20 Cheshvan 5777 – Day by Day

What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again.  There is nothing new under the sun.

I am sinking into the rhythm I had felt around this time a year ago, the damning repetition that drives one mad.  But a full work schedule is necessary for the time being.  The illusion of being so far from home is, again, a daily reminder of my purpose.  Don’t let habit rule you– leave as soon as you can.

As the day of my departure looms, I mull over the years that have led to this season. It is vastly different than I had imagined, but my heart still swells with that comforting anticipation one feels when they dream of their future. I remember the first time I landed in Israel, that citrus breeze rippling through my taxi’s window taking me to my weekend’s stay at a Tel Aviv beachfront hotel; that is almost what I feel now.  The elating vindication of being lost in a distant whim.

However, this time is refreshingly different than my second arrival in this past year, during which I felt blasé.  I landed knowing I had a mission to learn Hebrew as fast as possible, but in those five months it could only be a taste.  I wasn’t there as a citizen.  That changes in a matter of weeks.

It is so good to feel that passion begin to resurface, the workings of a long-lasting hope fulfilled. It is the time to give life its proper name.

As I’ve hinted in my previous post, my focus has slackened when I arrived back in the states, and my mentality has been consistently challenged. It threw me into the brutal wake of a depression I’ve been since battling upward.

Each morning that tempts me to sleep in an hour later, I fight; I throw myself on the cheap Ikea rug at my bedside, and immediately begin pounding push-ups without prior stretching.  My body stands on stilts above the rug, as I shove encroaching thoughts into a figurative bag.

Everything is meaningle

Lower.  Push.

Is this behavior manic?  Maybe? I feel it’s necessary.

I need to prepare, to thrash the chemicals in my head out of order so they can rearrange.  I crave discipline, and it is so hard without accountability.

One morning while working at the coffee shop, I met a man with a thick Australian accent. I remembered my friend Daniel, currently serving in the Nahal Brigade, and all the stories he’d told me of his upbringing in the land down under. I asked this man where he’s from, he said New South Wales. He pointed out the Star hanging around my neck, and we found our connection.

“I served in an undercover unit in Southern Lebanon.”
“No kidding,” I couldn’t contain my shock, such a small world for Jews! “…when did you serve?”
“While the US were tied up in Desert Storm, and Saddam was launching SCUD’s over Israel. It fucked me man, I’ve been seeing therapists for years. It really fucked me.”

The conversation turned down a somber road, but the enthusiasm in his tone revealed his contagious sense of hope. His upward battle? I fastened a hopper into the La Cimbali and began pulling his espresso.

“What is it you want to do?”
Tzanchanim.”
Tzanchanim, and did you have your Tsav Rishon?”
“No, I haven’t made aliyah yet.”

He told me stories of his time serving as a Paratrooper in a branch of Nahal, which admittedly confused me. But these reconnaissance units generally lack jurisdiction; being the best of the best, they are pliable to the army’s will. Wherever they have a use for a special unit, the army finds a way to bend the rules.

“I was deployed so quickly, I didn’t even have time to do my jumps.”
“You didn’t get your wings?”
“Afraid not mate, but I was in and out so quickly it didn’t matter.”

He wrote his name and number on a ripped wedge of newspaper and gave it to me.

“Please call me, I want to help you as much as I can before you leave.”

Actions carry varying consequences.  Your world could be falling apart around you, and you can sit and map out the origin of each and every blame.

But what of inaction?  Wallowing in self-pity and sulking about your day, unloading your problems onto others’ shoulders?  Asking why and why again?

Does inaction, too, have a consequence?

The universe is objectively and indiscriminately just.  Ze mah she’yaish, it is what it is, deal.  You are neither Evil nor Good.  You just are.  He just is.  You may be the most unfortunate soul on the face of the earth, objectively undeserving of every calamity that has befallen you; like Job and worse, this time not bound by the devil’s pact with G-d.

But if you choose to do nothing, the consequence is nothing, and more.

