thick and too constant to save a spot. And in the forefront of grumpy thoughts, I think to myself, “at Ben Gurion they would’ve detonated that case by now, lady.”

Taylor Swift smiles at me from an advertisement, with emboldened letters that seem to strain,
welcome to New York.
You’re home.

The solemn Atlantic skies burst through the terminal windows painting the rooms and its faces gray. I follow the attractive figure of a young woman practicing yoga one terminal away. She seems careless, in wanderlust. She is on her way to the next adventure; the past’s oblivion. I feel like I’ve been assigned to a mundane return that is mandatory. I am overwhelmed, planning out my next exodus.

A taxi driver catches the sight of my hand as I cumbersomely shoulder my overweight luggage into his backseat.
“Where to.”
“The airport. …Ben Gurion airport.”
He raises two fingers, “yes I know.”
The two fingers then reach for the volume knob on the radio.
Being a backseat passenger is a bliss I have almost forgotten. It is even more enhanced that I can gaze at this curious lifestyle I aspire to.

I see the morning life I fell in love with, described in book pages I had read years ago. Israelis are certainly awake earlier than most Americans, I feel, and the consistent sunshine at such early hours is a mirage to this cliché. Black-shirted, freshly showered beatniks are having a post-workout espresso in the hidden coffee shops that can be found at the base of Bauhaus apartments. An old woman walking her numerous dogs; perhaps some are her neighbors? Confident young business people in animated conversations and old retired war buddies enjoying a jog. And it’s only Sunday; the first day of the week.

An impassioned Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in his famous Boston-accented Hebrew on air, accompanied by irritated commentators whose voices rise and fall like the sudden ramps and curving freeways the taxi drives through, custom to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, as I believe Elie Wiesel best described her, “a city that is constantly growing in successive maelstroms of fury and joy.”

The fury of freak traffic started by a man making a food delivery with hazards on, the joy of a young green-bereted recruit kissing her brown-bereted Golani boyfriend. The fury of emergency vehicles constantly driving with lights on in case of a terror attack, the joy of an expatriate in a kippah on cell phone talking with his child abroad.

Fury and joy— a reminder the two can never be alone, nor separate.

The cab driver asks me, again, “AC or window?” It must be routine. “Window is good.”

We come up to Ben Gurion’s security gate. A man with a sharp jaw and Oakley radars covering his focused glare wields a TAR-21, finger disciplined over the trigger, ready for a confrontation with a non-stopping vehicle. As of late, a popular terrorist tactic, the act of ramming vehicles into checkpoints and highly-populated pedestrian centers, has Israelis and soldiers on high-guard. The numerous deaths that have transpired from this disgusting act in the past two months makes this soldier’s stone-cold tact look pious.

A woman questions the cab driver, then questions me. I give her my passport, and she smiles at me, as if trying to mimic my photograph. “What are you doing here?” “Volunteers for Israel, I’m meeting my group.”

We enter without a hitch.

Ben Gurion International is busier than when I had initially arrived a week prior. The Arrivals Hall, when I had first arrived, was anti-climactically placid; it’s tall concrete pillars standing alone, and vast floor space unused. Now, a diverse flag of people gathers, families of a different story standing naked in the refuge of a Jewish dream willed.

Aware that I am going to be living on a base for a week, I withdraw a modest amount of shekels from an ATM. I purchase a phone, and am given my first Israeli number; a blonde speaking in rapid fire Hebrew to one of her customers switches over to California-accented English as she issues me an old Nokia.

I sit, meet Lars, and after a few hours I am united with my congregation of young volunteers for the first time. Not one American in my group; a Dutchman, Hungarian, Japanese-Australian, and a French girl. This is home.

I stand at the pinnacle of the Citadel hostel, taking in my last views of ancient Jerusalem. An amazingly crimson horizon burns in the presence of a gold haze bathing the city in its unique twilight. I am the only one awake at 05:40, weary travelers with disheveled hair peeking out from a rainbow of neon sleeping bags on the roof’s floor around me. I don’t want to leave.

I haul my weighty rucksack of belongings toward Sha’ar Shekem station near the Damascus Gate (Sha’ar Shekem— “Damascus Gate”) as a muezzin’s voice hauntingly carries from a minaret tower.  Another faraway crier joins him.  Another.  The cadence of voices in minor Arab key breaks the dusky morning with a sunrise the color of smelted gold.  

The weekend hangovers from Shavuot’s intense celebrating are apparent aboard this quiet and sparsely occupied train. A soldier of the Kfir Brigade stares a thousand yards into the ugly multi-colored conundrum that is the empty seat across from him.  Is he, too, suffering the consequence of drinking one too many Goldstars with his buddies, relishing the sabbath-breaking East Jerusalem night life?  Or is he shouldering the final stretches of an intense, short-lived service with a combat brigade?  His black M-16 with nickel-colored scars, worn camouflage beret, purple bruises beneath his eyelids and three diagonal bars on his shoulder sleeve suggests the latter.  It’s an attractive sight; I would be in a sore bliss if I were him.  

Jerusalem Central Bus Station is more lively– but not the chaos from a few days prior. A man selling teffilin gestures towards me as I wait in line at the information booth to confirm my ride back to Tel Aviv.

I feel a piece of myself missing as I see the valley of Jerusalem slowly fade from view. Har HaMenukhot, a famous hillside cemetery established as a result of the 1948 Jordanian Occupation, rendering all other Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem inaccessible for the next nineteen years, is the final landmark I pass before experiencing Highway 1’s famous countryside aboard this Egged bus.