I have believed in this for as long as I can remember.  But I feel I haven’t begun living it until now.

This is will.

Regardless of vying conditions, your boots don’t just stand there, they push through the mud.

Chasing after meaningless wind.

12 Elul 5776 – Lace Up

Life is a brutal, messy, heart-wrenching trial as much as life is a glory, a journey, an adventure, beautiful and spontaneous and unexpected.

What a disheveled life.

So awful and worthwhile, and it can all end at any corner, at any given moment, as abruptly as when we were once born out of nothing; one of the things I tendentiously love about life. Maybe not the death, but that element of life that keeps it so alive, and vital, and beating, and existing. One day it began, likewise it ends.

I have been in the United States for about a month and a half, and I am enjoying it. Not without its challenges, being back in the States has been a test for my final self waiting to be absorbed into the place I call home six-thousand miles away.

I turned twenty-four in June, and already feeling a great deal older than the people I lived with during those months of Ulpan, or Hebrew immersion school, I’ve begun to deliberate what I want versus what I need, versus what I must do: All fighting inside me at once every day.

Four months away and I will be back in the ancient rain-laced preserve of an Israeli winter. I am deciding on whether I will be taking one final Ulpan before the Army in August, or an expedited program so I may draft by April. I want to choose the latter, but realistically I must wait to consult with the immigration representative I meet with next month.

It has been a season of closures since I’ve arrived back in the United States, and a supply of conflicting emotions have catalyzed within. Losing my family’s young dog to an aggressive disease and my father’s car I’ve held privy for its sentimental value and making final goodbyes with certain friends, altogether have really closed a chapter on this American life for the time being.

Who knows what happens next?

I am ready to return. I miss the night marches with a rabble of voices yelling out in volition their determination to hold onto the land. I miss the surge and crash of Mediterranean water on my legs and chest, the rare sight of lightning that illuminated the ragged teeth of Mount Carmel, the beating rays of the midday sun and the purple skies of midnight. I long for the night fires in the wilderness with the hevreh drinking to the point that vocalized commitments came out: I will take a bullet for you, and I promise to attend your beret ceremony, G-d forbid.

A concern I’ve slowly begun to scratch the surface of is my coming of age and the responsibilities and steps that traditionally join it. There are women in my life, but not a single desire within me to settle. There are friends beginning families, but I cannot start a family right now. And the pressure is heavy and real.

I have family here in the States, and family in Israel. So in a sense I suppose I am starting a family. And for now Israel is my wife, and I don’t believe we’re divorcing any time soon.

I stare down my path with sober eyes, in its truest, naked, starkest form. After our Sh’ma we lace up and take life head-on, every morning, every day.

I am going to wear those coveted red boots and I need all the strength and focus I can release right now so that I earn them.

Tokef v’moked.

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.

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.

24 Tamuz 5775 – French Shabbat

24 May 2015

Raspy knocking plays distantly as I struggle to fall back asleep. The noises, the breathing, the nonsensical hallucinations I am convinced are reality, the raspy hook and knock persists as I weave out of deep unconsciousness; an unpleasant outside world making itself known. What is that sound? I forget where I am for a moment, and then come to my senses while passively trying to identify the noise.

Neighbors walking in the apartment above my bed? A machine, gas line, old pipes bringing fresh water from a well? A terrorist trying to get in?

I am convinced it is a man. The owner, maybe? But David said he would be in the Negev for a Shavuot festival. I wake from my bed and slip into gym shorts. Exiting the bedroom, the shadow of a figure with its moving arm convinces me this is Ilan, a tenant mate watching the apartment, as David is absent. I check the time on my phone: 02:25.

A dark-eyed man with the wild hair of Shimshon, I unlock the door in an awkward hurry and apologize while trying to introduce myself. He is a calm, kind man with a gentle handshake. Perhaps some friendship will come of this meeting.

____

Late in the afternoon, sometime past 13:00. Damn it.

Lethargic, still in bed, perhaps a little too exhausted from the walk through the Old City and comfortable in the cool underground, I see gray leaking through the window.

Could this be my first cloudy day in Israel? I peel away the petite curtain to find vibrantly blue, cloudless skies; the ancient white walls mute the colors as they enter the now conscious living space.

I look at myself in the reflection of the bookcase’s sliding glass partition and see empty brown eyes with the faint curl of a smile. Alone, yet alive. Alive in the city that will be the final legacy of my life, someday down a hopefully long span.

I check my Nokia to see if a girl I had been talking to for the lesser part of three months had responded to my message, I am here. I will be exploring. Let me know.

I had first begun talking to this person online, and a mutual romantic interest was building. She was a photographer with brown eyes and an orthodox braid, and immediately I was infatuated.

In the meanwhile we exchanged photographs, she sent me a photo of the Kotel with a companionless Dome of the Rock gleaming over it.

“This is the view from my place,” she would say. Are you kidding me?
She was a motivation, a voice on the other side, as a friend of mine had put it. But it was not long until I discovered that long distance takes its toll, and as the weeks went on, and after pledging that I would be in Jerusalem for Shavuot to meet her, I found I was not learning more about this person, but rather less and less.

I had received a black and white photograph from her one day. Heavily shadowed, with a high winter sun in the corner of the frame, stood the Montefiore Windmill from a queer angle that I had not seen it before. I imagined the photograph being taken from some vista below the mill in a maze of ancient city walls and homes.

jlem1

“Just for you.”
“Montefiore’s windmill. I want to visit so badly!”
“I will take you there.”

Still no response from her. Was I contacting the right number?

____

I decided to visit the Citadel once I left my rental space, a youth hostel I was to be staying at in the heart of the Old City after I left David’s apartment.

Jerusalem is hot, and my clothes, washed by hand with hair shampoo and dried in the sun back on the base, were brittle and beginning to smell. It was the Friday before Shavuot, and I was about to experience my first Shabbat in a city that wholly observes it. And because of Shavuot, Jerusalem would be closed for business during the whole weekend.

I had to think of how I was to eat for those two days, as all grocers, restaurants and stores were to be closed.

____

Ilan is home as I come back from the Citadel.

You have Shabbat plans? I remember him asking me as we met in the Bohemian living space. He invited me for a dinner with his family, and expecting not to hear back from this girl, I accepted.

Close to sundown, Ilan and I walk to his SUV and drive south for Talpiot. Travelling on a highway just outside the Old City Walls, my eyes meet the Montefiore Windmill for the first time. Bottom-lit in a bright white, the mill stands on a hill overlooking a busy valley of streets and intersections across from the Old City; not where I had expected to find it, but I am awed nonetheless.

Apartments with a homage to Victorian luxury rise from the curving streets and stand at the height of the neighborhood’s many trees. Apartment living in Jerusalem is not too affluent, but far from poverty. It’s tasteful, ideal. I am inspired as I walk in, through a courtyard with a garden and an orange tree.

Spiral stairway leading upward to the residence of Ilan’s mother and father, I am welcomed by a French family.

Mother in a headscarf and father stout with glasses and strong arms, I greet everyone with Shabbat shalom as they proceed to speak to me in heavily accented Hebrew. I have to tell them I do not speak Hebrew yet and surprisingly, find it more difficult to communicate with them as many of them are bilingual with communicational English as a third leg. And I am pleased with this.

The apartment, with its dark cream-colored walls, tells a story. A bookcase in the corner, housing two wood-paneled stereo speakers, and a menagerie of aging leather books and light-leak damaged photographs, is distinctively Israeli. Lofty satin curtains weave their way around the apartment’s few living room windows. Aged harvest gold lighting warms the chic wall decor with memories telling of a quaint life interweaving army service, leisurely study, passion and many children.

L’ami de Ilan reads a card on the long table. An old wine bottle of iced water is passed around as I look upon the selection of salad, specially prepared chicken breast in a peculiar sauce, and a shortbread in homemade caramel. More bitter than sweet, perfect, I take caution not to over-indulge, aware of the stigma that Americans like to overeat.