As I watch the stone graves shrink and fade, and the beautiful funeral cypresses standing in formation, perpetually watching over the silent rows, I silently, intensely, promise to myself that once I return to this city that has stolen my heart, it will be for good, just like the ones resting upon that hill.

I stare at the cold-colored ceiling of my barracks as the AC rattles over the snores of my American-Israeli madrikh, or group leader. My thoughts are haunting me. I have gone too deep, again.

I am in the country of my dreams, yet I am alone.

I am able to connect with people here, and I love them. I feel a love for them that lights a happiness, unknotting a marred spirit worried of how it would be perceived, accepted. I accept them. They accept me, my dreams. But would my dreams I have worked so long for in America be unchallenging to the average soldier? I mull on my lack of initiative and wisdom. I am by definition a child in my development as a dual-citizen, as a Jew. I am too remote, too behind to contribute to the world; not even the sum of my life’s vigor will contribute one iota to this world abroad, than what the average sabra can do in this country. I then notice the absence by my side; too many years of ruffled sheets where a responsive mind and soul should lie.
Where are you? Who are you? Ma shmek? T’gadi li.

Remember that love, remember the dream. Rise with that hot Judean morning light; feel the powerful blast of the shower head, shave my whiskered jaw with the blade; cuff my fatigues, lace up my boots, and work.

Fury and joy.

Somewhere about Rabin Square, I wait to meet a friend for coffee. I gaze at the monolithic, iron, upended tetrahedron that sits in the middle of this public square of Tel Aviv; residents leisurely sit beneath and around it.

Beyond the monument sits the aged, unassuming City Hall, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I am greeted by an ecstatic furry black lab, taking leaps on and off the marble bench that forms the base of this great monument, hopping on again, zig-zagging as it sniffs around, just as curious of this place as I am.

I sit and process my final days in Israel. I have tackled and achieved a long-awaiting promise to myself, and have overstepped an intimidating boundary. What is next? How do I join the Paratroopers from here? What sacrifice do I need to make? I know a great one awaits.

The energy that comes with my newfound confidence and love, is like a marvelously prolonged coffee high. I am unstoppable; I have touched ground, now I need to plant my focus here completely, even if it tests my individuality. If I lose who I am in my dream, the chances are great that I shall find myself again here. That sacrifice I am at least willing to make.

I stand and wander toward a grouping of trees.

“Nu, hello?” My friend ambushes me from behind, and I am surprised to find someone like me, at least physically, standing there; completely Jewish, completely Israeli, but completely Eastern European. I shout her name and hug her, and we begin walking in the way of the streets. How to talk with an acquaintance you have known for a long time, but have never met until now?

For those in Israel, it comes easily.

“How long have you been growing them?”
“Well, since I was a child.”
“And how old are you?”
“I am twenty-two.”
“Brendan.”
“Brendan? I’m Benjamin.”

The handsomely dressed man and I shake hands, as a silently sporadic scene of pillow-smuggling and seat-reclining takes place around us abroad El Al Flight 9. Benjamin’s side curls are what attracted my attention toward him, despite seeing hundreds in the past three weeks. And although I may not be able to achieve his length for decades, I think to myself, my children may look just like him as young adults. I entertain more thoughts of the future to get my mind off of the departure.

The long moments before takeoff, the black of night; Star of David on the wingtip, the thrust of being taxi’ed down through the tarmac; the anticipation of take-off; the roar, the lift, airborne.

I watch the confusing horizons shift and sway; a dim view of the many white apartments, as minute as salt-mines; the brilliant desert sky, distant diamonds in the close vacuum of space.

Tel Aviv bids her seductive farewell; my neck hurts as I strain to make contact with its disappearing lights, an ominous Mediterranean blackness now escorting us below.

When my eyes meet the lonely islands of Nova Scotia ten hours later, I cannot fall back asleep. We descend two hours later into the swampy marshlands and crowded brown brick apartments of New York City. Benjamin’s glossy, tired eyes carry a childhood’s wonder. I know that he is home; his clean accent and destination is a dead giveaway that he is a New York City Jew; although we are away from the Land, he has a solid refuge to keep his spirits up. I feel solemn, almost victim. Something is taken away from me, but I try to not exude the ridiculous thoughts that ravage me. It’s time to see my family, and better now, I know where I belong.

Minnesota, as I can best describe the place, is like a crushing Red Sea, racing toward me as I stand on the last dry stretch of the floor. And I realize that it is not an optimistic image, but believe me; I am.

I have learned the great opportunity and spirit that encompasses my faraway home; I can counter the accusations of delusion with this true experience. Israel is greater a place than I had dreamed it would be. And I intend on returning to it, I intend to reach as high as I can in my coming Army service and make as great a contribution to the land and its people as I am physically and mentally able.

And, I have a newfound desire to heal it; its apparent divide, and ancient wounds that keep breaking and bleeding with every new incident.

The evening is fresh as I run past the gold dome of Saint Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. I remember the true Greek Orthodox monks I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; their incense-waving walk and dark beards. I am underwhelmed by the small size of this church’s dome, but inspired by the architecture I know exists six-thousand miles away.

I scale the final stretches of a sixteen kilometer run, the morning run of Matkal commandos. I feel the sinews of my hot muscles bending and fraying, as burning salty perspiration runs into my eyes. The sweat on my back has made my shirt as heavy as a coat; my lungs pulsate sorely as I take in and shove out air.

I recount the fighters who have preserved the land in its genesis; the boys who suffered like me, but with the intense weight of ammunition on their backs and machine guns in their wiry arms, bullet wounds and broken ribs.

I smile to myself while I pant. This is nothing.

The hum of heavy aircraft echoes through the summer air as I watch two C-130’s approach the airport for a landing.