I listen to the conversations around the table more than I speak. It is a happenstance supper, with a people I have never met, but feel an intangible, instant love. I talk with one of Ilan’s cousins, only sixteen, saying he wants to join Sayeret Matkal. Envy of my life, I would join Matkal only if I were a native Israeli, but Paratroopers is the only accessible elite brigade for an American.

I leave with handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and hugs. Enamored by Ilan’s blessing, I tell him how fortunate he is. He is a man atypical of the Israeli in my mind. His long hair and leftist appearance makes me think he is not completely religious, not a Zionist, critical of the army. Yet he wears a kippah, shared photographs of his Israeli subjects at the Shabbat dinner, and responds yes. I am very blessed to be here.

A contrastive glimpse into an Israel I never knew.

____

Travelling alone on the second day of Shavuot, miles from the Citadel, I approach the Knesset, map-less.

I find it, snap a few photos from unflattering angles, convince a persistent cab driver that I need no ride, and begin my walk back to the Old City. I walk through the Rehavia neighborhood, similar to Talpiot, in broad daylight. Jerusalem seems desolate on holidays.

I shouldn’t leave this place. I am prepared to settle here.

Parched, tired, sweating, I detour to a small park where Jerusalem’s vanished residents have all taken refuge. Behind the rows of trees and park benches, a windmill stands.

Silently I walk beneath it, spiteful, taking a photograph from the exact angle she had taken it months before.

sar-el_final

Zeh mah she’aish, ah? That’s the way it is, ah?

I laugh to myself, laughing empty and proud; perhaps more proud than I am disappointed. I did it. I am a man of my word. I stand here on Shavuot.

And I suppose there is the lesson. Never expect too much out of one person, but always demand such a quality of effort from yourself; the quality you dream of in a companion.

My confidence gained is the reward, and I will need it.

13 Tamuz 5775

“Here the Dawn is gray; in Palestine it is red like fire.”
-Elie Wiesel, “Dawn”

And it is gray. And quiet. And different, here in America. All the memories of this place, my upbringing, they sit like novelties on a shelf behind glass, collecting dust. Waiting to be passed down through the generations; I don’t own it anymore. This is not who I am, this is not where I belong. Tell me otherwise, it will not resonate.

Every morning that I wake I am starting to pray the Shema; throw in a little Hatikvah like I had sung at every flag raising, it gets me through the shower.

Brush away the wet, slip on some clothes. Fashion the golden wings of the Paratroopers around my neck; I’m doing this so I can wear the real thing, I tell myself. Working fourteen hours a day, every day.

Blast some Meir Ariel on my morning drive to work, watch the planes ride up into the sky as I pass the airport, remembering when I left the ground not too long ago. My chest is heavy and hurting from being so tired, but the fire I felt on the 6th of Sivan still burns deep down.

I will return, en brera! No choice.

I fell behind drastically in my writing while I was in Israel. I have been back in the United States for almost one month, and it is beginning to feel like it. I was so caught up in all of the happenings that it was easy to not write for a day, and I wanted to enjoy the experience; let the sentimentality sink in while gazing at every sunset and conversing with people, rather than staring at a laptop’s screen jotting down every memory.

And now I stare at the laptop’s screen, in between jobs, thinking about Ulpan in the late fall. I plan on living on a kibbutz for a month this autumn, taking my first Hebrew courses. And until then, I am going to give myself the body I need for the Army, and the funds to pay my way through the Winter.

It is a sort of discipline that is new to me, I used to be so reckless with my time and money. Now I feel I live in one of the most vainglorious places in the world; I find myself asking so often, do you people even know what is going on over there?

Living in one of the more trendy neighborhoods of Minneapolis once appealed to me, now I need to escape. People will pass you without a word here, absorbed in their iPhone or shopping transit; three weeks in Israel visiting a handful of coffeeshops, I encountered dozens of new friends and had many thoughtful conversations. Not to say I think everyone in America acts this way, but it is far more difficult here. It is a different mindset. Too much comfort to the point of decay.

Although I must say I am feeling more motivated than ever. I have an end goal, a purpose. When I am in synagogue, it almost feels like home. I almost cried as my Rabbi prayed at the open altar, guide our leaders as we negotiate with our historic enemies. He was praying about Iran, and the negotiations surrounding their nuclear program being held in Vienna this week.

An Israeli issue, it almost felt like home.

One of my final nights spent in Israel, I remember walking around the Army base alone. A beautiful Ramle night, the moon hanging in a dark purplish haze. The silhouettes of mountain valleys guarding over a beautiful desert landscape. I was looking at the moon, following its pure contour high above the branches of eucalyptus trees. Thinking to myself, one day this will be my nightly walk. My posterity’s nightly walk. This will be our peace.

I checked into my barracks and stripped down for the night. It was an eventful day spent painting radio parts and repairing signal antennae. Action was brewing forty miles south; three rockets that day had been launched by ISIS-affiliated terrorists into Ashkelon. Suddenly the barracks shook, the shatter and roar of a lion echoed throughout the night sky.

The next morning as I was in Tel Aviv, I learned in the online paper that the Army had retaliated by launching airstrikes into Gaza at midnight, and I realized my barracks was not that far from the Tel Nof airbase when it happened.

On my night runs, I stifle the possibility of not making it as an Israeli citizen and chayal. I follow the moon, and its bright, pure contour, high above the branches of elm trees, thinking to myself.

I will return.

12 Nisan 5775

A few months ago I had attended a film with one of my close friends from high school, someone whose interests remained in the realm of my own as I gradually made a split from my younger identity into what I am passionate for today.  The film was a more rational, somewhat inaccurate take of the story of Pesach, and as two with a heart for ancient near-Eastern study and history, we critiqued and marveled at Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.

My friend was, within a few days, bound to study internationally in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and I hastily wrote a brief prayer on a wastingly large piece of paper (a plea, really) for him to tuck into the Western Wall during his time in the Old City in Jerusalem, a tradition among its visitors for belief that the Holy Presence rests on top of the wall, answering prayers.

And I wonder when the plea will be answered, or realized.

A person will often ask me, “what do you do?”  I will always feel a quick hesitant restraint, a glimpse into the dark shame I have wrestled with that I have no viable education nor an adult’s job…
“I’m trying to leave” I’ll say.
“Oh yeah?  Where’s that?”
“Israel.”  The plea.  Take me.

And I will always receive mixed reactions.  Most will respond with a distant awe, as if trying to remember where Israel is on a map.  Some nod and continue, while a few will respond more negatively.  One man has called me “crazy” with a hostile tone of discouragement, another girl refused to carry on the conversation; as though I was wearing a Magen David armband on a field of crimson, a silver skull on my cap.  I understand the negative perception toward Israel, I am aware of her criticizers; I am tired of the passive, armchair-born resentment toward Zionism in our age of passive-aggression.  A schlepper generation, what are they doing to help?

And lately I have been assimilating myself with this behavior; I am no man.  Not yet.  I haven’t proven my worth in dirt as I flip the pages of a biography on the new Jewish dream; the fighters, the paratroopers and kibbutzniks who would throw themselves over an Arab marauder’s grenade to save their wives and countrymen, only to muster the strength to shoot back.  The Tsabra generation; the strong, initiating, native Israeli who I will never be… but for whom I want my children to be.

So my boiling motivation has taken a plunge forward.  My drugging thoughts have disappeared behind the scenes; I need to begin answering my own prayers.  I need to start giving my objective my all.

I will be applying for the Sar-El program, a volunteering opportunity to serve alongside Israeli soldiers to help ease their burden.  I have a contact and the chance is an optimistic one, I have an interview planned with a local community center regarding the position.

Perhaps with the push of hard work augmented by the trust I had written on paper, in the ink of my very heart’s blood, which my friend had placed in that Wall… maybe this is the answer I’ve always needed.